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I applied to a prestigious university in the States for my PhD but was unfortunately rejected. I had a great undergraduate track record... but still didn't quite make it. The faculty I really, really want to work with are at this University... I really don't know what to do. I spent the whole day refreshing my email, waiting on the off-chance that an acceptance would come... but it didn't. I'm honestly devastated right now. I know I shouldn't feel so strongly about this, but I'm an incredibly competitive person my nature and I've wanted to attend this institution since I was a freshman in high school.

What are my options? I did apply to some backup schools...but I don't know if I should consider going to one of them or just waiting a year and reapplying... Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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migrated from physics.stackexchange.com Feb 24 '13 at 12:43

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Anybody remembers or bothers where Einstein did his PdD? No. We only remember him for his contribution to physics. Good institutes are plenty across the world ... try in a better institute and do good research. –  Nilotpal Sinha Feb 23 '13 at 5:38
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@user31458 "I'm an incredibly competitive person my nature and I've wanted to attend this institution since I was a freshman in high school." welcome to real world. –  Neo Feb 23 '13 at 9:06
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This is definitely for academia and not a physics question - the answer should be completely independent of field. And in any field, putting all your eggs in one basket is just not a viable career move - the "top" US universities get orders of magnitude more applicants than they can admit, and there are far more capable academics in the world than there is economic demand for such people. –  Chris White Feb 23 '13 at 11:22
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@anna v: not to be cynical, but the job market for postdocs can be more competitive than for PhD students. How many particle theory postdocs get a position at Harvard or Princeton each year, for example? –  Vibert Feb 23 '13 at 14:27
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I'm an incredibly competitive person — Then you should take this as a good sign. If you never fail at anything, you're playing it too safe. –  JeffE Feb 24 '13 at 18:12
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6 Answers 6

Disappointment is a real part of life, especially in academia.

My belief is that, in order to succeed in academia, one needs to maintain a concrete yet ultimately attainable set of goals. These goals should be things that have a realistic probability of being achieved, but allows you some room to maneuver around in which to attain them.

Saying "I want to go to graduate school to get a PhD in [insert field of choice here]" is reasonable and gives you several routes to get there. Saying "I want to go to graduate school X to work with professor Y on topic Z" places way too many constraints on yourself: first you need to get into graduate school X, then hope that professor Y is still offering projects in topic Z, and prefers you to other applicants in the program. This is a way of setting yourself up for disappointment.

So, what I would recommend is regrouping. Find an alternate strategy for yourself. What do you want to do in graduate school—beyond working with Prof. X or Y (who by the way, might not be a very good graduate mentor)? Figure out what the goals you have are, both for your graduate degree and beyond, and then figure out what options, among the ones you still have available, will be the ones that best get you there.

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OK, I will try to form an answer.

Last week I set through a three hour memorial presentation for the 25 years since the death of Feynman. The person who was presenting the way the Feynman Lectures series ( red books) caught the imagination of physicists made the following comment: ".most of the real students in his audience left physics" . I tried to find a link but did not succeed. But I had some personal experience:

Back in 1964, when I was a graduate student in a nascent school in Athens, Greece, after a semester of field theory from the book by Bogoliubov went to a Cern summer school in Yugoslavia. There Veltman gave three weeks of lectures where the scales fell from my eyes and I realized in my gut feelings what all the fuss with operators was about: crossections. Enthused by this I managed to get a place at the Erice meeting of 1964 where Feynman would lecture. I was severely disappointed.

I realize now that I joined at the time the students from his feynman series course :). The reason? At the time we were all excited about the eightfold way and quarks and tantalizing SU(3) . Feynman spent his time in showing us how HE derived the same things in what was for me not a particularly elegant way.

I also followed a series of lectures he gave in 1981 in a Crete workshop when QCD was all the rage, and again , he derived for us QCD in his own unique way. This time I could appreciate it having become sophisticated enough to admire how he could think out of the box still at his age.

My anecdotes are to show that a physics personality may be very attractive to an aspiring physicist but that does not mean that being a student of Feynman would allow one to develop as an independent thinker next to his shade. If you are competitive, you should think of this .

In your place I would choose one of my alternate universities, looking at how the graduate students from there were placed as post docs, and not waste time : most original thoughts come before 30 for physicists.

my two cents.

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"Most original thoughts come before 30 for physicists": Citation needed. –  Nate Eldredge Feb 24 '13 at 13:37
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{"Brainpower starts to decrease after a certain age, while experience accumulates over years," he said. "Experience is not as important in mathematics as in some other fields, but it is important. So the power of a mathematician often peaks in his/her 30s. Which means that young people do have an advantage. But not people who are 16. Certainly someone who is 32 has a lot of advantage over someone who is 16."} - MIT mathematics professor Pavel Etingof, who also works with a high school research program at MIT., news.discovery.com/human/psychology/… –  user3992 Feb 24 '13 at 14:32
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I guess that citation in the first comment mean a reference to a scientific study, not a quotation from any random researcher (even if it is from a famous one). –  Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 24 '13 at 16:11
    
@NateEldredge for the quote "most original thoughts come before 30 for physicists", Anna v. would like to cite Newton, Maxwell, and Feynman. She is unfortunately not able to comment here, but she has given an additional link that supports what she says in this meta post. –  Dilaton Feb 24 '13 at 19:19
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Go to grad school at the best place where you were accepted, and work hard to take advantage of whatever opportunities that school has to offer (even if they were not what you first envisioned). At the same time, keep in mind the possibility of transferring after you finish a masters degree. This is fairly common in mathematics (my field). It can be a great way to "move up" to a higher quality school.

