Figs and Hedgehogs

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

– The Bell Jar

Ever since I read The Bell Jar in college, this passage has haunted me. It haunts me because I am greedy and ambitious and picky about what I imagine my life will turn out to be. I used to have a list of alternative careers that I would pursue if I had more one life to live, but in order to keep the figs from wrinkling up at my indecision, I decided to choose just one and pursue it with all my might. I shut all the other options out because I was certain that I wanted to be a hedgehog and not a fox (a la Archilochus). I wanted to be the best at one big thing, rather than know many things. I didn’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades, a master of none.

But I am also greedy. And even as I hold the fruit that is already in my hands, I mourn the loss of all the other possibilities life could have held for me. I could have been a travel photographer. I could have been a screenwriter. I could have been an art gallery curator or a hot-shot editor for The New Yorker. But I was afraid. Afraid of picking the wrong path. Afraid of failing. “I wanted each and every one of them,” but somehow I felt that “choosing one meant losing all the rest.” And I think the indecision comes from the fear of choosing wrong, the fear that you can’t see where this narrative arc will lead you.

This is not to say that academia was a safe choice or a second choice. In fact, of all the figs, I probably picked the most ridiculously difficult one to attain (especially given current trends, i.e. the odds of securing a tenure-track job are at ~8% and dropping nationwide and the academy has begun responding by accepting fewer PhD students each year). And this is also not to say that I regret it or that I feel as if I’ve picked wrong. But to some degree, I feel like, in my fear that indecision and wavering would cause me to freeze up and stagnate, I failed to give myself the space to play around with different options and to explore what was really possible.

I chose the path that I am currently on my senior year in high school. And the truth is, I’ve been afraid to look back and reassess that decision, to open myself up to the entire fig tree again and say, “pick again.” More and more though, I think I see the necessity of facing that uncertainty and diving into new territory. In doing so, I think this will be more of a recalibration than a complete overhaul, an adjustment of sorts. But I want to give myself the option of pursuing other things, smashing unconnected topics and fields together, and seeing what will become of it all.

I want to allow myself to not plan because there’s no way I can possibly know where things will lead. I just want to be passionate about the things that I love and not worry just yet about how it will all fit together. And somehow, I think this will open doors that I didn’t know existed and – hopefully – lead to a happier me in the end. I think it’s time to stop doing what “makes sense” and just do what gets me excited in the morning.

This is all a very convoluted way of saying that the way I do my scholarship is about to change dramatically (starting with my oral exam lists) and I hope you (and my graduate program) will bear with me long enough to see exactly why this is the best move for me.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

– Steve Jobs

Cool Beans

So… I keep promising to update more regularly, and then I disappear for a number of months. What’s up with that? It’s probably because I never pinky promised and only pinky promises make for binding contracts. 😛 In all seriousness though, grad school has me pretty swamped and a lot has changed in my life since I last posted (I’d like to think I’ve grown up a bit). I probably won’t be able to write that much the rest of this semester since paper season is upon us, but I thought this was exciting enough to share: I’m officially signed up to TA a Shakespeare class! That’s right. If you’re an undergrad at UVA, you can now sign up for my discussion section. Awesome possum.

Woe to the PhD Student

A good friend of mine who is interested in going to law school sent me this link a few days ago comparing the job market prospects of law students and PhD students.

Almost everyone going into academia pretty much knows that finding a tenure-track job will take a great deal of determination, good luck, good timing, and a downpour of fairy dust. With all things being equal, a select few get the job and many other qualified candidates don’t. My departmental honors advisor told me (paraphrased), “You should go to grad school because you want to learn, you want to enrich your mind. Don’t expect to find a job at the end of it. If you’re OK with simply immersing yourself in a passion that you love with no expectation that your degree will be worth anything, then go to graduate school.” (Tangent: which, of course, is why it perplexes me when fellow undergrads say, “Oh the job market sucks. I can’t find a job. I guess I’ll just go to grad school.” I’m going to grad school because I’m willing to be worked like a slave and live around the poverty line for love of literature. You want to go to grad school because you have nothing better lined up? Don’t insult me.)

