What now?
April 2, 2012 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I didn't get into graduate school. All of my hopes/dreams/etc. were riding on this. Now what?

I apologize if this question is a mess. I’m extremely depressed over this situation, and I’m having some trouble explaining the extent of the frustration and hopelessness I feel. Any general [or specific] advice would be greatly appreciated.

Long story short: I was rejected from two out of the three schools I applied to, and didn't get funding for the third one. I was an incredibly strong candidate and 2/3 programs I applied to were state universities. I didn't even prepare for this possibility, and i'm at a complete loss as to what I should do now. All I know is that I need to radically overhaul my life, but I don’t know how to go about it or what to do.

Some background:
I graduated in May 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in History, which is fairly useless without an advanced degree. While I had applied to law schools in my senior year, I didn't have time to take the GRE and apply to graduate programs in history. I work part time as a bartender, and I attend law school [which I really dislike and will not return to after this semester]. I currently live with my dad, and I hate the rural area I live in. I have an abusive ex-boyfriend who lives in the area, and I'm afraid to go out alone in case I run into him. The few friends I have are people I was friends with in high school, but now our interests have drifted hopelessly apart. Meeting people in this area is pretty much impossible, and useless, as most people in my age range only care about smoking pot and popping out kids. There are no job opportunities here other than call centers and retail positions. Staying in this area is not a possibility.

Financially, I have about $40K in student loan debt and almost no savings.

So, what are my next steps?

How much money should I save up before I go? How should I begin looking for apartments in this new city?

What American cities should I be looking into?
In terms of where I want to move I’m looking for a large population of other young, intelligent people, cultural activities, low[er] cost of living, and a moderate-to-strong job market. It doesn’t have to be a major city, but I’m not looking to move to a rural area [or Suburbs more than 15 minutes away from a city].

How do I find a job in this new city? What kind of jobs should I look for?
Right now, I feel so utterly defeated that I’m open to any jobs that I could reasonable hope to get with my educational/work background.
What avenues should I use to find a job in a new city? Craigslist? Local newspapers?

posted by oxfordcomma to Work & Money (35 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, if anyone has any success stories about reapplying for graduate school, I'd love to hear it!
posted by oxfordcomma at 4:38 PM on April 2, 2012

I know it feels like a lot right now, but I want to let you know that it will get better and you will be fine!
Unfortunately I cannot give you any substantial tips other than to take a step back from the emotional entanglements, take a deep breath and to think what you would recommend a friend who was in this situation - step by step.

You can still apply again next year. You are stronger than you might think right now. Good luck!
posted by travelwithcats at 4:52 PM on April 2, 2012

how far through law school are you? how much is your tuition?
posted by modernnomad at 4:54 PM on April 2, 2012

Not getting in to grad school has a lot to do with how many other people applied that year. Don't feel intimidated about reapplying for next year.
posted by yohko at 4:54 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fields like History and Philosophy can be quite competitive and it is the rare humanities program that will pay for your tuition AND provide a stipend. The big red flag in your question, as far as I can see, is that you did not take the GRE.

Also, it may not be totally obvious to you that you can reapply. In one year (and possibly less than that, in the spring) you can apply again. In between now and then, you need to do the following things.

0. Get out of law school stat - save that money.
1. Schedule your next GRE session.
2. Study tons of books so you ace the GRE.
3. Find other graduate programs you are interested in.
4. Save up money and pay down your student debts.
5. Research alternative jobs and options that do not require a graduate degree.
6. Apply for those jobs constantly.

Doing this, by next year you'll have a good application or three ready, with letters, great GRE scores, etc. If you've really done your homework, you'll also have a set of alternative paths - it can be very hard to see from the awful place you are at this moment, but I can tell you, as someone who left the rural midwest without getting my graduate degree, that there are tons of very interesting jobs that do not require a graduate degree and that graduate school can be much more a life-suck than a life transformer. In fact, you may have dodged a bullet here provided you can get out of where you are, which requires only saving, searching, and networking your way out.
posted by fake at 4:54 PM on April 2, 2012 [11 favorites]

Perhaps they did you a favor.

