#PhDOrBust: Part 3: Decision Letter Jitters

This is the third in a series of blogposts:

The first one addresses the process of determining whether a graduate school or program is a good fit. The second post addresses the actual application process. This third post will tell my story.

As I mentioned in previous blogposts, I applied to 5 graduate history programs with the aim of studying human trafficking in Central Africa:

  1. Michigan State University
  2. Princeton
  3. Purdue University
  4. University of Chicago
  5. Harvard

Ambitious, right? Most people told me to apply to at least 10 schools or programs of varying exclusivity and prestige to improve my odds of getting in. Well, 1) I wanted schools where my specific research would be supported by faculty. 2) I simply did not have the money to apply to 10 schools. With the costs of transcripts, test scores, application fees, etc, I easily went over $700 for 5 schools. Let’s be real- that was months of savings.

That said, I submitted the applications by mid-December and frankly, got really really busy with work. I could not afford to wait passively because I needed a backup plan in case I did not get into any graduate schools or could not afford it. This also took my mind off of the anxiety of waiting.

In the second week of February, I received a letter from Michigan State University informing me that they were unable to admit into their program- partly due to cuts in funding. A few days later, the letter from Princeton arrived. It simply thanked me for applying and informed me that I did not receive admission into their PhD history program. At this point, I was having the creeping fear that I would not get into any schools. I had not gotten into my “safety” nor my top choice. In response, I began applying to 9-5 jobs and considering what would happen if I should fail. It sounds absurd, but at 23, I’m in a very different place in life than I’d envisioned for myself; hence my narrow definition of “success.”

February 28 rolls around and I receive this email:

*cue ominous music* Well, I did not get into Purdue’s MA-PhD History program, but they did offer me admission into their MA History program. I was elated! My ambitious gamble was not a failure! I announced the news on Facebook and Twitter, where it was met with shared joy. However, when I considered that it was a 2-year program and there were no available assistantships or fellowships (I called the department office), the thought of taking on debt- nondischargeable student loan debt for a MA in History had me questioning my chosen path. Tenure is no longer a guarantee. I recall an article in the New Criterion that stated that:

“From 2005 to 2007, American universities awarded 101,009 PhDs but created just 15,820 assistant professorships”

This, and the attitudes I encounter toward the study of History discouraged me. Thing is, I worked hard to get this far and I couldn’t give up just yet.

Three days later, I received an email from the University of Chicago. Attached was the decision letter:

Of course, I read with bated breath. I had no idea where this was going. I even paused to wipe a tear, and my boyfriend asked me to read the letter aloud so he could share the moment. Reading on, I got even more teary-eyed:

[MAPSS is the Master of the Arts Program in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.] I had to pause. Now, the next letter read:

*real tears* I mean, I was laughing with relief- and the writer’s sense of humor really helped matters. I’m still processing this a day later. This is a game changer. A 1-year MA program that is inter-disciplinary and self-directed? I’m sold! Now I await Harvard’s decision letter…

Thank you for sharing in my story!

The next blogpost will be less personal and more tactical. I will talk about what to do when:

  1. You don’t receive admission to the graduate program you applied for
  2. You are admitted, but not offered funding
  3. When you are admitted with funding

I guess my experience leads credence to my words now. :)


  1. what a blessing! as a long time reader of your blog and fellow aspiring development worker I celebrate your success! best of luck to you!

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