Post Academic

Going to grad school, part 2: The intangibles

Following up on my post yesterday on the factors that went into my grad school decision, I wanted to discuss the intangibles that helped me make my choice.  Caroline’s post from earlier today on checking out the atmosphere of a department already addresses many of the points I wanted to make, but I figured I can give a concrete example of what she was discussing–plus, you can’t have a part 1 without a part 2.

The intangibles: I’d say that making a good impression cuts both ways.  For me, it was turning in a thoughtful, carefully edited application, which was a bit difficult since I was allowed to turn in my rushed, typo-filled undergrad thesis for at least one of my applications.  But once I was admitted to a few programs and schools started making their pitches, the initial vibe I got went far in my decision-making process.

I was accepted first to the obviously more prestigious school of the two between which I was choosing, though how I was notified was something of a comedy of errors and a not-so-smooth sign of things to come.  I received a call one day, much earlier than I expected to hear back from schools, asking me to fill out a form which would help the department push for a better funding package for me.  At this point, my antennae went up, and, despite trying not to jump to conclusions, got the sense that I had been accepted to one of my two top choices.  The staffer on the other end of the call then figured out that maybe the admissions chair hadn’t contacted me regarding my acceptance, but had to, in some unofficial way, suggest to me that I was indeed in.  As a result, I made a quick appointment to drop off the form (the school was local), in order to confirm that I was accepted to the program.

Unfortunately, this very first interaction was pretty much par for the course with some of the basic operations of this particular program.  The admissions chair, after having a nice recruiting lunch with me, pretty much neglected responding to me emails and calls, something to do with a spring break vacation in the desert.  Then I found out later that my funding package might have been stronger if the department hadn’t gotten the (wrong) idea that I already had outside fellowships.  And I also discovered years later through a friend of a friend that I wouldn’t have fit in at the school, since I seemed too conservative, being a Stanford grad and all–this was the most stinging slight!  That isn’t to say they didn’t try hard to recruit me and that people weren’t well-meaning and trying to be helpful: Despite the fact that the admissions chair basically wasn’t doing the appointed job, the dept’s best- known “superstar” was really generous with her/his time and probably talked to me about my decision more than anyone else had.  All-in-all, though, I didn’t get a great vibe about how things worked in this program, even though I was much more inclined to attend due to its innovative program and the great location.

In contrast, I didn’t really want to choose to go to UC Irvine, which I wouldn’t have heard of except that some of my college friends had taken summer school classes there to avoid the weeder bio lectures at Stanford.  But somehow, UCI had pretty much the best critical theory program during the heyday of critical theory and, of course, Jacques Derrida taught there (although my closest interaction with him would be having him sign my drop card, with him filling in the scantron dots to make sure I wasn’t going to turn it into an add card!).  UCI was pretty much the opposite of the other option: Despite seeming like a totally uninteresting place to live that was not unlike the suburb in which I grew up, the administration was really, really together, producing a generous offer, helping me with my residency status, setting up plane tickets for me to visit, following up with me on pretty much every matter, and answering every question.  And it passed Caroline’s atmosphere test too: The students and prospective students all seemed like nice people who enjoyed going to school at UCI, joined together, in no small part, because Irvine was a boring suburb.  Now maybe it wasn’t going always be like this after the hard sell, but, between the better money and the stronger intangibles, it wasn’t really much of a choice.

Being a 20-something contrarian, I was able to turn things around in my head and tell myself that the practical, safe choice was also the less conventional one that I couldn’t imagine myself making: I was passing over a “dream school” that everyone in the world knows for a university I had barely heard of (sell that one to the parents!), as well as moving away from my friends and one of the more ideal late-1990s cultural scenes to a proto-suburb.  But one thing I learned from the process all those years ago that I should keep telling myself now that it’s okay to find myself in a position I didn’t really foresee and envision.  Sometimes, the right choices don’t have predictable or manageable outcomes, but that’s okay.

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  1. You’re right. Never underestimate the importance of a department’s having its sh&t together. If the department can’t handle your financial aid/fellowship, then it won’t be able to handle the complex paperwork that will be involved when you’re applying for jobs. Prestige only goes so far!

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