If you're going to move, I would recommend Austin, which combines a high quality of life with a relatively low cost of living.

However, if you really want to refresh I would seriously consider leaving the U.S. Since, were you to get a job with a history degree then you would probably become a teacher of some sort anyway, then why not go teach English in China, Korea, etc.? I have heard that if you agree to tutor students in off hours it can actually be fairly lucrative.

You might also consider Teach for American or the Peace Corps.

Finally, if you're certain that history is your passion, after getting back from teaching abroad, you might consider moving to a city in which there is a prof whose work you find interesting. Read all their papers/books, and then send them an email letting them know how great you think their work is. If they don't try and take you on as a grad student, they'll probably at least be happy to give you some advice, and you'll be well on your way to becoming a grad student, anyhow.
posted by myvines at 4:57 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Fake, I don't think the poster is ssaying that they didn't take the GRE. They're saying they didn't take it immediately after college: While I had applied to law schools in my senior year, I didn't have time to take the GRE and apply to graduate programs in history.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:59 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Erp. *Teach for America
posted by myvines at 5:00 PM on April 2, 2012

First of all, have any of your college friends moved to cities that fit your criteria? It's easier to move to a new place if you know some people already living there, and the best way to get a job, often, is by networking.

Second, having bartending experience is going to serve you well. No matter where you move, there will be bars there, and you can always bartend to bring in some scratch while you look for another job.

Finally: I didn't get into any of the grad schools I applied to, myself, and actually never ended up going to grad school, and I have a job I love that I NEVER would have gotten if I'd taken the grad school path. My BA is in English, and in general, employers like people with liberal arts degrees -- we're good writers, traditionally, and that's valuable. So don't think that your BA is meaningless. It's not. LOADS of people working today in interesting jobs only have a BA.

Myself, as much as I would have liked being an English professor, I am really happy I didn't end up taking that path. I realized part of what attracted me to grad school was that I really LIKE school, and I was good at it, and I didn't know what to do with myself without it. I also was imagining myself, basically, as an English profession in a movie, rather than one in today's often rocky academic environment. So for me, not getting into grad school was a blessing in disguise -- I don't think it held the answers for me that I thought it held when I applied.

That being said, NONE of this means you can't apply again next year with an awesome application, get in all over the place, and be spoiled for choice. I suspect, actually, this happens to people ALL THE TIME.

You're going to be okay.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 5:03 PM on April 2, 2012 [13 favorites]

I applied for graduate school straight out of undergrad. No research on schools, just-using-undergrad-stuff applications, and... no acceptances. I then applied for a lot of jobs, got one in a city a few hours away from my college city which was itself half the country away from my home town, moved, and worked full-time for two years. I paid off my undergrad loans while, during that second year, applying again to graduate school. This time - with research and post-undergrad-work and contacting and talking with professors at my target schools and applying to eight schools - I got into several programs. One was a great offer, and another was good, and a couple others that were laughable regarding funding or student status. I am now in grad school. And back in debt, though certainly less than if I'd gone straight through and not paid anything off and had been accruing interest. And I am really happy I didn't go straight through, money- and preparation- and commitment-wise.
posted by vegartanipla at 5:07 PM on April 2, 2012

I know a huge number of people who were rejected by top schools and later reapplied and got in.

I know a lot of people hate grad school around here, but you can make an informed choice based on your career expectations, current loans, and awareness about future debt. Going to grad school when you're young is a wise choice if you can make it happen. (On preview, vegartanipla is totally right.)

In terms of jobs, you can try looking into qualitative research assistant positions at nearby universities. This usually involves typing and coding. Cafe/bartender experience will help you find jobs, as will pharmacy tech (at least where I live). Paralegal work doesn't pay terribly well, but if you have any related experience it might help (I worked with auto titles at a credit union for about a year and this was considered relevant). Craiglist has plenty of examples of available jobs and typical qualifications by area.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:10 PM on April 2, 2012

More advice about reapplying: contra fake, don't fret about the GRE unless your scores were quite bad. I'm a professor in the humanities, though not history, and GRE scores are used as a decidedly secondary piece of information at least in my field.

