Reeling ’em In: Fly Fishing Lessons for Applying to Grad School

During my two years of coursework at Mizzou, I earned a reputation for using sports metaphors in class. While other grad students referenced – and acted like they understood or had even read – Foucault, Marx, or the like, I referenced sports. For example, in one class I asked if Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity was a walk off. Another time, I compared one book to a University of Texas football recruiting class – all hype, no development, and no delivery. Most of the time I got blank stares. But in order to get through the slog of weekly book reviews, I had to keep myself entertained. So when I had the idea of writing an advice post on applying to graduate school, I decided to stick with what I know.

Hunter Fly Fishing 2The idea for this post came to me during a summer camping trip in southern Colorado. Everyday my step-dad and I went fly-fishing. We got up early, drank coffee, planned for the day, and hit the river. After a full day of fishing we got in the car to air the problems with our cast, and lie about how many fish we caught. Since my step-dad is a history professor and the Director of Graduate Studies at Baylor, we often talk shop during our breaks from fishing. The advice that follows mixes his instruction on both fly-fishing and the application process. From my experience, the lessons from fly-fishing are many. But for the sake of this post, I found a lot of similarities between a day on the river and applying to Ph.D. programs.

The first part of any day in the mountains begins with a strong and grainy cup of coffee. Something about chewing the last sip enlivens your senses. Then you start to plan the day. This is my favorite part. The optimism is thick. To start, you have to be honest with the tools you are working with. How many flies do you have in your vest? Are your flies going to catch fish on the stretch of water you want to fish? Do you want to use a six-foot rod in a small stream or a nine-foot rod on a large river? Answering these questions sets up the parameters for your day. In the Conejos Valley, your answers give you a different experience each day.

The application process follows a similar pattern. Before you start filling out applications or sending out transcripts, you must have a frank conversation with yourself. You need to assess your tools. Are you coming out of an Ivy League undergraduate program with a 4.0 (not me)? Or did you decide to try this academia thing in the spring semester of your senior year with a … not 4.0 (that’s me)? Who can write your letters of recommendation? What did you get on your GRE? Do you have a good writing sample? What is your dissertation topic? Honest answers to these questions will help you think about the types of program that fit your academic profile.

Back to fishing. Once you figure out what type of water to fish, it is time to start casting. I am going to resist the urge to geek out over the nuances of fly-fishing, but some is necessary. In a river or stream, trout swim in the slower waters behind rocks, river bends, or banks. This is called a hole. Here, fish expend less energy as they wait for food to float by in the faster water. Unlike fishing with a bobber and a worm, you can’t just throw your fly right on top of the trout and wait. That scares them. Instead, you land your fly just above the hole and let the water float your fly past. Standing in one spot on the river there are three different holes. The first is an easy cast. Barring a gust of wind or ill-placed bush, you can make a good cast and expect to catch something. But the something is probably small. The second hole is a tougher cast. The hole is smaller and the water faster, but if all goes well a good-sized fish is in there. You probably won’t catch a fish to hang on your wall, but it is also not too small to eat like in the first hole. The cast is demanding. These are usually right against a bank, a tree is hanging out over the hole, and if you don’t land it perfectly you will surely lose your fly. All of this trouble means that these fish don’t get caught easy, and grow much larger than in the other two holes. High risk, high reward. The great part about getting out in the river is that you cast at all three.

After your honesty session, it is time to make a list of programs. The best advice for applying is to stratify your applications. Let’s be honest, not all graduate schools are created equal. Divide your prospective programs into three categories: safety schools, good schools, and dream schools. I applied to eleven programs, but that was probably overboard. Applying to several (between two and four) “safety schools” gives you a safety net. Like casting to the easy hole, you are confident you will get accepted. But the funding, prestige, or placement rate may leave something to be desired.

