How to Handle the Graduate School Application Process

Handling rejection, coping with stress, and learning to set boundaries in an environment that’s often hostile to our humanity.

Photo by Max Shilov on Unsplash

I am a social psychologist, clinical assistant faculty member at Loyola University Chicago, and the author of the book Laziness Does Not Exist. Over the past few years, I have written extensively about the harm done by the Laziness Lie, an unspoken, yet pervasive cultural belief system that preaches the following:

  1. Your worth is determined by your productivity

2. You cannot trust your needs and limitations

2. There is always more that you could be doing.

The Laziness Lie has a deep and troubling history, dating back to chattel slavery and the dawn of European imperialism. To this day, the belief that failure or exhaustion is a sign of immoral ‘laziness’ haunts us in the workplace, in our personal relationships — and in our educational system, particularly higher ed.

For me, graduate school was one of the spaces most deeply poisoned by the Laziness Lie. As a graduate student I was worked to the bone, for very little money, and I watched as my peers were shamed or driven to drop out for things like suffering from depression or anxiety. The workaholic, victim-blaming culture tainted my self-concept and warped my ability to set healthy work-life boundaries for years. It took me a very long time to learn that the “laziness” I had been taught to fear inside of myself (and loathe inside other people) didn’t truly exist.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a journalist at Business Insider, to answer a few questions about how prospective graduate students, medical students, and law students can navigate the at-times harrowing graduate school application process, and resist the Laziness Lie. Below are reporter Emily Hein’s questions (in bold), and my responses.

  • The graduate school application process, regardless of the result, can come with a ton of pressure. How do you best suggest applicants navigate through this pressure?

Unfortunately, the graduate school application process is essentially a time-consuming part-time job that costs you money instead of paying you. Researching various programs and their application policies; completing application materials, drafting customized cover letters and buffing your CV into a shine; getting transcript copies, taking the GRE, asking mentors for letters of recommendation and keeping track of deadlines and dates — it’s a ton of work and costs hundreds upon hundreds of dollars!

That time, energy, and money has to come from somewhere. Where are you going to get it from? What in your life are you going to cut back on doing, to free up the time necessary to do all of this? Do you have a supportive spouse or relative who can take on another burden for you, such as childcare, so that you have the ability to focus on these tasks for at least a few hours per week? Where in your schedule can you cram it in? How are you funding this process? These are all really hard questions to answer but need to be asked, unfortunately.

In many ways, applying to graduate school is very similar to being in graduate school itself: you’re doing a lot of thankless labor that is self-directed and that you’re not being compensated for. So it is a bit of a dry run for figuring out how you will balance the immense workload and pressures of graduate school itself, and a chance to ask yourself if you have the resources, schedule, and support system necessary to go through it in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, graduate school is not set up to be accommodating for people who lack those resources. It’s very exclusionary and elitist in that way.

  • How can those who’ve recently been rejected from graduate school avoid generalizing their rejection to their overall productivity, and their productivity to their worth?

I wish prospective graduate students knew just how arbitrary and unfair the graduate application process truly is. If your GPA isn’t in the right range, or your research interests aren’t a good fit with the faculty who are seeking new students to mentor that year, it won’t matter how beautifully written your cover letter is, or how much internship experience you have — you’ll be rejected without anybody having even looked at all that other application material. Some years, a school will open up applications only to decide that they didn’t need as many PhD students as they thought they did. Or funding will get cut at the last minute. All kinds of random things happen.

Realizing the graduate acceptance process is unfair and unscientific doesn’t make the rejection hurt any less, of course. In some ways it’s even more distressing to realize academia is not a meritocracy, and that it’s not always the best, hardest working, or most passionate people who get accepted. Usually the people who get in are those who are judged to be a good “fit.” And as is the case in most workplaces, judgements of “fit” in academia tend to be poisoned by racism, sexism, classism, and other injustices.

I want graduate school applicants to know that rejection is not an indication of their capacity or potential at all. Every single year there are dozens upon dozens of graduate school applicants who would have made amazing professors and researchers, who didn’t get in for some small reason out of their control.

  • Do you have any tips for reframing the rejection process/suggested next steps?

I think if you are rejected from all the graduate programs you applied to, you’re going to need some time to mourn and be angry and disappointed. You’ve just put immense effort (and paid a lot of money in application fees) in pursuit of a dream, and your hopes were dashed (at least temporarily). That is going to hurt! You’re going to feel jealous of the people who did get accepted, and resentful of the programs that spurned you. You honestly deserve to feel that, and give it time to sink in.

I think in the wake of being rejected from graduate school, it’s valuable to read blogs like The Professor Is In, which talk all about how mystifying and unjust the graduate school application process is, and also about how exploitative most graduate programs are. It can be helpful to learn that academia is not the egalitarian, joyously intellectual place you may fantasize it to be. You may even come to decide that getting rejected spared you from a lot of pain.

