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What I did differently last year?

I am finally admitted to the Education Policy Studies PhD program at UW-Madison. Out of 04 applications, I have 4/4 acceptances (LSE, Sussex, Bristol, and UW-Madison). Comparison to last years 0% acceptance rate, what did I do differently?

I can summarize my application stories into the following questions:

Who I am as a researcher?

I have always wanted to study education policy. My goal unchanged since past years. In the last application cycle, the topic I wanted to study was based on my past professional and academic experience. It is, however, not my true passion. As I cold emailed potential professors for the potentials of mentorship. I receive zero reply. Last year, I was indeed rejected in all programs I applied to.

Such failure is very hard to swallow. I decided to change my approach. First, I decided to focus applying to UK universities. The application requirements in the UK required a research proposal. As I started writing, I found the previous topic was not feasible. Data about Vietnam's public finance is pretty outdated. I will have to develop personal connections with people within the system to make it possible. As a self-acclaimed introvert, acquiring a dataset on public finance is out of my capacity. Thanks god I was not admitted last year. I would be stuck with any topic of public finance in Vietnam.

So, what's THE TOPIC? During the pandemic, most conferences were online. I was able to attend the Young Economist Symposium in the USA. I was particularly interested in the persistence studies. Reachers writings about how past and present policy interventions can affect cultural norms and social conditions attract me greatly. Finally, I found something that could spark my interests. At the same time, I have a great group of friends where we exchange ideas regularly. My friends shared Mellisa Dell, Nathan Nunn, Ho Hoang Anh etc. are doing something similar. Reading their works, I have generated my own research questions. Something interesting enough to me and probably to others. After finished the first draft, I attached it and email to potential professors. This time, I recieved many responses from distingushed professors.

Overall, I believe that the experience of creating my own research proposal contributed significantly to my achievement. It aids in confirming my interest, testing its viability, and gauging the potential interest of others. Most significantly, I have a deeper understanding of myself as a researcher in the next years.

Who will need me?

Last year, I emailed professors who I admire within the public finance domain. Someone who can help me with developing research projects. It is a wrong approach. Unless I am exceptional talented (which I am not), such professors have little interest to take me under their mentees. I look back to who got accepted to top 5 PhD programs in the USA. Apart from their academic excellency, those students chose professors who are interested in Vietnam.

Therefore, instead of asking, "Who do I need?" I pose a different question: "Who will need me?" It first start with the choice of research topic. After attending different conference and handbook, I have a rough sense of what topic is the "trending" in economics of education research. In terms of regional interest, given my lack of familiarity with the system, I am unable to respond to US concerns better than an American. I am in a position to address development issues about my own nation with relative ease. Who is interested in research in Vietnam? My country is no longer a low-income nation. As a result, development issues in Vietnam will not attract scholars in the same way that it does in other African nations. Nonetheless, I have noticed that Vietnam and other East Asian nations share a number of cultural traits. These nations are of more interest to researchers. My research proposal is set up to appeal to anyone with an interest in East Asia. The quest of finding a good research proposal, as I look back, is similar to finding my Ikigai.

Image source: Studybreaks

Following the completion of my research proposal, I seek for a list of professors from the Top 10 PhD programs that have a similar research and geographical interest. I began sending cold emails after compiling a list of possible mentors. This time, I had a considerably higher response rate. Throughout the interview process, I have a feeling that I will be admitted since my research proposal is a good fit for my possible supervisors.

Does luck matters?

Yes, and No? I always consider myself exceedingly privileged. I am tremendously thankful for previous failure. I have the best support system possible, with smart people studying in top PhD schools. They are more than eager to proofread for me. However, I still failed in the previous application cycle. This year, I resolved to be my own proofreader. I only sent my boyfriend the final version to double-check writing consistency. While others can assist me with obvious mistakes, only I can explain why I am a good match for the program and how I can be a valuable asset to the school. When it comes to application success, I am the most concerned; no one else is. As a result, I should bear full responsibility for my application.

Luck, on the other hand, takes many shapes. I am grateful to YES for sparking my research interests. I am also grateful to my friends that are eager to discuss various research ideas with me. Without my friends, it will take me longer to identify an appropriate research topic. Finally, you may wonder why I applied to UK universities but ended up at a US one. That is due to good fortune. I saw a post in Facebook that a professor at UW-Madison was seeking new Ph.D. students. I cold-emailed him, and he later advised me to apply to a more appropriate program and supervisor. After all, UW-Madison financial package and program are the most suited. Luck, therefore, comes after continuous trials with different forms and unexpected timeline.

P.S: I went to Temple Of Literature praying for luck in this application period (which I didn't do in the last year). My luck comes from my friends, the internet, and the Above.

“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” - Dalai Lama XIV

Side notes

1. When it comes to hidden curriculum in academia, this person is quite useful. I recommend you to listen before committing to the following 5 to 7 years of Doctorate study.

Or this:

2. Learn to write your Statement of Purposes, CV, etc. in Latex

3. Form a reading group of some source. They will be your motivators and emotional supports.

4. Join Twitter to be updated with research trends, research opportunities or stalk your potential professor(s).

5. Try to lead at least one research project to show your works and prove that you can work independently.

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Ngoc Linh Nguyen
Ngoc Linh Nguyen
Apr 06, 2023

i got moved by this beautiful reflection (over and over again) 🥺🥺🥺 congrats cô ơi


thank you I am here

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