Around this time a year ago, I was preparing to interview for a doctoral program in psychology. I had only applied to one program, a mix of hubris and convenience, though at the time I was likely to say that it was the natural progression of things. I was at the institution where I received my undergraduate degree, and having almost completed my master’s degree at the same campus (though different discipline), I figured I’d go for the trifecta and pump out the final diploma.
At the time, I was confident. I had done well in my studies and was involved as essentially an administrator of our outpatient training clinic, so in my mind, I was more than prepared to apply to continue in my institution’s doctoral program. I had ignored the nagging in my back of my mind that pointed out all the signs of my not being satisfied with my experiences during my master’s program there, but I wasn’t willing (or able) to look at other schools, since other schools meant uprooting the finally-stable existence I was able to carve out for myself in a city with which I had a love/hate relationship.
My interview day came and went. I was with faculty I’ve known for two years and things went… adequately. I thought I had done well, but there were moments that stood out as being red flags. The details are unimportant, but in weeks to come I would realize, in the interview experience alone, how misaligned my goals were with the program I was pursuing. At any rate, I interviewed, I waited, and, in the meantime, I hopped a plane to Arizona to spend spring break with my best friend.
This, as it turns out, was fortuitous for reasons I never could have fathomed at the time. I knew before booking the trip that I would find out my admission decision to the program while in Arizona. Either way that decision fell, I knew I was in good company for a celebration or a consolation. If I’m being disgustingly honest, I hadn’t anticipated it being the latter, but the latter it was.
I remember the air being sucked out of the room when I read the rejection email the first time. The second time, reality bended down a long, dark tunnel. The third, my vision blurred with tears. I was too numb to move for a bit, but when I regained my faculties enough, I shut myself in the bathroom and sobbed. The plans I had made for myself for the next two years (at the least) exploded in the span of an email two paragraphs long. I didn’t know how to piece the shrapnel into a new vision, so I lay on the floor and cried, trying to explain to my friends at school how this could have happened.
The first day was a blur. I vacillated between anger, fear, and sadness, steeped in equal parts defiance and failure, wanting desperately to defend myself but also wondering if maybe this was a sign that a doctorate wasn’t in the cards. Maybe I wasn’t half the student or clinician I thought I was.
Maybe I was just not good enough.
By the next morning, I realized there were two options: try to find a school that was still accepting applications, or try to find a therapy job with a terminal master’s and no license and bide my time until applications next year. For the latter, I did a quick Indeed search, and, as I had anticipated, there were no jobs in my area for people with my degree. For the former, I searched the country for Psy.D. programs with late or rolling admissions and found three that were viable: one in Philadelphia with a similar training style as my alma mater, and two in Arizona… within 30 minutes of where I was staying.
One of the schools, I decided after more research, was crossed off my list because it gave me an uneasy vibe (now, a year later, it’s on the brink of closing). The other had a curriculum I was immediately drawn to, amazed that there were so many areas I could study and opportunities I could have. I set up a meeting and ended up visiting the campus twice during my trip. The more I fell in love with the program and the school, the more I began to panic. The realization that I might be traveling down the road of drastically changing my life was setting fire to my already damaged nerves.
Over the next month, I created a whole new application. I got new letters of recommendation, concerned less with the perceived reputation of the reviewer and more with how well they knew me and my capabilities. I rewrote my personal statement, then wrote it again. When I got invited to campus for an interview, I pored over faculty CVs. I spent an entire day going from store to store trying to find the right outfit only to buy something completely different the night before. I spent the plane ride studying interview questions and thinking through my answers.
The interview day was an 8-hour marathon. We had an on-site writing sample, a one-on-one faculty interview, a student-led group interview, a faculty group interview, a tour (wearing a heavy blazer in 90 degrees), a talk from financial aid, introductions to all full-time faculty, an overview of the program and its components with the clinical education coordinator… but through all of it, I felt myself becoming more invested. More determined. It was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.
Less than two weeks later, I went on a graduate student tour of some wineries in the Finger Lakes. I was with several people I had gotten to know throughout my master’s work, and I had a blast just letting go and spending time with people I regret not bonding with sooner. On the bus ride home, tipsier than I maybe should have been, I checked my phone to see I had a voicemail from an unfamiliar number. It took a moment for my wine-logged brain to register that the area code seemed familiar… like some numbers I saw when I was in Arizona. I held the phone up to my ear, practically holding my breath while trying to hear the words over the chatter of the bus. I picked out the name and thought I heard something about “good news,” at which point I shot up out of my seat and yelled, “Guys! It’s Midwestern. I can’t tell, but I think it’s good?”
There was a charged silence. My coworker from the clinic suggested we connect my phone with her Bluetooth speaker so we could hear the message. My heart hammered in my throat, everyone leaning into the anticipation, the air electric. The voice on the message barely got out the word “congratulations” before our section of the bus erupted into cheering and engulfed me in a combination hug and tackle.
It was one of the best moments I’ve ever had.
In the coming days, the joy turned to anxiety. I had two weeks to make a decision, which also included a $1,000 deposit. It was May, and the academic year was set to begin in August. That gave roughly three months to figure out a cross-country move, if we decided to go that route. I talked to anyone who would listen to try to wrap my head around the life-changing choices in front of me. There were pro/con lists. There were nights when I cried in frustration because I couldn’t imagine having the strength to uproot myself and move so far, even if it was an amazing opportunity. I questioned myself. I questioned the world. I questioned logistics, weather, housing, happiness, money, life itself… there seemed no end to the questions and no answers to stem the flow.
Even when I submitted my deposit, we hadn’t officially decided to move. I remember staring at the confirmation screen with dread, feeling the weight of $1,000 on top of the already heavy options still left open.
When we decided to commit to the move, we opened the door to two solid months of anxiety fueled chaos. Our lives became increasingly surreal as our house began to empty. We spent the last night in our home of five years the same way we had spent the first: sleeping on a mattress on the floor of an empty bedroom. I read the card from a dear friend by the light of a strand of white Christmas lights bunched up on the floor, fighting tears and panic and the sinking feeling that it was all an astronomical mistake.
I sit here, a year later, filled with such gratitude for all of it. I have learned more about myself and who I want to be than I ever could have imagined. I have access to more amenities and opportunities than I ever thought possible. I walk past cacti and mountains and look up to see hot air balloons. I’m thriving in a program aligned with my professional goals in a department that cares deeply about its students. It’s a crazy, unexpected journey, but every day I wake up excited to experience it.
So when life hands you rejection, disappointment, and hurdles that feel like solid walls, keep going. Change is scary, but it may just lead you to exactly where you need to be. Be willing to learn the hard lessons because they teach much more than a textbook ever will. Be humble. Be open. Be confident that you can weather any storm. And most importantly, look for the beginning hiding in every end… it may very well be the start of something incredible.