so how was visiting schools?
& my feelings about doing a phd
On the first morning I walked thirty minutes uphill in the rain and started sweating a little too much before my first meeting that day, and I was happy.
I went to a two-hour lab meeting where the first hour was spent on lunch and a student’s presentation on arbitrage in crypto markets, and the second was spent discussing randomized controlled trials and things that should not be statistically significant but are, like zodiac sign and the effectiveness of a clinical intervention, and I was happy.
Two professors took me out to dinner, and ordered sashimi with an uni add-on (it tastes like persimmon, one of them said), and we talked very little about work and a lot about other things, like Murakami and the way he writes women, and it slowly began to dawn on me how much of life as an academic, for better or worse, was just hanging out with your buddies, and I was happy.
At 9am the next day a final-year student on the job market told me not to be shy about saying I one day hoped to be a professor, told me not to be afraid of naming what I wanted. I thought of how until the moment I started getting into schools, I barely told anyone that I was applying at all, how I felt it was bad luck to say it out loud, this thing I wanted so badly, and then later in the day I said I wanted to be a professor to a potential advisor I was talking to and only stumbled over my words a little bit, and I was happy.
The day I left I walked to a coffeeshop in the morning and ordered a latte with whole milk and orange blossom syrup, and had them heat up an almond croissant. It was chilly in the shade and yet five minutes of walking was enough to warrant taking my jacket off, this, in the first week of March. I paid seven dollars for a rose matcha latte and then the same amount for three onigiri and a strawberry mochi, and I was happy. I walked through the farmers’ market and couldn’t help but stare at the produce, how even the greens stored through winter smiled fresh and bright in the sun. I tried to buy banana granola and failed because they didn’t have a credit card reader, but I was still happy. I told the granola man I would be back. On the hour-long BART to the airport I did nothing but stare outside the window, and I was happy, I was so happy.
The next day, back in Boston, I went alone to Joshua Bell playing Dvorak, and when I came out of the concert hall the sky was unseasonably clear, like the bay had come back with me to the east coast. I looked at the single trail of plane exhaust bisecting the gap between two buildings across the street, and, still on my high from the visit and a little bit delirious from the concert, I was happy.
When the uber driver who picked me up from the airport heard I was here for the first time, visiting the university, he made a point of making me an introduction to the city. It was dark by the time I landed, and while we passed the thirty minutes or so of grassy hills in relative silence, when we entered the last tunnel he made sure that I was paying attention. We emerged to cross the river, to see the city, the hills, the skyscrapers and the bridges, lit up against the night.
In the morning we waited for the shuttle that would bring us to campus, wondered whether we might as well just walk the fifteen minutes uphill. Lukewarm drip coffee and yogurt cups for breakfast, individual schedules packed with meetings. Are you happy here, I asked multiple students, and saw that when they said yes they were being honest.
Friday night there was a university-sanctioned dinner and game night, and then, the current students told us, there would be a non-university-sanctioned house party and we were all invited. A couple of other prospectives and I split a car there, and walking up the steps to the house I felt a kind of trepidation I hadn’t felt since freshman year of undergrad, the kind of nervousness where you’re entering an unfamiliar space with unfamiliar people, and you want desperately to be at least perceived as cool enough to be there even if you actually weren’t. Inside it was loud and sweaty, packed like a frat basement except it was the second floor of a house in an otherwise quiet neighborhood. People kept coming in and people kept recognizing each other, shouting joyous, deafening hellos over our heads. To drink they had punch served in a trash can, or we had the option to pick through a sticky kitchen table holding a couple six-packs, a couple handles of good liquor, and nothing to mix. So this was grad student life.
The girls I’d shared the car with had both already decided to commit, and we exchanged instagrams to keep in touch. I saw myself happy here, too, doing problem sets and going to parties together. Knowing who my cohort would be, who I’d be spending most of my time with—this made everything so much more real, and inexplicably I found myself tearing up.
On Saturday the professor who was also a mentor and who would be my advisor at this school drove me around the city, then to his house which he and his partner had recently bought and were in the midst of fixing up. There were dozens of seedlings nestled against the windowsill, and in the backyard so many mounds of fresh soil, planning for the spring. In a small pot was some flowering herb or another, blooming obliviously against the wall. It’s from a friend, he said, giving some academic names I didn't know. They came over for dinner the other night and brought it for us. There was a brief moment where I wondered if I should have brought an offering of some sort, if it was a faux pas that I hadn't. But what could I have given? All I had to offer was my acceptance of his offer, to come to this school.
That night the professor had some friends and lab members over for dinner. Weirdly we talked about Murakami again—a favorite of Cool academic men, I guess, or academic men who Aren’t Like the Other Academic Men1. Jazz and other music was playing in the background, and in the warm golden glow of two strong (and very good) whiskey sours, I imagined five or six years passing like this—and yes, I was happy.
While we were driving back to the hotel I could barely keep it together and by the time I got into the elevator I was fully crying. What a precious thing, to have someone advocating so strongly and genuinely for me, to have someone who really has faith in me, not just as an academic but as a person.
In a few years—or sooner, who knows—I’ll probably look back at this doc and cringe at the naivety, how young I sound, and probably also at my gratuitous and brazen comma misuse. Maybe I’ll regret my choice, who knows. But what I’m trying to do here—and oh, how rare it is to know exactly what I am doing with a piece of writing—is to capture my feelings at this moment in time.
Rationally, one school wins in terms of location, culture, proximity to friends and family; the other school wins in terms of academics, advising, intellectual development. But picking rationally has never really been an option, and at any rate, what’s the rational case for prioritizing career over career-peripherals, or vice versa? In which direction is the causal arrow stronger—a nurturing external environment setting the stage for vibrant intellectual growth, or a flourishing academic life spilling over to joy outside of work?
Irrationally, then. I could make a fear-based decision. Fear of, at one school, getting lost in the crowd and floundering academically; fear of, at the other, becoming isolated, of setting aside my artistic or creative selves. And at both schools, if I’m to be honest, fear of not being able to live up to what others see as my potential, fear of disappointing. Flipping it around to hope doesn’t really help either. At one school—do I trust myself to really take charge of my research? At the other—do I have faith that I’ll continue to make time and space for writing and other things, that l’ll find a community for doing so? At the end of the day, my heart says one school, and my other heart says the other. My gut says one school, and my other gut says the other.
To be honest, I’m so excited about academia. There are many ways in which it is bad and problematic, and also many ways in which it can be just dry and boring and decrepit. But I think it’s possible also for a version of academia to exist that is genuine and caring, that is dynamic, impactful, and still rigorous—and that it’s possible to make choices that maximize the likelihood of such an environment. It’s impossible to know whether I am making the right choice, the “best” choice, but also it is frankly ridiculous that I have this choice to begin with, between two schools where, individually, saying yes would be a no-brainer. I’m so lucky. That I’ve had the fortune of working with mentors who’ve shown me an academic life can be lively and full, who have been so generous with their energy. That I feel like the people around me care for me, want the best for me. There’s really not much more I can ask for, and I’m so, so, grateful.
A postscript of other miscellaneous life things: I recently finished Intimacies. I’m making this strawberry sweater vest. I will be in Seattle for most of July and possibly early August, so if you’re there let’s please hang out :~)
Said academic man has subsequently followed up to clarify that he is “no Murakami boy, adding that his only contact with the author took the form of an aborted attempt to read Norwegian Wood. Which among the attendees, if any, identified as Murakami enthusiasts has been lost to the haze of recollection.”