You got this.
This year, I applied to doctoral programs in American Literature. There was a time when this phrase was frightening, or distant, or inspirational; today, it is a fact. I’m writing this at the close of my last application. All applications are in- all twelve. This process wasn’t easy, and I didn’t come out of it unscathed. But it’s done, and I’m happy to state that.
I wrote a post about my decision not to apply last year. (you can read that post here) It was one of the most difficult experiences of my academic career. I had to carry on my day, pretending a goal I worked on for years was now non-existent. I thought about what I wanted and what life was asking of me. I have a good job and I like the direction my life is going, but then for a moment, time would stop, and I would think to myself, No….I want to keep going. Those moments are the best- you swim in an ocean of possibilities, and memories, and hope. A goal was in front of me, one grasp away. I have to keep going. Once time started up again, I had to ask myself serious questions: how do I make myself a more qualified applicant? What can I do to improve my chances when applying? After talking to my mentors and friends, there were a few things that could help. I went to conferences in order to learn more about my field and to improve my fluency in the subject. (read about that here) I applied to scholarships and had some pretty great experiences. (and here). I retook some exams. (also here) While I enjoyed these experiences, something pretty cool was starting to happen- I was becoming the scholar I’ve always wanted to be. And so, I applied again.
Even though I was preparing and coming up with application strategies, it was really hard to feel like my position as a scholar was any better than last year. I needed something to drastically improve my chances. Then, a funny thing happened…..I won a scholarship to visit one of my top choices for schools, University of Chicago. This was a great experience. I met wonderful people, including faculty members in the English department, UChicago grad students, and other PhD bound students. It was a great few days. While there were a lot of great things that happened, one particular moment soon became a booster shot of confidence- one of the faculty members said I was a gifted writer based on my application ( XD!!! ) It was a phrase said simply in passing, yet that sentence soon became the phrase that galvanized this application season. It felt like the opposite of imposter syndrome- I was here and it was a good thing that I was here. After the trip, I came home and immediately went to work. I started drafting essays, doing research on the universities I was applying to, and trying to learn how to discuss my academic interests within two pages. (Simple, right? ) I spent hours in front of my computer, typing, editing, scrapping, trying to come up with something good. Drafting almost felt like drowning, where it consumed me, and I couldn’t see an end in sight. This is where the power of words started to kick in. My friends did this really great thing where they would periodically (like, every other hour [I’m not joking]) text me, saying “You Got This”. It was these little proverbs that really fueled me- words became constructs that had real value, and I cashed them in like poker chips. They kept me going, and could not have served a better purpose.
I want to live a rich life; anything else is an obstacle to happiness
I retook the GRE earlier this year. This has always been my Achilles heel, and this year (unfortunately) was no different. I didn’t get the score I was shooting for. It was tough seeing that because I did (or thought I did) all of the tips and practices that should have helped me get that desired score. It just didn’t happen. I studied my books, every day for a couple of hours a day; I took practice exams to help me prep for that moment; I downloaded vocabulary and GRE prep apps on my phone and used them every day on the train ride home. I was doing good. But I guess it wasn’t good enough. I got a hair past my previous best score- in a way, that’s a win in itself; looking at what these schools are asking for however, it’s difficult to call it that. It was kinda funny- I thought I was doing well. The books I studied taught me strategy, and I was able to see the patterns they mentioned. Then I saw my score. The only patterns present were those reminding me that this exam is not my strong suit. One thing that happened that me threw me was the amount of sections I had to do- initially, I thought I was going to do two sections of verbal, two of math, but on that day, there was an extra verbal section. I’m filling in my answers, thinking I’m going to do well, until this third section comes, and my self-esteem plummets- I’m sitting in a chair in an isolated room, then a pile of steel beams falls on top of me. That’s what it was like.
There was also the analytical writing. Here, I think I did okay. Thanks to thinking about writing profusely, from teaching writing, writing this blog, and thinking about editing my essays, I’m a bit more confident here. This was the first portion of the exam, so I felt good. (maybe too good?) I remembered what happened last time, when I took this exam, and it deterred me from applying. I told myself, that will not happen again- this exam will not take me down. One of the essay questions asked me to analyze a passage and describe whether I agree with it or not. The passage was (something like) “When you succeed, no matter how you got there, you’re doing something right”. I read this and thought about how I’m supposed to answer this question- I need to discuss what certain words suggest, what are its social implications, possibly think of an application I can elaborate on. But then I thought, I do well when I am me- I need to be me, even here; if I have an opinion, I need to share it. I responded by saying how I disagree with this, then went one step further- in my response, I wrote, “A better phrase to learn from would be, ‘I want to live a rich life; anything else is an obstacle to happiness'”. This exam is not indicative of my strengths. Writing this helped me remind me of that.
Win, lose, or draw
Earlier when I said, I didn’t leave unscathed, it wasn’t just figurative language. The entire process was really difficult to get through. One problem I had was juggling applications while working. Some of my applications were due during the thick of finals week. That meant trying to finish my Statement of Purpose essays (essays that summarize your research interests and “fit” for the school) while planning Final exam prompts and attending committee meetings. This led to missing out on a few applications. There was a program I really wanted to apply to in my state, but I was so busy with teaching, it just didn’t happen. Concurrently, writing these essays ended up becoming one of the most rewarding experiences. I ended up producing writing I was really proud of. Thanks to the feedback I received from my mentors and the correspondence I established from the schools I was most interested in, I ended up writing really great drafts. These weren’t just good; they are product of pushing myself and holding my writing to a standard I’ve never had before. One night, I drafted an essay for eight hours straight, trying to get it as close to perfect as possible. To write an SOP is to be a blacksmith- your ideas are a hot, glowing piece of iron, and now you have to take a hammer to it, and beat it down, over and over and over again. By the end, you’re tired, you’re sweaty, and dirty, and then you look at your finished project- a polished sword that can cut through anything. It’s marvelous. I wrote something that exceeded my expectations tenfold. That alone is something to be proud of.
