I've got the Ph.D. application panic blues

If I don't get into the program of my choice, what will become of life on earth?

By Cary Tennis
January 17, 2004 1:20AM (UTC)
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Dear Readers,

I seem to be coming down with a cold. I can't think straight. I fear I ramble a bit. Please take these ramblings in that spirit.

Yours truly,

Dear Cary,

I have been an avid reader of your column for about a year and have often taken to heart what you have said about love, life and self-doubt. I didn't think I would ever write you, since I like to think most of my problems will either go away or can be solved with a fair amount of effort on my part. But I'm just so stuck right now, and I don't know what to do.


My family and friends, while supportive and loving, have absolutely no fucking clue how to help me. It's Dec. 23 and I am applying to Ph.D. programs -- the applications are due on Dec. 31 and I honestly am so consumed with the belief that no school will take me (compounded by the fact that I have chosen highly selective programs) that I am effectively paralyzed. I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but although I think I'm an excellent candidate in reality, on paper I don't look that great. My tests scores are terrible. My grades are decent but not stellar, and my recommendations, while complimentary, are from professors no one knows in the field in which I'm applying.

The one saving grace is my personal statement, which I have labored over for months. But I am about to complete the final stages of my applications and I am wondering if it is even worthwhile. I don't know if I can handle being rejected by every single school I have chosen -- not that I would go off the deep end or anything, but I honestly think I would be absolutely crushed, humiliated, etc., but worse, have no sense of what I will do next.

Life has been a fairly flowing narrative for me, even when I haven't known what would come next -- I usually have had faith that the next plot development in my story will be interesting or, at the very least, not unbearably painful.


I'm not so sure this time. Part of me wonders if I chose such difficult schools because I knew I would be rejected -- once I read that when bored for extended lengths of time, the human brain will develop cancerous cells -- I'm not entirely sure the cancer thing is true, but right now I know I don't want to be rejected. I want to be accepted by the best program because I know that if I do attend, I have the potential to be a great scholar. All I need is for them to give me a chance -- but this ocean of fear is so deep at the moment that I am considering not applying at all.

This issue is complicated by the fact that my older sibling is wildly successful in a Ph.D. program at a highly selective school -- my parents do not understand what I am going through, and my friends tell me I have to work on my self-esteem, which I know is true, but how in the hell does one do that? I don't know of any pill one can take, or jar of salve one can purchase. I realize this problem or issue, or whatever I should call it, carries through to other parts of my life -- for example, I have been attracted to someone for months and wish he would ask me out, but I have been unable to express interest and now, horror of horrors, he thinks we're friends. I have effectively sabotaged that as well, so help me, please!

Panicked Prospective Ph.D. Candidate


Dear Panicked,

Sometimes I think self-esteem is a bunch of baloney. You're going nuts and somebody says, Friend, what you need is self-esteem! What the hell is that? How do you build it, indeed? Where do you get it and how do you use it and how is it going to help you get out of this jam you're in?


Truth be told, self-esteem is important, but often the way you get it is just by dealing with stuff. So I like to concentrate on dealing with stuff.

Instead of trying to build my self-esteem, when I am panicked, paralyzed or fearful, I pay attention to what I'm doing in the moment. Usually there is a set of voices, assertions or assumptions running in the back of my mind. Often, these assertions are nutty; they're demonstrably false; at the very least, they contain the kind of distortions and exaggerations that no scholarly argument would allow.

For instance, if I am feeling under pressure, panicked, going nutty, I might ask myself, what is the truth value of the voice in my head saying that if I don't get a column done today I'll be a stupid idiot? How can I determine if that is true or false?


Will I really be a stupid idiot? If so, will I be a stupid idiot permanently? And just how stupid an idiot will I permanently be? Will I be the drooling kind of stupid idiot who can't eat soup? Will I have to give eating soup? What about using power tools? Are there certain power tools I can use, or only under supervision by someone who is not a stupid idiot?

And if I don't finish a column today, and thus am declared a stupid idiot, will all those previously written columns then be stupid idiotic columns because they were written by a man who turned out to be a stupid idiot? Was I a stupid idiot when I wrote them, or did I suddenly become a stupid idiot?

Then I start thinking, Isn't "stupid idiot" kind of repetitive? Why not just "idiot"? Or "stupid"? Why stupid idiot? Isn't that something a kid would say?


As I think about what I have proposed to myself, I seem to slowly regain my ability to weigh the various real-world consequences of my actions. So, slowly, as I consider the truth value of the voice that is running in my head, I realize: The consequences if I don't get a column done today will be that I will feel sheepish. I will want to concoct an explanation, but the explanation will have to be truthful: I'm human, I do not always perform with 100 percent efficiency, maybe there are flaws in my DNA, maybe I'm a creative type; for whatever reason, I have found myself unable to produce a column yet today.


I'm a person of enormous faith in enormously mysterious powers, born of my unlikely salvation from a life of drunkenness and despair. I call on these powers all the time. I don't care if it doesn't make sense. It helps, so I do it. I wriggle out of jam after jam by having the temerity to imagine I'm going to be OK, by having the temerity to ask for help.

Try it. Just call on any powers you can think of that are enormous. Ask them to get you through it. Admit that you're stuck, you're momentarily stymied, you're flummoxed, you're in a fix. Ask for some help to get you through it.


Sure, there are always objective factors. Nobody can deny that if you don't get into any Ph.D. program you'll then have no Ph.D. program to attend. Nobody can deny that if you don't have a Ph.D. program to attend, then you'll either have to think of something else to do or you'll be rooted to the spot like a statue.

So there are objectively true factors. But there is much about this panic that is indeed under your control.

In the first place, if you feel a little out of control, concentrate for a minute on the bare, stark, simple fact that this is a process you have chosen for yourself. You knew when you began the process that you would not be able to control the outcome. Yet you chose to enter into this process that you know has an uncertain outcome. So, in a sense, the uncertainty is something you've also chosen. That brings it into your sphere of choice.

Since the uncertainty is within your sphere of choice, you are free to let go of it. Let go of your concern with the uncertainty.


If you want to be a scholar, see it like a scholar. Perhaps it's tempting to see only the parts you would like to control, but that's not good scholarship. You must see the entire project, including the parts of it that are unknowable. Including yourself. You are part of it. You, the person who is panicking, are a part of the picture. See yourself panicking. Know that your panic is a part of the whole, objective picture of a person applying to Ph.D. programs.

Consider that something you have learned: Applying to graduate programs involves panic. Consider why that is. Consider that perhaps it's because panic is how you react to an oncoming car. You can't do anything about the car that's coming because you're not driving that car. But the panic is a good thing: It's telling you, get out of the way. Run.

Perhaps you've never really confronted the uncertainty of your own path; you've never confronted such starkly uncontrollable elements in your life. Perhaps the panic is saying that uncertainty is real and profound. It's all been pretty steady so far. You've never been profoundly faced with the unknowable. You've never had so little control. So welcome to fear and trembling. Welcome to the world of us, the ones full of fear and trembling. Come on in and tremble with us.

And yet, look at yourself in the mirror as you tremble: Are you not still whole? You have not come apart like a shattered glass statue. You're still able to put your fingers in the corners of your mouth and make a face at yourself in the mirror. You're still able to stick your tongue out at yourself, or at your eminent professors, or your not-so-eminent professors.


Everything is just the way it was before you applied. Except you're trembling.

I hope you get in. And I hope you remember what the process was like. Maybe it's like getting born.

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Cary Tennis

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