In 2013 I faced a hard choice: what did I want to do with my life after graduation. Even though I was not scheduled to graduate until May 2015, I was not only planning on graduating early, I was also contemplating graduate school. To make a good application for graduate school, everyone knows that you start preparing early. GRE scores, writing samples, personal statements and letters of recommendation don’t just appear out of thin air; you have to work really hard to get them. Looking back, I should have known that this was a harbinger of the years to come. Signing up for any graduate or professional program is not a walk in the park. You are faced with deadlines, possible rejection, networking and the crushing realization that you are nowhere near as smart as you have been raised to believe. The support of my family and friends notwithstanding, by deciding to pursue graduate school, I had no idea what I was actually signing up for.
Studying after an undergraduate degree is not a novel topic to my family. My mom’s father and four of her five siblings pursued some sort of advanced medical degree and my dad has a Master’s in Public Administration. Two of my cousins have a J.D., another one of them is halfway through a law degree at Notre Dame and another has a master’s in some type of architecture or interior design. Regardless, although my decision to pursue graduate studies was not something entirely new to my family, a graduate degree in philosophy absolutely was a novel concept.
Upon my declaration to follow the trail to an MA and possibly a PhD in philosophy my sisters and parents joked that the only meaningful question that I would be interacting with was ‘Why would you like fries with that?’. A-ha-ha-ha. A-ha-ha-h—. Vizzini’s laughter echoing in my head didn’t stop me from gathering my application materials TWICE OVER to apply for nearly two dozen programs in computational linguistics, philosophy of language and history of philosophy. My broadly couched personal statement merely indicated that I had a background in the classic humanities texts, biblical languages and that I wished to further my studies in general with an eye towards a career in journalism (??) or law school. I thought that I had put my best foot forward in the applications and with nothing else to do, I settled into my gap year and planned a hiking trip on the Camino de Santiago with my twin sister. It was a life-changing experience for us and propelled us into the next chapter of our lives with a newfound gratitude for hot running water and wheeled transportation.
I eventually received rejections from most of the schools I had applied to except for two MA acceptances. One school was in my hometown and close to my parent’s house (read that as close to free dinners and an adorable dog), while the other was in New York City. To be completely honest, I never thought that I would get accepted to the New York school. It had actually been in the top tier of the schools that I applied to with the ‘they have to accept someone!’ attitude. Upon consultation with my undergraduate advisor (and every dream I’d ever had of moving to a big city) I accepted the school in New York; I was off to graduate school.
The first day that I was in the city I went into the coffee shop two blocks away from my apartment and applied for a part-time hourly job as a barista/waitress at the most authentic Italian bakery caffe in the city. When I say authentic, I mean, knock down drag out, we still only speak Italian and drink espresso and perhaps launder money for the mob authentic. I never was able to prove anything, but if getting paid some weeks in cash or having to endorse my paychecks straight over to my boss was any indication that something not so legal was going on, I worked my 15 hours a week, kept my mouth shut and spent my tips on authentic New York bagels. (jk it went to rent) I also got a second part-time job at the Office of Research on campus. I was a glorified secretary/personal assistant for 19 hours a week, but hey I got paid $16/hour and sometimes could sneak in my homework when no one was looking.
On top of working 34 hours a week I was taking three classes. That first semester was brutal, absolutely brutal. Contemporary Metaphysics, Aquinas’ Philosophy of God and Intro to Aristotle covered all of the bases that I knew from undergrad as well as some I had never even heard of before. Lewis does not automatically mean C.S. Lewis, Aquinas wrote about Jesus and God in different Latin tenses and Aristotle was good old Aristotle. It was as if I had hit the ground running in a race I hadn’t really trained for in a country where English wasn’t the primary language. At best, I had a tentative grasp of the topics we discussed in class and my contributions to the conversation were even less than that. My undergraduate setup was mostly lecture with a little bit of the Socratic method sprinkled in there, but there were always a few outspoken students who did most of the serious talking and I was able to sit in the back, make a few jokes and crank out the papers. Graduate school was not like that at all. I was the master of my own fate, the captain of my own ship. For the first time in my life I had to pay my own rent, cook my own meals and buy my own textbooks. It was real life.
Around Thanksgiving I quit my job at the bakery so that I could focus more on my paper writing than making lattes. Two heated discussions, an official two weeks notice and one notary later I was free and clear! Now, nothing stood between me and writing three completely well-edited term papers on insightful and motivating subjects! Nothing stood between me and writing three completely well-edited term papers on insightful and motivating subjects….
I realized, too late into the semester, that I hadn’t really taken my studies seriously enough, early enough to make a marked improvement on my writing. Basic exposition had paid the bills in undergrad, and it was going to have to do for my first round of grad school papers because I didn’t really know how to write any differently.
Spring semester offered classes more on my level (Normative Ethical Theory, American Philosophy and 19th Century Philosophy), but still the art of paper writing eluded me. How was I supposed to come up with paper topics that were not only well-defined, but also a manageable contribution to whatever field is was that I was studying? Not knowing any of the academese, I was still pretty much completely at a loss as to what was going to be required out of me as a full time graduate student. But, I drew up a reading list for myself, did some reading, wrote a few pages, did some more reading, tried to talk to my professors about paper topics and basically buckled down to write the papers, but not the ones that I really had a heart to care about.
I exited the first year graciously with a GPA in the high 3’s. I was done with these classes, these papers and even completely done with some of the thinkers we had studied. I moved to a new (real) apartment and after camping on the floor for a month, bought my first real furniture: a bookshelf. Every philosopher has to have one, mine just happened to be a whopping 6 foot monster of a case that required an entire evening’s worth of assembly. I headed into my first summer in New York with an unequivocal sense of adventure. Here it was, the big apple, ready to be picked. An entire summer to work part time at the philosophy department and the Office of Research and go to all of the free outdoor events I could handle. And that’s exactly what happened. The weeks flew by and before I knew it, the ‘many months I had to revise the normative ethics paper to QP status soon dropped to one month which dropped to a week.
By this time I had picked up another part time job as a TA at a CUNY campus downtown so while my proficiency at grading other peoples papers had grown, my own time management might have suffered just a little bit. Mid-October I flew home [the week before the qualifying paper was due: my department does 2 QPs instead of proficiency exams] to surprise my family and consequently spent the entire time ensconced at the craft table furiously typing away to turn an 8 page paper into an 18 page paper. Words flowed from my hands like molten lava. I wrote 3000 words one day and 200 the next. I poured over each section meticulously looking for errors until one day, it was done. I turned it in and sailed off to more leisurely pursuits.
Fall of my second year, I took only two classes, Santayana on Truth, Matter and Mind & The Philosophy of the Emotions. One, an independent study on an obscure and vaguely known American philosopher and the other, an advanced phenomenology course from none other than the chair of the department. I knew that with PhD applications coming up, I needed to nail both of these courses. One in order to get a good writing sample and the other, so that I could ask the chair to write me a letter of recommendation. Long story short, I was successful on both accounts. 8 completed applications later, I am currently in my last semester in the master’s program and eagerly awaiting to hear what my fate will be for the foreseeable future.