Growing Up 101

Confession: I am a young’un. It just became legal for me to buy alcohol four months ago. I became a first-time car owner at the beginning of this month (it may take years before I can successfully parallel park). The apartment that I live in is the first real lease I’ve ever signed. I’ve never gotten a real monthly paycheck and I’ve never paid taxes. I have just recently mastered getting gas and buying groceries alone (which isn’t quite the same as walking with your roommates into Westwood to get some bread and milk). This is my first time living completely on my own. And I am so so far away from home. In terms of work and life experience, I am a baby compared to the actual adults in the program, many of whom have taught before and several of whom are married. Oddly enough, I’m not very worried about the school aspect of things. I just don’t feel up-to-speed on how to be a grown-up.

Hopefully I’ll get the hang of things soon enough, but whenever I feel young and intimidated, I plan to remind myself of this quote:

“I began by acting like the person I wanted to be, and eventually I became that person.” — Cary Grant

I may be one of the youngest kids in the incoming class, but I’m going to prove that I can run with the big dogs. 🙂

Dear Brain,

I know you are probably already pretty tired from moving your life across the country, starting grad school, and having to deal with all the new pressures of adult life. Not much is required of you just yet, but somehow you feel just a little on edge. You wonder if you will like it in this strange new town and try to fathom how the next five years will pan out. You try to stay calm and act as if you are cool, collected, and confident, but the truth is you are kind of maybe just a little sort of scared sh-tless.

So I thought I’d give you a pep talk and remind you to chill out. To quote the great (albeit eccentric) Bear Grylls, “Keeping morale up is the key to survival.” For Bear Grylls, this means making a nice warm fire and catching (and roasting) some poor critter. For you, this might mean drinking in the gorgeous view of the “Harry Potter room” in Alderman library or seeking out super tasty (and cheap!) seafood in downtown Charlottesville. Indeed, sometimes all it takes is a nice hearty meal to clear away the frustrations of a particularly grueling day. Whatever ritual you develop, find the sparkle in each day and just keep trekking onward. Grad school may be daunting, but as long as you stay positive (you and I both know that is when you are most productive), things will go along swimmingly.

Grad school is going to be puddle-wonderful. You’ll see.



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. :]

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.)

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.

Mental Pep Talk

Exciting news! I finally turned in my letter of recommendation packets on Monday! Which means I can stop fiddling around with my list of schools. I had a list of about 15 places that I liked, but finally narrowed it down to 12, which is the same number of schools I applied to for college (lucky number?). See if you recognize any of these places:

Surprisingly, applying for grad school has actually made me feel more confident about my qualifications for each program. I can be a bit of a perfectionist (especially about English) and I tend to beat myself up and generally have a bad day if I oversleep for class or don’t finish annotating the reading. There have been many many moments in my undergraduate career where I’ve felt like I wasn’t good enough for graduate school. But looking at the responses I’ve gotten over my statement of purpose and CV, I think I’m starting to realise that no one is harder on me than myself and that I need to be more confident about my abilities. If I work really hard, I can get into a top tier PhD program and the only thing stopping me is that silly part of me that says that I’m not good enough.

However, I also know that being a grad student means more responsibility, maturity, and accountability. It means doing what you promise to do and taking initiative to do even more. It means being excellent and engaging even on your off-days. Especially in a new city, it means being independent, taking care of yourself, and learning to endure a lot of lonely nights with a cup of tea and a book. But I firmly believe that life will force you to grow up and take responsibility. A lot of these things are just part of becoming an adult and I will be ready to cross that bridge when I come to it.

Remember to Breathe

This week I focused on finishing up my letter of recommendation packets, which meant that I had to finish writing my statement of purpose, updating my curriculum vitae, and opening online applications for each school. This process ended up taking way longer than expected. Even with Veteran’s Day holiday in the middle of the week, I am still not done. My goal now is to finish everything and get the packets out by Monday because it’s getting perilously close to crunch time.

