History-ing Turns West

Today I officially accepted an admissions offer from Stanford University’s history graduate program.

The decision was not an easy one, and for that I’m grateful. I had the extraordinary luck to be able to choose from several schools’ offers, all of which presented their own distinctive strengths and arguments for attending. Over the past several weeks I have often been almost embarrassed at being in such a fortunate position, of having the distinctive luxury of comparing a range of criteria such as programmatic fit, faculty involvement, geographic location, and financial support. Throughout the decision process, I was continually impressed at the generosity of professors and graduate students to reach out to an admitted student and happily answer all of my questions.

In the end, my decision to attend Stanford rested on a number of factors. I had been drawn since the beginning of the application process to the school’s strong involvement in digital history and humanities. Within the history department, efforts at the Spatial History Lab appealed to my background in and enthusiasm for historical GIS. That, in combination with a strong interest in the history of the American west, led me to apply to work primarily under Richard White. Stanford’s history program also posed a phenomenal fit in combining the strengths of both traditional historical training and a heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches. The school holds tremendous appeal beyond its academics. I have family in the Bay Area (including my big sister), and California’s allure of sunshine, palm trees, and my all-time favorite mountain range proved intoxicating. Visiting the campus at the end of last week finally confirmed my decision, neatly summarized during a Q&A session with current graduate students when one of them said quite seriously, “I think the best thing about this place is that I am just really, really happy here.” An immediate and genuine chorus of agreement drove home that simple, but altogether critical point.

Finally, I can’t resist offering up some visual (and superficial) support for the “non-academic” side of the decision. I took both of these photographs out the windows of two university’s libraries while visiting schools last week to demonstrate the difference between New England and California:

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After a deep breath, I eventually clicked “send” on an email that effectively decided my future. And as the email disappeared, questions large and small immediately took its place:

Have I made the right decision?

I think so.

Am I prepared to attend a university whose mascot is a color and/or a tree?

Sadly, yes – my undergraduate mascot was a sagehen.

Am I ready for the perils of graduate school?

As ready as I’ll ever be.

Alongside these questions lurked a strange feeling, brought about by the surreal knowledge that I had just decided what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be living for the next half-decade. That feeling gradually gave way to one of deep gratitude. In the midst of staggering financial uncertainty and upheaval, I’ve been handed the tremendous opportunity to live out my dream of becoming a historian – an opportunity at once humbling, daunting, and overwhelmingly exciting.

Many, many thanks to the legion of professors, classmates, mentors, friends, and family members who helped make this dream into a reality.

California, here I come.

Rambling Admissions

Over the past three weeks or so, I’ve received a trickle of graduate school rejections and, thankfully, acceptances. Once the initial euphoria of that first acceptance wore off, the sheer strangeness of the entire process began to sink in. Applicants spend months and months working, researching, and worrying. There are the inane hoops to jump through – mountains of paperwork, re-answering the same application questions, altering document formats for different schools, and my personal favorite hoop of inanity: the GRE’s. They spend hours and hours drafting emails to potential advisors, delicately harassing their recommenders to get their letters turned in, and editing and proofreading countless personal statements or writing samples. And the entire time, they are constantly reminded of the similarities between graduate school admissions and rolling dice at a craps table in Vegas. If that weren’t enough, the most common advice an applicant usually receives about getting a PhD in history is: don’t. Unless you enjoy being unemployed.

By the end of January, the last of the applications are submitted, and applicants are left to wait. There are no other forms left to fill out, boxes to check, or essays to upload. For a day or two, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. It took me a solid week before I could watch a football game without feeling guilty that I wasn’t working on applications. This is the stage of admissions purgatory, with applicants wishing they could be a fly on the wall of a graduate admissions committee meeting. I’m sure the process varies from school to school, but I’ve always wondered just how random it is – how much depends on the order in which your application is read? Whether or not someone spilled coffee on your writing sample? Did a committee member used to date someone who graduated from your school? And would that be a good or a bad thing? These are some of the questions that skitter through your mind while sitting in admissions purgatory.

With any luck, purgatory is lifted with a magical acceptance note. With any greater luck, more than one arrives. And like flipping a switch, the lowly graduate applicant is suddenly the valued commodity. Once you finally get past “I am pleased to inform you…” you suddenly feel that switch flipped. It is liberating, joyous, and utterly surreal – to go from the position of seller, peddling yourself to various schools, to the position of buyer, as schools offer you their wares. All of that hard work, from those hours of studying in the library during college right up until you clicked SUBMIT on the last application, has finally paid off. I’m sure the stress will come later: of making a (the right) decision, of weighing financial support and programmatic or geographical fit, of accepting the reality that you are truly committed to spending the next 5-7 years  at one school laboring to obtain an elusive degree that you will uselessly cling to like a life preserver as you tumble into the deep end of an over-saturated job market.

But for now? I’m just enjoying the ride.

[As a less rambling coda, I would point anyone else in my position to Jeremy Young‘s extremely helpful post at Progressive Historians, “So You’ve Gotten Into Grad School. What Do You Do Now?” ]