I get mixed feelings when people tell me they want to go to graduate school too. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that someone is considering a career in academia not only because I personally can’t imagine doing anything else with my life but also because it’s such a great feeling to find someone who feels such enormous passion for their field. And yet, on the other hand, I worry that they don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into. They don’t know what’s involved with grad school; they don’t know the difference between an MA and a PhD; they don’t know the job market or even what the job entails and they don’t know how high the bar is set. I feel an urge to warn them, as my parents vigorously warned me, but I also don’t want to dismiss their hopes when my own are so high as well.

Sometimes, however, it does an aspiring scholar good to humble himself with the facts.

This article is not a comprehensive study, but it does give an indication of the state of the field.

In a humanities graduate program, this is what is required of you:

These programs almost always take at least six years, but often upwards of a decade, to complete. It’s common that students learn two foreign languages, though students are required to learn as many as four (e.g. Classic programs frequently require two modern and two ancient languages). By their graduation, it’s expected that students will have a distinguished record of presenting papers in professional conferences and publishing articles in professional journals, in addition, of course, to writing a dissertation which is supposed to be an original contribution to their field. These expectations are part of the reason that so few students actually complete their programs. Whereas almost everyone who enters a top-tier law school graduates, top Ph.D. programs in the humanities often have attrition rates of 50% or more. And again, among these noble few, 92% will fail to find tenure-track jobs. It’s fully expected that a Ph.D. candidate who has any hope of gaining employment anywhere should have a command of her subject that will rival junior professors in her department.

It’s not uncommon for applications for entry level, tenure-track positions to include five or more published articles and a dissertation published by a noted press (such as Cambridge or Oxford) that’s been reviewed by the leading scholars in the field. And we’re talking about hundreds of these applications for a single job that might pay $40,000 to $60,000.

Here’s what the job market looks like:

The market for Ph.D.s in philosophy of the mid 1990s was far better than it is currently, but still was farworse that the legal market of today. One widely reported study (from the Review of Metaphysics, September of 1996) showed that of 341 Ph.D.s granted in 1995-1996, only 6 had secured tenure track jobs in top 15 ranked philosophy departments by 1998 and only 11 more had landed jobs anywhere in the top 50 departments. So, of 341 Ph.D.s, only 26 found tenure-track positions within two years of graduation, or a whopping 7.6% placement rate. Put another way, 92% of Ph.D.s in philosophy failed to find tenure-track positions during this period.

Let’s all just agree that if only 7.6% of law graduates had found associate level employment within 2 years of graduation, there would be rioting in the streets. Moreover, those Ph.D. numbers are from the mid-1990’s days of wine and roses. Today it’s far worse. Duke University, a top-30 philosophy department, announced that they’re not accepting students into their Ph.D. program next year (presumably because of the current economic climate). Indiana University of Pennsylvania is requiring its faculty to explain why they shouldn’t eliminate their philosophy major altogether. Anecdotally, I know quite a few recent Ph.D.s from top 15 schools, and the vast majority of them are either severely underemployed or have left the job market all together.

And this isn’t restricted to philosophy either. In History, English and other disciplines in the humanities, the market for tenure-track posts has been extremely constrained for years. With dramatic cuts in government educational spending and corresponding cutbacks in private institutions, market conditions have become downright harrowing. Graduates of institutions outside the top twenty are likely to never find a tenure-track position at all, and even graduates from top 10 schools are likely to spend years on the market taking adjunct and terminal positions as they wait for a tenure-track position to open. Even when you get one, jobs are apparently never safe in academia. Kings College (London) is forcing all of its humanities professors to reapply for their jobs in the coming year, and the same is being required by a small university in Texas.

Whereas everyone else is so excited to graduate and be done with school, we’ve signed ourselves up for another decade’s worth. Whereas everyone else is competing for the big bucks, we content ourselves with poverty-level paychecks. Secretly, I think all grad students are just a little bit masochistic. :]

Today, Pursuing Academia Means…

… giving up Coachella to go to an academic conference. This weekend, while I was in Missoula for NCUR, several of my friends went to Indio, CA to see Jay-Z, Muse, Thom Yorke, and Gorillaz (among many many other amazing bands). Their pictures have been popping up all over my Facebook newsfeed for the last few days and I can’t help but be jealous. Clearly, their weekend was more epic than mine. (Although I did get to see a traditional Native American pow-wow and “meet” the Governor of Montana!)

