A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Really Personal Statement

Applying to graduate school, as I believe I have said in this blog before, is a lot like whoring yourself out. You've really got to sell yourself as the right man/woman for the position -- I'll fit into your department (everybody likes me); I'll work like a dog; I've already proven myself academically; I'll continue to do it all with a smile and you'll enjoy working with me. Pick me! Pick me! I'll even bake you cookies!

Too bad a few of these won't fit into the application envelope...

I applied to several Ph.D. programs on the East Coast this winter... what if I had written what I was really thinking, and perhaps more importantly, feeling? Not just statements about how qualified I am to join the department, but "Look, I'm a damn good teacher. Just ask my students -- there are so many who have thanked me over and over for the help and understanding that I've been able to give them. I love helping them -- but I can't continue to do that to the best of my ability if I don't earn my Ph.D. So please please please help me fulfill my goals and dreams (not to be trite) and give me one of your coveted positions."

Or, what about this? "When I was younger, I used to sit in my room reading novels until three in the morning, sometimes sobbing at the outcome. I dreamed that someday I would write a novel like that, and my novel would change people's lives. When I got older, I realized that the primary way that I could really make a difference in people's lives, especially given my talents and interests, was to help them learn skills that they could really use. I want to continue to teach literature because I feel that it teaches each reader compassion for people who are in very different situations and belong to very different cultures than their own; I want to continue to teach composition because learning how to communicate clearly and in a structured fashion is something that will help a student no matter what they want to do with their lives. I want to teach either/both subjects because I believe that both literature and composition help us all build our critical thinking skills, something that sharpens and strengthens society as a whole."

What if I could write those things -- would the admissions committees even care?

Instead, I submitted the usual (but artful) personal statements, detailing the research that I've done and that I am currently doing. Some people find my articles about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nancy Drew and Harry Potter very interesting -- others probably look down on what I've written and published. Many schools ask you to discuss your teaching experiences -- but there's barely room to say more than what is already listed on my resume... the where, when, and for how long I have taught. I don't get a chance to say much about my passion for teaching, or my classroom philosophy. I really don't even get a chance to explain my passion for certain kinds of literature and film -- no one ever asks you to explain why you write about Buffy or Nancy or Harry. So, either they think your research is cutting edge, or they think it's silly -- or as a few faculty members have advised me, past its moment.

A lot rides on that single personal statement. You have to get it right; they have to like you. More than like you. So I worked hard on each essay that I wrote -- considered how I would fit in to the department, what faculty I would work with on my dissertation. But after getting rejected by half the schools that I applied to this winter, I find myself wishing that I could have conveyed more about my passion for both teaching itself and the research that I do into certain types of literature. Why don't they ever ask you questions like, "Why do you think this material is important?" or "Why is it important to you to earn a Ph.D.?"

Shouldn't the faculty care about those aspects of your personality and motivation, since those are the things that will sustain you through the long, agonizing years of a graduate degree program? It would be nice if you were required to write a personal statement that was at least a little bit... personal.

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