Failing

To be honest, I don’t want to write this post. I really, really don’t want to publish this post. But the thing is, I look back at my posts about applying to Master’s programs, and I realize that they’re drastically different from my experience applying to PhD programs. Both in applying and in hearing back. I think it’s only fair to let you know that the PhD story, unlike the MA story, hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.

(That last bit sounded like a Lifetime movie tagline, didn’t it? I’d call it Geraniums and Graduate School; I hear The Graduate is taken.)

I applied to six MA programs, mostly top-25 programs for Early American history. I got into every single program. I don’t say this to boast (although I am proud! Honesty, remember?). I say this to explain that when it came to applying to PhD programs, I thought the results would be similar. I was humble when talking to people, of course. I was a little worried, deep down, of course. But if I’m honest – and I’m trying to be – I assumed I would get into lots of schools. I assumed that right now, I’d be choosing between great programs.

But instead, I’ve been turned down by six schools, many of which I assumed I would get into. I am waitlisted at one school. I’m still waiting to hear from one.

This is not a disaster, I tell myself daily.

PhD programs are small, they’re sought after by people of all ages, and thus, they’re intensely competitive. Applications are under extreme scrutiny, and beyond that, there are factors outside my control: who is reading applications, which professors cannot take any more advisees, how many other people applied to do similar work, which interest gaps the program is seeking to fill with new graduate students.

But if I’m honest, this feels like a disaster. I feel like a failure, in a way I’m not accustomed to. I’ve failed before, of course. There was that time when I tried out for the high school musical and got cut from the chorus. Almost no one got cut from the chorus. I was that terrible. There was that time when I tried to go off script at a high school speech meet before I was ready. I choked halfway through and had to walk – in front of the judges and my competitors – back to my desk to retrieve my script. There was an Intro to Statistics class in undergrad, which I didn’t fail, but did more poorly in than I ever had in a class, despite having a roommate who was a statistics major and repeatedly tried to help me. There were the eight months after I graduated from college, which I spent applying to and being rejected for job after job.

I’ve failed. But not in a way, until now, that threatened to derail my future plans on a massive scale.

With an immense sinking feeling, this failure creeps in and whispers: maybe you’re not good enough. Maybe you’re not smart enough, or a good enough writer. Maybe you’re not meant to do this.

 Things about myself I’ve always taken for granted – yes, I can do that, yes, I’m good at that – I’m suddenly questioning. Wondering if I’ve succeeded in the past because I grew up, went to high school, went to college in small communities. Or if I was never as good as I thought I was.

Days are filled with grim waiting for news. I find myself wanting to be alone more than usual. Calling my family less. Of course I know there are more deeply tragic things going on in the world than this. But this is my life, my future, the vision I’ve constructed in those blissful moments before I fall asleep, and it feels like it’s crumbling.

And so, tonight I have no advice to offer you. I have no excuses or apologies for the defeatist tone of this post. That is, I hope someday I will see it as a defeatist tone. I hope it will be like those old, dramatic Facebook statuses that seem so paltry now, but that you remember feeling deeply at the time.

For now, I just wanted to be honest with you, you who have witnessed the rises and falls in this grand old life of mine.

For now, I’m making the best of the semester I’ve got.

I have You’ve Got Mail on DVD; want to join me?

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