So, I had a conversation a couple of days ago with one of the people who wrote letters of recommendation for me. This person wasn’t directly involved with the admission process, but had knowledge of what had happened, and was pretty up front with me about it. I wasn’t told anything I hadn’t already figured out, but this person remained encouraging, and had some concrete suggestions about better paths for me.
The bottom line seems to be this — there’s not really a way to make me look like a conventional applicant on paper. (Read this for what I’m talking about.) It’s one thing for faculty members to say, “Well, he doesn’t fit in this particular box, but he’s very capable, he’s a known quantity and has proven himself,” but when it comes down to having to make hard decisions, admissions committees have to look at me and say, “He may be capable and a known quantity, but he doesn’t fit into the same box as everybody else we’re admitting.” Without a liberal arts undergraduate degree, my application goes into a different pile than those who do, and that’s not the pile which makes it to the next round of cuts, regardless of my other qualifications. There was the hope on the part of those who supported me that I would be able to transcend these limitations, but sheer numbers did not allow for that.
As I said, this wasn’t anything I hadn’t already figured out. Two years ago I was told what ducks I needed to get in a row for grad school, but the person giving me this advice also said, quite bluntly, “Even then, if it’s somebody like me reading your application, you’re not going to have a lot of luck.” With a non-liberal arts background, plus the fact that within five seconds it becomes clear that it took me eleven years to finish a four year degree (i.e., I was a dropout), I was told, my letters of recommendation appear to be talking about a totally different person and can’t be seen as reliable. The person I was talking to on Tuesday told me that, unfortunately, all of that may be harsh, but it is not necessarily wrong, particularly when a humanities department is faced with more graduate applications than they’ve ever had before. “The reality is, we’re admitting people who have the option to turn us down to go to Princeton, Yale, Duke, and Columbia,” I was told. There is also the issue that my particular academic interests are generally more specifically addressed at religiously affiliated institutions, not big liberal arts universities. Being a “non-traditional applicant” combined with my interests being, in the long run, not the greatest fit in the world for how things are done here, and the work I’ve done over the last couple of years simply does not level the paper playing field.
So what will? In an ideal world, my interests would have been identified, encouraged, and fostered during my early teens, I suppose, but this isn’t what happened, and in the woeful absence of a Time-Turner, I must find a different path.
The suggestion which has come from a couple of people, including the person with whom I was speaking on Tuesday, is that I might be best served at this point by getting a Masters from an institution where that’s the highest degree they offer. In particular, an M.Th. from a seminary would likely be a great way for me to go. St. Vlad’s was brought up as being probably a great fit; I’ve mentioned that before as a possibility, so we’ll see. I’d have to do the M.A. before the M.Th., so we’re talking about 2-3 years to finish both, but I’d come out on the other end with a substantial piece of research (the M.Th. thesis is 100-200 pages), connections to some good places, presumably some very helpful letters of recommendation, and all of that within the context of concurrent and ongoing Orthodox spiritual formation. (I’m not going to get into the argument right now about whether or not St. Vladimir’s is “truly Orthodox.”) There’s something about that idea which is a little freaky to me — that is, my thesis advisor also potentially being my confessor — but there’s also something refreshing about the idea of being at an institution for a little while which would be the polar opposite of what I’ve been around for the last five years. All factors taken into account, it will likely be a couple of years before I can actively pursue that route, but it’s at least good to know that there are still possibilities for me.
Another concrete piece of advice I was given — and this is the kind of thing I wish I had heard two years ago — is, as alluded to earlier, that people with my interests generally go to religiously-affiliated institutions for their training, particularly Catholic institutions. Notre Dame, Catholic University, Fordham, etc. Not only that, but those are also the institutions where they typically wind up getting jobs. I was advised that this is the network which I need to be figuring out how to cultivate now, and that someplace like St. Vlad’s will do probably do more to make me competitive for PhD programs, and ultimately jobs, at those kinds of schools than anything else I could realistically do right now.
In the end, all is not lost, and nothing will have been wasted. There are, nonetheless, some concrete lessons I have learned over the last few years which I would like to pass on to whomever might find them valuable. I’m looking at having to spend my 30s doing what I should have done in my 20s, and that’s a substantial chunk of life to simply get pushed back ten years — don’t let this happen to you!
If there is anybody reading this, or who ever will read this, who might be considering dropping out of school…
I know the arguments. I made them all, twelve years ago. None of them are insuperable. Dropping out seemed like the only thing I could do at the time for all kinds of reasons, and maybe it was, but I nonetheless am still paying the price for that choice. A break in your transcript before the completion of a degree will always raise red flags for certain kinds of people in certain kinds of roles who are evaluating you for certain reasons — Just. Don’t. Do. It.
If your kid has any kind of a love of learning, reading, writing, in general thinking and synthesizing — This Is Not A Bad Thing. It’s not even an unpractical thing, and it certainly doesn’t have to be a perplexing thing. Cultivate it. Encourage it. Guide it. Provide a structure for it. There are jobs for people like them. They don’t have to be accountants or lawyers to make a living. They can go to grad school, if they do it right they can go to grad school without too much of a mountain of debt, and they can become academics. These are, in fact, “real jobs.” It’s also self-perpetuating to some extent — the more we cultivate this kind of thing in our kids, the more jobs there will be in the long run for people like that.
If you can have your kid learn a “dead language” when they’re thirteen — heck, when they’re six — do it. It’s going to be a lot easier for them then than it will be when they are 29, and it will open up new worlds to them and to you. Besides, the ability to learn another language is itself a discrete ability, and when you learn Latin or Greek you understand better why “practical” languages like French or Spanish are the way they are. You can learn French or Spanish without it, sure, but it’s sort of like learning music by ear vs. reading the notes. You have a more in-depth comprehension of how it’s working on several levels.
If you’re an atheist reading this, then feel free to ignore this paragraph, but help your kid cultivate a real, lasting faith to go with their intellectual curiosity. It’s the only thing that will put it in any kind of meaningful perspective. The alternative ultimately leads to nihilism.
If you’re struggling with any of these kinds of choices, drop me a line. Let me help. richardtenor (AT) gmail.com, richard_barrett (AT) mac.com, or rrbarret (AT) indiana.edu. Learn from my mistakes — it’ll help make them worth it.