For all those interested in information on getting into a PhD program, Nijay Gupta has an excellent and comprehensive post that all should read. However, my post focuses more on those (since the April 15th deadline just passed) that have been told they did not get into either the PhD program of their dreams or any program at all. Put simply my advice is Don’t Give Up! Actually, if you are the type of person who gives up easily, you probably should give up now as PhD programs are not easy and require intense amounts of hard work and resiliency. However, if you are the type of person willing to work as hard as necessary, a rejection from some or even all PhD programs does not have to be the end of the line.
Rather than giving up a better approach is to assess your particular situation and take the next year to improve yourself as a candidate. Concentrate on your German, French, Greek, and Hebrew. If those are not weaknesses improve your application in other ways such as: improve your GRE score, complete a research project, beg a professor to let you assist him/her, or go to SBL and make contacts. Simply put, do whatever it takes if this is what you really want to do!
For myself I know that while I may have been ready academically to do graduate work after my days at the University of Illinois ended, I was certainly not ready in many other ways. I was not prepared for the intense amount of work graduate programs require. Instead of going to graduate school immediately I improved myself as an individual doing both humiliating and stimulating jobs and careers. As a side note, delivering pizza was not the most stimulating job I had.
Just because you have been rejected from a PhD program once, this is not an eternal condemnation of your chances to ever get into a program. There may be at least three potential isssues. First, you may not be as strong of a candidate as you thought you were. As I stated above there are many ways to improve the strength of your application. Second, and this is critical, get to know both the programs you are applying to and faculty members you are interested in working with. Read their words and email/call/visit them. I know I sat in on a number of Dr. Bartchy’s courses and had many conservations with him before I applied to UCLA. A friend of mine took this one step further and made road trips around the country visiting potential schools and speaking with a large number of professors (by the way he was accepted into Emory!). While this step may seem unneccesary, put yourself in the shoes of your potential professors. They are committing to work with you for 5-10 years. That is a massive commitment. A third possibility is that you are indeed an amazing applicant with an M. Div from Harvard, two publications under your belt, and a few presentations at SBL, but in the particular year you applied there was just someone better. Bear in mind that there are not many openings each year. So while your rejection may indeed be disappointing, it does not have to be the end of your academic career.
I will leave you today with one final thought, Don’t Give Up. If you want it, go get it. The best things in life don’t always come easy.