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A Return to Academia

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1Q84
blog-0318631001428210865.jpgAnd so my long journey of graduate school applications has come to an end.

I hereby bid goodbye to the following:

Statements of purpose
Online application systems
Transcript hassles
and, last but not least, (and I have gleefully saved a special rude gesture for): [i]ETS/GRE/Standardized Testing[/i]!

(At the same time, I also welcome whatever new stressful, illogical, and inane bureaucratic hoops lay ahead of me in the Ph.D. program and beyond.)

But I digress. The subject of this post, really, is to explain a little bit about my long, circuitous journey towards graduate school. Many moons ago, I attended a high school that had a "gifted" program; though I was not chosen to be a part of it, my entire cohort of friends happened to be members. Accordingly, beautiful and wondrous things were always on their horizon (eg. one of them went to Princeton for his undergraduate work and, in short order, became an undersecretary in the Bank of Canada). Though I don't think I ever had the same pressure applied to me, I felt it all the same. I pushed myself and achieved a good entrance scholarship to attend the University of Toronto.

I went through the motions during the first few years but didn't develop much as a person. I got into a long term relationship, but it was one of those stagnant ones where we cut out all of our friends and just sat in our dorm watching tv shows. I retreated further into my social anxiety and the nonthreatening nature of my relationship. I didn't make any connections with professors, barely participated in any extracurricular activities, never in class, and sure enough, it eventually affected my grades--the one thing that I believed all this time had defined my success as a person. Though I left an impression on one or two professors with some solid essays on topics that I was passionate about, I had nothing in the way of a solid foundation for a strong graduate application. Entering my fourth year, I applied to Ph.D. programs at Toronto and other Canadian schools. The answer was a resounding

[i]Rejected.[/i]

I felt despair at the first major (academic) defeat in my life and sank into a weird, hazy limbo. Yet, with some gentle prodding from my parents, I applied again the next year. Again, the call came back:

[i]Rejected[/i].

It was a terrible blow. Like a whale biting off your leg, one might say. I [i]really[/i] gave up after that. I figured [i]H[/i][i]ey, maybe graduate school isn't for me. Most of my friends didn't go on to Ph.D.s either! Maybe I was just following a path that others had defined for me. [/i]So I entered the workforce, worked a bunch of awful, menial jobs (think two key data entry and factory work), taught overseas for a bit and lived out my repressed high school partying years, and finally settled into a retail food service funk. I was depressed. I felt like I was staring at a dead end sign. Worse yet, I was hardly making enough income to survive.

Finally, due to kismet and external forces, I decided that I needed to try again with graduate programs out west, in California. I applied to some unknown or 'unranked' MA programs, aiming for the fully funded one and--success! I was shocked and I was grateful. I knew that this was my last chance to prove myself and claw my way back to my graduate dreams. I pushed myself harder than I ever have and (thanks to a genuinely rekindled passion due to a harsh and demanding professor), after much roaming on the high seas, I finally caught up to my Moby Dick. I reapplied to the University of Toronto. I steadied my harpoon and let fly. And after many months of waiting:

[i]Accepted[/i].

Of course, the acceptance to UT is merely symbolic to me. I don't think I actually ever intended to attend. But I feel like I have done a service to that narrative arc of my life: I finally conquered the rejections that destroyed me when I was younger, and in doing so, have finally proven to the niggling voice deep down inside that[b] [/b][i]YES. I AM WORTHY OF GRADUATE SCHOOL.[/i]

This whole schpeel is my way of saying: life happens. You can get thrown off the bull many, many times and in many different ways. At 21, not everyone is going to be ready, willing, and motivated to pursue a Ph.D. [i]and that's fine[/i]. Do your best, but if it's not right at this moment, work hard to improve yourself and try again when the time [i]is[/i] right. Due to personal (familial) circumstances, I needed a lot of time to grow outside of the garden into which I had walled myself, which included academia. I lived (and kind of didn't live) enough to know that I'm ready for graduate school now and I'm so lucky to have been given the chance this time around.

Best of luck to all applicants who are preparing for the next application cycle. I look forward to congratulating you all in 2016!
1Q84

Proving It

blog-0590781001424558885.jpgPh.D. applications are strange. We all have this burning desire to show ourselves to be the kind of scholar that adcomms know will succeed in a given program but we have to do so by jumping through highly archaic or irrelevant hoops. This, of course, is not news, and we've all heard the arguments ad nauseam, so I won't rehash the talking points.

What I will say is this: all I really want is to get into a program that will support me so that I can prove myself. I know I have it, I just want the chance to show it. To me, this is really the last big hurdle that I face before I can really buckle down and kick some ass. I want that acceptance letter in my hand to ward off that Sword of Damocles over my head reminding me that I have this ETS hoop to jump through or that ApplyWeb app to fill out just around the corner. (My MA was stressful for that reason: I barely had time to stop and think because the second I walked into that school, I knew I was preparing for my Ph.D. app and all its concomitant nonsense.) I want to know I have the next five years ahead of me set in stone and guaranteed so that I can concentrate on the really important stuff: my research.