More and more, I’m finding that pursuing academia means something different everyday. Tomorrow, it means giving up an A Fine Frenzy concert to oversee a Mark Twain Reading Marathon for Sigma Tau Delta. In August, it will mean moving away from the people I love to live on the other side of the country. For the next five years, it will mean earning one-fourth the starting salary of my engineering pals. In the future, it might mean putting off having children. It might mean never earning enough to buy my dream house. It might mean never having enough time for myself. Pursuing academia means missing out on a lot of fun. It means making sacrifices. Sometimes sacrifices so big you wonder if one day you’ll regret it.

Academia can be a cruel mistress. A professor of mine once told me that you should only pursue an academic career path if you honestly can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. You’re either in or you’re out. Go big or go home. There can be no wavering. You need to love your field that much, or else you won’t make it. Or else, you shouldn’t even bother. “Are you really willing to give up everything for some dead playwrights?” I can just hear my dad say. The years are long, the jobs are few, the pay is low, the work is hard. At the end of it all, you count up the sacrifices and wonder, “Is this all worth it?”

But pursuing academia also means many many beautiful, Coachella-level-amazing things too. And for now, those things are enough to make the sacrifices seem petty in comparison (after the occasional 10-min pityfest moment of weakness). Besides, I’ve always been a stubborn child. When people tell me I can’t have it all, I sense a challenge, a demand to prove them wrong. Maybe there will be sacrifices along the way, but I won’t let myself miss out on the important things. I will have it all one day. Even if “all” doesn’t include camping out at fancy music festivals (Hey, this could still happen one day. 🙂 )

Meet Me in Montana!

Guess where I am?

University of Montana

Missoula, Montana! I just finished the first day of this year’s National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) and am having a lovely time with my roomie (and bestie)… doing homework. Hey, we’re at a nerdfest research conference – what else would you expect?

As I was in the middle of reading Byron’s Don Juan, a list of goals began to creep into my head. A list of crazy ridiculous over-reaching things I want to accomplish before graduation. But I suppose this isn’t new news to people who know me. I like setting big hard-to-reach goals. I make secret lists on Microsoft Word. I write them on colored post-its and stick them on my walls and closet doors. I constantly remind myself of the things I want so that I’ll get to work and make things happen. Some of them work out (i.e. my GRE score goals). And some of them don’t (i.e. becoming a Rhodes Scholar – darn that athletic requirement!). But what I really relish is that rush of knowing that there is this amazing thing out there that could be yours if only you worked a little harder.

Lately, however, I’ve been floundering a little. It’s hard to motivate yourself when you’re technically “finished with everything.” Senioritis hits and you’re supposed to finally RELAX and enjoy your last quarter in college. But I am a sad workoholic, which I guess makes me a horrible “second semester senior.” I feel gross and lazy when I’m not doing anything. Which is why I’m so excited to finally be inspired again and have a new list of semi-realistic goals. In March, my dad told me not to let my last quarter go to waste and I’m going to make sure that it doesn’t. Watch out, UCLA! I’m going to go out with a bang (and not a whimper like T.S. Eliot suggests).

P.S. This post was a bit of a bait-and-switch because YOU thought it was going to be about the conference, but really it was about my love of ridiculous goal-setting. I’m so tricky. 🙂

Office Hour Daydreams

A little more than a year ago, I was at office hours with my 10C (English lit, 1832 to present) professor. I had gone to look over my final exam and our conversation went something like this (the important part that I wish to highlight anyways):

Professor X: “So who was your TA?”

Me: “Oh, I had R—”

Professor X: “R—? That’s wonderful. R— is such a clever girl.

This may seem like a very silly mundane conversation to remember and recount, but I think about this short exchange every so often because it is something that I want a professor of mine to say about me one day. A clever girl is smart and witty and dedicated and full of potential. A clever girl is going to go places. A clever girl is going to be amazing  and wow people everywhere she goes.

Some day, when my name comes up in conversation, I want a professor to say, “If anyone can make it, it’s Sophia.” Some day, I want to be a clever girl too.

Some Snow Would Be Nice

I’ve known for about a month now, but this week I finally made a commitment and accepted a fellowship offer from the University of Virginia! This means that I will be moving across the country to Charlottesville, VA in the fall (East Coast, here I come!) and embarking on an excitingly exhausting English nerdfest. In the spirit of things, I’d like to present my list of:


1. The official incorporated name for UVA is “The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.” What a mouthful! (But also kind of awesome.)

