Did I doom my graduate school application by mentioning my illness?
December 26, 2012 9:38 PM   Subscribe

I need reassurance about incoming graduate application admissions decisions, whether positive or negative. I had a period of academic and job under-performance due to struggles with mental illness and on advice from friends mentioned this in my personal statements. I am now reading on numerous websites I should not have mentioned mental illness at all. Did I doom my application?

I felt it necessary to mentioned the struggles with illness because the period of poor academic and job performance was so long and egregious it could not be explained away with immaturity, having a rough start, needing to find my passion, etcetera. Especially since my first attempt was in the same field I am pursuing now. I had one paragraph where I acknowledged my poor performance, containing one sentence where I stated it was due to untreated mental illness, then said I pursued treatment and found professional success afterwards.

It was followed by extensive discussion of my specific research interests and experience in the field. My most recent grades are decent, my recommendations and test scores are very good, I have a good deal of practical and professional experience compared to other applicants and some connection with established professionals. If I land an interview I feel I can interview well, discuss the subject intelligently, and do not come off as deranged.

I am anxious I will not reach that point, as I have not heard back from anyone and interview offers are already rolling in to fellow applicants.

If you have had a position in graduate school admissions what is your honest take on application with a brief mention of mental illness to explain extreme early difficulties? What if it was followed by solid performance and credentials after receiving treatment?

I have always been hypersensitive about appearing crazy to people as a result of my illness. I mentioned it in my application as I have been more comfortable with the diagnosis recently, but feel I may have overshared.
posted by Hey nonny nonny mouse to Education (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My grad school applications briefly stated something about a period of poor performance due to medical issues that had since been resolved. I'm sure anyone reading my application probably read between the lines and figured out what "medical issues" referred to, and in fact I put that sentence in on the advice of a professor who helped me review my personal statement. I had a terrible overall GPA, but a great GPA for my last two years, fantastic recommendations, and great test scores. I got into every school I applied to, and that included the #1 school in my field, who I thought would probably just laugh at me.

I really don't think you should worry about it and one sentence doesn't sound like oversharing to me. The important thing is that you've reassured them you've taken care of the problem and you have evidence to back that up. Also, based on my experience in graduate school, many of the people reading your application (i.e. faculty members on admissions committees) have likely dealt with mental illness themselves. It's hardly unusual in academia.

Your applications have already been sent out? Sit tight and do not worry that your ship is sunk. It's early in the process still, and it sounds like you handled that aspect of your application just fine.
posted by adiabat at 9:56 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do not work in "admissions" but I am an academic who supervises grad students and often gets applications. If I saw an application that mentioned mental (or physical) illness I would do two things: (1) check the transcripts to see whether there was an obvious "low" period that the illness could explain and whether things had picked up again afterwards, indicating successful treatment (and if so, I would think extra highly of the student, because I know how hard it is for many students to get back on track academically even after recovering) and (2) I would make at least a mental note that if we have to reject the student, we had better have very strong grounds to do so, because we do not want to be sued for discrimination.

What I am saying is that if you applied to our department (in Australia), that sentence you are worrying about could only be to your benefit.
posted by lollusc at 11:17 PM on December 26, 2012

What sort of grad program is this? If its a funded PhD program, the reasons for prior poor performance don't matter. You're competing with people with much better records for whatever reason.

Yes there is discrimination, but in the US no one will get sued over this because "mental illness" is just a reason for poor grades or work history. Explaining it doesn't make it go away. In a highly competitive field you look for any reason at all to disqualify some applicants, and it is very easy to rationalize the decision based on the effects of mental illness, not the fact of its existence.

In fact, making an explicit point about it in your application essay makes some people think you're the sort who would sue or otherwise expect special consideration. Not saying that's right or fair, but it's human nature and I am damn sure it happens in corporate hiring as well.

I've done grad admissions for 20 years. I would not normally recommend explaining something as "mental illness"-related in writing on an app (but as a faculty member I am happy to have it, just saying). Phd study is incredibly stressful. It doesn't mix well with many forms of mental illness and things just tend to turn out badly unless you have things seriously and demonstrably under full control. I think sometimes grad school even triggers mental illnesses, or exposes untreated mental illnesses.

But mostly it's just competitive, so explanation or not, a bad patch of the sort you describe and only decent to "very good" recent grades and test scores means you are at a disadvantage for admission because ther are many people with more blemish-free or better records.

People often don't realize that any competitive process entails "discrimination" on some measure. It is of course illegal not to hire someone or admit them *because* they suffer from mental illness, but it is not illegal discrimination to decline to admit or hire based on objective criteria (GPA for example) just because those criteria are a *consequence* of a legally protected status. Fine difference, and it amounts to rationalization in some cases (at least if the disability is known). But you'll ever prove it without a tape recording of some faculty member saying "we rejected you because you're mentally ill." (Most programs I know won't officially make any comment on why a particular applicant was turned down.)

