The experience of applying to graduate school has been a real eye-openner. I had what I thought was a reasonable expectation, that as a graduate of the U of C with honors in my department and in the college, that I would stand a good chance of being admitted to an upper-level PhD program. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to have been the case. The more research I do (such as visiting sites like the Grad Cafe) the more I find that there is a large amount of gamesmenship involved in the application process of which I was simply unaware. Other candidates contacted programs months in advance, asking potential advisors about their ability to take on new advisees as well as their feelings toward the applicant's particular area of interest. Maybe I'm naieve, but I thought that a certain amount of the early work one does in graduate school was designed to help a student with these matters after being admitted rather than before.
On further reflection, however, PhD programs suffer from an important information problem that over-achieving applicants help to rectify. Upon being presented with hundreds of applications for a handful of slots, there are several factors weighing on the committee - the strength of a student's academic record, letters of recommendation, writing sample, etc. However, given the sheer number of applicants and the level of competition, narrowing this pool down remains a difficult task. Students willing to contact the department and make available extra information help to set themselves apart from this enormous pack of qualified people. While such actions also make oneself vulnerable, they offer the potential to set one's self apart in from the committee. As admission to a PhD program is a tremendous investment on the part of the instituion, this information only helps to fortify the decision-making process.
Needless to say, I'm disappointed. I'm forced to reevaluate myself as a candidate for graduate studies. I'm also forced to look for alternate avenues to enhance my profile as an applicant. If any readers of this blog (are there any readers of this blog) have suggestions, please let me know. If you have any friends who are in graduate school or are applying, please forward this along.