Work more on your writing sample. If you didn't ask your letter-writers for feedback on it, do so and take their advice when you rewrite it.

Is there a university anywhere near you with a decent history program? Audit a seminar or two. See if it can turn into getting another letter from someone who wasn't one of your undergrad profs.
posted by kestrel251 at 5:27 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you apply to PhD or MA programs? What do you want to do with an advanced degree in history (teach high school? teach at the college level? something else?)?

If it was the PhD level, and you're sure that this is the path you want to take, here's some advice for making sure you have a better shot next time around:
-Apply to way more than three schools (at my program, I think most people applied to at least 5, and more like 7), and don't waste your time on schools that aren't highly ranked
-Definitely don't waste your time on schools that won't fund you fully-- any legitimate PhD program in History that wants you will indeed fund you
-Make sure that at least two of your recommenders can speak to your ability within the field of history you want to focus in, not just your ability as a generalized student
-Make sure that you personally are conversant in your chosen subfield, both in terms of terminology/methods and which scholars are big names in terms of publishing and research
-Make contacts at the schools you're interested in well before applying
-If you need to know any foreign languages for your subfield, start learning them now (most programs will have a list of required languages for each subfield somewhere on their website)

If it was the MA, you honestly might be better off working on paying down your debt for a while. A History MA will not be funded at most schools, won't open many career doors for you, and going $40K (or more) further into debt is not something to do lightly.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:34 PM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

As a senior in college, I applied to my dream school and didn't get in. To make matters worse, my then-boyfriend/now-husband got in. I was devastated and was super depressed for a while. I worked a crappy campaign job, then a paid internship while working at Barnes and Noble, then another crappy job. Then, something crazy happened. I got a good job that I liked. I worked there for five years. About a year and a half ago, I quit that job for a job that job that paid more. You'll be okay.
posted by kat518 at 5:36 PM on April 2, 2012

I think if you want to re-apply to grad school, you should ask for feedback. My experience has been that most would-be grad students either way over- or way under-estimate how "fit" they are for a program -- and vice versa -- and how strong their application materials are. Usually a successful re-application requires a really overhauled set of materials. Having an advanced degree is no guarantee to a job doing, well, anything; again, my personal experience.

I think that you should consult with your undergrad institution's career center (or whatever they call it). They can be great resources for helping you figure out next steps - it's basically what they do - and most schools provide this service for alumni as well.
posted by sm1tten at 5:38 PM on April 2, 2012

Also, if anyone has any success stories about reapplying for graduate school, I'd love to hear it!

There was really this one graduate school I wanted to go to, and I didn't get in. So what I did was look up one of the professors who had interests that strongly coincided with mine, and I emailed him asking if there was anything I could do for next year to make me a better candidate. He emailed me back and said that after looking at my application, he thought I would be a great candidate for next year. We later met up on campus and talked about research, and he referred me to another professor who had similar research interests to mine, and we spoke, and I ended up getting accepted the next year and working for that second professor.

So it can happen. But tread carefully because humanities grad school comes with a whole set of pitfalls. Meanwhile, get in touch with your old friends from college and see what they're up to. Find out when your old college is having a career fair and attend, even though you're an alum.
posted by deanc at 5:39 PM on April 2, 2012

I really want you to get out of your situation, but history grad school might cause you more longterm problems because of the possible debt and shitty job market.
posted by k8t at 6:07 PM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

What American cities should I be looking into?

Seattle, Portland, Austin and the other usual suspects are indeed the usual suspects. But if I were doing it right now, I'd start looking for the second-tier cities on the "cool" list. I have a friend in Salt Lake City and she can't stop raving about the place (and she's looking for a roommate, to boot). The Mormon thing is a non-factor for her, too.

So, what are my next steps?

Set a deadline for yourself and work toward it. For me, my big move wasn't real until I set an actual date and said, "On that date, I will move. Period."

