@JoifulJoi posted the question on Twitter that inspired this post. Thanks for the great question and congrats on the interview invitation.
Anyone who’s been on one can tell you that the waitlist can be a frustrating place to be! On the other hand, the fact that the committee has waitlisted you shows that you’re very close to the top of their rankings. If you’ve been waitlisted by a PhD program, what should you know, and what can you do?
The short answer is: not very much, other than be patient. But there are some important things to consider and be aware of.
Do you want to stay on a PhD waitlist?
First, consider whether you want to stay on the waitlist. Do you have other offers? Is this your top choice school? Is it the only school you were waitlisted at (with rejections everywhere else)? If you definitely want to stay on the waitlist, look carefully at the correspondence you received from the program and see whether there’s anything you need to do or to let them know: do you need to confirm you want to remain on the waitlist? If so, you can take that as an opportunity to briefly affirm your interest in their program. Most PhD programs aren’t interested in having a lot of contact from you, and you don’t want to turn them off—so don’t send them unsolicited materials. (Conversely, if they ask for updates, by all means supply them!)
The PhD Notification Timeline
Second, understand the timeline you’re dealing with. For most US PhD programs, April 15 is their notification/enrollment date. Schools require a commitment from admitted students by the April 15 deadline, in order to fill their classes by that date. If there’s movement off the waitlist, you can expect to hear something as April 15 approaches (and even slightly afterward).
If you’ve received notification that you’re on a waitlist, you’re dealing with a program that is at least being transparent about its waitlisting procedures. You could be on a waitlist and not even know it. Most programs start letting admitted (and rejected) students know their status in late February or early March—but as I said, the process lasts until mid-April. Many schools will rank candidates below their “admit” list, but not send a notification unless a space opens up—in other words, you might not hear anything at all from the school until they determine, in April, whether they have space for you. (Talk about frustrating!) Schools that do this will send their final rejection notifications in April, too.
If you’re on the waitlist and you haven’t heard anything as April 15 approaches, you can consider contacting the admissions chair to ask what your rank is on the waitlist—that will give you a clearer picture of whether you have a realistic chance.
Financial Implications of the PhD waitlist
Third, consider whether there would be any financial aid/funding implications to being admitted to a program late (if you do decide to remain on the waitlist and are admitted). Some programs may have distributed all of their fellowship funds early, to students at the top of their list.
Unfortunately, the waitlist does involve some patience—but the fact that you’re waitlisted at a very competitive program does mean that your application is strong. Good luck!
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, Accepted.com editor and former Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center, and author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School. Rebecca will be happy to assist you with your grad school applications.