Getting one foot through the door is the hardest part

About five rejections, hundreds of dollars, and months of waiting…

I started applying for PhD positions three years after I had graduated my masters degree. My masters was not particularly spectacular; I decided on it purely out of my own interest. I did my undergraduate program in international relations with a concentration in international security, so I felt it was natural to progress to strategic studies.

It was clear that I wouldn’t progress further without a PhD. I have had to let so many opportunities pass simply because they required a PhD.

So, I started doing the legwork. I drafted dozens of research proposals and reached out to many people for advice and recommendations. I tailored specific proposals to specific programs, which led me to having a lot of ideas for research, but no means to achieve them.

I have to admit, drafting new research proposals and seeking out potential advisors was exhausting, but it felt rewarding to just freely explore new ideas and network with other academics.

The most draining process is submitting the paperwork.

Each institution had their own system. Some had a terrific online management systems, while others left much to be desired. Every single one asked for slight variations of similar documents.

I always (and continue to) dread the recommendation letter element in PhD applications. Only a few programs I applied to, most of which were in Europe, did not require letters; they simply asked for contacts.

The majority, however, required specific formats, either through their application portal or freeform letter. While I was lucky to have a small pool of referees ready to provide references on short notice, I felt embarrassed every time I had to reach out to them to ask for new letters, and even more so when the process involved them logging onto another university’s application system. While I presume they were happy to help, I could not shake that feeling they were annoyed, even in the slightest. They never did say anything directly, and really encouraged me in my efforts, but in my head, there was always this voice telling me that I should be ashamed for wasting their time and effort.

Once the paperwork was done, then came the most dreadful part of the process: waiting.

Proposed timelines seemed like suggestions. The pandemic was often cited as the main culprit for slow processing times. I can’t remember the many times I’ve emailed the admissions department, only to be greeted with what I would assume is a generated template despite being signed off by a human name. Announcements due this month were delayed to the next, then delayed again to the next month. There were two acceptances, but they didn’t come with funding, so I had to decline.

I kept refreshing my inbox every single day, waiting for the good news to come. And when the news did come, it was usually a rejection. And then another. Then another.

The rejections, in short, made me seriously doubt myself.

As a junior faculty member, I considered myself to be rather above average when it comes to academic output. By my fourth year as a faculty member, I have presented in two academic conferences, published around five peer-reviewed papers, ran two small research teams, and had overseen dozens of bachelor theses projects. My colleagues assured me I had many of the desirable qualities a PhD should have: brain smarts, sheer tenacity, time management, and a more-than-decent portfolio of published works.

But the constant rejections made me question myself. Was I not working hard enough? Was my proposed research not good enough? Am I not good enough for this endeavor? There were times I simply thought I was not cut out for academia, that my career would never progress beyond this. It started to affect my work and personal life. I got irritated easily, and would sometimes, purposefully drown myself in work. I believed that if I worked hard enough, I’d eventually see the light.

…until finally, acceptance.

Apparently, seven times was the trick. I was finally accepted to pursue my doctoral studies in Japan under a fully-funded, government-sponsored scholarship. Like any bright-eyed first-year graduate student, I’m looking forward to finishing my dissertation on time and having a supportive supervisor. But, before all that, I think I’ll enjoy my preparatory Japanese language classes.

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