How to apply for a PhD if you’re not perfect – part 0

For a long time now I’ve been thinking that I should finally write that post about applying for PhD programs and the main thought in it was that it’s pretty easy to find what the ideal candidate looks like: they’ve graduated a great school at 16 or whatever the normal age in their country is, they’ve finished the best university in their location with a perfect average grade, meanwhile they’ve won a few world competitions in their field and published at least 2 papers at NIPS or whatever the top journal in their subject is and now they are applying to the top-3 schools and OMG, what are their chances, please somebody tell, they’re so freaking out.
That is, er, not my story.
But I remember countless answers from PhD students or graduates to applicants’ questions on what they should do to get into a PhD program that were exactly along these lines: make your resume look like stated above, be absolutely sure in your reasons to pursue a PhD, only apply to top-[3-50] universities because what’s the point otherwise.
I think this ideal picture is something worth keeping in mind, just to have some direction, but please do not let it get into your head. As any perfectionist idea in high doses it leads to fear, paralysis and despair. Divide what you read or hear by 10, or, better yet, take a logarithm.
The other problem I’ve seen is that most of the resources are very American-oriented. They imply that you have access to research internship, to course selection, that you lecturers encourage participation and keep track of student performance in classes, that you have study groups and so on. This is, again, very different from my experience, I hope you’re luckier than me, but chances are you’re not.
So, if you’re not an ideal candidate, but still think it’s a good idea to pursue a research career I can share some of the things I’ve discovered so far and they might be useful.
My impostor syndrome is hitting hard, tho, so please remember that I am actually completely unqualified and they’ll probably kick me out soon anyway.

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