So, I'm praying that I don't get shut out this season. I know I have something to offer and I can't wait to prove it.

1Q84

SOP Jenga

I am on my billionth revision of my SOP, as I'm sure most of us are. I had it looked over by some of my colleagues and also my graduate director, who had some good and bad things to say about it. In the end, she said it seemed polished enough in her eyes to be submitted, so I felt somewhat relieved.

The other day one of my other old-school profs (a Yaley who did all three of her degrees there), took a look at my SOP and said it needs almost a complete re-write and that I come off as uneven in tone and too "student-y."

I appreciate direct feedback like this but, to be honest, it was pretty crushing. I feel so torn about my SOP now. Do I keep what my younger, more contemporarily-informed graduate director says or do I take the old-school prof's revision feedback or a combination of both? I have no idea.

Most of my SOP has been built on conversations with POI at the school to which I am submitting it, so I feel like it was rather well-informed.

I don't know. I just feel like my tower tumbled.

1Q84

Brush with Stardom

One of my professors who got his doctorate at Columbia, when I very hesitantly mentioned I wanted to apply there as a hail mary, casually said "Oh yeah, I can email Prof. amazing-rockstar-who-is-one-of-the-pre-eminent-professors-in-the-world for you."

I know not to count one's chickens before they hatch and I also know that simply having a prof email on your behalf doesn't guarantee anything... nevertheless:

Should I be dying and/or freaking out right now or what? Because I really want to.

1Q84

Writing Awards Bust

blog-0391607001398203659.jpgI haven't quite sorted out in my mind yet if I am simply feeling the effects of misplaced hubris or if I'm getting regular graduate student blues, but here goes:

Every year there are departmental writing awards. I submitted an essay that my professor really liked, gave an A+ and said it was the best in the class. I felt quite confident I could net at least second place (we have a tiny department).

Fast forward to today: an office admin told me to come by the department because there was leftover food from an event. I went by and saw the leftover programmes touting the writing award winners. I saw someone who has been in the program for many years (maybe four years even though the program is only two) had won first place. Okay, that's fine. But second place they chose not to award at all.

I know for a fact that my colleague in my year submitted a strong essay as well. How in the world could neither of us have won second place? And instead of awarding it to either of us, they thought no one else was worthy? Not only that, but they didn't even bother to send out the award recipients in an email (to me or my colleague). It feels like I was kept in the dark or shut out somehow.

I feel deflated and out of touch with reality all of a sudden. Am I just being puffed up by this one professor and I'm actually a really, really rancid writer?

It's going to take me a while to recover from this I think. What a blow.

1Q84

All Topsy Turvy

blog-0139900001365726353.jpgSo, a lot has changed since I last posted. I received two offers in quick succession and now I'm currently in LA and have visited both schools and talked to the graduate advisers.

What a whirlwind!

I came to LA intent on attending the public school because I thought that their tuition waiver would be the most beneficial and I had heard better things about their reputation and connections, professionally speaking. Now that I've talked to both schools, things seem to have completely flipped on their heads.

Unfortunately, $$$ seems to be the only thing on my mind these days. The reputable state school has informed me that I'm 4th on the list for tuition waivers (when they usually only distribute to two students), which had me feeling crestfallen for a whole day. How could I possibly attend that school having to possibly pay 1 year of international student tuition? Prohibitive to say the least. It didn't help that all the faculty were very complimentary and kind to me during my visit.

I visited the private school today and they seem to be awash in funding. I had already been offered a Teaching Fellow position but was worried about how it might only just cover my tuition and leave me with very little beyond that. I was shocked, then, to find that the graduate director began very strongly attempting to "poach" me, after I mentioned I was waiting on final financial information from the state school. What followed was basically a sales pitch, which just by the nature of being a pitch, made me hesitate. But the additional offer of funding above and beyond the Teaching Fellowship pay blew my mind. It was like comparing apples and oranges when I put the funding situation of the state and private schools side by side.

So now the question roiling in my mind is this: is it reprehensible to choose a school purely based on money? I mean I think that may be the case for Ph.D programs but I've heard again and again that paying a single penny for a humanities MA is a death wish and I would be a fool to consider it. The private school's offer addresses this concern (and then some) but I wouldn't feel totally comfortable on an intellectual level if that were the only thing to inform my decision.

I have a lot of thinking to do.

1Q84

Misery Loves Company

I would take some small comfort in that platitude were it not for the fact that my current misery feels more like my own personal Dantean jacuzzi while everyone else is off swimming in the bigger, more mature lake of liquid fire.

