Can one fail at failing?
I’m wondering if I haven’t learned it right. This week has felt like a failing exam, in a sense. Two graduate schools, a article to be published, a couple of lessons, disappointing goodbyes from a few students (not even a “bye”), and a massive wipeout leaving my knee beautiful colors of bruised.
Throughout high school and university, I never got even close to a failing grade. Not even a C. The lowest I got in university were two final grades of B-. One was deserved, in Anatomy and Physiology. One less so, in a class that lost its first professor to cancer and its second one to negligence. I felt I should get special dispensation because my professor literally gave up on the class. She just stopped coming, four or five weeks before the end of term. Could she really grade me if she shucked all responsibility off onto her poor hapless PhD assistant, who based my entire semester on one caffeine-fueled and poorly-constructed term paper? Oh yes, and ironically…attendance?
I never was rejected from a program to which I applied until last week, when the words Application to UC Berkeley-Linguistics graced my inbox. It was a bit of a thrill, clicking through to see how my small attempt had fared in the pool of applicants. And then,
Dear Ms. Monroe,
I am writing on behalf of the Linguistics graduate admissions committee at UC Berkeley to report that we have carefully reviewed your application, but we are unable to recommend you for admission to our program.
In a way, I’d already decided a couple of months ago that we’d be living in California a year from now. We’d looked at apartments, at transportation, at jiu jitsu gyms. It continued:
This was an unusually competitive admission cycle…
I have no doubt that every year since 2008 has been “unusually competitive,” given the sheer numbers of graduates without job prospects and the overall rise in the numbers attempting higher education in the first place. It’s small consolation that I was part of the 94% of applicants who did not make it, but not very palatable consolation at that. “That was a quaint attempt,” the email seemed to say, “But you’re no academic high-flyer.” That’s not entirely fair. I got the impression that Berkeley was genuinely disappointed to send away so many of us budding academics without a home.
Admittedly, I aimed high for the schools to which I applied in the US. Berkeley and Stanford, two of the best Linguistics programs and two of the top universities in the country. According to Reuters, Stanford’s currently tied with Harvard for 2nd best in the world, and Berkeley is 10th. It was not a surprise when Stanford’s letter came today.
I am writing with considerable regret to let you know that we are not able to offer you admission
to the PhD program in Linguistics at Stanford.
Admissions decisions are always difficult to make, and we have had an unusually large number
of highly qualified applicants.
There’s that annoying “unusually large” pool of applicants again. Now that I look at it, the letter isn’t even signed! It has a spot where the signature of Admissions was supposed to go, but it’s a big white space staring at me. If I had to pay $125 for someone to send me a letter regretting my rejection, they damn well could have signed it!
Perhaps the best way to fail at failing is to succeed. I got into three schools in the United Kingdom, including University College London. They offered me places within two days to two weeks, but offered me no funding. UCL is ranked 17th in the world, a massive 60 places ahead of my alma mater CU-Boulder. I’m terrible at math, but if I applied it correctly that looks like a 352% increase in world ranking. Failure, that is not.
In a way, I’m happy that it’s decisive. Both schools in the US are out, and two in the UK remain. As long as I can convince myself that taking out a loan (read: a fairly massive loan) is worth it, and as long as I can cling to the (perhaps-misguided) belief that there is value in academic research and in continuing school…I will be in London next year. In some strange way I’m relieved, because I no longer have to make the call. I can relax and not have the decisions hanging over my head until April, which is what I thought would happen. It’s easier for Russell and I because we don’t have to pull a love-and-also-visa elopement, and he can search for work in the UK while I study for a while. I can satisfy my wanderlust in a country I’ve never lived in before. In all reality, I am very happy to have the opportunity to attend UCL.
In all reality, I’m not failing. It just certainly felt like it for a few minutes today. My knee will heal, my articles will finally get published again, I’ll find somewhere to live with Russell and we’ll find a way to make a happy life. This is a crossroads, I can feel it. There was never a better time to go to India and take that somewhat overdone but still poignant journey of self-searching that is woven into the very name of the place.
Failure? I suppose I fail at it.