If it's a field in which your prior experience is a significant credential that may offset the transcript. But even then, in many fields the preference in PhD admissions is for younger (hence less experienced) candidates. Again, unfair and I don't agree with that, but it's true.

So it really depends on the competitiveness of admissions (and whether you pay them or they pay you for the privilege). An MA or MS program is going to be different from a PhD program.

Nothing you can do now but be cool, hope it's ok, and give a really strong impression if you're contacted. Look, you felt the low grades needed an explanation, and I'm sure the explanation was appreciated. If the rest of your application shows you got it under control, are mature and well prepared and serious, and have been thriving for a while it probably won't matter. Think of it this way: if you hadn't explained it might have been worse.

Good luck.
posted by spitbull at 3:06 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, it really depends on what you mean by "mental illness." Three quarters of academics (including grad students) I know have at some point been treated for "depression" and a good number (as in any field) are in therapy or on anti-depressants (hello!). We tend to discount "depression" as an illness because its just very common, and many of us thrive in spite of it.

To the point, honestly, that when depression is invoked as a reason for poor performance (as it routinely is these days by undergraduates and even grad students) many of us tend to hear "my dog ate my homework."

Alas, cynicism on this front has as much to do with why you probably don't need to/shouldn't mention being depressed when you apply for grad school (unless as a part of your past that you triumphantly overcame) as does any fear or stigma attached to "mental illness" in the abstract. Yeah, people are afraid to admit someone who might be schizophrenic (and who should not be in grad school in most cases). But with depression, it's not stigma so much as skepticism that is your challenge to overcome. The fact is a lot of people now claim "depression" as an all purpose excuse for poor performance, and some of us are cynical about it. Especially those of us who have actually struggled with major depression ourselves.

Not at all saying you're making excuses OP, just what you're up against. If there were really systematic discrimination against the depressed in academia, no one would be left.
posted by spitbull at 3:55 AM on December 27, 2012

It will be very hard for anyone to give a full answer to this question without both knowing the field you're seeking to enter, the nature of the schools you applied to, and seeing your full application package. Even then, I'd be skeptical that you could ultimately link the decision to admit or reject on a single factor like this. There's a lot that goes into these types of decisions (a surprisingly amount that has literally nothing to do with the applicant) -- it's complicated and often pretty arbitrary.

That said, if you decide to apply again next year I would look carefully at the framing you use to describe this period in your life, and would be probably personally advise you to use much more careful, couched, ambiguous language than "untreated mental illness." The admissions committee doesn't really care about you as a person, or want the best for you in any meaningful sense; they want what's best for the program. You really want to present yourself as someone who is smart, competent, and independent, like you would when applying for any other job, not someone bringing in baggage and issues that might flare up unexpectedly. I think the way we stigmatize mental health is awful -- but it is what it is, and people have their biases, and the best thing you can do for your own application is to not invite additional scrutiny by making unnecessary personal revelations that hurt your candidacy.

Good luck with your apps. If you'd like to send your personal statement to me by MeMail I'd be happy to read it and give you some advice on alternative framings.
posted by gerryblog at 7:11 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

(a surprisingly amount that has literally nothing to do with the applicant)

I just want to echo this, in case other people read this after being turned down for admission to a grad program (and again, when I say that I mean "funded admission to a PhD program in the arts and sciences" -- I don't know nothin' about nothin' else).

A successful top PhD program that funds its students fully is going to get between dozens and hundreds of applications every year. I ought to know, having directed one of the top programs in my field for over a decade. In our case, the ratio is about 100 applications to 3 or 4 funded positions.

Of those 100, fully HALF will be from people who are nominally "qualified" for PhD study. They have the right undergraduate training, decent grades and test scores, nice letters of recommendation, a plausible statement of purpose, etc.

Of those 50, fully 10-20 will be people we think *could* do well in our program, are well advised to apply to our program, and in an ideal world where we had unlimited resources and time, we'd happily take any or all of them.

Of those 10 to 20, 5 to 10 will be people we WISH we could admit, we'd love to have them, they have something extra going on, they have the languages in hand, they have really relevant experience, they have a clear professional ambition and trajectory, and their statement of purpose outlines a serious and original research program.

We have to pick 3 or 4. At that point, it's no longer about qualifications. Everyone we're considering is highly qualified and could do well, and will probably be entertaining multiple offers from various top programs (fact of the matter is the same 20 people will get most of the funded offers at most of the top national programs in a small humanities or social science field, expand the number to scale for your discipline, but it's always less than 20 percent of the total national applicant pool that is genuinely competitive).

Now also remember that probably fewer than half of those top 20 folks who get all the offers will ever finish the PhD and go on to an academic career (especially in the humanities, it's probably even lower).

So roughly speaking, the day you mail your application you have about a 10-20 percent chance IF YOU ARE FULLY QUALIFIED and highly suited to the profession, of ever going on in the profession. (5-10 out of 50, assuming half the applicants are qualified, of course these are all rough numbers).

