The Waiting Game – PhD Applications

It’s that time of year again… the time when PhD applicants sit on their hands and nervously check GradCafe in hopes that their dream program hasn’t yet sent out applications decisions because their inbox is hopelessly empty. Isn’t it joyous?

I sent out eight PhD applications this year and I’m waiting ever so patiently to hear back from my programs this time, a stark contrast from the way I was feeling this same time two years ago. January of 2014 featured an insanely anxious, near-panic attack for the first time in months (no, years) me, refreshing GradCafe like my life depended on it. I was working a job that I enjoyed (but was a complete dead-end) and I felt like grad school would be the answer to all my non-religious prayers.

I was lucky enough to find myself in a master’s program that fall and, while I was initially upset that I wasn’t going straight into a PhD, I actually couldn’t be happier with the way that things turned out. I’ve grown as a scholar and a person –  I have a more complete sense of who I am, what questions I’m after, and what my unique point of view is. So when I sent my applications off to programs this year, I already felt more confident than I had two years ago.

This confidence has, luckily, carried over into the waiting aspect of application season as well. Instead of frantically checking the internet and touching base with people who I knew applied to the same programs I had, I’m reading brilliant books, writing my second thesis chapter (the final one before my conclusion!!), and sketching out research/editing plans for other projects that I’ve placed on the back burner.

I also have a back-up plan now, one that I’m immensely happy with. I am interested in academia because I love the research that I’m doing, I want to pursue the questions I’ve been thinking about and share my answers with the academic (and general, if possible) public. But I also want to spend my time teaching, to impact the lives of undergraduates in the way that my undergraduate professors impacted mine. I want to show students the literature that I’ve come to love, to explore interesting questions, and to stimulate thinking.If I can’t do that at the college level, I have come to realize that I would be happy doing this on the secondary level. Sure, it would take some adjusting (I couldn’t, for instance, ask my high schoolers to read a bunch of Dickens novels and I might actually have to *gasp* teach American literature depending on where I start teaching) but I would still have the chance to share beautiful literature with students. The current dream is to teach abroad and I’ve applied to a few international teaching jobs: I won’t get them, but it felt nice to send the applications off. I have, though, promised my son that we would live in England, so I’m going to start trolling those job boards and see if I can make his (our) dream come true. He thinks we’re going to live at Hogwarts, but, as I reminded him, one dream at a time.

Having a plan has changed my entire outlook on this process. Would it still be embarrassing to explain to my cohort/professors that I was rejected across the board? Yes. But if I follow that up with, “But I’ve applied to several teaching jobs and I’m confident that I’ll be happy wherever I end up,” then I think the awkwardness will eventually pass. Besides – given the current state of things, escaping academia might not be the worst life decision. But I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for those PhD applications.

So if you happen to be reading this and you’ve applied this year – best of luck. Instead of checking (and re-checking GradCafe) why don’t you do a little soul searching? Find your perfect back up plan, work on some long-neglected research, or just read something that has absolutely nothing to do with your research (if that last one is up your alley, might I recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling? I just finished it and I thought it was brilliant.)

Students: Units of Profit

When I graduated from my undergraduate institution, I decided to take a gap year and brave the job market to save up for graduate school. I found myself working at a local university (on the administrative side of things) gaining experience that, I hope, will prove useful throughout my career.

While I was sitting at my desk this morning, a colleague walked by and mentioned that a lot of students were touring our campus today. She expressed her delight with a slight giggle and exclaimed, “All those little units of profit!!” Her statement totally shocked me… and not just because I’ve never heard a student referred to as a “unit of profit” before. My first instinct upon hearing her statement was to remind her that there is “so much more” to education, especially college education, than just profit. I wanted to lecture her about the rigors of the curriculum, the beauty of conversations between students and faculty that lead to amazing intellectual discoveries or conclusions… I wanted to stand up for all the academic ideals that inspire me to pursue my own education and to ultimately strive for a job in this field.

But, because it was barely nine in the morning, I did none of that. I chuckled and nodded, the dark circles under my eyes and the absent look on my face letting her know that I wasn’t mentally prepared for her jokes this morning.

