While I have since lasered off the tattoo listing my acceptances and rejections, I’m able to partially reconstruct my results thanks to my admissions filofax (yes, I still have it. Hell, I still have all my high school essays. Can anyone say packrat?) The long and the short of it is that I got into Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern, Cornell, MIT, Duke, Carleton, Yale and York. I think everyone except Harvard, Duke and maybe Yale and MIT gave me pretty much their best fellowship offer. I did not get into Princeton, and I was waitlisted at Stanford. In retrospect this all seems pretty funny because believe me I sure didn’t feel like choice meat once I started my studies.
Here’s where things get interesting, because that initial list of yeahs, nos and dollars was by no means the final verdict. Because of its combination of academic offerings and urban location, Harvard was my first choice, but they initially offered me no financial assistance. I think that’s because they’re used to parental purse-strings being loosened by the Harvard name; Harvard is the one department I applied to that asks for parental financial information so they can assess your parents’ financial capacity as well as your own.)
But because I had full-ride (basically tuition plus 12-14k/yr stipend; that was in 1995) offers from Cornell, Northwestern, and Columbia – all of which were great departments for my interests – I wasn’t prepared to go to Harvard in the absence of financial support. When Harvard brought me (and my fellow admits) to Cambridge for a prospective student visit, I had a chance to talk with the department chair about improving the financial support I was offered. I was honest about Harvard being my first choice, but also said that it wasn’t worth an extra $60,000 to me to have a Harvard degree rather than a Columbia, Cornell or Northwestern degree — which is how much I would have had to pay out of pocket to go to Harvard, which was offering me nothing, rather than Columbia, which was offering full support. I think she found this argument especially compelling because she had a Columbia degree herself, and counseled me that Columbia would be a good choice if I weren’t going to come to Harvard.
After that conversation, the department came up with full tuition, a $5,000/yr fellowship and a $4,000/yr research assistantship, for a total of full tuition plus $9k in support. That offer was to cover my first two years of school; I think there was some understanding about tuition being covered for four years. I accepted Harvard’s offer even though it was slightly less than other offers I had received because I felt that the funding gap (about $3-4k/year) was outweighed by the advantages of Harvard’s brand recognition in the non-academic world, since I thought I might end up outside academia. In my first year I won a National Science Foundation fellowship, which provided full tuition and a generous stipend for years 2-4 of my graduate work.
Ironically, my research interests shifted one year into my graduate studies – something I had tried to anticipate by choosing a larger department that could hopefully accommodate a wider range of possible dissertation topics. But my interests were in a brand-new field – Internet politics – and while I had a hard time narrowing my proposal I think the faculty members I spoke with also had a hard time getting their minds around this new field. I often wondered whether a smaller but less conservative department might have been better-able to accommodate my peculiar interests; finally after 2 years of trying to find an Internet-related dissertation topic I took a 3-year leave from the program.
By the time I returned to my dissertation in 2001, the Internet was a well-established phenomenon and field of study. I had also had a chance to work on a wide range of topics related to Internet politics and was thus better-able and more willing to propose a narrower, manageable dissertation topic (an investigation of hacktivism, the phenomenon of politically-motivated computer hacking). I was lucky to assemble an enthusiastic and very helpful committee who approved this topic, and who were comfortable with my completing the degree long-distance (by this time I was living in Vancouver, Canada). I researched and wrote my dissertation in three years, successfully defending it in September 2004.
My complete guide to grad school applications:
Who I am: my faux qualifications for dispensing grad school advice
My story: how I survived the application process
My results: where I got in, and how I got funding
Questions to ask yourself: things to think about when applying
Questions to ask departments: things you need to find out for your applications
Acing the application: my tips for winning at the application game