From MSc to PhD: Reflections from a Doctoral Application Season

December 11, 2015
Application Central
My desk while preparing for a recent Skype interview at "PhD Application Central"

By Jessy Guler, second-year MSc-GH student

I feel like I’ve fallen off the map. Will I ever sleep again? I am investing a fortune in this process, but I know it will be worth it. How can I sell my strengths, goals and passions in a statement with 500 words or less? 

These are the thoughts and questions that have been cycling through my head since I returned from the field after an amazing summer conducting research in South Africa. I barely had time to get my feet back on the ground for my second and final year in the Master of Science in Global Health (MSc-GH) program at DGHI before I entered the endless vortex of the doctoral application season … full force, with no turning back. 

For me, this was always the plan. I have been working towards applying to gain entry into a PhD program in clinical psychology for the last five years of my academic career. This process is so competitive and involved that it not only takes exceptional organization, time and support, but it also inhabits more brain space than one would ever imagine. 

This “application brain” as I so kindly call it, allows one to accomplish amazing feats such as (but not limited to): 

  • Memorizing the street addresses of all the universities you have ever attended
  • Reciting lines of your CV to strangers
  • Successfully persuading your sister and lovely classmates to proofread your personal statements

As a PhD applicant, you must not only apply to a range of doctoral programs to make yourself competitive (battling that less than three percent average acceptance rate), but you also become a player in the ultimate game of academic courting. You spend months contacting potential mentors to ask if they’re taking a new student, explaining your interest in their research, and proving you are their perfect mentee match. 

It’s an exhausting yet exciting process as you take on your emerging role in academia and begin to watch the diverse prospects for your career unfold.

As one of the only members of my cohort with aspirations to go directly into a PhD program after graduation, I’ve had a unique semester that has been quite different from my peers. While many are traveling for medical school interviews or actively on the job hunt, I have been holed up in my apartment armed with ample caffeine, my loyal canine companion, and A LOT of enthusiasm for my goal. 

I’ve never written more about myself and my love for research in my life. I’ve never had more “soul searching” professional moments, deeply reflecting on my personal feelings regarding the development my career while simultaneously adapting to the curve balls of rejection. Resourcefulness and ingenuity is key in paving the road you must take to achieve your PhD dreams. 

But the question is … what have I learned from this process and where do I go from here?

Lesson 1: Everyone has their own path and that makes life way more interesting.

I started the PhD application season armed with an enormous amount of information regarding the admissions process, carefully considering the characteristics of the most successful applicants. However, after immersing myself in my applications and speaking to prospective mentors, I’ve realized that the strength of an applicant goes far beyond test scores or the perfect personal statement. 

Having the opportunity to thrive within the multidisciplinary MSc-GH program at DGHI has enabled me to the have the confidence to market myself as a unique and worthy doctoral applicant. Rather than being weighed down by admission statistics or subjective comparisons, I’ve instead developed pride in sharing my story and endorsing my thoughtful decision to pursue a MSc-GH prior to applying to doctoral programs across the country. 

My experiences at DGHI have been deeply transformative both personally and professionally. Over the last two years, I’ve pushed myself to take advantage of all the diverse research and educational opportunities available to me in our program, knowing how valuable this knowledge would be once I get deep in the trenches of my specific discipline. Countless prospective PhD mentors have commented on my “global edge” and diverse research skillset and my work at DGHI has been noted as having great value and rigor. 

Now, I proudly stand as a passionate and able young researcher with clear, definitive goals focused on improving the mental health of children and their families on a global scale. I know where I’ve come from and I know where I want to go. I’m ready to dive into the intensive doctoral training necessary for me to become a strong and impactful researcher and clinician in my field.

Lesson 2: Cultivating and involving a diverse support system during the application process is critically important.

Not only is it extremely humbling and helpful to gain feedback from a close group of individuals regarding one’s greatest assets and most admirable goals during the PhD application season, but it’s also incredibly beneficial to one’s mental health and well-being to have the support of close mentors, colleagues, and friends. 

I have immense gratitude for the support system I have developed at DGHI and how it has impacted my own PhD application experience. My amazingly inspiring and caring DGHI mentor, Dr. Lauren Franz, has been an integral aspect in my growth and development as an aspiring mental health researcher. She has constantly been there for me to field my many questions, ideas and hard choices during the application process. Her thoughtful approach and deep commitment to cultivating my future as a researcher and clinician has been the highlight of my experience at DGHI, and this sincere mentorship has set the standard for what I will continue to look for in mentors for years to come. 

I’ve also been fortunate to develop other working relationships with faculty at DGHI who have consistently provided me support and advice throughout this application process. Having this solid and diverse DGHI faculty support system has been imperative to my professional development, and I’m incredibly thankful for the time and effort that has been invested in my future by academics I truly admire and respect.

Beyond the fantastic and thoughtful faculty at DGHI, I am most thankful for my tremendous group of enthusiastic friends in my cohort who have rallied behind me from Day One. It is an honor to work alongside them and watch their careers develop in amazingly diverse ways, while also receiving their constant excitement and encouragement for my doctoral applications. 

Furthermore, a support system is truly not complete without members that reside outside your immediate academic circles. This is where family comes in strong and mighty … for me, it has been my sister and my parents. These lifelong intimate sources of support possess a unique investment in one’s future and professional goals, grounding you to your personal values and always reminding you to stay true to yourself while maneuvering the complicated paths to a career in academia. Many say it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe it takes a village to develop an academic. 

So … where do I go from here?

Well … ask me in a few months once I’ve gotten past the next stage of this process—the interviews. While I’m far from done with this PhD application season, I am taking it on in stride and trying to relish in the experience and enjoy “talking shop” with interesting researchers from around the country. 

I’m ecstatic that I’ve reached a point in my career where I feel proud of the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired and that I can eloquently talk about my interests, passions and immense curiosity to learn and develop professionally with leaders in my field. 

Now, I must eagerly wait to hear back from admissions committees, and though it’s impossible to say where I may be sitting this time next year, I’m incredibly excited to start this next chapter of my life. While I still have a lot to learn and experience to reach my many career goals, I know I will always hold my chapter at DGHI as a treasured and impactful time of my life that transformed me from a curious, driven undergraduate into a skilled, well-connected academic researcher and mental health professional.