The only problem is I can’t decide on which introduction to use of the four that I’ve written. I worry that one is too controversial, the other too naive. I don’t know if I should bring up a favorite childhood novel or mention this-and-that theorist. I want to sound intelligent, passionate about literary research, hardworking, and capable. I want to send out a piece of writing that I will be proud of, something that accurately represents me as an English enthusiast and budding scholar and as an awesome possum human being. All in 500-1000 words. Piece of cake, right?


SCCUR 2009 at CSU Dominguez Hills

I think the pressure is really starting to get to me now that eighth week of Fall quarter is approaching. Next Saturday, I’m presenting my 199 research project at the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research (SCCUR) so my presentation has to be revised. I need to publish the latest issue for the research journal; my thesis advisor wants to see a good chunk of my senior thesis written up. And there’s quizzes, finals and grad school applications. Responsibilities are piling up. I just hope I’m not in over my head.

Its days (or weeks) like this when I need a nice pick-me-up. So here’s my happy list for today:

  • Taking a lovely stroll through campus (instead of the usual NYC power walk to class)
  • Eating spicy grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Getting a fast response from Yale about my fee waiver (brownie points from promptness!)
  • Having the whole weekend ahead of me to work on applications
  • Receiving a very nice kiss-and-make-up email from my Milton TA after everyone got mad at him for grading the midterm really hard
  • Reading Madame Bovary on my new Amazon Kindle 🙂
  • Being featured on the UCLA University Librarian’s blog (my thesis project is also the third one listed here!)

I was really excited about the last thing in a nerdy nerdy way. As an undergraduate, one sometimes worries about being seen as inexperienced, unreliable, or unprepared. You worry that people don’t take you seriously or respect your ideas. So it totally makes my day when I feel like I’m slowly being accepted into that shiny magical realm of scholarship.

Six Months Later…

Wow, so I haven’t posted here in a long while. It’s been a hectic few months since I last posted.

Back in May, I presented my 199 research project on collaborative authorship at my first academic conference, the 2009 Westwind/Aleph Conference for Undergraduate Research & Writing. I stayed up the entire night before perfecting my speech and was assigned to moderate for the morning session. All the presenters in my session, “Texts and Contexts,” were seniors presenting their honors thesis papers. It was nerve-wrecking, scary, and exhilarating all at the same time. Hearing each presenter’s research and talking about my own, I felt like I had finally joined the kind of intellectual discourse that I had read about, envied, and desired. And I knew that this was the kind of community that I wanted to be a part of for the rest of my life. I ended up winning a Dean’s Prize for my presentation. Afterwards, exhausted, I collapsed on my bed and slept the next 16 hours away.

The next morning, I woke up feeling tired, sore, and feverish. My lymph nodes were swollen and my throat felt scratchy. It was eighth week of Spring quarter, I was taking a 22-unit course load, and somehow, I had the bad luck of developing mononucleosis. The good news was that I only had a fairly minor case; after two weeks of nothing but sleeping, eating, and dragging my butt to lecture when I could muster up the energy, I was well enough to finish out the quarter, turning in final papers and taking my finals. However, my energy level (and more importantly, my motivation for work) took awhile to get back to normal.

I had originally planned on studying hard for the GRE Literature in English test and working on my senior thesis over the summer. I also wanted to get a head-start on the graduate school applications that were due in December. My parents, however, recognized that I was burnt out so when I moved back home for the summer, they really pushed me to get my health back to par. Over the next two months, I went running, hiking, backpacking, and camping. We took a week-long trip to Alaska, conquered our first “fourteener” (14,000 ft above sea level) – White Mountain Peak, and backpacked Mt. Whitney. I also got to hike my first class II mountain, Mt. Dana in Yosemite. I spent a great deal of my summer in the wilderness, rediscovering my love for nature and adventure. While I love the cultural opportunities that LA provides, sometimes I miss the Henry David Thoreau part of me that looks for the poetry in Nature and delights in walks by “Walden pond.”


In September, I moved into the apartments right off-campus with my two roommates from last year and we’ve been having a lot of fun cooking and going on midnight grocery runs to Ralph’s. My boyfriend and his friends live next door so we do a lot of spontaneous potlucks where each person cooks one dish and we roll the boys’ dining table down the hall to our apartment so we can all eat together. (For example, last night’s barbeque chicken! Yum.)