The “good school” category should make up the bulk of your applications (two to six). These programs fit the strengths of your application. In selecting these schools, the funding package, advisor, campus location, and placement record should excite you. However, you shouldn’t expect to land a spot in all of these schools. Like casting your fly, presentation matters. Every part of your application needs to be on point. Start by considering the fit with your potential advisor. If you are interested in 20th-century sports, popular culture, and religion, don’t apply to study under a professor that has published exclusively on 18th-century politics and policy. That just doesn’t line up. In flipping through applications, a professor is as much accepting you as they are accepting your project for the next 3 to 6 years. Email potential advisors after looking at their faculty profile page to see if you make a good match. As for your GRE, here is the best advice on how to view your score is “a high score won’t get you into a school, but a low score will get you cut from others.” You get accepted on the strength of your application and match with your potential advisor. If you have a near perfect score, it will get you through the first cut. But no program will be wowed by your ability to take a standardized test. Every applicant is qualified, you have to make your application the most enticing.

The final strata of programs are little more than a hope and a prayer, but the payoff is well worth the risk. All of the same tips still apply. Don’t just apply to any Ivy League school because that seems like the biggest fish you could land. Depending on your specialty, your dream advisor could work at a school that lacks the mystical appeal of a coast or athletic conference. In placing a school in this category, ask yourself if you would drop everything, move anywhere, and take any or no funding package. A school that checks all three boxes is a dream school. Give the schools in this category a few passes (two or three applications), but don’t pin your future on them.

A fish gulping down your fly is the rush every angler chases. Whether the fish gently swallows your fly or leaps out of the water to get it, the struggle that follows is a battle of wills. With a fly rod, you don’t just reel a fish in with all your might. Instead, you pull in the line by hand. Pull too fast and the fish breaks your line. Give too much slack and the fish spits out your fly. The difference between landing a fish and having a hook in your cheek (it happens and it hurts) is minuscule. Seeing that fish finally in your net never gets old. After a day on the water, there are multiple definitions of a good day. Some days, sheer numbers give you bragging rights around the campfire. Catching ten or fifteen fish is a good day, but you don’t need to talk about the size of each fish. Other days, one fish is all you need. Reeling in a twenty-four inch brown trout furnishes you with plenty of river-cred, but you don’t mention that you only caught one fish. Either way, the key is to make sure that you get home with something in your creel.

Waiting is the first word that comes to mind in the period after mailing in grad school applications. Three or four months of silence will try your patience. However, getting that email, seeing the change of status on a website, or opening that letter is a moment you will never forget. Like seeing that fish take your fly, it makes your stomach turn, hair stand up, and breathing stop. Once you get letters of acceptance a strange courting dance begins. They deem you worthy, but you need to make sure you take the best offer for you.

The three factors big to consider are funding, placement rate, and geography – in no particular order. For funding, there is more to it than the Benjamins. Find out the expectations for funding. Will you be a teaching assistant or research assistant? Does the offer include health insurance? How many years are guaranteed? Big money with no health insurance or no guarantees beyond one year makes the number on your monthly paycheck secondary. The programs placement rate is a question that you need to ask on a campus visit or in an email. While writing weekly book reviews, being purified by the fires of comprehensive exams, and writing your dissertation are all good and fun, you need a job at the end of the rainbow. Where graduates are getting placed also matters. Check each programs website to see the list of recent graduates and the types of schools their recent Ph.D.’s received. Finally, where the school is located matters. A twenty thousand dollar per year stipend goes a long way in Waco, Texas or Columbia, Missouri, but not as much in Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. Depending on the length of your program, living in a place you enjoy is more important than you may initially think. Graduate school is not a hellish existence, but it pushes your boundaries and not just academically. Because of this, you don’t need the extra stress of hating where you live. In the end, no matter the quality of the offer or the enthusiasm a program shows in recruiting you, all that matters is that you have one on the hook.

Every fall since I mailed in my applications, anxiety still sets in. I recall checking my email constantly, running to the mailbox, and losing sleep at night. In these dark days remember that every graduate student and professor went through the same process. They were nervous. They got rejected. They all survived. But like fly fishing, all you can do is throw out your fly. Sometimes you make the perfect cast and nothing happens. Other times you clumsily get your fly out and land a monster. As much time as you put into the preparation and even when you place the fly in just the right spot, you can’t make the fish bite. And that is the honest truth about applying to graduate school.

Have any questions about applying to graduate programs or want examples of application materials email me at If you have any advice for hopeful applicants please share them in the comments. And no, your horror stories are not welcome.

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