I gave myself some time to process everything, though, because I feel like there’s something important buried in that statement. Maybe it’s the difference between “faculty” (or, in my case, future/potential faculty) and “administrators.” Maybe it’s the the fact that I’m an idealist and she’s a numbers person. Or maybe it’s indicative of a shift I’ve been allowing myself to be ignorant of: the movement from the ideals of education to the financial realities of running (and attending) a university.

There is a lot of talk at my university about budgets and I would imagine that it’s the same at almost every university around the country. Money is tight and, inevitably, programs end up getting cut, budgets are restricted, and (as the rumor went at my undergrad institution) admitting more “out of state” or “full pay” students to increase revenue. While I certainly can’t claim to have any real knowledge about the world of university finances, I know enough to say that it shouldn’t be the center of higher education.

Most, if not all, colleges are largely funded through tuition and fees so it makes sense to view students as simply a means to an end. But to deny that students are coming to the university with certain expectations about what a college education means and is. This focus on finances has lead to things like the adjunct crisis, leaving too many professionals struggling to get by under a huge workload and too many students with professors that just can’t care as much as they should. It’s forced programs (largely in the humanities) to suffer cuts, telling students that the humanities ultimately doesn’t pay… inspiring some students to ditch those fields entirely. I’ve watched schools with large athletic programs, like my undergraduate school, spend MILLIONS of dollars on stadiums, scholarships, food, “freebies,” and a number of other things on their most gifted athletes while your average student struggles by with loans and an overall lackluster college experience.

This isn’t the voice of someone that is bitter… I don’t want anyone to think that I am losing faith in higher education. I just believe that we need to remind ourselves why these institutions exist. It isn’t to serve as a farm system for the NFL or NBA. It isn’t to hire low-wage adjunts/graduate students to educate the masses. It is to provide real, quality education to students… all students.

I’m a grad student. And a mom.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am getting ready to enter my first year of graduate school this fall. While I am extremely excited and appropriately nervous about my new beginnings, I also have something that weighs pretty heavily on my mind. I am not going to graduate school as a “normal” twenty-something… I am going to graduate school as a single mother with a toddler. Though I absolutely love being a mother, now that I’m getting ready to start this new chapter in my life, I find myself plagued with questions and anxiety. How is my graduate experience going to be different from the experiences of my peers? How am I likely to be treated because of my parent status? To tell or not to tell?

I often look to The Chronicle of Higher Education (and their career advice site Vitae) for advice about these sorts of questions. Vitae recently ran a four part series about graduate school/academia and motherhood. Sarah Kendzior (Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School?), Rachel Leventhal-Weiner (The Perfect Academic Baby), Kelly J. Baker (Are Children Career Killers?), and Elizabeth Keenan (The No-Baby Penalty) discussed their experiences and gave me some things to really think about as I leave for grad school this fall.

It seems that, overall, women are troubled by the connection between their reproductive and graduate school years, between their desire for a family and their desire for a tenure track job. In one sense, I’m glad that I’m not suffering through these things alone, but the fact that we are even still asking ourselves these questions deeply disturbs me. While I certainly would echo Sarah’s advice (“Do you want to have a baby? Have a baby. Do you not want to have a baby? Don’t have a baby.”) I can see why there are so many concerns about doing just that. In a job climate like the one we’re facing, it’s easy to understand why a woman would want to avoid doing anything that could prevent her from getting a job. But as Elizabeth shares, the choice to postpone motherhood, especially when motherhood is something one really desires, can lead to devastating (or at least incredibly stressful) results. The question that continually plagues me is “why are women being punished for having children while men actually benefit?”

I know that, in part, this answer lies with traditional gender roles and expectations. A woman that becomes a mother is expected to keep a more flexible schedule, readying herself for any last minute catastrophe that might arise. Women often pay for this “benefit” with decreased wages and an increased difficulty in finding (or keeping) a job. It surprises me, however, that academia (a magical place that, according to my grandmother, hides all the “liberals” of the world) would be so far behind the curve in terms of taking a progressive stance about gender roles and their relationship with starting a family. The fact that I could suffer (in graduate school, in my job search, in that tenure track job I probably won’t get) because I am a mother disgusts me.

But what troubles me even more is what I asked myself immediately after reading this articles. Without even thinking, my first thought was, “Well, maybe I just never mention the fact that I’m a mother.”

