Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Following Dreams, Etc.

So. BES has applied to graduate schools this year, and it's that time of the season where she's begun to hear back. The news has, for the most part, been utterly bleak.

Rejections to the left of her, rejections to the right.

Wait-listed at one place.

Silence from the remaining few schools.

Now, the waiting list news is really awesome (top 25 program and one of the most highly ranked programs to which she applied), but the rejections come from a range of types of programs and rankings, so when we talked yesterday, one of the topics we covered is that there is absolutely no logic to this process. We also covered the following: waiting sucks, rejection sucks, waiting and rejection are the central features of academic pursuits post undergrad, everything will be ok no matter what happens, and it's very important to keep in mind that none of this is about one's value as a person.

Here's the thing. This is a bad year to be applying for graduate school. Lots of programs are reducing their number of slots (ah, budgets) while at the same time there are record numbers of applications. BES is a strong candidate, but as we all know, strength of candidacy is not all in the crap shoot that is pursuing anything academic. One of the things that she's struggling with is that as much as I told her the worst possible scenarios for all of this, she'd never really believed they could happen to her. See, this is the first time she's ever faced this kind of rejection, the first time there has ever really seemed like it was possible that her merit and various talents would not get her what she wanted. On the one hand, this is a good lesson to learn at this point in the game. On the other hand, wow does it suck.

She was talking with her dad a few days ago about what's happening, and the topic came up of what she'll do if she doesn't get in anywhere, and she said to him that she wasn't sure if she'd apply again next year. Now, I really like BES's dad, but he gave her what might be the worst advice in the world about not "copping out" and "being a quitter" and if being a professor is really what she wants that she should keep applying every year until she realizes the dream of a grad school acceptance. Now, I see where he's coming from. He doesn't want her to accept defeat, and he wants to support her dreams. He wants her to be a person who goes after her dreams. But from my perspective, I'm not sure it would be the worst thing in the world if she held off and did something else for a bit, in order to evaluate whether, knowing now what she didn't know then, this really is her dream, and even if it is, if it's worth the opportunity cost of getting there.

This is not to say I wouldn't support BES if she did want to apply again next year. I would. I just don't believe that this is the only or best path available to her. And I don't think there would be anything wrong with her saying that she wanted to hold off on putting herself out there again, if the worst case scenario happens.

Here's the thing: I have every ounce of faith that BES is good enough to get accepted with funding into a good grad program. I have every ounce of faith that she'll excel if admitted. But I also know what's on the other end of that best case scenario: a job market that's brutal and that offer no guarantees of employment at the end of it. As much as this round of rejections sucks for her, subsequent rounds of rejections promise to be even more awful. And those rounds of rejections will come, no matter how great she is. And knowing that? Do I think it's the worst thing in the world if she doesn't single-mindedly and relentlessly pursue admission to grad school? No.

It's so weird being in the position of mentoring her through this stuff because I'm walking this fine line of cautious optimism and realistic pessimism. It's weird because obviously I'm a real-life example that following this path can actually work out ok. It's just I know that I'm the exception, not the rule.

So do I want BES to follow her dreams? Of course I do. But I'm not sure that there's any such thing as One True Dream to follow.

In other news, I've got minor revisions to do on a review essay that I completed months ago, I've got MLA panel submissions to review, I've got grading to continue, I've got preparations to make for class tonight, and I've got a bunch of research stuff to do so that I can return some library books. I've also got a paper that I need to look at for a student presentation, another paper that I need to comment on for a grad student from last semester, a conference paper I need to draft (the conference isn't for a hundred years, but I've said I'd present a version of it at a grad student symposium thing that is only a few weeks away), and god only knows what. Oh, and I'm still waiting on news re: The House (my realtor said they're optimistic we'll have a response by week's end, but we'll see). And my stupid Man-Kitty woke me up at 4 AM, and while in theory I could have gone back to sleep after giving him some breakfast, my mind was so clogged with all of the things that I've got to do that I just said fuck it and woke up, so that means I should crash sometime in the next two hours and need a nap.


