Monday, August 05, 2013

Life Update 2013 (Part Two): Doctor, my eyes

(So it's been a painfully long time since I've updated my blog, but as a consolation prize I have an unusually news-packed series of updates for you. This is part two.)

Something else happened this year that was wonderful, exciting, and slightly terrifying all at once: In March, I was accepted into the PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My Facebook followers probably remember my astonishment at the complexity of the application process for UWM and UIC. My application for UWM, for example, was well over 100 pages long. Samples of creative and academic work, curriculum vitae, applications for various sorts of funding, applications for teaching assistantships, transcripts of every shred of college experience I'd had up to that point, half a dozen recommendation letters, additional recommendation letters for the various funding applications, the generalized checklists and general information forms, the dreaded Statement of Purpose, and copies of everything to the grad schools as well as the departments, which are two separate offices. It was like applying for school, a job, and a scholarship all at once, all of which were more extensive than the similar processes for getting into an M.A. program.

This thing was longer than my last novel.
I had mixed feelings about the process because, unlike many of my friends who also applied, I could only practically apply to the schools that were physically close enough for me to commute to. Beth has an excellent job with good benefits in Chicago, and we've just settled John into a school district that we like, so the only realistic way I could actually complete a PhD was to get into one of the two schools within driving distance, both of which are consistently highly ranked and very, very competitive to get into. Most of my DePaul colleagues who applied sent applications nationwide to dozens of programs and chose from the one or (if they were lucky) two programs that accepted them, some of which were dotted all over the country from Nebraska to Georgia, and one friend even moved his wife and newborn child from Chicago to Lincoln, NE to accept a spot in a PhD program. It's an accepted fact that most (or all) schools will reject your application for a huge variety of reasons. Poorness of fit, lack of faculty that specialize in the things you want to write, particularities of intellectual approach, an imbalance of genres that means an acceptance of more of one type of writer over another; all of these could sink an otherwise stellar, spotless application. So here I was, playing long odds only applying to two schools, two of the best and most competitive schools, and with my only backup plan being waiting a year to try again with many more of these difficult, complex applications to schools in places I'd have to uproot my family to attend if they'd even have me.

I thought I had a decent shot at getting into UIC. Their Program for Writers is very well regarded and I have some personal connections with a number of current faculty and students there. I figured if I was lucky my time spent participating in the Chicago literary world might mean something to the admissions committee. UWM was a longshot; so much so that one of my mentors at DePaul gently assured me that no matter how good I was it was very unlikely I'd get in due to their relative infrequency of admitting fiction writers as opposed to poets and other genre writers, and I should focus on either UIC or just applying next year.

I got, in early March, a two-sentence long perfunctory rejection letter from UIC, and I inwardly steeled myself to get the same from UWM. When my decision took longer than expected, I called the admissions office directly and I was told that my application was incomplete. This was months past the deadlines and I'd already started to see people posting that they'd been accepted on grad-school draft websites. I talked to a few friendly but not-very-encouraging administrators and they told me after reminding me that the deadlines were months ago that if I could overnight them the missing pieces of my application (two copies of transcripts from St. Lawrence University that I requested and SLU failed to send - thanks a million SLU) they could give me a decision. I overnighted the transcripts for $30 or whatever it cost, sure they'd have already chosen the half dozen people they planned to admit while my application languished in limbo, and were just going through the motions before tossing my application into the trash. I heard nothing for another two weeks, and I called again, feeling like I at least wanted $30 of someone telling me to my face that I was rejected and avoiding the misery of another clipped, emotionless UIC letter. Inadvertantly, the person answering their phones let it slip that I'd been admitted. "It looks like you were accepted. Did you know already?" she asked. "No," I said, stunned. "Thanks!" She told me my letter was in the mail and I didn't hear anything else she said. I hung up the phone and, for perhaps only the third or fourth time in my adult life, I sobbed.

So this is all well and good, right? Everyone who gets this far and gets this sort of acknowledgment when it comes to something they love has a story about how hard it was and how close they came to seeing their dreams evaporate, so what else is new? It happened that my wife had spent, a few months ago, a substantial amount of time researching our family histories. We were able to establiish that the Brands were originally from Glasgow, Scotland via a paper mill laborer named David Brand and his domestic servant wife Helen Creed from Cheltenham, England, and in over 150 years there have been no Brands in my bloodline to hold a Doctorate. Many of the members of the two most recent generations of my large extended family have gone far in college, and I wasn't the first, or even the fifth or sixth to have a Master's degree, but I will be the first to earn a PhD. In a little less than a month, I'm starting, and I'm breaking new ground. This was, and continues to be, amazing, and a little bit scary. I've made the trip to Milwaukee (a trip I'll be making twice a week in September) twice now and met many of the faculty members, all of whom were very friendly and welcoming, and I've been preparing my calendar and getting ready in a hundred other ways for the back-to-school rush, but I'm discovering that this time, like the MA, the BA, and even high school if you want to look back that far, has its own unique flavor of excitement that comes with it. It's wonderful that way, and I feel very, very fortunate to be able to savor it.

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