Tips for Avoiding a Stressful Application Semester

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By Kyle Brett and Megan Bruening


Are you applying to Ph.D. programs? Feeling a bit overwhelmed by trying to balance work, apps, and your much needed social life? Sometimes the application semester can get the better of you and you can, sadly, end up like this:


Fret not. All of your professors, not to mention the department full of current Ph.D. candidates, and Ph.D. students, made it through this process intact. Which is to say that you can do it. Yes, it might be stressful and, at times, mind-numbingly infuriating as you get closer to your deadlines, but take solace in the fact that you are surrounded by friends and colleagues who, like you, felt similar amounts of stress during the application period.

In the spirit of alleviating some (sadly, not all) of the stress during this process, here are a few tips that helped two current Ph.D. students survive the application process. The tips follow brief intros by both Megan Bruening and Kyle Brett.

Kyle: If you are interested in, planning on, or currently in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs, then you might be (if you are anything like me) swimming in a violent whirlwind of deadlines, GRE testing dates, program specialties, impostor syndrome, and, not to forget, coursework during what is more than likely to be a really hectic fall semester. Here are my five tips that helped me during the process.

  1. If you haven’t already attended Jenna’s information session about applying to Ph.D. programs, do it. The packet of resources given out at this meeting is a valuable resource when you are struggling to find the right format for that ever-annoying personal statement. Jenna is also your best resource outside of this meeting, serving as your advocate for ensuring that you receive what you ultimately want to get out of your time at Lehigh and, if you are applying to Ph.D. programs, what you want from those programs near and far.
  1. Building off of this last point, I want to stress the amount of self-reflection that this process forces you to do. You will have to really wrestle with your thoughts about the future. We all know the state of the market for Ph.D. graduates (Though, there is always hope!); you will have to really dig deep to make sure that you are ready to face those realities after you graduate. I remember asking myself and those in my cohort who were also applying to programs, “If you got into your top choice, what do you plan to do then?” This process forces you to come to terms with your strengths and weakness as a scholar, your overall career goals, and your ability to work under continued and oftentimes increasing pressure. Make sure this is something that you really want to pursue before you commit to the financial burdens that applications require.

gh-phdcomics_altacPersonally, this took me asking each of my letter writers the rather blunt question, “Do you think I can do this?” You may battle impostor syndrome and waver on this question throughout the process, but your faculty mentors will not lie to you. They are, after all, looking out for your best interest.

  1. Backup your information, twice, or even three times. I kept all my program specific information, my application materials, my personal calendar, and email copies from programs backed-up on three separate digital devices: laptop, office computer, and home desktop. I also, for good measure, backup all of these files and synced them with two separate cloud service (both used, for your convenience, by Lehigh). Not only is saving your data to multiple locations a smart thing to do in this digital age, but it also allows you to work on your applications from many locations—often syncing your changes. Really, Microsoft Onedrive and Google Drive are your absolute best digital friends.
  1. Treat the application process like another class. I had to devote one day a week (in the beginning) to my application materials. This helps you stay on top of your workload during the semester, and helps you not become suddenly encumbered by the weight of seminar papers AND applications at the same time.
  1. Finally, do not isolate your friends or family. Yes, this time is ridiculously stressful—your family may not quite understand the weight of apps, and some friends and colleagues may be nonchalant about the entire process while you sit babbling in a rapidly-cooling puddle of coffee, but do your best to recognize and reinforce the fact that you are not alone here. I don’t know what I would have done during the application process, or, for that matter, graduate school, without my cohort and the friends I have at home and in the department. Many a night was spent proofing other personal statements and writing samples of other grads just like me, but also many nights were spent not doing application work with these same people.


Megan: Applying for a PhD program is one of the most exciting and stressful endeavors a scholar can take on, so if you’ve decided to strive for this type of academic study, congratulations! Seriously. Give yourself a pat on the back. This process is difficult and seeing it through to the end takes not only organization and time-management skills, but also courage and determination.

  1. First, and above all, remember that wherever you decide to apply or to attend, the decision must be yours. Own it. You will hear a lot of varying (and sometimes contradictory) advice about this process. But the final decision must be yours. Don’t waste your time or mental energy stressing about applying to or accepting an offer from an institution that you do not feel is a good fit for you. Your decision should be based on what you believe will make you happy and successful in your field, not on what others tell you will make you happy.
  1. With #1 in mind, do listen to the advice that others offer. As Kyle said, check out Jenna’s informational meetings and the resources she provides. The professors you ask for recommendations are also a great source of support. They (should) know you well, and can help you with a variety of topics, from writing personal letters to getting you in touch with faculty they know at other schools.

3. Start early. Building off of Kyle’s thirdtyping point, applying for a PhD program is truly like having an additional class. Start doing your research early, and think about what matters to you when looking for programs. I made an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of what each school offered in terms of funding, teaching opportunities, program length, etc.

  1. As I just said you’ll need to decided what the criteria are for your individual search, but one particular aspect I strongly encourage you to check out thoroughly is finances. Most programs are very open about the funding they offer; some reveal the full details only if a student is accepted. Regardless, find out EVERYTHING you can in regards to a program’s funding. I’ve seen students set their hearts on a program only to discover later they cannot attend due to financial issues.


  1. During the application process, read something from your field that you love. This point is very specific, so let me explain why I recommend it: you will get tired of writing about how much you love your field, and about how very excited the opportunity to study at X university makes you feel. Take the time to remind yourself that you DO in fact love what you do. I read Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders while I was applying to programs, and the possibility that I could spend years studying texts like it is what kept me motivated.

Editor’s Note: Also consider the workshop  “Doctoral Fellowships: Reasons, Resources and Strategies” which will be held on September 30th from 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm.

The Author

Kyle Brett is a current PhD student at Lehigh University and is a lover of history, coffee, and urban spelunking. Kyle's current research interests include, celebrity in 19th Century American literature, Lovecraftian mythos and popular cultural representations of Cthulhu, and digital humanities.

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