You just have to do it. When you reach the point where not moving would suck harder than moving, it's a great feeling. "Now I have to go, because I can't unpack all this shit," is one of my fondest memories.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:10 PM on April 2, 2012

The OP requested a moderate-to-strong job market so Portland is out.
posted by cairdeas at 6:31 PM on April 2, 2012

I don't know how you should plan your career, but I do know that Madison, WI, where I live, is a medium-sized city disproportionately weighted towards youth and culture, it is one of the 20 least-unemployed metro areas in the US, it's quite cheap compared to the coasts or Austin, and there are about eight million bars where you could work.
posted by escabeche at 6:43 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine took NINE YEARS of applying to finally get into grad school. NINE FREAKING YEARS.

Now, I will say that in her case she didn't have stellar grades (she worked her way through school), and she originally insisted on applying only to prestigious schools that I suspect she didn't have the grades for, and the one time I saw her writing sample (maybe about 6 years in) I thought, "I think I can see why this isn't happening." But her writing has improved in the meantime, and I think she stopped only applying to snooty schools, and she got in somewhere. Now, she didn't love grad school, as it turns out, but by god, after 9 years she got someone to take her.

So apparently it's doable if you finally find the right school and keep on working on yourself. But these days, I think you can manage without racking up grad school debt. At any rate, it wouldn't hurt to save up money before you get into one.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:44 PM on April 2, 2012

What American cities should I be looking into?
In terms of where I want to move I’m looking for a large population of other young, intelligent people, cultural activities, low[er] cost of living, and a moderate-to-strong job market.

I would actually suggest you AVOID at least for now, cities that attract tons of smart young people with humanities degrees. Why foist all that unnecessary competition on yourself. How many of those smart young people will you meet and befriend and do stuff with? Maybe a few dozen or a few hundred? So what's the point of having all the other tens of thousands of them around while you are trying to get on your feet. It would be different if you were pursuing a career where the only serious options are in those cities, but you are not. If I were you I would go to a city that has lots going on but isn't necessarily the mecca for every 22 year old history graduate a la Portland, Williamsburg, etc.

If I were you I would look up the following keywords on google: cities + "brain drain" or states + "brain drain."

For how much money to save up before you move, I think you should save two months rent plus a deposit, plus maybe $500 extra for everything else. For many major cities the best place to look for a place to live is on Craigslist, so start looking there at cities that interest you for how much you will need to save up.

For jobs, at first, just get any job you can even if it doesn't require a degree and is minimum wage, just so you have the security of money coming in and you don't get sucked into depression via inactivity.

Then go on indeed.com and look for internships. You will probably not make very much money but you can probably find one that is enough to survive on. An internship is how you will get in the door to a professional career and within 3 months to a year you should be bumped up to a salaried position. Actually once you have cities in mind you should probably go on indeed and the other job sites and see what's available in those places.
posted by cairdeas at 6:51 PM on April 2, 2012

I got rejected for grad schools for at least five years. Maybe more. Now I'm a fellowship recipient, one of the best students in my cohort (so I'm told), going to dinner with the Chancellor, etc. It can be done.

1. Get a job, go somewhere, do a thing. It doesn't matter. You want to make money, get a job that lets you do that. You want to travel? Now is the time. You want to work minimum wage and live with your dad and write a novel? Do that now. Seriously. I did all sorts of things in between not getting into grad school and getting in (each of the three [yes, three] times I went to grad school). Some I would do again, some I hated, some are great stories. Just do a thing.

2. Get a mentor. A previous professor, a friend already in grad school in history, some one with insider knowledge. Use them. Write a statement of purpose. Then write more. Revise. Take it to them. Revise some more. Try to go to a conference -- present your work as an independent scholar. Try to publish a journal article. Try to do interesting and new research. Try to spend time with scholars, virtually or in-person.