2. This year, Forbes named UVA as one of the World’s Most Beautiful College Campuses. The town of Charlottesville has also been consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the US.

3. Started by Thomas Jefferson (the only US President to found an institution of higher learning), UVA stands on land purchased by James Monroe. James Madison was also a Rector of the University. The three presidents’ homes are all located near the University. Definitely on my list of places to go see! I hear July 4th at Monticello is amazing.

4. Tina Fey (’92) and Katie Couric (’79) graduated from UVA! Georgia O’Keeffe and Edgar Allan Poe also attended UVA (although Poe had to drop out after his first year because he lost his tuition money to gambling). UVA was also home to William Faulkner who donated a huge portion of his writing/collection to the Alderman library upon his death.

5. Every year in March, Charlottesville hosts the Virginia Festival of the Book.

6. UVA is the only university to be designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (together with Monticello).

7. Just as UVA likes to call itself the University, it also uses the definite article for various campus locations: the Grounds, the Lawn, the Rotunda, and the Range, in addition to the Corner on University Avenue.

8. The University is home to a number of secret societies, who leave signs of their existence around campus.

9. UVA has an Honor System where students “make a commitment not to lie, cheat, or steal.”  Established with the purpose of creating a community of trust, the honor code allows faculty to give timed take-home exams and students to purchase books on campus by giving his or her word to pay. Very cool.

10. Charlottesville gets an average of 24 inches of snow each year! And 44 inches of rainfall! *super excited* I love it when things fall from the sky. :]

Of course it doesn’t hurt that UVA has a top-ranked English PhD program.  I can’t wait to become a Cavalier!

I am uber uber excited about going to grad school at UVA and hope that you will continue to follow Sophialiteraria as I embark on this next chapter of my life. Thanks for all your support throughout this process, guys!

(All facts without linked citations come from the Wikipedia page.)

Sigma Tau Delta Convention: Day One

1:00 AM Central Time – I should be asleep. But instead I am sitting on the checkered carpet of a hotel room in St. Louis, tapping away on my laptop. And other than a long nap on a 3 ½ hour plane ride (and a 30 min nap the night before), I have been awake now for 36 hours. Why oh why? You might ask. Let’s back track a little.

It’s finals week; not only do I have a final from 8-11 AM the day I need to leave for the Sigma Tau Delta Convention, but I also need to finish my delightfully long senior thesis. Solution: (as always) turn into Sophia the machine who doesn’t need sleep and runs on caffeine and adrenaline. Except this epic study monster secretly yearns for her blue pillow (fondly named Bloopy) and the ability to stop time so that she can take a nap without wasting time. I once met a girl who said that Napoleon only slept four hours a day and her goal was to one day achieve his level of dedication and sleep deprivation. Now personally, I love sleep a little too much for that. But there are definitely days when I understand the sentiment of wanting more hours in a day.

Anyways, long story short, I pulled one crazy all-nighter, sleep-wrote my Shakespeare final, threw all my conference clothes into a suitcase, and zoomed off to the airport. And now here I am in my awesome hotel room at the Hyatt, with an awesome view of the Arch, which I share with three awesome girls from The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). The rest of this week is going to be filled with awesomeness. Except – plot twist – I still need to finish that thesis before Friday at noon.

Will Sophia finish her thesis in time? Will she find time to enjoy her conference experience? Or will she have to drown herself in the Mississippi in disgrace when she fails to complete her mission? Find out next time on Sophialiteraria! 🙂

(I wonder if this is what the life of an academic is like: jetting off to distant cities, conversing about Jersey accents in hotel bars, and catching up on that never-ending pile of work late at night. I love it all. Reason #327 to become a professor: fantastic travel opportunities.)

Thinking, Drinking, Sinking Feeling

Graduate admissions season is tough on the psyche. Especially when graduation is only three months away and you hear stories about hoards of unemployed recent graduates across the country. You start to imagine yourself as a hobo living in a cardboard box, or (perhaps even worse) as Alexis Bledel in “Post Grad,” living at home with the parents. And then you start dreaming up crazy back-up plans like becoming a professional blogger or opening up a cute cafe/bookstore. You wonder what kind of job or career or life you can live with and question why the hell you decided to graduate from college early in a bad economy. You even start to concede that maybe your parents were right when they disapprovingly told you the day you declared yourself an English major that a person couldn’t subsist on imaginary crumpets alone.