Janice said...

Strange and unpredictable are the ways of graduate school admissions. Like you, I'm wary of doing anything that might be seen as a "push" into grad school given how bad the market is and how many years it consumes.

I will hope that one of the silent schools has a good offer lurking in the wings for BES or something else opens up that's an even better opportunity/option.

Keeping my fingers crossed for good news on the house, too. It sounds like such a perfect match!

Shane in Utah said...

A couple of my undergrad professors tried to dissuade me from pursuing the PhD. I might have been more sobered by their warnings if they had told me a) I would never again be allowed to live in a major city, or pick where I live; and b) I would spend the rest of my life waiting for other people to make decisions that will profoundly affect my life and career. It's no coincidence that Samuel Beckett did his time as a university lecturer, I think...

Whatever BES ends up deciding to do, I think it would be a good thing for her to take a year or two off before grad school. Many of the people I knew who went straight to grad school from their BA institutions burned out pretty quickly. Those of us who waited a year or more generally did better, and appreciated the life more.

My captcha word is "mulatu," which happens to be the name of my favorite Ethiopian jazz saxophonist. Cool...

T.E. said...

I, too, think it wouldn't be the worst idea for BES to take some time out. I'm also dismayed by the record of grad admissions in my own (soon to be former) top-10 program, because it seems to be weighted so heavily against students from regional schools. Our dept sent out a list of the undergrad schools of this year's admits, and it gives some perspective on how hard the admissions game is. Here's the list, names of individuals redacted:

BA, Reed College
BA, Columbia University
BA, Reed College
AB, Dartmouth College
BA in progress, University of Pennsylvania
BA, University of Notre Dame
BA, Univ. of Pennsylvania
AB, Princeton University
BA, University of Wisconsin
BA, University of California,  Irvine
BA, William and Mary
BA, UNC Chapel Hill
BA, Wesleyan University
AB, Harvard University
BA, John Carroll University
BA, Clemson University
BA in progress, University of Oxford
BA, University of Tulsa
BA in progress, New York University
AB, Cornell University
BA in progress, University of Virginia
BA, University of Cambridge
BA, University of Michigan
BA, University of Hong Kong
BA, University of California, Berkeley
BA in progress, University of Chicago
BA, Vassar College

That's 27 offers of admission, total, from an applicant pool of around 700. (No, that's not a typo.)
Of those, only 3 are from US schools without national reputation (i.e. not either very highly selective SLAC/state flagship/major private research U/place with top reputation in the field), and one of those, to my knowledge, is already an MFA student in the admitting department. Only 5 were admitted while still finishing their BAs, and what that list doesn't reveal but that I know from reading folders in past years is that the vast majority who make it to the final round of admissions decisions have been out of undergrad for a minimum of a year, usually several, doing some combination of a standalone MA and life/work experience. The prejudice against people from no-name schools is bad, but the prejudice in favor of more mature students is good, I think. This won't make BES feel wonderful, but I think it does help put the bad news in perspective. (And also, it's good to emphasize that the 3-or-so-percent of applicants who make it as far as admission to a big-name program will *still* face lousy prospects on the market.)

Mumfacolyte said...

"Take some time out"(from life)? The old lie is having a hard time dying...

Dr. Crazy said...

Mumfacolyte - you're a new commenter over here, but I don't see how your comment actually responds to the post that I wrote or to any of the comments that precede yours. When people have talked about taking a few years, we're all talking about going out and living life away from an academic context (though I'm not entirely certain that one is not "living" if one is in an academic context, and I think that to suggest that is the case is really problematic). And I don't think anybody has uttered a peep about a life of the mind, or told any big lies in this space. So either you need to read more carefully before you leave comments (and perhaps read the archive of posts on this blog where I talk about advising students in relation to graduate school), or you need to keep your comments to yourself. If I'm misunderstanding you, I apologize for being abrupt, but I'm really not sure what your point is, though it does seem to be rude, whatever it is.

