Ideally I'd refer to this phase as Visiting, but unfortunately I couldn't do that. I was still in Remote Foreign Country and I didn't have enough money to fly myself back to the U.S. to visit. Most unfortunately, neither did the schools I applied to. I spent quite a while online searching for airfares and planning possible itineraries that would allow me to visit 6 schools all over the U.S. in the span of 3 weeks and return to RFC. Amazingly (I think), it could have been done for under $2000. If I'd been able to get $300-400 for travel expenses from each school I could have visited.
Based on whatever numerical parameters they use to rank applicants, I didn't make it high enough to the top of the lists to get invited with financial assistance. Unrealistic though it was, I really held out hope that somehow I'd be able to visit the schools. I started getting desperate and wrote to a pizza company and told them I'd endorse their food if they flew me back to Big City. That was really a shot in the dark.
I had some phone interviews but I really got the feeling that my application was not as strongly considered because I couldn't visit. I started preparing myself for the possibility that I might not be accepted to grad school.
My first notification came in late February during an otherwise awful week of traveling. I was accepted with TA support to U of Big City. What a relief to be accepted somewhere!
All of the letters that followed came with worse news. Some of them sent emails, some sent paper letters which my parents received and had to break the bad news to me over the phone. I wasn't surprised when I didn't get into UC Someplace since I knew it was a long shot, but I was pretty upset when I wasn't accepted at U of Midwestern State. I wrote to the professors from both places and received encouraging emails that said in short, "Your application was really good but I had so many applicants to my lab this year and I could only take one. The student I've accepted is one I've known for 3 years OR has a perfect academic record." I think a bit was lost in the paraphrasing but they seemed sincere and wished me luck. The professor at U of Someplace South told me he probably wasn't accepting anyone new in his lab next year when I inquired about the status of my application.
U of East Coast State professor told me I wasn't on the "must-admit" list so I shouldn't count on it. I didn't get an official letter of rejection from them until late MAY. Why bother at that point? Students have to make their decisions by mid-April. U of New England State professor was the worst correspondent. I hadn't heard yea or nay from him or the school and April 15 was near. Finally he said the department was only taking 4 students as TAs that year and I wasn't at the top of the list so I should just accept at U of Big City.
I wish that early in the application process someone had emphasized to me that I really might not be accepted anywhere. Applying to grad school seems to involve a bit of chance (like not applying to the same lab in the same year as Ms./Mr. Perfect Scores on Everything). Thankfully, U of Big City was my first choice since it seems like I'll have the best chance of pursuing my specific research interests there. I think I was accepted there because I had exceptionally lengthy correspondence with my future advisor and co-advisor. They both seemed to like writing emails a lot more than many of the other professors with whom I corresponded.
I guess the reason I'm writing this, and this blog in general, is to give others insight into applying to graduate school in ecology through my personal experience. And speaking from experience, try to apply while you're in U.S. or at least get back in time to visit. But if you can't do that, you might still get accepted and hopefully things will work out and you won't have a nightmare advior.
I suppose now I should come up with pseudonyms for my advisors. Hmmm...