As Karen Kelsky recently said in her TedX Talk on the subject, academia is a cult. It drives a lot of people to go deeply into debt while using them for free (or cheap) research and teaching labor, it makes them feel inferior and inadequate, and it yields pretty dismal job prospects for the majority of people who go through it. Being rejected from that system may not be the worst thing. If you didn’t get into any graduate program you applied to, take a moment to think about your life goals and do some research, and see if the reality of academia lines up with them.

  • What are some of the most valuable takeaways from rejection? What can be learned from rejection in this particular situation?

As educator and disability advocate Marta Rose writes, “Look at failure as data, and everything changes.” Failure tells us where we aren’t being appreciated or recognized; it also tells us what we are good at, what we enjoy, which kinds of difficulty we can withstand and which are too painful to go through again.

If you failed to get into the graduate program you wanted, you can reexamine your application for gaps, and see which ones seem possible to address. If you don’t have any research experience, you might be able to volunteer for a lab a bit over the course of the next year, so that by the time the next application cycle comes around, you are a more well-rounded candidate. If your GRE scores are a little on the low end, you can study and take it again. If your application didn’t match well with any of the faculty you applied to work with, you may take that as a sign you are seeking approval from the wrong people.

You can also ponder which changes aren’t possible for you, and which efforts would just be too exhausting or heartbreaking to endure. I know a lot of people who had to apply to medical school three or four years in a row before they got in, and are glad they stuck with it. But I also know people who went through that process once or twice and then decided they didn’t have the heart to do it again. Our culture shames people for saying no to things, for setting new boundaries and walking away, but I actually believe it is a really powerful act of self-advocacy to honor your feelings and get the hell out of any situation that makes you feel horrible and has yielded you little benefit.

You don’t have to fight to be recognized by a group of highly educated people who will put you into debt and run you ragged for five to ten years in return for a degree that might not even get you a job. You can put your talents and passion into something else entirely. There is no shame in wanting to be valued, recognized, compensated, and treated well.

  • How can those who wish to re-apply to graduate school maintain self-care and avoid burnout when re-entering the application process?

I think it’s really important to be strategic, and to not conflate working hard with working well. Sometimes when people are first applying to graduate programs, they do this full court press of firing off dozens of applications to a really wide array of schools, burning themselves out. It’s important to apply to multiple programs, of course, but if you tire yourself out firing off dozens of applications you’ll waste a lot of focus that could have been spent really tailoring each application to the programs you love.

If you apply to graduate school a second, third, fourth, or fifth time, make sure your heart is really in it, and that it’s what you really want to do. If you have family members or partners who are shaming you for having failed to gain admittance in the past, you’ll need to set boundaries with them, meaning there have to be consequences for when they say rude, invalidating stuff to you.

If someone is pressuring you to apply to programs, or implying you’re not working hard enough on your applications, you need to get away from them and out from under their influence. I think it’s also important to keep learning about your options and other skills you might want to grow. Graduate school is not the be all and end all. What else do you enjoy and value? What else might you want to do with your life?

  • Med school and law school require an especially tedious application process. How do you suggest practicing self-care as it specifically pertains to these application processes?

If someone wants to balance self-care with pursuing a degree in one of these professions, I honestly might tell them to run in the opposite direction! The way these fields are run are absolutely not evidence based. Everything about their approach is the exact opposite of what industrial organizational and education psychology would recommend, if developing happy, healthy graduates were the goal.

Law school and med school are uniquely punishing environments. They don’t fund your education usually, so if you go to a law or med program you are driven into six-figure debt, you’re expected to work long hours without complaint, you’re expected to move across the country and sacrifice much of your personal life for your education, and you will generally have professors in those programs who really equate challenge and pain with intellectual rigor.

These can be incredibly toxic, abusive work environments, even once you finish your graduate education. No doctor should be forced to work 13 to 36 hour work days, we know for a fact that is a huge contributor to both burnout and medical errors (it also erodes their ability to empathize with patients, which I talk about in Laziness Does Not Exist). Yet the industry views people like they are machines, and abuses them and objectifies them, and that flows down into how they look at medical students and applicants.

A lot of people who would make great, compassionate, careful doctors don’t ever get admitted to medical school, because they have some disability, mental illness, lack of financial support, or some other limitation that means they can’t endlessly be worked to the brink of burnout the way doctors are expected to be. The same is true of law school. The burnout and career change rate is massive in that industry because it is unfairly punishing.

So, if you do want to enter into those worlds, you will need a support system in place, and will have to be excellent at saying things like “no,” “I’m not comfortable with that,” “I can’t do that,” “I need help with ______” etc. You’ll need to be able to detach from the prevailing culture, and question the messages telling you that honoring your needs and having a full, balanced life makes you lazy, weak, or selfish. Even with that sense of perspective, though, it will remain a really challenging world to navigate. The Laziness Lie is deeply embedded into the structure of how medicine, law, and academia function.

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