Why Being Realistic is Not Being Defeatist: Applying to Grad School in 2012

Jeannette’s post last week, in which she discussed her 2011 and mentioned the ups and downs of applying to graduate school, got me thinking…

About graduate school in general, particularly the application process, and what it means to be a grad school applicant in 2012.


What is the difference between keeping yourself open to opportunities/being realistic and being “defeatist?”

I have always thought (and still do) that those things were very different.

I think that the former is an outlook that is essential today, in 2012, in the world and economy that we live in.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a dreamer. I’m always coming up with crazy schemes, unrealistic plans, wild and grandiose adventures. But, at the same time, I always leave my mind open to all the possibilities available to me, whether they’re possibilities in the short term, the long term, or the very very long term.

I think this is something that you have to be willing to do today, because nothing, particularly in the job market, is guaranteed.

We, as young people in the 21st century, do not have the luxury of easily finding a job with good pay and benefits, in the location we want, with the hours we want, and on top of that have the security of knowing we can continue in that job until we retire. Life, unfortunately, doesn’t work like that anymore.


Three weeks ago, I attended a conference in Washington, DC where I was an exhibitor promoting the latest issue of one of the academic journals that I work for. On my first day there, another exhibitor was perusing the different booths when she came up and started to talk to me. She asked where I was from, etc. and in the course of our conversation I told her that I was a graduate student applying to PhD programs.  Then she asked me what I planned to do after I got my PhD. I told her that my plan was to secure a university job if possible, but that I was remaining open to all opportunities and “being realistic” about the state of the academic job market and the number of faculty positions available in history versus the number of history PhDs out there.

Her response caught me off guard: “Well, that’s a little defeatist, isn’t it?”


I don’t really remember how I responded, but our conversation ended soon after and I didn’t give it much thought the rest of the day. But, that night, I started worrying. I had said something similar on the PhD applications that I had already submitted by then — regarding my career goals and my “openness” to different kinds of jobs within the history market.

I thought I had been making myself marketable — demonstrating that I was aware of the limitations inherent within the field I study and hope to work in.

I didn’t, and don’t, think I was being defeatist.


Unfortunately, I just don’t think that some people understand the pressure that students in this country are under to succeed today. They don’t understand what it means to be a member of the Millennial Generation — simultaneously praised and vilified for intelligence and eccentricity, command of technology and laziness. Yes. We do things differently, but we are a product of past generations, generations that have brought us to this time and place.

A place and time where the need to succeed, to be the best, seems to be more important today than it ever has. There are more college graduates in the United States today than ever before, and the number of people applying to and attending some form of graduate school is also on the rise. Jobs that used to require Bachelor’s degrees are now requiring Master’s degrees, and the jobs themselves are scarce to begin with.

Expectations are also high for workers. To be the first one in and the last one to leave, to be the best, the brightest, and to not complain when economic realities necessitate the elimination of staff, the combination of duties, and a lack of raises.

Applying to graduate school is a lot like the job market. It’s also a lot like politics. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to get partisan – which is one of our rules here on Dames Who Dish.)

I could list all the things that I think are wrong with the grad school application process — like the bogus-ness of the GRE, the unfairness of the preference given to graduates of Ivy League schools, and the ambiguous application directions that some schools supply to applicants, but I won’t.

Instead, I’m going to tell you some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Don’t let anyone belittle or criticize your decision to attend graduate school, whether you’re doing so because you can’t find a job, or because you love school, or because it’s simply one more step towards a larger goal. It is your decision and being a nerd, or seeking new opportunities is nothing to be ashamed of. You know that applying to grad school and attending grad school is not easy. Don’t let others assume that it is.

2. Ask lots of different people for lots of advice — but come to your own conclusion. Don’t take everything everyone tells you about graduate school as the absolute truth. Remember, that the people giving you advice about grad school (particularly professors and others in academia) have all had different experiences and may not be up to speed on the latest grad school goings-on. Listen to them, think about what they say, but in the end, come to your own conclusion about where you’re applying, what you want, etc.