Unfortunately, for the past month, I have also been unhealthily scouring decision results on I swear, that website will drive you insane if you check it night and day. (The one positive I guess is that you get notice that rejections are coming out so you aren’t as surprised when they do arrive.) So basically, I’ve been a crazy emotional ranting maniac worrywart all of February. But don’t worry, kids! I got some good news over the weekend so I think the crazies have past. I’m still waiting on exactly half of my schools, but just knowing that I’ll be going to graduate school somewhere this fall is a great relief. PLUS, I got this awesome fortune cookie today that reads:

“Your dearest wish will come true within the month!”

Good omens! Although I do have many equally-weighted “dearest wishes” so it might turn out to be something else. Like finding a closet to Narnia. Or owning a LOLcat. Or growing a book tree, shoe tree, or cupcake tree. Mmmm… 🙂

Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss It

Life for the graduating senior really moves way too fast. The last time I posted, I was happily savoring my second academic conference and dreaming about the pleasures of research. Unfortunately, literally the day after the conference, my life became consumed by graduate school applications. From ordering GRE scores to mailing two dozen transcripts to chasing down fee waivers, my days quickly became filled with frantic runs to the post office and calls to departments about tedious procedural issues. Not to mention personal statements and writing samples to edit and personalize for each program. Every school has different requirements and little details like “Do you send it to the Graduate Division or the department?” or “Official or unofficial transcript? (And all colleges attended or just your degree-granting institution?)” will slowly start to drive you insane. I think I really underestimated how stressful it would be to apply to twelve PhD programs while still taking 17 units worth of classes and working on a senior thesis. It definitely didn’t help that my first and second round of deadlines were during and immediately after finals. For the massive number of schools with a December 15 deadline (Tuesday after finals week), I basically ended up ordering pizza, making ramen, and working on applications around the clock. While I made all my deadlines and do feel like I represented myself very well, I would have appreciated having a bit more time (and being less stressed out).

So I guess my most important advice to future applicants who aren’t taking a gap year is this: start early and allocate as much time for applications as you would a core class. Take your GRE and subject test early – preferably during your junior year. Research and finalize your program choices over summer. During Fall quarter, take a light course load and ease off the extracurriculars. Of course there are a lot of other things you should do to increase your chances of getting into a program, but the bottom line is that if you don’t take the time to present yourself in the best light, then all the work you’ve done to make yourself competitive will be completely useless.

However, even though application season was like a hellish nightmare, there were also moments when the process really made me appreciate why I wanted to go to graduate school in the first place. While researching faculty interests, I quickly found myself immersed in the research of those professors whose articles I had cited and whom I greatly admired. In reading their works, you indirectly engage with the greatest minds in your specialty and you desperately hope to one day get the opportunity to learn anything and everything from them. At some point in the application process, it dawns on you that this time next year, you might be studying under the likes of Stephen Greenblatt, Jeffrey Knapp, or David Scott Kastan. And it’s absolutely thrilling.

Since the new year, I’ve given myself a few weeks to wind down, but recently things are picking up again. I’m going over the unit cap again with 22 units and 5 classes this quarter so there really isn’t that much room to slack off. My senior thesis (40-60 pgs!) is due in March (my tentative draft deadline though is February 15) so I think I’ll be focusing mostly on that for the next few weeks. I also just got a research assistant position under my Shakespeare professor this week AND I still have two midterms, a few quizzes, two papers, and three finals left in the next six weeks so it will be a hard run to the finish.

The view on the other side of this quarter is going to be great though. I will be presenting at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention in St. Louis in March the day after my last final and at the University of Montana, Missoula in April for the National Conference for Undergraduate Research (NCUR). By then, I’ll have heard back from all my schools and the annual Westwind/Aleph Conference in May will be a nice cap to my senior year. Then graduation!

In four months and one week, my “college years” will be over and the days of just pretending to be grown up will be gone. Am I ready to be a grad student, live alone in a new town, and fend for myself? Am I ready to be a grown up? Just thinking about it takes my breath away.