8 questions to diagnose why you were rejected from PhD programs

Apr 28, 2023


Rejected From PhD Programs, Now What?

Getting rejected sucks. There’s no way around that. And getting rejected with no feedback is the worst. When you’ve worked hard for months preparing your PhD applications, wracking your brain to write the perfect statement of purpose (SOP) essay, and paying hundreds in application fees – all to be rejected – you start to wonder, is it me?
PhD programs give no feedback on these rejections, and it can be maddening trying to figure out what little tiny thing led them to say “nope, next”. Answer these 8 questions to diagnose exactly what went wrong in your PhD application, so you can work to fix it and avoid another round of rejections next year.

1. Was The Program Fit Right?

 I cannot stress this enough, program fit is everything. I’ve seen people get rejected from Florida State University and get accepted to Stanford. It’s the same person. But, the program fit determines if they take you seriously or if they say “nah, they don’t know what they’re talking about”. 
Did this program have everything you needed to achieve your research and career goals? Did the program have researchers well aligned with your research goals? Are the available resources enough to help you achieve your goals? Are the program values a match with your values? 
Did you get it right:
No: If they aren’t doing the work you care about, the program is not a good fit.
Yes: If they are doing the work you care about, and you articulate that well you are in good shape.

2. Do You Have Enough Experience?

 There is no magic amount of experience needed for a PhD. People get in straight from undergrad, and also with 10 years of work experience. It really depends on your complete profile and application. However, there is a minimum bar for relevant experience and it is this: you have some research experience and/or some work experience in your field.
You don’t need years of experience. If you worked as an undergraduate research assistant for a semester, that’s really fine. If you’ve been a working professional and your other degrees match your field of interest, you’re fine. If you have no research experience and no relevant work experience, it’s going to be a hard sell.
The PhD is all about research, so the more research experience you have the better. However, waiting until you have 5 years of experience and 10 published papers is not required.
Did you get it right?
No: If you have zero research experience this may be the thing that held you back.
Yes: You have some research and/or work experience, so you’re in good shape.

3. Did You Connect With Faculty And PhDs?

A PhD position is very similar to a job. And, just like the job market many positions are filled with people that they know, like, and trust. When you network with faculty and PhDs it gives them a chance to get to know you better and determine if they want to work with you for 4 years. 
Yes, it’s a big commitment when they offer you a fully funded PhD position: they’re signing up to work with you for 4+ years and they damn well better like you! This is why I suggest people make an effort to connect with faculty and other PhDs – it goes a long way when they see your name in the pile with everyone else's. I teach people how to do this effectively in the Fearless Grad program, and even those who are terrified to send a cold email get amazing results.
Did you get it right?
No: If you didn’t connect or network with any faculty or PhDs this may be the thing that held you back.
Yes: If you connected and had meaningful discussions with faculty and PhDs, you’re in good shape.

4. Is Your Academic Background A Match?

The PhD is an academic position, and they need to be sure you can handle the course work. If your undergrad is in psychology and you want to go into chemistry, you’re going to need to prove you can handle it. You may need to take extra classes or get a masters in your desired field to prove you’re a good fit.
If your academic background is in your field of interest, there are two other things to assess: (1) was my GPA decent?, and (2) do I have a masters?  Both of these things are not required – people get in all the time with low GPAs or without a masters. However, if you got rejected it’s worth assessing how to improve this area. If you have a low GPA, you may need to get a masters to prove you can handle rigorous material. There is no ‘limit’ on a GPA, and you can discuss why your GPA may be lower on your essay, but typically anything above a 3.0 is fine.
Did you get it right:
No: If your undergrad is in a different field and you don’t have relevant experience in your desired PhD field, you may need a masters to prove you are ready.
Yes: If your undergrad and/or masters are in your desired PhD field and your GPA is average you’re in good shape.

5. Are Your Research Ideas Salient?

When you’re pitching yourself as the best PhD candidate, you damn well better have good ideas. Aligning your research interests with the interests of PhD faculty researchers is 100% necessary for you to get accepted. They want to work with people who are interested in the things they care about. Period. 
Often I see people trying so hard to be clever and think outside the box, that they forget to state the obvious. You need to connect the dots on why your research goals are a perfect fit for faculty in this exact department, and are also ‘hot’ research ideas right now.
Did you get it right:
No: If you pitched the same idea to each school and didn’t tailor it to the specific program, you probably missed the mark.
Yes: If you created salient and timely research goals that aligned with each specific program, you’re in good shape.

6. Does Your Resume Showcase Your Value?

The resume is a screener tool. It’s what they use to get a quick gut check on if they think you’d be a good PhD candidate. It sets the tone for how they perceive your entire application. It also helps them decide if they want to respond to that networking email you sent them earlier. So yea, it’s important.
If you’re not showcasing your value as a researcher, scholar, and leader your resume is going to fall flat. Many people want to cram as much as they can on their resume hoping they get picked. What this really does is show your lack of understanding of the PhD. You fail to show your writing skills, your editing skills, and your critical thought on what is important to leave in and take out. Instead, make a clear and compelling resume that showcases your PhD value.
Did you get it right:
No: If your resume is too long or too muddled without showcasing your research, scholastic, and leadership skills you need to update your resume.
Yes: If your resume clearly shows your research, scholastic, and leadership skills and is easy to read you’re in good shape.

7. Was Your SOP Well Written?

This is the part or the application where you shine. Or don’t. This is where they get to see you as a real human with amazing skills and goals. If they can’t picture you working with their team for the next 4 years, you’re going to get rejected.
A SOP needs to tell them who you are, why you want to do the thing you say, why you’re the exact best person to do it, why this program is the perfect place to help you achieve your goals, and what your ultimate big vision for yourself and your impact are. And it needs to do it in a crisp and compelling voice. 
Did you get it right:
No: If your SOP failed to answer the who, what research goals, why this program, and why you in a compelling way, you probably missed the mark.
Yes: If you articulated exactly why you are the best person to do the thing you say, at this exact program, and your big vision for impact are compelling you probably hit the mark.

8. Did You Interview Like A PhD?

Hey, congratulations! Not everyone gets to the interview stage. So if you did, that means everything above went pretty well. Well enough that they thought speaking to you would help them decide if they wanted to invest the $300,000 fully funded PhD package on you.
Many people try overly hard to impress people on these interviews, and that can come off phony. Instead, it is far more important they see you as someone they want to work with over the next 4 years. If you could have meaningful conversations about the work and other non-work topics, you probably did a great job. If you wanted to go on and on about yourself or your past achievements, you probably made people uncomfortable.
Did you get it right:
No: You had a hard time talking with faculty and other PhDs.
Yes: You had a great time talking with faculty and other PhDs, and really felt like strong connections were made.

Your Diagnosis
After answering these questions, you should have a good idea where to put your energy and focus to improve for next time. And, truthfully there are some things that are outside of our control. There are many applicants who are amazing, but the program is only taking 5 people and they are unlucky number 6. The only thing you can do is work to make your application so damn amazing, they can’t help but pick you. If you want help on creating your winning PhD application I invite you to book a call with me and my team to determine if the Fearless Grad program is the right fit to help you reach your goals.

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