Data analysis, Misc, Opinion

Application Statistics: PhD Student to Postdoc

In 2017 I was halfway through my PhD and frustrated with the opportunities available to me at my home institution. Conferences were rarely held even far away, and no travel funding. I thought even if I did apply, I would probably get rejected anyway. Apparently that mentality is common in women.

So I started applying to everything I was possibly eligible for – workshops, travel awards, conference presentations, fellowships, scholarships, merit awards, working groups, grants, to be a reviewer for a journal or scholarship. I applied in multiple fields and to all types of opportunities.

Overall Results

Summary of my application results. Postdoctoral positions and fellowships not included here.

From January 2017 to January 2020, I applied to 165 opportunities. Of these, 17 were postdoctoral fellowships or positions; 5 of which I have yet to hear back from. In fact, over this time frame I never heard back from 13 at all (when they had clearly chosen someone else); a few others I was able to deduce my rejection.

I’ve been tracking all the things I’ve applied to in an Excel sheet. Above is a table that breaks down all the opportunities I applied to into various categories. Some opportunities fit into multiple categories, and some didn’t really fit into any. (Some I forgot what they were for). Further down this post is a pie chart summarizing that table, and then pie charts for each application year with success rates for each category.

2017 was my first year actually applying for stuff. Before that, I was too afraid of rejection, wasting my time, not meeting minimum requirements. But in 2017 I wanted to prove a point: that I would just get rejected. I made it my New Year’s resolution. That turned out to not be the case, as you can see.

Unexpected Benefits

In 2017 I applied to 46 opportunities with a 45% success rate. That number increased to 64 and 45% in 2018. I was better at finding things to apply to, but unfortunately they started to overlap and I had to reject a few opportunities I was selected for. That’s when I was forced to admit that I couldn’t count on being rejected anymore. I was traveling at least once a month – so much time and money. And it was so hard to manage a budget with that much traveling, so many unexpected expenses from forgetting to pack things.

Overall success rate by field
Overall success rate by opportunity type

Since I was planning to graduate in 2019 and had a dissertation to prepare I became a little more selective. I applied to 18 opportunities and my success rate increased to 56%.

Unexpected Benefit #1: Turns Out I’m Not a Total Failure After All

It was really helpful having to write positive things about myself. I was always so focused on what I had to do and what I didn’t do. It helped me remember why I was here, why I was doing this, and what I wanted to do.

Unexpected Benefit #2: Identifying Areas of Weakness

Naturally I was drawn to applications that were related to my interests: women in math, learning new math, increasing representation, education. While I applied for these things, I realized that I hadn’t done much for these groups, that I didn’t have all that much experience. This motivated me to do more, to apply what I’d learned in grad school to education and outreach activities. Now, I could not only write about my experiences and beliefs, but quite a few things I’ve done.

Unexpected Benefit #3: Autonomy and Independence

Applying to all those opportunities takes a lot of time. I scrolled through twitter, joined a variety of academic societies, sometimes just Googling keywords. Then after finding them, I had to actually prep all the application materials. Then I had to actually travel a lot. In 2017 and 2018, I went to *at least* one conference per month! Only 2 of those were local to Louisiana.

Because of this, I got better at managing my time. I had more confidence in what I could do. I felt empowered to take on side projects and external collaborations independent of my adviser.

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