Basically a roundabout way of saying that while all the lit folks are huddled together experiencing the highs and lows of acceptances and rejections trickling in from the titans of graduate school, I'm feeling very much like that old man stranded on Calypso's island: counting the waves with 10 long years to go...

I mean not only do I have to wait until April to hear back from schools but I don't even know anyone else that applied to the same schools, so this suffering is a lonely kind of suffering. The anxiety that one feels that is mirrored in a friend (however anonymous) becomes distinctly innocuous, a collegial bonding, something of a joy.

So really, I feel like I'm missing out. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. I can put myself through that torture in 2 years time.

1Q84

One Of Us Can't Be Wrong...

blog-0068766001358226065.jpgIn the desolate wasteland that rapidly revealed itself to me post-application season, I have found that there seem to be two me's. One is full of confidence, brimming with positivity, a proponent of positive visualisation* who can not only imagine himself tearing open the acceptance letter(s) but can even taste it. The other is wary and on edge yet staunchly assured that in a few months time, he will wake up to yet a few more rejection letters to add to the string of ones he received in previous application cycles and be left with nothing but soul-sucking contingency plans and a yawning purgatory.

One of us can't be wrong.

The first me is convinced that the massive effort and endurance that I have mustered in the past couple of months (to learn everything from the American college system, to what a GRE is, to what a proper SOP looks like) must bear some sweet fruit. Most East Asian cultures do not see hard work as some sort of point of pride or something to attain: it is merely a reality in the struggle for survival. Everywhere I have traveled in East and South East Asia I have encountered this reality; indeed, I need look no further than the weathered faces staring back at me over the kitchen table most nights. Although this cultural reality has become the butt of many jokes for spoiled second or third (etc.) generations of Asians in North America as well as their entitled white friends, it is undeniably in the back of most of our minds. I never thought that it sunk it deep enough for me, thus the years of what some may call "slacking" or what I would rather call daydreaming, but hey, what's bred in the bone...

Now that I've snapped myself out of this reverie, I have to believe for my sake that this hard work will pay off. I have to believe that one of us can't be wrong and I'm hoping it's the first guy.

*The story behind this is that I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat in the woods and at the end of it, met a hippie girl from Germany who had run away from home and described how positive visualisation had allowed her to hitchhike across Canada in the dead of winter with no jacket or sleeping bag but purely on the goodwill of strangers. I think it may be no coincidence that she ended up at this retreat, which was free of charge, fed you two meals a day for 10 days and gave you a warm bed to sleep but I digress...

1Q84

blog-0485732001357772327.gifSo I've completed several of my applications (CSU: LA and CSU: Northridge), which were done and submitted over a month ago. It's been mighty stressful since the Gordian Knot that is the California state budget had yet, or actual is yet, to be settled.

Even though Prop 30 passed, effectively ensuring baseline budgetary support for all Californian higher education, school budgets are still in a chaotic mess. Both schools, I believe haven't even really set a deadline for applications for graduate students yet (it's still listed as TBD on their websites) I wanted to slide it in before the deadline given for previous years (November 30).

I've heard back from both programs with one sending a letter of receipt and completion (of the application) and the other requesting clarification of my transcript and additional materials like my financial affidavit. I responded that I was under the impression that I was to supply all the financial information after I received an offer of acceptance. Does anyone have any experience with this?

Anyway, now I feel like I've lost a little traction after having taken a break for so long for the winter holiday. I was in a real pressure cooker during the months of October and November and, thankfully, that made me extremely productive. Now it's time to get back into the groove and finish my last application for LMU. Since this is a private institution, not a state school, it requires quite a few more pieces of the application puzzle, including the dreaded reference letters.

Strangely, I'm feeling really good about all this. I mean I'm anxious as anyone and I have my moments of panic and doubt, but maybe so much productivity after the past few years of inactivity have really "brought me back to life", in a way.

Here's to more hard work to start of 2013! Hopefully it'll become a personal trend.

1Q84

Introduction

blog-0355844001357608795.jpgIt will probably become quite obvious who I am as I post more to this blog and as time rolls on, but for now you can call me C.

My blog may be less interesting than others since I am applying to Masters of English programs where it seems like the majority of the people on this forum are interested in PhD applications. Regardless, my writings should shed some light on what it's like for an international applicant (from Canada) applying to some American schools.

It will be an "unconventional" account of grad school applications, I think. I had a somewhat rough go of it during undergrad and suffered in my grades. I tried applying for grad school in Canada three times but, without the help of this forum, didn't do it in the right way and, thus, failed. I took off to teach in South Korea and then worked in the service industry for a while, kind of afloat.

In the back of my head, it's always been my goal to continue onto grad school and, while I feel like I'm starting quite late, what I've learned from this forum so far is that there's plenty of us still chasing our dreams.

More to come!

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