Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gratitudesday: Graduate School

When I first arrived at Sarah Lawrence in 2004, I'd already decided to get an MFA afterward.  I walked into my Don's office at her first meeting and told her that was my plan.  I remember this clearly because she said, "Well, that's fine.  If you were going to stay in English, I'd tell you to make sure you took at least one language and start making sure your courses vary widely enough.  But if you're getting an MFA, just take whatever interests you and make sure you have a good portfolio at the end of it." 

Admittedly, two years later, in Oxford, I had a change of heart, and felt like all I could possibly do was get a PhD.  I went through a lot of steps to get there (like learning a language in three months and reading the better part of the entire Norton Anthology), and for a lot of reasons, it didn't work out.  And while I think I would have done really well in one,* I don't regret not trying again after I was rejected the first time, and I'm glad I had time to think things over after college before jumping straight into something. Applying to the MFA wasn't a last resort - it was a return to my first choice.  I didn't do it because I couldn't get into a PhD, or because I was unemployed and couldn't think of anything better to do, or because I have too much money and not enough sense to invest it, or for any of the other reasons people have actually suggested to my face.**  I did it because I believe it is going to get me to where I want to be.

I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this, but the MFA is a terminal degree.  I'm getting it for two big reasons: to improve my poetry through practice and because it will qualify me to teach at the college level when I'm done.  I probably won't get tenure at Princeton as soon as I graduate, but I do feel confident that I'll get an adjunct position somewhere, and that I will eventually publish a book, and that I will somehow be able to cobble together a career, and a life, by doing the things I love.  And for now, without teaching?  My first class felt like coming home.  I'm feeling inspired, not just exhausted, by life in the city, and while the poems are coming slower than I want, they're still making their way here. I love the people in my program, I love my professors, I love going to readings and getting invitations to submit things and most of all, I love being surrounded by poetry.  I love feeling like this thing, this big, wonderful thing, is real.

It's never been too difficult for me to get where I'm meant to be, so long as I get out of my own way.

*And by "done really well," I mostly mean, "stuck it out."  I don't have any delusions that I would have won prestigious fellowships and done totally brilliant work and been a star student at Cornell or Rutgers, (my top two choices) though it was possible.  I mainly mean that I wouldn't have dropped out the way most of my peers seemed to.  Seriously, of the ten or so friends I have who went into PhDs straight out of college, only three are still in them, and one of those three is probably going to drop out after he gets his Masters.
**Everyone's a critic, but not everyone sees the intrinsic value of poetry in contemporary society.


  1. This is a wonderful post. Definitely is inspiring my own thinking at the moment. Thanks :)

  2. Thanks, Erin! I'd love to hear about your plans for school/life (and also how things are going generally in NC)!