Grad school endgame
October 27, 2012 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Switching fields... not sure I'll get in this year to grad school... don't want to bore recommenders... but want to go. What do I do?

I want to go to grad school in a field that is difficult to get into-very competitive, but with a higher yield of tenure track jobs than the original field I started out in. My background is such that I’m not applying for exactly the same field I did for undergrad + masters…It’s like someone who studied anthropology going into archeology (for example… these are not the fields)…. Meaning the fields have similar concerns and an overall thrust but the methods are very different. New field Y is much better fit for many reasons. I have some background in field Y… working with a professor and doing research assisting for a major study and high (99%) GRE scores.

I’m still not advanced enough that I have a niche in field Y. I have a lot of transferrable skills, and can carry out others’ research well, but if you plonked me down in a research setting and said “design your own study,” realistically, I would have no idea what to do—or maybe I would, but I’ve certainly never been in a setting where that was realistic so I haven’t tried yet. There are some programs where this would be ok and some not. My guess is that independence would be more highly valued in more competitive programs. This might negate some of the benefits of the better overall job outlook in field Y. Also, this is an issue I’m going to have to cover in my personal statement; not being a tested commodity.

There are other ways that I make up for it, but honestly, I’m (realistically) nervous about the competitive nature of grad school and think the best safeguards are a good fit and enough skills to carry a program of study.

So pretty much, I need to decide whether to ask for recommendation letters. I guess my question is this.

Given that I want to do a PhD and no way, no-how can afford a masters, should I apply all this year, or hold back and try a small number of schools, planning for next year?

There’s another factor. I’ve asked my recommenders for exactly 3 cycles of letters already… a scholarship program (rejected), another scholarship program (ok), last cycle in topic Y (rejected). If I get rejected again this year, it’s gonna start looking awkward. So this is an issue that is in the mix. I have 2 new recommenders but the 3 old ones will probably be confused about what is going on, since they are in the old discipline that is not so competitive to get into as this.

Actually, that should be at the top of this question. I’m pretty worried about that.

Thank you Metafilter.
posted by anonymous to Education (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A couple of data points:

I applied to and got into an excellent PhD program in a biological field from a background in chemistry. I didn't take a single class in biology in my undergrad, but had research experience in the field of my program. That's the key, and you say you have research experience in your field, which is exactly what you need.

Also, I'm not sure I would worry too much about asking professors for multiple reference letters. They do this kind of thing all. the. time. I applied for scholarships several years in a row and the same professors (in my PhD department) wrote the letters each time. It wasn't a problem. (Getting them to submit them on time, on the other hand...)

I think you are selling yourself short. A newly-minted undergrad/PhD student isn't supposed to be able to design a research program from scratch, or even do (many of) the experiments required. That's the point of grad school.

The point is, you should apply. What have you got to lose? A couple hundred bucks in application fees and a few minutes of professors' time? For the chance to start your program now instead of in a year? Go for it.
posted by quaking fajita at 6:57 AM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless they are being required to craft individualized letters for each program (which would be great for you but would be uncommon), applying to more schools and/or through more cycles shouldn't be a big issue for letter writers since they are going to be sending out one letter repeatedly.
posted by Forktine at 7:02 AM on October 27, 2012

The recommenders should not be a factor in your decision. It's their job to write recommendation letters, and they've already written the letter. There's no reason for them to be "confused"; they will want to help you.
posted by John Cohen at 7:38 AM on October 27, 2012

Your recommenders are going to write a single letter, which several of them have on file for you, and click a half-dozen buttons and whatnot at each school's application servicing center. The most onerous parts of this are writing the letter (once) and setting/remembering passwords at the application web site. In most cases, there's just not a lot to do anymore.

Your request to your recommenders should be short--shorter than your AskMe post--but mention your change of career plans to those who don't know.

And you're not necessarily going to have to address your shortcomings in your personal statement. I would avoid that maximally. If you foreground things like not being a tested commodity (which may be apparent and redundant to state anyway), no one's going to give you points for being a competent victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect--they're just going to be reminded you're a problematic candidate. Be clear up front about anything and everything that makes you a fit, and as you make what you've done sound as awesome as possible, consider including what you can about how each experience in field X actually led you out of field X and into field Y, so it's clear you're not clueless.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:49 AM on October 27, 2012

Oh, if you expect personalized recommendations, do provide your personal statement to your recommenders as an attachment.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:53 AM on October 27, 2012

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