There’s a scene from one of my favorite movies, Cinderella Man (2005; based on real life boxer Jimmy Braddock) where Braddock fights Max Baer for a championship title. After the first twelve rounds, sitting at his corner, bloodied but not beaten, Braddock’s manager looks at him, putting his hands on his shoulders, and he tells him, “Win, lose, or draw…”, purposely not finishing the sentence. I wrote a really good piece of writing, putting my heart and soul into every word. I don’t know if I’m going to get accepted into any programs this time, but at least I know I did my best, and my best looks pretty damn good.
Being okay with being okay
According to quantum physics, whenever you make a decision, two equal realities are spawned. In one, I get into a program and live a life as a doctoral candidate; in the other, I don’t get accepted, and I continue doing what I’m doing now. They are both wildly different from each other, but are alike in one crucial way: I don’t know what will happen in either one. Last time I applied and didn’t get accepted, it was a huge blow to my being. The best way to describe how it felt was that I did something wrong- it was my fault for not getting accepted. I was rejected. Literally. The only words in my head at that time were….Now what? After the right amount of time spent sulking, I talked to my mentors again. They had great advice to give, and offered real support during this period. Then, like a good breakup, I had to spend some time to myself, and ask the hard questions: what do I want? Is this really for me? Should I keep pursuing this? Last year, I thought, No- of course this is for me. I need write better essays and do a better job marketing myself as a scholar. It’s the logical thing to do. Then I didn’t apply; I didn’t feel I was good enough. The same feeling of emptiness consumed me at my core. Who was I if I wasn’t a scholar? I didn’t even know what I wanted anymore.
Shortly after this period, I took a trip to see Paul Auster lecture in San Francisco. (read about that here) I’ve read a lot of his books; one of my first blog posts was based on an Auster novel I read while working on applications. (Moon Palace) During that trip, I also had a chance to visit the Berkeley campus, a school I’ve always envisioned myself attending. I could feel the genius in the air, walking around with brilliant scholars. As I left the campus, I thought, I’m gonna make it here someday, as if it was inevitable. Later, I attended the Paul Auster discussion. What was supposed to be an enlightening experience became a deflated lecture about his latest book. He was not there to pass on wisdom or unlock the secrets of the universe; he talked about his newly published book, because that’s his job. I didn’t know how to feel after that. Was he not the author I though he was? Is that what a “writer” is? I felt so lost for a while. After coming back home, and working, and drinking a lot of Negronis, the trip’s purpose was finally revealed: it’s okay if things don’t turn out the way you originally wanted to. We are in constant flux, always searching for meaning. This did not add to my discouragement; on the contrary, I now felt more okay with being me. I revisited my applications, had a lot of consultations with my mentors, and figured out my new approach. It’s fairly simple: I’m someone who loves learning. I want to expand my intellectual horizons, as I have been since I began my intellectual pursuit of knowledge. This included learning which schools to apply to, speaking to my interests; Berkely did not include and I had to be okay with not applying there. (also, I’m reading Paul Auster’s latest novel, and it’s amazing) I submitted my applications, knowing that the chances of me getting in are not in my favor, but it’s okay, because if this isn’t it, I’ll make a new route. That’s what I’m known for. After submitting applications, I got back into working out and taking care of myself, I attended a Reza Aslan lecture, and I made time for people close to me. The last time I applied, I was terrified by the results even before hearing the news; today, I’m going to hear back from them and see where it takes me. Whatever happens, I’ll learn to be okay with it.
(In the post I wrote a year ago today, I quoted Shakespeare in closing. I didn’t read as much as last year, but I did come across a pretty cool comic…….)
In the stories of DC’s Green Lantern, there is a character named Kyle Rayner. After the events of Emerald Twilight, where Earth’s first Green Lantern Hal Jordan becomes deranged and destroys the central power battery (a really good summary of this can be found here), Kyle Rayner is chosen to become the next and only Green Lantern. Often called the torchbearer, he learns to wield his newfound powers of creating constructs thanks to his background as an artist. There are a lot of stories about him tapping into his own potential, including becoming a White Lantern, and a diplomat for Earth in Tom King’s Omega Men (highly recommended read). My favorite story is when he becomes Ion, embodying the entire force that powers Green Lantern rings. He then learns that with so much power, his duties must go beyond stopping bad guys, but learning how to protect the universe while not becoming a tyrant, or mistaken for a God. He then restores the power to Oa and a new Green Lanterns corps is born.
Reading this story, I don’t just see a superhero; I see a young, struggling artist, who didn’t have much going for him, until someone who recognized his potential, and gave him the chance to do something good with it, later becoming the positive force the universe needed.
When I began writing this blog, I never sought out to instruct someone how to apply to doctoral programs or give advice on the story; I’m pretty upfront about being unsuccessful at it. I’m just a guy with a goal, and writing about trying to reach it. But if there’s one thing I can pass on or something for you to take from this blog, it’s this:
You are the torchbearer of your dreams