Academic, Hopeful said...

Part of my studies looks at how a job's competitiveness enhances its status and mystique, even to the extent that some aspirants don't really even know what the role is or whether it is actually what they want to do. So I think your advice is sound - I don't think a few years' of work in the direction that is her passion would prevent her from reapplying, and may indeed give her the perspective and extra sparkle she needs.

Dr. Crazy said...

Janice and Shane - thanks for your comments! And Shane - BES is already graduated and has already taken this year off, which was SO a good thing for her, and again, I think a few more years out of academe would not at all be a bad thing, if those are the cards she's dealt this year. As for insisting that students take time off in between BA and grad school, I don't actually think that's always the best option for all students, but part of my resistance to that is that I took no time off - and one reason I didn't was because I knew I'd never go back and another is bec. I'd be in repayment on student loans and also bec. I had very little family support I could count on in terms of money for going and bec. of any number of reasons that were specific to me, both in terms of context and in terms of personality. So while I do advise students that time off can be a Very Good Thing, if a student is hell bent on going straight on, and gives me a good rationale, and I think he or she can hack it, I support them, though I often advise those students to go into an MA program first, so that there's less of a toll if they decide after two years that they are out - which is what my Most Brightest Student before BES ended up deciding, incidentally, after she got her MA at a top 25 program, and in spite of her grad profs encouraging her to continue on to the PhD right after the MA.

T.E. - thanks so much for commenting, and for providing that list! This is pretty much what I suspect is the case for many programs, even if they are far outside the top 10, and it was definitely the case in my PhD granting program, which is one of the reasons I felt like such a loser for my first year or so, although I did soldier on and tough it out to the point that I felt like, "screw these people with their fancy degrees! I deserve to be here!" and then I became one of the few in program who got a job while ABD, which was, I've got to say, really sweet, given my humble beginnings, even if all those Elite School BAs who were in my grad school cohort treated me like a sellout and a loser for having done so. "The smartest people I know can't even get interviews!" Yeah, right. Screw that.

Academic, Hopeful - I think this is your first time commenting here - welcome! And your research sounds really interesting!

Mumfacolyte said...

I don't think I intended it in the way that you took it. Maybe I'm too tired to express myself clearly (or am merely muddled). So I accept your apology, and offer you mine in return, for the misunderstanding. I appreciate abruptness.


Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for commenting back, Mumfacolyte, and you gotta love apologies all around :) Anyway, don't be shy about commenting again. I understand tired, and I also understand muddled, as I'm both a lot of the time at this point in the semester, and was likely one or the other yesterday, too.

Psycgirl said...

I don't know, call me innocent but I'm with BES' dad. If she doesn't get in this year and she still wants to go, why not apply again next year? At least in my field, it can take a few rounds of applications. I think if you survive that rejection and still want to go, it's a good sign.

Ann said...

T.E.'s list of pedigrees admitted to hir grad program is sobering. My sense is that it is a VERY tough year for grad admissions in History, too. A very talented student of mine with a B.A. and an M.A. from Baa Ram U. (she's already given a conference paper, as an M.A. student!) got only one admissions offer with a graduate fellowship--fortunately for her, it's a very generous one at a very good uni that will give her lots of TLC and solid mentoring, I think. But, I'm rather surprised that she was out-and-out rejected by some programs that have previously offered my students fellowships.

And, I agree with you that taking more than another year, and getting more work experience (whether in a related field or not) would not be the worst thing in the world. I don't know about you, Dr. C., but the smartest and most successful people in my grad program were people who were in their late 20s, not their early 20s, when they started their degrees. I think there's an intellectual maturity that comes in the late 20s that can't really be faked or rushed. (I think it's one reason I was such a late bloomer intellectually, if indeed I can be said to have bloomed at all!)