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Summary of question

I've been getting ready to apply to grad school, and now I have good reasons for not doing so. My letter writers have already uploaded their letters. Basically, it's the last minute, and I'm changing my mind, and not applying. How do I (a) thank them, (b) tactfully tell them I'm not applying, and (c) ask that they still write me a letter next year or the following year?

Details

For some months, I have been preparing to apply to graduate school. I have readied my test scores, research experience, and mostly finished my statements. It is December 1st, and I have already submitted some applications for fellowships. Over the past three weeks, I've sent emails for recommendation letters, which were uploaded by my recommenders (they were written last month, and the prior month). However one thing has happened this week: I realized that I had neglected to research the PhD students recently admitted to the programs to which I have applied. After doing so, I now understand that I am woefully under-prepared for graduate school relative to last year's cohort--even at my safety schools, which are around #50 on various popular ranking sites (I only mention rankings to demonstrate that I was not being overly arrogant in my school selection--though clearly, perhaps I was a little!).

Unfortunately, now, I have an even bigger problem: even if I got into a great grad school, I don't think I could rise to the occasion like everyone around me would, and would probably be very demoralized by this. After much deliberation, I am considering applying next year. Over this year, I will work part-time, attempt to gain experience through personal projects (I am in computer science, and have research ideas, so this is feasible) and teach myself more advanced subjects, and then apply to work in a lab, or apply for a research-based master's degree, in one or two years. I went to a relatively unknown school with few courses in my area of interest, so I think the time will be well spent and increase my confidence and knowledge. I don't think I'm falling prey to imposter syndrome, because, well, the major conference publications, master's degrees at elite universities, and impressive resumes of the PhD students at my safety schools are rather objective measures of my relative inexperience.

Here is my question: how can I tactfully notify my letter writers that I am planning on not applying, while still thanking them for their recommendation, and letting them know that I would still appreciate their letter when I apply next year or the year after that? And faculty, if you were in this position, how would you feel about the student? I really don't want to anger my recommenders. They're excellent, hard-working, wonderful people, and I already feel guilty that I might be letting them down.

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    If you can afford to pay for the applications, I would suggest to let the admissions committee worry about whether you are ready/have the requisite amount of experience or not. Apparently your letter writers, at least, must have thought so? – nengel Dec 1 '17 at 3:25
  • Although you present delaying applications until next cycle as a decision already made, I suggest you think of it as an option to discuss with your advisor/mentor/recommendation writer(s). Tell them you're feeling inadequate, mention the additional preparation you're considering, and ask for their opinion on whether holding off on the applications sounds like a better plan than applying now. – Ben Voigt Dec 1 '17 at 3:46
  • Also consider that in some fields, master's degrees in PhD applicants are a sign of weakness, not strength. It is how students who could not get in on the strength of their undergraduate career strengthen their application. – Ben Voigt Dec 1 '17 at 3:48
  • @nengel I think they're very gracious for thinking so, but they're in areas tangential to mine, and they might not have seen the competition I face (the area is very active these days--some might say the most active in computer science). I'd be completely out of my depth next to these students even if a committee did accept me, and I don't feel ready for that. Also, I think my understanding of various CS and math topics could use a year of improvement, because the material in courses at my college was easy compared to the material in the same courses at the places these students attended. – TheIntern Dec 1 '17 at 3:57
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    Well, aside from the application fee, I really don't see what you have to lose by applying. Keep in mind that the application committee is in a much better place to compare you to the other applicants, since they have the full documentation available. It's hard to tell how accurate your perceptions of the other PhD students is! Also, "understanding of various topics" is unlikely to be important to your concrete research... But the suggestion to approach your letter writers with your worries is a good one too. Maybe they will be able to reassure you. – nengel Dec 1 '17 at 4:26
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You do not need to tell them anything if you do not wish to. I get repeated reference letter requests from former students some years. This might mean they decided not to actually apply the previous year, or they didn't get into any programs, or whatever. It doesn't especially matter to me what the reason is, and having already written a letter for the student, it is not that difficult or time consuming to bring it's contents up to date.

But if you do decide to tell these professors that you are not applying this year after all, I would recommend something concise like this:

I wanted to let you know that I will actually be postponing my grad school applications until next fall. Thanks for your help with this process, and I hope I can count on a recommendation again next fall.

You don't need to elaborate on why you are delaying; they don't need to know. (You can cite "personal reasons" if you want to say something more.) However, it is a good idea to mention that you intend to apply again in the future, because that means that any time that they have already invested in your letters has not been wasted.

  • Thank you; this is what I ended up doing, and my recommenders were very understanding. – TheIntern Dec 9 '17 at 5:20
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I had neglected to research the PhD students recently admitted to the programs to which I have applied.

Please don't compare yourself to others. There are other, more productive comparisons to make, if you really need to make comparisons.

Compare your transcript with the course sequence at the schools you were going to apply to. Do you have all, or almost all, of the prerequisites under your belt for your first two semesters? If there are one or two courses missing, can you take those in winter, spring or summer?

It's often easiest to get a good start to graduate study if one doesn't significantly delay beginning.

I understand that you are concerned you may be being overambitious at this stage. But if you received or are about to receive a Bachelor's degree, with good understanding and good grades, let that be your can of spinach to help you keep going with the applications.

  • I know that comparing myself to others is a great way to feel miserable, and, for that reason, it's often warned against on this SE. However, I think it's important to consider that I might be risking a negative mental state and its repercussions if everyone around me is much more prepared than I am. I can definitely maintain morale if I'm the average PhD student, or even the least capable, but if there's a major gap between me and the next person, that is, well, very hard to accept. And that gap seems like it would large, even at my safety schools. – TheIntern Dec 1 '17 at 4:38
  • But, thank you for the encouragement. I should note that I do have a good, structured plan in place to ready myself for next year, and if you have any ideas about my main question, I'd love to hear them as well. – TheIntern Dec 1 '17 at 4:39
  • @TheIntern - If I assume that you arrived at this conclusion by comparing your transcript against the course sequence at the schools you were going to apply to, then your conclusions seem reasonable! – aparente001 Dec 1 '17 at 14:25
  • I would say that the course sequences at their schools is tougher and broader. They covered many more topics than I did, and they offer some courses in topics that my university doesn't even cover. Moreover, the level of material presented within commensurate courses is more challenging at these places. It seems my undergrad professors have been making the material in their courses easier than they should have for someone who's applying to graduate school--though I don't blame them; I should have realized this years ago and done (much more) extracurricular work (than I have). – TheIntern Dec 1 '17 at 21:38

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