3. Do your research. You might be a good candidate on paper, but if you aren't a good fit for the schools you apply to, then they will likely turn you down. It is a buyer's market for the grad programs right now. Find out who works at that school. Try to establish contact/a relationship/something. Go visit. Talk to them via email (not too much, but enough). Find out if what you think you want to do is something that school can help you do. Figure out where you FIT, not where the "best" schools are or where you want to live. It's not about that, I'm afraid.

4. Keep trying. I applied to MFA programs twice, MA programs three times and PhD programs four times (some of those were concurrent). I got in. And I got in by doing the above and not applying to Harvard, et. al. Don't worry about being too old or that there are gaps in between your schooling or that it was your only plan. That's life. And at 33, I've had far more experiences than many of my cohort, most of which would not have happened had I gone straight through. It will happen.
posted by mrfuga0 at 6:51 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

And PS, in reference to K8t's comment:

Don't pay for grad school in the humanities. You don't have to and you shouldn't. If a program doesn't give you funding, then you need to pass on it. Look for places that have strong funding.

Also: yes, there are pitfalls in getting advanced degrees in the humanities, but if that's what you want, you should go for it. There are pitfalls in everything these days.
posted by mrfuga0 at 6:54 PM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

And you know, you may end up incredibly grateful that you didn't go to grad school at this point in your life. Say you are only able to make 25k this year, but you slowly advance and at the end of 5 years, you are making 50k. You will now be 5 years into a professional career making $50k a year, and you are already employed in a decent job. If you compare that to the job prospects of a whole lot of humanities PhDs, you might count your lucky stars.
posted by cairdeas at 7:01 PM on April 2, 2012

Oh, and if you're not going to return to law school after this semester you should do whatever you can to get your tuition refunded for THIS semester and just leave now.
posted by cairdeas at 7:12 PM on April 2, 2012

*if you can get them to refund the tuition I mean.
posted by cairdeas at 7:13 PM on April 2, 2012

I'd just like to second the recommendation of Madison, WI (where I grew up and went to college), for all the reasons escabeche gave. It has long had very low unemployment, even during the economic crisis. Although it's not a big city (population around 200,000 I think), I would assume there's a high demand for bartenders — the University of Wisconsin has 40,000+ students and is officially one of the top "party" colleges in the country. If you get a chance to go there, walk down State Street and around the Capitol square to quickly get a feel for it.
posted by John Cohen at 7:13 PM on April 2, 2012

Don't go to grad school just because you can't imagine what else to do. It's like the worst possible thing for the worst possible reason.

I KNOW it sounds safe and obvious and enlightening and secure. But it's a false sense of security because it bestows an immediate identity as a graduate student and purported future path: "writing and being a professor!"

Do the work now of figuring out your new identity and desires and skills and networks. Don't wait until you're 33 and trying to find a job for the first time, realizing academia completely and utterly sucks, and you don't really want to move to some crappy town for some crappy job making $35,000 a year and only guaranteed a one year gig.

You dodged a bullet!!! Congrats!! You will be absolutely fine. It will suck for awhile. But then it'll get better. Hang in there. Go get a few awesome jobs. Meet some people. Take some courses if needed for a particular path forward. Don't go get a Ph.D. in History.

Where are your friends living? Austin's a great place to move to. Lots of folks from all over the place. Good weather. Good food, decent pace of life, not outrageously expensive, lots of types of jobs. Portland, Oregon isn't good - the economy totally bites. Chicago can be fun, but it probably helps to know some people already.

It might not make sense now, but CONGRATULATIONS! You dodged a bullet and you've got the world before you! Do it. Whatever it is.
posted by barnone at 8:59 PM on April 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Seconding teaching English abroad. You're young. You've been living in a rural area. This will give you international experience. It will help you learn how to be proactive and navigate new situations. It will also help you pay off a big chunk of that pesky debt.

Here's a recent Mefi question with some starter advice.

In the meantime, search around Mefi for advice on how to start kicking ass. You're young and have a brilliant decade ahead of you to see and do and experience the world. Get started!
posted by vecchio at 9:34 PM on April 2, 2012

Really think hard about why you want to go to grad school in the humanities.