Like it or not, motherhood is part of my identity. It doesn’t shape my entire self but it definitely has impacted the way I look at life, responsibilities, and my future. Though many might look at my life and think, “There is no way that she can do this,” I look at what I’m faced with and think, “This is going to be really hard… but I have to do it.” Being successful is not an option for me, it’s a requirement. And I’m not going to hide my son, the child that helped drive me to where I am today, behind some facade. There will be days that I question everything in my life… there will be days that I am so stressed I don’t even know which way is up. But I’m not going to let those days, or anyone else’s unwelcome opinion about my life, shape my drive or my future. People don’t have to like the fact that I’m a mother… but they better not count me out because of it.

Graduate School and Summer Projects

It’s been quite some time since I sat down at the computer to start writing for this blog again. Life, as it usually does, managed to get in the way and this blog fell off of my list of things to maintain. I’m sure this is taboo to say, but it’s just not that important to me yet.

Since I stopped writing, I was accepted into (and will be attending) a graduate program (for the sake of privacy, I won’t say which one) for the fall of 2014. I am beyond excited to attend even though it means leaving my current job… and my home state. Leaving home is, as these things usually are, simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I find myself struggling to create a budget (with an undetermined monthly income), devise a plan to balance work/education/motherhood, and to find the time in my schedule for “just me.” While I can’t plan these things yet, I am working every day to pull together what I can to make sure that I am ready. This is going to be the biggest change of my life… and I can’t even begin to say that I’m totally ready. But I am certainly ready to try and I think that is what’s important.

Now that I know I will be attending a program in the fall, I decided to spend my summer reading and researching. While I know that this might not make the most sense (as I will soon be buried in more books than I know what to do with) I decided that using this time to explore my interests, broaden my scope, and to discover new texts. I have a few projects on my back burner that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time… now seems like a good time to start moving through those projects and look for things that could become a thesis or other large project.

I’m going to try and start writing a little bit more each day… I really need to get back into the swing of things. So even if I’m not writing here, at least I know that I will be writing somewhere!

Personal Statements: My Nightmare

The personal statement is, easily, the most difficult piece to write for graduate admissions. Anyone that has ever applied can attest to this. Having to sit down at a computer and think about a way to differentiate yourself from the MASSES (and in some cases, you really are up against the masses) is almost impossible. You have to be informative but witty. You should tell a story but don’t overwhelm your reader with narrative. You need to find a way to talk about how (in my case) literature relates to who you are as a person. You need to tell how literature created you.

Getting this message across was something that I struggled with for weeks. I wrote about ten drafts, sent them out to my AMAZING friend who did quite a bit of editing for me. I finally reached a final product after receiving some constructive criticism from a former professor. I’m not going to sit here and preach that I know how to write a personal statement. Because I only learned how to write my personal statement. Each and every person is going to have to take a different approach; we are all different people and different things will work for each of us. But I will share a few things that I learned. Hopefully a grad applicant somewhere will eventually find these things useful.

  1. Don’t be afraid to let people read what you’ve written.

    I got some of the best comments from my friend and former professor. They were constructive in their criticism and taught me how to approach a writing genre I had absolutely no experience with. Each person, more than likely, writing a personal statement has never had to write one before. It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing! Ask for help from people who have been there and (more importantly) from people that know you. Though you might not always like what they have to say, taking the time to listen can only benefit you.

  2. Take risks… within reason.

    My friend started her personal statement off with a discussion from a sexual education class that she taught. And while this might seem like a risky endeavor (“Who talks about sex in their personal statement?!”) it worked for her! She is someone who is very focused on sexual education, rights, etc. and having the chance to talk about her classroom experience in her personal statement was probably part of the reason she landed a spot in her PhD program. I decided to take other risks. See #4.
  3. Be honest.

    I didn’t have a problem with this one in my statement but I feel like it’s something that needs to be said. Write from your own life. Write about things you are actually interested in. Remember, you are showing them who you are. They need to make sure that you are going to be a good fit for their university, their faculty, and their resources. If you decide to misrepresent yourself, you could end up making one of the biggest mistakes of your life.

