Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The gentle art of letter writing

On the grad school application front, I have now heard back from two universities besides Visitation U. "Great White North U." has made me a very nice offer, which would most likely involve Beorn and I applying for permanent resident status. Their program is excellent, but I'm not sure it's realistic for us to move to such an expensive city and try to emmigrate and all.

On the other hand, one of the top rated programs in the U.S. sent me a rather strange acceptance letter. It went something like this...

Dear Breena,

Thank you for your application to the graduate program of the "Head Studies" Department at "Top State". You are in the top third of the application pool. As a result, we are recommending to the Graduate School that you be admitted to the program. Congratulations! The fact that we let you in means you must have had a good application.

Although admission is good news, we haven't worked out a financial aid package for you. Although we have already made some TA and RA offers, it is unclear how many more admission-with-aid packages will be available. You are among a group of 20 students who didn't quite make the cut. In the next two or three weeks, I hope to contact you to make you the offer that you are undoubtedly waiting for!

We know you may have had good offers from "lesser" programs, but if you have independent funds to support tuition and living expenses, you are welcome to consider coming anyway. There is some chance that over the summer – or in subsequent semesters – we will be able to find an assistantship for you. But as of now, it is a case of wait-and-see. Thank you for your interest in
"Top State".

Dr. So-and-so
Chair, Graduate Admissions Committee

Jane Doe
Graduate Assistant

I modified the wording of the letter somewhat to protect the not-so-innocent, but not much. The tone is fairly true to the original. Notice that while the letter is officially signed my Dr. So-and-so, it was sent from the account of his graduate assistant. This letter has to be the worst acceptance letter of all time. It does not make me want to join their program, no matter how highly rated. In fact, I would like to email the chair and gently mention that I found the letter off-putting. Seriously, someone should learn how to write an acceptance letter. I know it isn't a good idea to go telling tenured professors in my discipline how to do their jobs, but really, I could write a much better letter than that.

More realistically, I would like to write them and let them know that I have firm offers from other places and if they would like me to consider their program, they should up their game, but I'm almost certain that email would come out sarcastic. In any case, I think I should contact Dr. So-and-so directly rather than his staff person. To me it seems very rude for him to not take the time to write himself, at least for the first contact. It would only take a few minutes to cut and paste the letters. And twenty students on the waiting list? Frak, how many students did the let in?

Any suggestions?


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Coming from a grad student account is wrong -- but otherwise, I don't find the letter all that bad. The thing is, it is honest -- they didn't rank you highly enough to be able to offer you financial assistance, but (reading between the lines) you are essentially on a wait-list for such assistance. So they are beating the bushes to look for other money and if someone who was made an offer with assistance declines, you'll get their package... I like that they let you know excatly where you stand in the process, so you can make decisions about your options ---

Of course, I wouldn't go there without a financial deal, but that is only because the line about possibly getting you a deal is BS. Once you are there, they'll use any future funding to support students they want to get into the program, not someone who has paid her own way...

Maude said...

yup, inside the philosophy factory is right. i stupidly entered my ph.d. program with nothing because at the time it was the only program i got in to, and i desperately (really a life or death situation) needed to get out of the m.a. program i was at, the city it was in, and everything surrounding it. i did eventually get a TA, but it was on a constant contingency basis, i was considered substandard by many of my peers and the profs because i wasn't "good enough" to get a TAship upon entering the program. my department was certainly much more interested in using whatever money they had to bring in the people they really wanted, so to speak.

when funding got tight, i even got a letter saying, "i hope you can find other employment so that you can finish your degree."

i punched a hole in my wall. it's not worth getting screwed when you have solid firm offers from other places where you'll likely thrive.

good luck.

Maude said...

p.s. i've seen this happen to other people in the program, too. it's not just my own bitter experience.

Anonymous said...

wow, that is such an odd letter. a friend at another inst. told me that if they don't have enough Ta-ships, they still offer enrollment to some students in the hopes that they are independently wealthy. now i'm wondering which place sent this to you! but yah, you shouldn't go without promised money, like maude says.

ArticulateDad said...

Advice? Write a nice or nasty or sarcastic letter, then never send it... and don't bother even thinking about going there.

On the other hand, if you really think going there would be an amazing opportunity that you just wouldn't feel right passing up: make a phone call directly to Dr. So-and-So... and plan to be completely honest about your situation, about your reaction to their acceptance letter, and about what possible offer would sway your choice to go there. Ask frank questions, require straight-forward answers, and be tough.

Truth is, there probably are way too many students accepted into PhD programs (perhaps because they're a cheap labor pool to replace the lack of funding for tenure-track lines). If they're not willing to pull out all the stops for you upon entering, how willing do you think they will be to support you upon graduating?

Leslie M-B said...

Amen, as always, to ArticulateDad's comment.