If you're considering transferring, you should immediately begin working (at your first school) to network and to develop relationships with professor who can write you letters of recommendation (obviously, you should also publish good papers). In fact, you should do all of these things regardless, but now you will have more urgency. One advantage of this approach is that your work will be valuable whether you transfer or stay at the same school.

In short, it sounds like you had your (academic) life planned out, and now you must make a new plan. One weakness of your first plan is that it was "fragile" in the sense that it depended on many things outside of your control. You will be happier (and generally more successful) if you focus your plans and energies on things inside your control.

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If you really want to study in particular place, you can consider doing PhD another place (where you get admitted) and then apply again. But beware, as aeismail says, putting too many constrains is risky (typically people apply to at least a few different universities).

It may depend on your priorities, but one friend of mine applied to a few PhD programs in US (from EU)

  • one year he got rejected everywhere,
  • the next year he got admitted everywhere (and they were only top-tier universities).

So, what was the difference?

In the meantime he has learnt how to apply (e.g. how to write a research statement, how to get an appropriate guy for a recommendation letter) and got external funding (Fulbright fellowship). He spent the extra year doing research in another institute, so it was not wasted in any sense.

(BTW: The story / "how to": http://kni.wikidot.com/gdzie-doktorat (in Polish), and research statements "before vs after" http://kni.wikidot.com/moja-historia (links on the top - at least they are in English :)).)

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Voting up for the link shared. I assume your friend got admitted by Berkeley right? One could really see how much your friend has grown in this one year gap. I think this is aspiring for all PhD applicants. –  CherryQu Feb 25 '13 at 11:49
    
@CherryQu Yes, he is at Berkeley right now. –  Piotr Migdal Feb 25 '13 at 13:07
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@CherryQu But, AFAIR, it's not that he has grown much in a year (sure, he did, but I doubt if it was the main point) - rather he have learnt "how to apply to an US university" (there are many non-obvious things, at least from Central-Eastern European perspective) plus he secured a funding. –  Piotr Migdal Feb 25 '13 at 13:15
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Yes yes, ref letters, funding, writing research statement are all important. I was basically amazed how much the SOP of your friend has changed in 1 year. In the 2009 version it sounds like the applicant does not really have too much idea about research, while in the 2010 version he speaks like a professor! Maybe your friend was already an expert in research in 2009, but he didn't quite expressed himself on his first try :) So although external things (funding, ref letters) are important, I have this stubborn opinion that it's the inner qualities (research talent) that makes the difference. –  CherryQu Feb 26 '13 at 3:34
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I understand that your question has been migrated, and therefore it might not be obvious whether you want to have your career in academia. But if that's the case, not being accepted to your first choice is probably not as bad as it first seems.

First of all, you don't need to be in the same university to collaborate with the faculty you really want to work with. Perhaps it would be easier if you were in the same department, but you're starting a 45+ years career, you will have plenty of opportunities to work with him/her in the future. Getting your PhD is just the first step, not the final one.

As some comments say, in the end, where you did your PhD is not the most important, what you do during it is. If you can find another nice place to work, then consider it as a challenge to work hard enough to get a permanent position in your dream university later.

Finally, just to look at the bright side of things, not getting there might be a chance: a very important aspect to measure the quality of a PhD is to show how you can do independent research, i.e., without your main advisor. Hence, doing your PhD with someone you admire (I'm extrapolating here), although very rewarding on the short term, might tie you to work only with him/her, and thus reduce your visibility as an independent researcher.

To answer shortly your question: since you're competitive (and many people are in academia), go do your PhD where you are accepted, do the best PhD ever witnessed in this university, get the best publications, and then people will look at your work more than the place you did your PhD.

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A similar thing happened to me, although I did get the academic position at first, but not the funding a few months later. I was absolutely gutted.

Right now I'm writing from the comfortable position of a PhD student at a place (another place!) which is great in almost any respect I can think of. In retrospect, here is what I learned:

  • By enrolling in grad studies, you're entering a whole new arena. In good schools, nearly every student who comes in is used to being in the top 10% of his year. Of them, in grad school, only 10% will have this distinction. Sometimes, dealing with this disappointment starts with the admissions process. But wherever you're admitted to, it will continue: a good part of being a scientist is about becoming genuinely interested to hear more whenever you're told you're doing something wrong. This goes against every gut instinct you have, and takes time to internalize.

  • Universities have rankings, which gives an impression that they're in competition with each other. But great science comes from having many different people poke at a problem from different angles. This means that there is normally good collaboration going on between labs (i.e. universities) working on any given subfield. It is not uncommon for a student to be shared between supervisors from different universities, so you still have the opportunity to collaborate with the lab you were initially interested in even if you go elsewhere.

  • You can always try again at the original university, either by transferring during your graduate studies, or by applying for a postdoc.

  • If you have great passion about a particular area of research, it will very likely be ignited once you come in close contact with some other area of research. Mastering new concepts, and pushing the boundaries of your field with exciting new research, is just intrinsically pleasing. So if you like research, you will likely enjoy any lab you get into.

  • Ultimately, your chances for remaining in academia will mostly depend on your publication record. If you do well in that respect, nobody will take it against you if you didn't go to a particular school. On the other hand, a one-year break in your studies could look bad.

So hang in there: it's not easy being rejected, but not so many options are closed to you as it may seem at this moment. I would just go for another school and work my way from there if I were you.

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