Read Just Don't go and the accompanying articles.

REALLY read them.
posted by lalochezia at 6:55 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Graduate school may be about the "disinterested pursuit of learning" for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.
posted by lalochezia at 6:58 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was you! I graduated with my B.A. in history and the future looked bright. I applied to grad school and was wait-listed for every single program (and a prestigious fellowship) and was not let in.

Here's where life took me:

I worked in the professional world for a while (legal) before deciding it was soul-draining and worthless.

I moodled around with the idea of an M.A. in library science or a J.D., convinced that I needed an advanced degree to succeed.

While moodling, I started a career as a freelance writer out of boredom and panic. I was able to translate this into a full-time income and an informal education in marketing. So I bit the bullet and started my own marketing firm with a sympathetic friend (who also wondered whether she needed an advanced degree).

Five years later, I am successful and intellectually stimulated in my day job. I also got my first book deal and wrote an award-winning, relatively successful book that (gasp!) drew on my background as a historian.

NOBODY HAS EVER ASKED ME ABOUT MY DEGREE. It simply hasn't mattered a bit. After watching friends go through the long process of academia, only to see themselves crushed by funding issues, politics, and the sheer desperation of the thing, I realize I dodged a very expensive bullet. Do I miss my days in academia? Sometimes, but I think more than that I miss the fact that life now does not feel as linear as it did when I knew that the "natural progression" of my life was in a B.A., then a Master's, then a Ph.D., then post-doctoral work, etc. Coming to terms with that (and my perceived "failure") has been a years-long process that is all about identity and self-perception.

My suggestions: Let yourself mourn your ambitions for a while, but also give yourself some space to think through what life might look like without them (or with new ambitions). You might surprise yourself. Best of luck to you!
posted by mynameisluka at 7:28 AM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Graduate school may be about the "disinterested pursuit of learning" for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.

I continue to not understand this. If you really, really want to go to grad school, I agree, apply to programs with a LOT of funding. This is how my friends have managed-- by finding good programs that really wanted them. If you're doing it to be a middle-class professional, yeah, maybe don't. But the "disinterested pursuit of learning" isn't just for privileged people, because if I got into a great grad program with funding, it would sure as hell be a step up from the shit jobs I've been doing most of my life (and it would be class advancement to boot).

So, do what you want. I've been burned by prestigious schools and higher education as a working class student many times, but I actually find the attitude of whining about grad school more privileged, because I was never told as a child that I could get into school for a hobby that I loved, do it for six years, and then get a comfortable professional job for the rest of my life. Instead I've been told that grad school isn't "for" me by every stratum of society, which I hate, because I'm not a starry-eyed idiot.

But it's true that it's grueling, expensive, and won't easily or definitely get you a job, so those are good considerations. But it will also expose you to cutting-edge thought on a daily basis and nurture you in other ways a boring administrative job will not. (Seriously, how do college administrators get to be such unpleasant tight-asses, and then academics are accused of lacking humanity, when they were always my number one support network at uni.)
posted by stoneandstar at 1:53 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have said, it can happen, and if your heart is in it and you dedicate yourself to it enough, it will happen. Personally, it took me a terminal MA and three rounds of PhD applications before I finally got in, but when it looked the most bleak I managed to get offers (!) to a few schools, one with a great funding package and a program that is a truly good fit for me. On the whole, I'm happy doing what I love - and I've moved past that awful time when things seemed so bleak. But oh, do I get what you're feeling right now. Feel more than free to memail me if you like.

As others have also said, this may be a blessing. It is an opportunity to do new things - teaching English abroad, for example - expand your horizons and become a more grounded, happier person. And having done so, you may even decide grad school isn't for you - it's hard to look beyond higher education when you're still so close to it, and desperately easy to think there is no life "out there" for you. Once you realize otherwise, you're in a much more realistic place to decide what you truly want and what is truly best for you - be that academia or not.

It feels desperate and horrific and like a dead end, but I promise you, it is not.
posted by AthenaPolias at 6:30 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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