I majored in philosophy, Late in my undergrad career, I decided I wanted to get into linguistics instead, so I applied for PhD programs. I had a 3.95 GPA, had taken around 15 graduate-level courses as an undergrad (5 in B and 10 in A), good recommendation letters (I think) and an interesting writing sample. In linguistics, publications don't really matter much in PhD admissions. I was also at a top 10 institution for linguistics as an undergrad. I applied to 8 schools, got rejected by 6 and waitlisted by 2 top 20 programs. By strange luck (they said so in their emails), despite both schools having gone into their waitlists in previous years, they did not do so that year.

I decided to take a year off and do some research in order to write a better writing sample, which I did. Everyone told me that was the main weakness of my application. I figured I should have a better chance then. Strangely, I did even worse (better in one regard, actually): I reapplied around 6 months ago, and I got rejected by 8 and waitlisted by 1, which is ranked 2 in the world in linguistics and literally my dream school. Again, despite them having gone into their waitlists in previous years, they could not accept me because they weren't able to go into their waitlist again. I even got rejected by the university I did my undergrad in, by the professors who wrote me my recommendation letters, even though I was a perfect fit for their program and they knew how I could handle the coursework and do independent research.

I've enrolled at an unfunded (for the first year, apparently I should likely be able to work as a TA during the second year for funding) MA program since I have no other choice. I'm going to have to live on graduate PLUS loans for at least one year. My question is, should I even bother applying for PhD programs again? Maybe I'm just not good enough. Should I just look for a job instead and ditch my masters program? I know for a fact that this is the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life, but if I can't do it then I might as well give up now before going into debt. I can't even imagine doing anything else with my life though.

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    To be honest, I didn't read your full question. I just read the title. What I'm about to write may not be very helpful too. But, whenever I see such questions, I only remember Arnold saying that everybody told him that his accent was bad and he was a bad actor. For years, he didn't quit! If he did, he wouldn't have been the Terminator!! Nor the Governor of California! – The Guy Apr 23 '16 at 17:57
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    I don't know which field this is, but your background sounds stellar. Did you discuss with a mentor what they think is happening here? You mention "writing sample" as a weak point, but how do you know? – gnometorule Apr 23 '16 at 18:05
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    You should try to figure out exactly why your application is being rejected, as it is difficult to address your question otherwise. You should talk to your letter writers about your application and perhaps ask the admissions committees that waitlisted you if there is anything you could improve. – Thomas Apr 23 '16 at 18:25
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    Are you only applying to top 20 programs? The problem could simply be that competition is too stiff. – user37208 Apr 23 '16 at 21:03
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    @Splatoon: GPA is not a key factor IMO. You really should ask the people who wrote you the letter. And you should really ask why, though you considered yourself "a perfect fit", but you are not admitted to the U you did your undergrad. There might be some non-academic reasons for example. – Arctic Char Apr 24 '16 at 1:05

Based on what you've said, there is little to no evidence that you are "just not good enough" for a PhD in linguistics, so it would be a mistake to not apply again for that reason. Rather, you should try to become more "genre savvy", which in this case means learning more about the application process and what PhD programs in your field are looking for.

Here are some mistakes -- or, at least, opportunities for future improvement -- that I can see based on what you've said.

1) The writing sample: To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what this is. In my field (mathematics), we have a "personal statement", which may or may not be similar to a "writing sample": in fact, it mostly functions as a writing sample, as what is expressed is usually not as important as the clarity of the writing and the reasonableness of the sentiments expressed. But I don't know what it means to contribute a writing sample "in philosophy" versus "in linguistics", and I really don't know what it would mean to spend a year improving the writing sample. I hope that academics in these fields can comment and clarify this point. My best guess at the moment is that you are actually supposed to submit a piece of academic writing in the chosen field. If so -- applying to a linguistics PhD program and submitting a writing sample from philosophy is pretty strange: given that you took five graduate courses in linguistics, you certainly didn't need to do that. Why did you do that?

I would not take as a given that your writing sample was the main problem -- rather, you should find out; more on that later -- but I would definitely take steps to improve your writing sample the next time around. You wrote::

"And my professor was supposed to look at my writing sample in linguistics, he didn't end up giving me comments. I got comments from a PhD student who knew his stuff really well so that helped, and he said my sample was good."

You are not getting enough help here. A professor who looks over something like this and has no comments is not helping you at all: it doesn't mean your writing is good or bad or anything: it just means you need to find a different mentor. Getting comments from a PhD student is much more helpful than nothing, but a PhD student will have absolutely zero direct experience with PhD admissions, so he cannot directly help you. You need to find at least one faculty member in linguistics who is willing to give you significant feedback.

2) Programs applied to: In my field of mathematics, most students apply to about 6-12 PhD programs. You could get away with applying to the lower end of this range if you choose carefully: almost all students should apply to at least three different tiers of programs. The lowest tier should be such that your faculty mentors say that they expect you to get in there. In my field, anyone who would get waitlisted at a top program could certainly get admitted to a lesser (still wholly reputable) program.

