My Experiences in Academia

This article reviews some issues one may experience when applying for Ph.D. programs.

By Britney Cox — December 5, 2022


My Experiences in Academia

I knew early on that I wanted to be involved in education. Though, I would only know much later that I would like the learning environment that colleges fostered. I also learned that my passion is research, something only universities allow their employees to do. I thought I was set for life when I first realized this fact. I would get my undergraduate degree, potentially my master's degree, and a doctorate. When I started applying for Ph.D. programs during my senior year of undergrad, I encountered a few problems. These problems barred me from what I thought was possible and continue to create barriers to my access and ability to stay in higher education.

Finding Funding

In my junior year of undergrad, I started researching programs for graduate school. In my search, I learned that many students within the humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) often skip a master's degree. This might be to cut down their time in school, a lack of funding on the master's level, or just general interest in a Ph.D. program that does not require a master's degree. Many programs I looked at on the master's level had little to no funding. Because I do not have financial support from my family, I fi gured it would be best for my situation to apply straight to Ph.D. programs. Little did I know, it would not work out that way.

Finding Letters of Recommendation

I narrowed it down to ten programs that fit what I wanted from the experience. Though my fall semester of senior year was hectic, I started applying to these programs. I picked three professors to write my letters of recommendation. All knew me and my work ethic well. All of them agreed to write me recommendations for the programs I provided them, except for one. She said that these programs were a lot and seemed very intense, too intense for me. I felt upset by this. I felt like she was telling me I was not good enough. She later wrote a follow-up email apologizing, saying she had come off too strong. She said, "I'll write you a great letter of recommendation to make up for it. I needed to warn you about academic culture, especially as a woman. Also, here are some other programs that might fit you better."

Though her follow-up made me feel better, I was satisfied with that response. What did she mean about academic culture? Why were all the programs she recommended to me master's programs? Was I still not good enough? I applied to seven out of my original ten programs, and I added one extra of her recommendations. Admissions do not come out until late spring of the next year after you apply. So, I sat back and waited.

The Waiting Game

Here's what happened: I got into 0 Ph.D. programs. It honestly stung quite a bit at first. Maybe my recommender had been right. Maybe I was not good enough to get into these Ph.D. programs. As I mindlessly scrolled through Twitter to clear my head, I found that many of my peers also did not get into their desired programs, and they had to fall back on their safety programs.

What was happening? Well, a lot of things were happening at once. The information that many of us received was false. Though Ph.D. programs will accept students with just a Bachelor's degree, it is not the normal thing to do. COVID had set admissions back a year for many graduate degrees, and there were two years of students applying for the number of spots accepted by one year. And most importantly, a lot of University's cut funding altogether—some having to do with COVID. Though my application might not have been the greatest, it also did not help that these outside influences significantly impacted admissions.

Trying Again

I ended up back at my home institution doing a master's program, and I am glad I did. I have learned much more about academic culture and how it runs as a master's student. Now that I have a bachelor's under my belt, former professors have started to treat me like a colleague. This shift has contributed to a deeper understanding of the ins and outs of higher education. Though I did not get to jump ahead of my education as I had hoped, I am much more prepared both within my field and for eventually working at the university level.

Britney Cox

Britney Cox

Britney Cox is a writer from Huntington, WV. She has two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Literary Studies and Creative Writing. She is currently working on her Masters in English, and she plans to pursue her doctorate eventually in hopes of becoming a professor (though her longtime dream is to work in the entertainment industry). Her passions include reading, writing, theatre, and listening to Taylor Swift.
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