As I write this it is the 23rd of December, a year and seven days since I applied to the Ph.D. program in philosophy at the University of Chicago and seven days before this year’s MAPH application process is closed. As was the case last year, I am spending December 23rd with my wife’s family at the convergence of the Mississippi and the Missouri watching bald eagles stare out over the half-frozen river and writing a few more applications for philosophy Ph.D. programs. However, as nice–or as depressing–a symmetry as this year shares with the last, a few significant things have changed and I’d like to argue that they should be of interest to both those sweating out the long months before admission committees make final decisions on Ph.D. applications and those feverishly polishing applications for University of Chicago’s MAPH program.
1) I’ve learned that not everyone is well-fitted to find fulfillment in the academy.
I realize now that the success that I had reading texts, writing papers, and arguing ideas at an undergrad level–even in a great school with great professors–was no guarantee that I would be ready or even capable of achieving success in those endeavors at the graduate level. I have been blessed–and I have been lucky–to discover that I was capable of far more than I had ever achieved in undergrad–but many discover at a rigorous school like UChicago that they simply are unwilling or unable to rise to U of C’s expectations. In this way, the rigorousness of U of C is blessing and curse. The rigor is a curse in that so many student’s dreams of happy careers as professors are shattered before they are given time to develop the skills necessary for serious academic work. Its rigor is a blessing in that no time is wasted as students play at scholarship before being introduced to its true demands. Sadly, some of my friends will not be returning to the MAPH program next quarter because they have discovered either that they were not up to the challenge that the program represents or because the goals of the program are a poor fit with their own life goals and priorities. I believe that for some future rejects of University of Chicago’s Ph.D. programs those too-small envelopes of denial are blessings and that some who accept invitations to the MAPH will someday consider the big-envelope-you-didn’t-apply-for a curse.
2) I’ve learned that neither getting into a great Ph.D. program, nor being rejected from many secures future failure or success, but flexibility is.
A metric ton of time, effort, and energy went into trying to both be and be perceived as a viable candidate for this or that school’s program last year. Though it hardly seems possible, some of us currently in the MAPH are spending even more time, effort, and energy on becoming better candidates this year. We are willing to do crazy, irrational, and even demeaning things in order to secure a place in a certain school or increase our chances of finding a job. Do you love reading Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Foucault? Well, tough tamales, if you want a place at our school you will need to work on Putnam, Kripke, and Frege! Do you treasure you relationships with undergraduate professors that took a personal interest in helping you become a future scholar? Too bad, if you want a job you will need to exploit those guys while begging a rock star prof to sign your thesis. We are willing to do these things because we are willing to do pretty much anything to find a place to study and another that will let us work. Getting into a great school, or not getting into a great school, marks the first of many times that a potential scholar will either be made or broken by their flexibility in responding to circumstances outside their control.
3) I’ve discovered that I was not prepared to become a different person, but pursuing something at this level is both supremely alienating and supremely humanizing.
Let me put this a simply as I can so that no one can say that I wasn’t perfectly clear: going to a place like the University of Chicago changes you. Sure you learn stuff and you have certain experiences, but that is to be expected. What has–and is–taking some time to get used to are all the unexpected ways that I have become both more myself and less like everyone else. Doing this “academic thing” right–doing it fast and hard and to the nth degree–is nothing less than becoming what you were always meant to be or trying to make your square peg fit into a round hole. However, even when your gifts and proclivities are an ideal fit with the academic life, becoming a “scholar” means looking at the world in a very atypical way and caring passionately about things that few outside your discipline even understand–let alone have strong convictions about.
Further, it is very difficult to communicate just what education at this level is like. I came from a lower-middle class family where college was that prerequisite for employment–but all college educations were of equal value and similar composition. This holiday I’ve had to try to communicate what U of C is like to people who firmly believe that a college is a college is a college and any degree will get you any job. These people are my family and they are my friends, but they don’t understand how it could be that either the value of a degree–or the experience of earning it–could differ so much from a community college, state school, or Ivy institution. Earn an “A” at a garden-variety state school, now earn an “A” from UChicago–I guarantee they are not at all indicative of either the same educational value or the same academic achievement. A=A? Not hardly!
So, this might sound like–if given the keys to a certain Delorean, enough terrorist plutonium, and empty road to reach 88 miles per hour–that I would probably go back in time like the ghost of Christmas Future to warn away my younger self from all the hard truths that I’ve learned–but that is only half the story. I would also tell the me of December 23rd 2010 to look forward to what will probably be one of the most formative and rewarding experiences of his life.