Then next year you apply again to only 9 programs including the world number two program in your field. Having had to wait an entire year because you "almost" got into a PhD program, you should have applied to many more programs the second time around and also included a lower tier of programs than you did the first time. While I won't say it was a mistake to apply to the world number two, it is also not so clear how close you came to being admitted. The waitlist is still an ordered list. Unless they said you were at the top of the waitlist, it does not necessarily mean that you were very close to being admitted, especially since they told you that they didn't go to the waitlist at all. (Also, for PhD programs you should be making a clear distinction between admission-with-funding and mere admission.)

I would suggest that you apply again to PhD programs, to more of them, and with a larger range. Get a faculty mentor in your current master's program to help you with this.

3) Guidance and feedback: You have not gotten good advice. It's hard to get good advice, but it can be almost impossible if you don't stick your neck out and try to get it. I strongly recommend that you write to each of the programs that waitlisted you, carefully (though relatively succinctly) describe your situation, and tell them how helpful it would be to get feedback about improving your application. What is the one thing you should work most on improving? In particular, you have a golden opportunity to do this at your own undergraduate institution. For that, I would suggest an in person visit. When you talk to your old professors in person, they are really going to have to open up and tell you what happened. You don't want to be bitter or confrontational about it: rather you should make clear what you are doing, which is getting the feedback you need to improve your application.

In summary, based on what you report about your profile, I myself am surprised that you did not get into a PhD program, given that you applied to 17 of them over two years. I think you're right that people with worse records than yours are getting admitted. This means that something in your application is not as it should be. It is your life, after all, so it is worth devoting some energy to the sleuthing here: really suss out the problem before you apply again.

Good luck.

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    +1 for "something in your application is not as it should be" and "write to each of the programs that waitlisted you." OP needs to figure out what to fix. – Thomas Apr 24 '16 at 19:58
  • Thanks for this. First of all, the professor was supposed to give me comments but he never did despite my reminding him that I needed comments. Second, I was at the top of their waitlist and they just didn't go into their waitlist that year. It certainly wasn't a mistake to apply there given that they accepted people from their waitlist for the last 3 years and I came so close. Also, this was admission-with-funding. I didn't have the money to apply to more than 9. – Splatoon Apr 24 '16 at 22:58
  • Oh, and my writing sample during my first PhD admission season was in the philosophy of language and my honors thesis, and so my best written work, so I used that. – Splatoon Apr 24 '16 at 23:11
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    @Splatoon: You took a full year off to improve your application and you couldn't raise the money to apply to more than 9 schools? And because you didn't get into a funded PhD program, you are now taking out loans to be in an unfunded master's program? Something is not adding up here. Also: " It certainly wasn't a mistake to apply there..." So, you say that you simply couldn't afford to apply to more than 9 programs, so you make one of those 9 the number two program in the world, and then you don't get in. Sorry, under the circumstances that looks like a mistake. – Pete L. Clark Apr 24 '16 at 23:48
  • Anyway, if we accept as given the fact that you missed the "number 2 program in the world" by one spot, then it doesn't make any sense that you didn't get into 8 more programs. You should definitely find out what's going on. By the way, what is the lowest ranked of the 9 programs you applied to? – Pete L. Clark Apr 24 '16 at 23:55

Does your intended field have a future? I have a friend who earned a phd from one of the top schools and yet can't find a job. Simply there are not enough jobs. Maybe you did not get in because the discipline as a whole may be languishing.

Don't assume that you are not good enough. It may not be you, but the field. Some departments are terribly under-funded. They also train students for career that does not exist. Check placement records of your dream program.

I myself have a phd from a top school and now I am a full professor. But if i could choose my major today, i would not choose this field. Me getting into a top program is a curse in disguise. I was locked into what i thought then a dream career. Only now i know sometimes it is wise to change your mind.

Not that i am unhappy or regret my choice. All i want to tell you is think this difficult time as a great opportunity for reality check. Not getting in may be the best thing that happened to you in the long run. It is still disappointing, i know. I got more than my fair share of rejection letters. But trust me, you may be spared from even bigger disappointments.

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  • My dream program has a good placement record, like maybe 60% or so. Thanks very much for this post. – Splatoon Apr 24 '16 at 15:04

" I know for a fact that this is the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life, but if I can't do it then I might as well give up now before going into debt. I can't even imagine doing anything else with my life though." Here is your answer.

It is really not about you. A lot of the departments have funding problems and they end up admitting only 3-5 Ph.D. students out of hundreds, others accept those who could somehow secure external funding. Maybe you can try that to improve your chances.

Try again. If possible, apply to more schools (I know application fees might be an issue though). Additionally, have a combination of schools that are not necessarily in the top 20 in Linguistics. Have some mid-ranked schools as well to have a backup plan. As a computer scientist, I would argue that the field of technology, particularly CS, will need more linguists for various AI areas, particularly NLP. Don't give up.

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