  4. Argue.

    When I first sent my draft over to my professor, he noted that it seemed like I was practically worshiping the people that I wanted to work with. He encouraged me to treat these people like colleagues as opposed to gods. So this was where I decided to take my risk. I read a piece by each of the faculty members I wanted to work with and I found a way to discuss (and sometimes challenge) what they had written. This might not be a good piece of advice for everyone, but I found that it was a way to put my thoughts in conversation with work that was already out there and establish my place in literary criticism. We’ll see if that ends up working out.

This is, obviously, not meant to be a comprehensive list of things that you should/should not do in your personal statement. Like I said, everyone is different and everyone will have different experiences. I hope that someone finds this useful and if you find yourself reading this as you apply to graduate school: GOOD LUCK!!!!


Single Mom… Going After Her PhD?

As I’ve discussed a couple of times on my blog, I am currently in the process of applying for graduate school and I’m hoping to enter in the fall semester of 2014. I’ve posted about the mental struggle of preparing for the GRE exams (I’ll eventually post about personal statements… and other struggles) but the biggest concern that I have about pursuing graduate school is the fact that I’m a single mother. Finding the motivation to complete my undergraduate degree was easy: I was already more than halfway through and I knew that, in today’s economy, it’s almost impossible to get a well-paying job without a bachelors degree. But now that I’ve completed my degree (a semester early!!) and I’m in my first full-time job, I’m finally starting to find some stability for my son and myself. The idea of disrupting that stability with a future that is SO uncertain is terrifying.

I know that getting into a PhD program means that I get a small stipend. I also know that this stipend may not be enough to support me and my son. I know that I will have to move to a state that is far away from my family and other support systems that I have. I am well aware that there is no guarantee that I will get a job after I graduate with my PhD. I am well aware that, if I do get a job, it is likely that I will have to move across the country to some state I have never lived in. I know that I will be cranky, exhausted, absorbed in my reading, and that at times, I won’t be the best parent that I can be. I know that my plans to buy a house are going to have to be on hold for years… and years. I know that I will basically be living the life of a hermit: I will see my son and the inside of classrooms and libraries. And that’s it.

And despite all these uncertainties, I cannot let myself go on in life without pursuing this dream. I know that a lot of people probably think that I’m insane. People thought that I was crazy for trying to finish my bachelors right after my son was born. But to those people, I say “Shush!” I don’t have time for your negativity. Hell, over the next 6-7 years, I won’t even have time to sleep! I know that this is something that I can do… I just need a graduate program to agree and decide to let me in! I’m applying to seven schools and I’ve already decided that if I don’t get in anywhere that I’m not going to apply again. If I can’t get in this round, maybe I need to consider another career. But I have faith that I will end up in a wonderful graduate program.

So even though I’m going to spend the next 6 years of my life pinching every penny, living with roommates, and reading more words than I can even imagine at this point… I already know that I won’t regret it. Speaking of which… I better get back to writing my personal statements.

GRE Literature Exam

I have spent a lot of time lately studying for the GRE Literature exam… and I’m starting to realize how little I actually know about literature and literary history.

Being a student of nineteenth century British literature, I have rarely strayed from studying much outside my favorite century. I’ve studied Chaucer (I’m extremely thankful that I did so!!), took a couple of eighteenth century courses, and took one class on American Lit, but for the most part, I’ve stayed in the century that I know and love. And now I’m kicking myself.

As if it wasn’t already bad enough that I wasted so much of my time pretending that I was going to go to medical school. All the credits (and time) I wasted in science classrooms could have been spent broadening my literary horizons. My GPA would be better and I wouldn’t be scoring so miserably on all the practice exams for the GRE Lit.

I’m pulling on a number of sources trying to work on this latest (greatest?) project. I’ve managed to create a little “study plan” for myself so we’ll see how that works out. I’m working to study a little bit each day, even if it only means reviewing flashcards right before bed or over my morning cup of tea. I’ve also managed to work a little exercise into my plan. I’ll pick a set of flash cards to bring on every trip to the gym… and when I have my boyfriend give me quizzes, I have to do a set of ten workouts whenever I get a question wrong. I’m hoping the endorphins/increased blood flow will help stimulate my brain and will help me work through the questions.

The next exam is in April but I know I’m going to need more time than that. Hooray for a summer of studying and reading!! I’ll probably start posting my thoughts about a collection of readings, movements, or schools of thought that I find interesting. It will give me a chance to really cement the information in my brain and help me remember it. Wish me luck!