Retro Post #1: Applying to Graduate School, Round Three

I’m going to begin this new blog by re-blogging posts from my graduate school application journey. Since I want this blog to serve as a record and a resource, it seems fitting that I bring all of my writings about academia into this space. This way, those coming after me will be able to read from applying through (hopefully!) graduating and beyond.

This first reblog is from September 21, 2010 — my third round of applications (I didn’t keep a record of the first two.) Prior to this, I had applied to 5 schools in 2009. Before that, I applied to a number of schools and was accepted conditionally and without funding to Longwood University for the MA program. I was fortunate to be working for a school that valued its teachers and agreed to help fund my Master’s Degree, or I wouldn’t be where I am now.


Challenge Successful Application, Version 2.0…Let the Blogging Begin!

(Sorry…I’ve been watching a lot of Iron Chef America lately. You’ll probably notice me dropping Iron Chef-esque phrasing here and there, along with my other many peccadilloes! Hopefully, this will prove endearing, and not irritating as crap.)

Before I begin with the meat of this blog, which is of course to document the good, the bad, the ugly, and the truly horrifying as regards the application season, I want to take a moment to introduce myself to those of you who don’t know me, and also to explain why I called my blog “the alchemist’s path”. I’ll do the introduction in this go-around, and the title explanation in the next post, since they’re both likely to be lengthy.

My goal is the PhD in English, with a focus in medieval literature. I am a nontraditional student, in that I am 36 years old and the married mother of two. I am also a nontraditional student academically – I received my undergraduate degree in French in 1997, then completed a year of graduate level work in French and interdisciplinary medieval studies in 2000, and just completed my English MA last year.

This is my second year of applying to doctoral programs and third round of graduate program applications overall. So, as you can imagine, I’m a little…well, let’s be honest, I’m riddled with anxiety, insecurity, and total fear of rejection across the board. Aren’t we all?

To be fair, I was not completely shut out last season – I applied to five programs, and did receive an admit at one – but since it was without funding and would require a move with no subsequent guarantee of finding employment, I had to decline. I cried, composing that email. It may well have been the lowest point of my life, because of course there are no certainties this season, either – and I just can’t see myself putting my family through application hell for a fourth go-round, even if we could afford it. I expect this second attempt for a PhD admit to be my last, one way or the other. Since the economy is so horrific and we already have the substantial debt that comes along with a young family and own a home in an area in which there is hardly any market at present, relocation is not an option – which leaves me with three feasible programs to apply to.

Two of these programs rejected me last year, primarily because of my undergraduate GPA – about which I can, obviously, do nothing, thirteen years after the fact…! Also, my Statement of Purpose (SoP) wasn’t specific enough and I didn’t include any explanation of the undergraduate GPA or the long period between degrees. Also, one of my recommendations was from a coworker, because I thought having someone discuss my teaching experience would be a good call (WRONG). Also, my transcript didn’t list the classes I took by name, so there was nothing in my background to indicate why I would want to be a medievalist, and I thought it was on my transcript, so I didn’t include such information as classes taken in my SoP. In other words, I made a LOT of mistakes last season, and that was even with my being incredibly, painstakingly careful about the whole process. I ate about a gross of Humble Pies. And so, we come to this, my third (and last, one way or the other) application season…did I mention that two of the three programs I’m applying to this year rejected me last year….?

In other words – either I’m getting in, or this is going to be a major emotional and psychological bloodbath of epic proportions. Which is why I agreed to pen a blog on the experience…I figure if nothing else, other applicants can look at my odds and think ,”Wow, I’m SO glad I’m not her!” :-P

I do have some points in my favor: my graduate GPA was a 4.0, I’m certified to teach French and English at the secondary level and earned a perfect score on the English Praxis exam, I earned a 6 AWA score on the GRE (YES, my Math score was abysmal! 480! Le Big Sigh. But honestly, I studied incredibly hard to get that score; even if the Blessed Virgin Mary stood beside me whispering the answers in my ear, I still could not pass that test.) But my English score was in the 89th percentile, completely acceptable. I have fifteen years of teaching experience from middle school through the undergraduate college level, including several years at a new private college prep academy where I wrote the curriculum and created my program from its inception – invaluable hands-on experience. I’m fluent in three languages and proficient in 4 others. I have multiple publications and a lot of conference activity under my belt, including organizing sessions as well as giving papers, and I have a number of established academics rooting for me.

That’s the good stuff. But – there are no guarantees. Got that? Unless your family name is on the plaque in front of the building, you cannot count on an acceptance. If you learn nothing else from reading my blog, I hope you will walk away with that nugget firmly established. (“So, should I even bother applying?” You might be asking – and I reply: “Heck to the YEAH!” Because – what could be better than getting paid to read books and talk about them? ;))

For this go-around, I have taken the following steps:

1. I changed out a letter of recommendation by a coworker for one by a third professor.
2. I’m writing a new statement of purpose and personal statement (the undergraduate grades and why-did-you-spend-so-much-time-outside-of-academia? explanation).
3. I’m taking the GRE subject test in November.
4. I’m writing a new sample paper based on scholarship I’m doing for a paper for the International Medieval Congress next fall.

I am also teaching full time – 6 classes a term, 5 terms a year, parenting my children, dogs and cats, partnering my husband, working on a book and researching and writing papers for presentation at the Southeastern Medieval Association and International Medieval conferences in November and May, and I’m a researcher for the ongoing Female Biography Project. In other words…this is going to be a helluva busy year. But then again…what year isn’t?

I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride as I negotiate finding the time to get it all done and…hopefully….celebrating a victory in April. There’s a champagne bottle with my name on it somewhere – I just know it! I hope you’ll toast with me, when and if the time comes.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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