I was going through some old papers recently, and I found the acceptance letter that I received, almost ten years ago, from the University Where I Eventually Earned My PhD. Why have I kept it all these years? I can’t seem to throw it away, even though I have very mixed feelings about the school, what happened to me there, and about my employment situation now that it’s all over.
Here is what the letter says, in part, which may suggest why I haven’t managed to throw it away with the rest of the rubbish now that I am a glamorous office temp. Indeed, you may think I am bragging, but that is fine. Don’t have a PhD? Go get one, and then you too can brag, while you skillfully dodge unemployment fears and nagging questions from your parents for the rest of your life.
Dear Post-Academic in NYC,
I am writing to inform you that you have been admitted to the PhD program in English at Blah Blah University for the Fall Semester of Blah Year. You deserve the hearty congratulations that come with this letter. We had a record number of applications this year–as we have experienced annually for the past decade–but for the first time the Admissions Committee reviewed more than [big number] complete dossiers at our first meeting of the semester. Needless to say, competition was intense. Your selection from so large a group of candidates at our initial meeting underscores your excellent qualifications for doctoral study and our strong confidence in you. We very much hope that you will decide to matriculate at Blah Blah University this Fall.
. . .
Let me put your selection into a perspective that may elucidate what I have just said about your abilities and our judgment. The members of this year’s Admissions Committee are [list of famous people and some semi-famous people]. Even for an English program that receives applications of extremely high quality, we have this year had to assess an unusually impressive group of candidates. . . .
I remember what it felt like to get that letter. “They like me! They really like me!” What a thrill for someone who came very close to not doing much with her life (as it turns out, the outcome there is still in question). Indeed, I was in my late twenties when I received that letter. I had finally found my calling, the place where I belonged! After all, how could so many famous, smart people (some of whom, admittedly, I hadn’t even heard of yet) be wrong about my extraordinariness?
It’s easy to see why grad students can’t let academia go, even after they realize that the people who write these admissions letters have another motive. They want you to enroll in their program so they will have classes to teach and brilliant students to mentor, etc.
Who could resist such a life path when the acceptance letter tells you that you just might be some kind of genius freak of nature? You have been hand selected by famous people to join them in the world of Big Thoughts and “intellectual” things! I couldn’t resist. I thought I could see my academic career unfurling before me like the carpet of destiny.
Carpet of destiny!
I know I sound bitter, but I’m not. It’s really a nice letter, when you just read it without thinking about unfortunate things like “reality” and “context” and “what actually happened.” And, frankly, I don’t feel that bad about not finding a job because I soured on the whole thing long before I went on the market.
Reading the letter now, what’s really surprising is that there is not a word in it about the academic job market. No “while the academic job market is not good right now” clause that comes as part of a full sentence that tells you why you shouldn’t worry about it too much. Not even that. Even back then, the market was tough for Humanities PhDs. Yet, this letter practically glows with a sense of possibility and promise, a sense that the recipient need not concern herself with small questions such as “who will pay me to do things after I finish my degree?” That, my dear applicant, is a distant, distant horizon.