Reflections on Ph.D. applications (and life!) part II

4 minute read

On May 6th, I made the official announcement that I accepted Stanford’s PhD offer and won the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship. This was a surreal experience considering the surge in graduate applications this year.

Initially, for this post, I wanted to share specifics regarding my interviews — such as which programs interviewed me and what it was like — but I thought instead to save that for during the next admissions season. Instead, there are some personal reflections I hoped to share.

First, this was an extremely emotional process for me. I’ll confess that I was anxious that I would be rejected from all of my programs; many scientists — including aspiring trainees — have publicly shared their process applying in multiple cycles. The anxiety of this possibility was exacerbated when I did not receive interview invites from my top two programs (albeit definitely reach schools).

But then I got an email from my first program inviting me to interview. Then a second notification. And then, in early February, Knight-Hennessy (KH) sent emails to all applicants to check our portals at 1 pm PST for an update the following day. This was a day I remember vividly.

I went for a jog two hours prior to help calm my nerves. When I returned, I danced to my favorite Spotify playlist while showering. Once I got dressed, I opened my computer, entered my credentials on the KH website, immediately noticed the new “Application Status” option on the front page, and took the deepest breath while I softly muttered the words “Please” as tears welled up in my eyes right before clicking “View update.”

Immediately, I saw the words “Congratulations!” on the page leading to a mix of feelings — gratitude, disbelief, excitement, fear, love, anxiety — all of which I was experiencing simultaneously. Some time helped develop a clearer sense of why I felt such a cascade of emotions.

My process applying to Stanford/KHS was very different for three reasons. The first was that this was the only program where I felt I was able to be “radically” honest: here, I was more explicit about some of the non-scientific elements that inspire me to pursue a Ph.D. (e.g., my relentless desire to help low-income communities). Secondly, none of the essays I submitted were recycled for other programs. Which means that KHS had a more nuanced illustration of who I am and aspire to become. Finally, inspired by my process applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, I did not solicit any feedback on my application. It was deeply important to me that I was as authentic as possible, and I feared this would be in jeopardy if I had too many people provide “feedback” (i.e., advice on how they would write the essay). Essentially, the materials I sent to Stanford encompassed raw dimensions of my character that I was too afraid to be transparent with to all my other programs. Rather than trying to finesse them, I focused my efforts into emphasizing my research background (and made excuses that I’ll either bring it up during an interview or on-campus if I attended the school).

I recognized that, like some academics, I hid some of my values in order to maximize my outcomes; I did not want committees to weaponize my activism against my potential as a researcher. So when I was preparing for my PhD interviews, I spent more time reading scientific articles, reviewing statistical models, and perusing NSF grant details to demonstrate my academic qualifications. For KHS, on the other hand, the goal was to channel my passion for science — both the academic and non-academic elements — by reading work that inspired me: I read one of my favorite papers by Steve Ramirez (the first empirical article I read by a Hispanic scientist); reviewed some old blog posts I wrote during moments science activated me; and even gave a workshop for some high school students for a program that I want to collaborate with during my PhD program.

These insights were ultimately leading factors I needed to determine which program I was going to accept: did I want to pursue a career where I would constantly be put in positions to choose between my science and activism, or did I want to go to a school that knows me entire identity and celebrates me for both my research and diversity goals? Who do I want to be and what do I hope to achieve in 5 years — and which school is going to help develop me into that person?

With the options I had, it seemed most salient that Stanford was the right choice for me. Of course, much can happen these next 5 years, and by the time I am applying for academic positions I may run into a similar dilemma. Regardless, I hope that by being aware of this now, I can start thinking about how to strategically organize my time in grad school to ensure that I am maximizing both the quality of my research and education efforts while minimizing the barriers to entrance into science for low-income students — qualities I hope every scientist will come to know of me in time.


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