Thursday, October 11, 2012

Grad School, Part One

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

Grad School

After I finished with undergrad, I admit that I didn’t really know what to do with the rest of my life. In four and a half years, I’d struck up several close friendships with my professors. Observing their daily life and finding it appealing, I decided I’d enter academia myself. This was easier said than done, but of course I didn’t know that at first.

Applying for grad school, for the uninitiated, is accomplished in a series of exacting steps. One first studies for, then takes the GRE. The test itself is not cheap. It costs $160 today, but was a little less expensive when I took it. Because the exam contains a lengthy mathematics portion, my overall score was far lower than I would have liked. Some of the math deficiency was excused because my chosen field was history.

Score in hand, one decides upon presumptive universities upon which to apply, places one might eventually be admitted. Each school charges a fee to process and consider an application. As I recall, I spent between $50-$70 to cover each application fee. Had I been less pinched for money, I might well have applied for more.

Filling out a form and submitting the requisite fees is only part of the process. Each university wants no fewer than three recommendations per applicant from a professor. One must next find professors who are willing to comply, then nicely badger them to produce the requested paperwork in a timely fashion. In what they wrote about me, I’m sure that all my professors spoke highly of my intellect and academic achievement in their classes.

The most difficult to convince was a professor whose opinion I valued highly. He did not sugarcoat anything. His concerns were that I might be admitted to grad school, but would never make it the whole way through due to the mental and emotional stress. He had a valid point. After all, I’d had to drop three quarters during undergraduate due to substantial bouts with paralyzing depression. I was as well known for my mercurial moods and frequent nervous breakdowns as I was for proficiency in class.

I know that his letter of recommendation came with a strict caveat that I might not be stable enough to attain a degree. That would be enough to make some schools back off completely. Knowing my limitations, I opted for public universities and state schools. I wasn’t an impressive enough catch for any of the elite schools, so I didn’t waste time and money trying to win their favor.

I very nearly got into the University of Maryland, but fell at the final hurdle. I was asked to send to them a paper I’d written for a history class during my undergraduate career. Foolishly, I’d thrown most of them away, thinking there’d be no use for them anymore. The only paper I could locate was not one of my better efforts. As I recall, it received a C. But I had no choice but to send it along.

Had I enough foresight, I might have ended up relocating to the Washington, DC, area about five years before I did. When admission to Maryland didn’t pan out, I had to return to my alma mater. Though I might get away with receiving my M.A. from the same institution as my B.A., where I headed next to receive a PhD needed to be much higher up the food chain.

I started classes in August, a manic mess. Believed to only be eccentric, I was tolerated by my professors and fellow classmates. The first semester I managed to achieve passing grades. Challenged in a way I had never been before, I began to smoke pot constantly throughout the day. I believed I needed the intoxication to cope with the amount of work I was expected to consistently churn out.

I read 15-20 lengthy books per class. Along with the regimen of reading, I also had to locate and summarize journal articles in the library, write lengthy papers, and not sound uninformed during seminar. For a while, my strategy of staying stoned from sunup to sundown seemed to be working. It disguised that I was really scared to death of falling off the treadmill.

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