My Ph.D. Application Process and Anxiety

When I finished my master’s program in 2010 I knew I wanted to get my Ph.D. but was burnt out. About a year and a half ago, it started to look like I was going to be able to quit my job and go back to school. It was exciting and I jumped into studying for my GRE and starting to make a list of schools.

I’m going to declare January 2016 as the start of the process. I made a study plan and timeline for my GREs. I locked myself away one day and took a practice test and made it through but not without a decent amount of sweat and cursing. I actually scored close to where I wanted to. I made and carried flashcards with me for months and was feeling pretty good.

I took the test in June. It was later than I wanted to but spring got away from me. Test day came and I started to freak the hell out. My brain was in a loop of self-doubt. ‘What if I fail?’ ‘What if I can’t do this anymore?’ By the time I left the house tears were streaming down my face.

I turned to a meditation for reducing anxiety and blasted it in my headphones while I was on the packed train. There were still some tears but I was starting to calm down. I was done crying and the brain loop was almost silenced by the time I got to the testing center. There were no more tears, just determination, and annoyance at the horrible test center. I was very happy to RUN home when it was over.

I took a couple of months off from Ph.D. mode and enjoyed the summer and then it was off to the races this fall. I researched schools and finalized a list of 5 with advisors identified at each. Enter another meltdown when it came time to reach out. I send 100s of emails a week, even to people important to my career and in my field without a second thought but these 5 emails had my stomach in knots. After lots of re-reading and deep breathing, I slowly hit send on this series of emails. I seriously had to walk away from my computer each time to calm the fuck down before going on with my day.

Emails went back and forth and even a call or two over the next couple of months before I scheduled a trip out to visit my selected schools (now down to 4). I actually was feeling pretty good in the lead up to this trip. I lined up all my meetings and visits and even had plans to meet a friend or two. Luckily, one of my lower ranked advisors was up first and opted to meet at a cafe. This informal meeting was a great way to ease into the week.

My highest ranked school and advisor was up next. The anxiety came back but was manageable as I got ready and drove out to campus. I think the new workout program I started that week helped a lot. It was MMA style so lots of punching and kicking it out felt good. Well, she canceled on me after I arrived on campus so the pressure was off and the rest of the week was a breeze from there.

I made a bit of a miscalculation in the timing of the trip, though. Election day fell in the middle of my trip. Like many, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Spending a week away from home laying the groundwork to completely change our lives was thrown for a loop with the election results. As I processed on Wednesday, I fell into a deeper and deeper state of questioning my decision and the world around me. Luckily, I had no meetings scheduled so I made a quick campus visit just to walk around and then came back to the apartment and spent the day in bed. There was lots of crying and anger and questions. I was pretty inconsolable. For most of the day, I convinced myself I was crazy for leaving my job during such a time of uncertainty. After several hours the questions turned to anger which turned into fuel for essays. I typed furiously for an hour or so before I emerged from the dark cave I had created. I felt a bit better but more determined to do this.

Slowly over the next month, I finished essays for the 3 applications I decided to submit and pulled together all the documents I needed. It was frustrating because all of them were slightly different in what they required and how they wanted it. An exercise in bureaucracy at its finest.

As I hit send one by one the fear started to set in. In my mind, I’ve framed this process as putting my life’s work out for judgment without the ability to defend myself or put it in context. I’ve spent most of my career working in the same place with the same people. What if I have a false sense of accomplishment or have been protected by that bubble and really don’t know what’s going on in my field? What if I’m not good enough? What if…

I did my best not to think about it for the next month. Christmas and New Year’s made it easy but as January wore on, it got more difficult. I was closing in on a month from the timeline for notification from my first and top-ranked school. I couldn’t think about the move as that threw me into a cold sweat. I did what any insane person would do and signed up for my first half marathon to keep me busy.

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3 weeks into training and early February I got an email from a school’s admissions office. It was a month early. What does that mean?! It contained the link to their decision. I literally almost threw my phone down. I wasn’t ready to deal with that. Ben wasn’t available to sit with me to open it. I hopped in the shower with my mind racing. I moved through the motions and when I got out I told Ben I got the email. With a lump in my throat and knots in my stomach, we sat on the couch and clicked the link. I got through the first sentence and burst into tears. I. GOT. IN. I couldn’t read the rest. I just kept repeating that phrase over and over again. I texted my mom and tried to get to work before I headed off for meetings in the city. We slowly told a few people over the next week, including my boss and direct reports at work.

Another week went by and when I was out running errands I got another email. I opened it thinking it would be the same deal as before. I was wrong. And it was a rejection. I’m in the middle of Manhattan checking things off my to-do list and a get fucking rejected. I held it together (mostly) as I made a couple of more stops. I texted Ben and tell him the decision between these two schools at the top of the list was made for us. I call my mom and deliver the same message. Only a few tears.

By the time Ben got home I was done holding it together. I was devastated. I wanted to make the decision myself. I wanted to get accepted by a top university. I wanted to be good enough damn it. It’s still hard to think about and talk about but every time I say it out loud it gets easier. The bottom line is I did get accepted. I am going to get my Ph.D. I am fulfilling a dream.

I’m glad I got an acceptance before I got a rejection. I know I would have taken it a lot harder without the bolster of an acceptance.

There’s still plenty of anxiety around this life change that I’m still working through. We are moving across the country and losing an income in the process. There’s so many unknowns and so many things to do but I will make it through. I’m sure there will be more tears, more yelling and cursing, and more turning to meditation and workouts (and sometimes food and booze) to make it through but I’m glad I have the tools to deal with it and an understanding partner that calls me out when I’m deep in the dark recesses of my head.

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