The admitting department faculty has a huge burden of responsibility here, not only to you but to the profession. A full ride 5 year grad fellowship has a face value of between 150K and 300K, depending on the tuition it offsets and the generosity of the stipend and benefits. At my school, it's close to 250K. So that is a quarter of a million dollars some university is willing to invest in your future, and the future of the profession and the discipline (and this knowing the high attrition and failure rates in PhD programs, so it's probably closer to half a million per placed PhD student if you add it up).

That is why there are so few fully funded places and so few "top" programs, by the way. There is no market even for this quantity of new PhDs in the humanities or social sciences. It's cutthroat for the programs too, not just the applicants. My program has a stellar placement rate, the best in our discipline over a decade. We place virtually everyone we graduate, which is sort of unheard of in a humanities field, but it's true. The fact that we do is *crucial* to our standing as a top program, nothing could be more important (except that we also lead nationally in external grant funding for PhD research, not unrelated by the way).

So when we sit around a table with those final 10 applications and have to pick 3 or 4, here's what we are thinking first:

1) Do I/we want to work with this particular person closely for 5 or 6 or 7 years, and have a lifelong commitment to their career? (This is where your representation of your personality, professional ambition, and even mental health can really matter, because no one wants to devote 5 or 6 years to an asshole or a crazy person, and certainly no one wants to devote that time to someone who will fail or quit.)

2) How likely is this person to get a job at the end? We're defending a nearly perfect record. So someone whose project is more marketable (they want to do work in a global hot spot, the research topic is hot in some other way, or very original) or who is themself highly marketable for other reasons we can discern (and you as the applicant probably have no idea about) is going to have a better shot at funded admission. Your topic matters a lot.

3) What kind of cohort are we assembling as that year's class? You may be wonderfully qualified, but so are 7 or 8 or 10 other people. So discounting that, we want to have a mix of different interests, skills, projects, personalities, advising load among different faculty members, and various kinds of diversity both mandated and desired (like, for example, wanting our cohorts to be roughly gender balanced). Our program also prefers slightly more mature/experienced than average applicants (one secret of our success is that I personally won't even consider an applicant who is still finishing their BA, rare for PhD programs to have that as a blanket policy, but based on loooong experience and validated by our placement record).

So the bottom line is that you have to be damn good. The grades and test scores and experience and glowing letters all have to be at the top of the range, or else some other remarkable qualification (you speak Navajo fluently, let's say, or something like that) has to override a more average (but almost never weak) set of basic qualifications. But even if you *are* damn good, so are more of your competitors than will get funded offers, certainly in any one program. You are not a special snowflake at this level unless you are a once-in-a-generation superstar talent, in which case you'll get offers from every top program. We don't have to consider the details too closely once you're on that long-short-list of 10 or so. We've decided we would like to have you and you are highly qualified at that point.

This is why ALL PhD applicants should apply to ALL the top fully funded programs. Your odds go way up if you are qualified for any of them that you will get an offer from one of them. Never put all your eggs in one or two baskets. Totally dumb strategy.

It is also why I highly recommend visiting the programs to which you are applying on your own dime and before admissions decisions are made. It's much easier to weigh someone's personality if you've met them, and even a Skype or phone interview will not do as much for you if you have a "qualified" personality -- you can speak smartly about your topic and interests, you can ask good questions, you make eye contact and have some kind of charisma (no one will succeed in the humanistic academy of the future without some kind of entrepreneurial charisma, you can bank on it), and most of all you are *serious* about that program in particular. You're setting up for your entire career and asking programs to pony up a couple hundred grand in fellowship support. $500 or whatever it costs to visit the 2 or 3 places you most want to be admitted is a cheap investment in the long run given that it is a buyer's market for the programs involved. Of course, if you are not ready or suited by personality, those campus visits will be decisive in the wrong way.

It is also -- and this is so important and I don't know why people don't know this sometimes -- why your "statement of purpose" essay MUST address the specific program to which you are applying, naming faculty members you want to work with or admire (and why), other university resources, the agenda or intellectual ideology of the program, etc. A generic SoP you send to every school without modification is a terrible mistake (as is the "over-personalized" statement of purpose -- sometimes misleadingly called a "personal statement" -- you often get from younger, greener applicants who don't yet have a project).

Oh yeah, have a project. It will change, but don't apply to PhD programs saying you're open to anything or haven't found your focus yet. We don't have time for people to explore their interests at the doctoral level. YOU don't have time for that. Don't waste funded doctoral study finding your interests, even if you can get admitted without one. I always say I "have to be able to see the gleam of a dissertation in your eyes." Because I am not going to write it for you or tell you what you should write. If I have to, you wouldn't have succeeded anyway.

You can only control for some of this. And it's very easy to kid yourself about how qualified you are until you've seen how competitive this process is.

And once you get in? It's only ever going to be *more* competitive for the balance of your career (or at least until you get tenure), so we select for competitors. That is how it works.
posted by spitbull at 5:36 AM on December 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

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