3. Identify a confidant.  Applying to grad school is stressful. Not only do you want to ask for people’s advice, but you’re going to need someone to talk things out with. Someone who will go to bat for you and who understands/acknowledges your own personal interests and desires.

4. Don’t limit your interests too narrowly. While I can’t speak for all disciplines, in history it is important to not limit yourself to a very narrow research interest. Be focused, but be broad in that focus. You’ll appeal to more programs, more professors, and be more marketable as a job candidate later.

5. Don’t assume that you’re going to be accepted. Have a Plan B. When I applied to graduate school as a college senior, I was confident I’d be accepted to a specific program. I wasn’t. I was lucky though, I had another program to fall back on. Graduate school is incredibly competitive and often for the hundreds of applicants that a program receives, only a couple dozen applicants are accepted. Often, that number is even less. Know what you’re going to do if you’re not accepted to where you want to go.

6. Don’t let rejection be the end of the world. Yes, I’ve been rejected before. But, in some ways, those rejections have ended up being good things. I thought, as a senior in undergraduate, that I was ready to apply to PhD programs. I wasn’t. I simply didn’t yet know enough about what I wanted to do. Getting a Master’s degree at my current university was exactly what I needed to do. It gave me time to grow, to focus. It gave me things to add to my CV. It has made me a better applicant this time around — regardless of what the outcome of my applications are.

7. “It’s not who you know, it’s who you get to know.” I majored in Political Science as well as history as an undergrad, and this phrase, care of Chris Matthew’s book Hardball, is one of the most important things I learned. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do — grad school, job, etc — but you need to introduce yourself to people. Get to know people — especially those professors, students, and others who are working with you at your university or in your field. They’ll be the ones who write your letters of recommendation, be on your thesis committee, give you advice. They’ll introduce you to their friends and colleagues, who may read your book proposal, offer you a job, award you a grant, etc. It’s a cycle. One you can’t benefit from if you stand silently on the sidelines.

8. So you went to a State School… Don’t. Worry. About. It. Just like I said when you shouldn’t let anyone belittle your decision to go to grad school, so too should you not let anyone criticize the place you received your education. So, you didn’t go to Harvard. Neither did I. I went to a state school and I worked hard. I earned my degree, just like you did, just like everyone else does. Yes. You might not get all the perks that other attendees at “prestigious” schools receive. You’ll have to work harder, longer, and better to prove yourself. You’ll have to show you’re tough, that you can succeed. Remember, others may look down on you. But that’s their loss. Their ignorance. Don’t look down on yourself.

9. Professors are people too, don’t be afraid of them. When applying to grad school, it is very helpful to contact professors that you are interested in studying with. Don’t be afraid to do this. If they don’t respond, don’t be discouraged. But when they do respond, remember you’re talking to a real person. They like to hear you’re interested in their work, but they’re also interested to see that you’re a real person too who is not so involved in their academic interests that they can’t hold a real conversation.

10. Keep your options open. If things don’t go your way, don’t give up. I am a firm believer in the idea that things happen for a reason. There are so many things that you can do with any given degree, whether it’s a Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate, JD, MD, etc. Yes, you are more than welcome to have a dream/preferred job — but don’t rule out opportunities that come your way. Never say never. For example, although I never thought this would be a possibility or something I’d even be interested in, my grad assistantship has provided me with copious amounts of academic publishing experience, which opens a whole other avenue of possible (even if not preferred) career opportunities to me. You never know what might fall into your lap.


I believe that the world today is a place where diversity is key. The more things you know, are able to do, are able to say about yourself, are the key to your success.

Don’t rule anything out. Explore opportunities. You don’t know where they might take you.

Embrace rejection. Don’t let it defeat you.

Being realistic is not being defeatist. Being realistic does not mean you don’t dream, hope, and plan.

You just keep reality in the back of your mind. Have a little back-up plan.

Know that you’re worth is defined by more than acceptance rates, standardized test scores, and what others think of you.

Yeah, applying to graduate school is scary as hell. It’s the fear of the unknown. Of someone else holding your fate in their hands.

But don’t worry too much. I’m not.

For right now I’m going to…

Don’t stress too much.

It’s better to have fun.