In other news, I’ve resumed my ushering duties with UCLALive, went to a Snow Patrol/Plain White T’s concert at the Wiltern, and made a visit to the Clark Library with Sigma Tau Delta. Academically, I finally started Latin 1 this quarter (yay) and just took my GRE Lit yesterday morning! Now that I’m halfway through Fall quarter and in the middle of application season, I figured I’ve neglected my blog enough. I don’t usually talk about my personal life on this blog (that’s not what it’s for), but applying for graduate school, deciding that its right for you and showing an admissions committee that you belong at X university, is a deeply personal process. And I’ve been thinking it might be worthwhile to share this experience with you, dear reader.

So prepare to hear a lot more about statements of purpose and nervous anxieties, apartment life and secret nerdy dreams about meeting Slavoj Zizek. I also plan to post a GRE guide (general and literature) for those of you looking to take the test within the next year so check back soon!

Pursuing the Life of the Mind

I’ve been taking an Information Studies seminar on “The University Professor and its Critics,” which is basically an easy way for me to do some job market research. We read about and discuss topics like peer review, tenure, and academic freedom. While I am getting a clearer sense of what I’m getting myself into with graduate school looming ahead, I am finding a lot of what we’re learning pretty depressing.

lecture hallThe state of our current education system and people’s perceptions of the “ivory tower” threaten the viability of the professoriat as it is today. Adjunct professors, who are typically employed part-time on a year-to-year basis without the job security (and academic freedom) provided by tenure, now make up almost 70% of university faculty (see Chronicle of Higher Education article). The advent of the for-profit university has triggered a move towards the university as corporation, where what we learn and teach is left in the hands of the market (look how well that turned out for Wall Street). Most tragic is the lack of respect for the life of the mind as a profession. Academics engage in the production and dissemination of knowledge; they preserve our cultural history and advance human intellect. It baffles me how such a noble pursuit has become so stigmatized in the anti-intellectual culture of modern society.

As much as I am in love with academia, it is obvious that the obstacles that stand in my way are very real. The treatment of academics, especially in the humanities, from adjunct-status to research funding cuts to teaching lower division remedial courses, inevitably affects my chances of pursuing the career path that I have chosen.

I was reading John Guillory’s article “The System of Graduate Education” today (as a way of procrastinating on homework) and was struck by this observation about students aspiring to become professors:

their chances of success in situations where the
odds are stacked heavily against them. (State lotteries
depend on this fact.) Those who labor intellectually
may be even more susceptible to
such hope, because they already possess some
measure of faith in their own abilities. These
persons are the least inclined to accept that mere
chance can determine their fate. We all know
this, because our students persist in pursuing an
academic career even after they have heard the
worst from us. In fact, they are often right about
their abilities, even if they are wrong about the
probability of success. Intellectual labor markets
can draw large numbers of very talented people
into what is essentially a kind of lottery, where
minimal differences in abilities will determine
very large differences in career outcomes.

“Human beings in general overestimate their chances of success in situations where the odds are stacked heavily against them. (State lotteries depend on this fact.) Those who labor intellectually may be even more susceptible to such hope, because they already possess some measure of faith in their own abilities. These persons are the least inclined to accept that mere chance can determine their fate. We all know this, because our students persist in pursuing an academic career even after they have heard the worst from us. In fact, they are often right about their abilities, even if they are wrong about the probability of success. Intellectual labor markets can draw large numbers of very talented people into what is essentially a kind of lottery, where minimal differences in abilities will determine very large differences in career outcomes.”

Like I said, depressing, right? But alas, it turns out that I am an optimist, hopeless romantic, naive undergrad, whatever. Maybe I should be running for the hills (i.e. law school). Maybe I should be changing my major to something more “practical” or participating in activities that will give me “real world experience.” Maybe I should just admit that I’m crazy and in way over my head. But my favorite Jack Kerouac quote always comes to mind:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”


I’d rather explode across the stars than never have made it up to space at all. Besides, if we don’t risk while we’re young, when are we ever going to?