November 14, 2010

Nemesi... Nemesooses... Nemeses....

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a new nemesis.

He haunts my footsteps, breathes down my neck, nefariously hangs in my thoughts all day.  I peer around street corners knowing that he may be waiting there for me.  And I know (because it’s written on a whiteboard in my room) exactly how long it will be until our final show-down.  The big shebang.  He taunts me, teases me, waits until I’m least suspecting then pops his head into my life with a menacing and yet seductive grin. 

It may even be one of those love/hate nemesis relationships.  You know the ones, where we have tense action-filled sequences followed by long cold showers.  It’s like Lara Croft and Alex West in the first Tomb Raider movie (shush, I don’t make fun of your taste in movies).  We’re a perfect match for each other, we just have some slight differences in opinion which make working together a dangerous task.

These personal statements are kicking my rear end into submission.

The other day, I saw on my colleague’s facebook status, “Why is it that I can write publishable articles about random and esoteric historical events and yet you ask me to write two pages about myself and I freeze up?”  I think this about sums up the experience.  Sure, I can write.  Sure, I can write well.  Sure, I like being me.  But somehow asking me to justify my research, my past, my future, and my meaning for existence in 800 words or less is proving a task almost too daunting.

This stems from several intimidating factors.  The first of which is the stakes of the situation.  The personal statement is, as far as I can tell, the catch-all for the PhD application.  It is where you get your last ditch effort to explain yourself, discrepancies in your work, anything that the rest of your application may fail to entail.  Considering that the rest of the application is pretty much a Q&A, your transcript, your resume, and a writing sample, that’s no small task.  Essentially, you have to make yourself human rather than a barcode.  Tell the committee about yourself, your research, why you love them, why you would fit in at the school, what your plans are… oh and it should be in and interesting and readable format, not just a bulleted list.  Somehow, all this together makes me feel like King Arthur returning gloriously with a recently acquired shrubbery only to be told that, due to ridiculous reasons beyond my control, I must now bring another shrubbery only slightly higher and arrange the two shrubberies so that they get a two-level effect with a little path running down the middle.

Oh and then, of course, I have to cut down the mightiest tree in the forest using only a hearing.  The personal statement is one of the most highly weighted portions  of the PhD application (along with the writing sample).  So not only does it have to do a great deal in a short amount of time, it has to do that damn well.

As if this weren’t enough pressure, the personal statement is also a horribly subjective bit of writing.  There is absolutely no way to tell what program director x or application reading committee y is going to be looking for in a stellar personal statement.  I could think it was perfect and they could disagree with me.  My mentors here at Rutgers could tell me it’s awful, and the reading committee could absolutely love it.  In a way, it’s like preparing for a test when you aren’t sure what subject you are going to be tested on.  With only a vague notion of what any given program is looking to take from this little piece of writing that suddenly means everything, how’s a girl supposed to cope?

Maybe as a result of the pressure, I find myself freezing whenever I think about my PS.  The worst part is that having a working draft isn’t helping.  Usually by the time I’ve cranked out draft one of any piece of writing, I’m at least ready to tackle it to the ground and beat it into submission with a red pen.  This is so different.  It’s like a part of me.  It’s… delicate.  Fragile.  There is absolutely no way to be subjective about this writing.  I can’t self-flagellate with a red pen.

The clock is ticking and with everything else going on in my life, the sooner I can get application number one off my desk (Brown, due December 15th), the better.  I can’t believe that I’m being held up by two little pieces of paper.  Not even paper!  Pixels!  I’m being held up by a hodgepodge of pixels!

My consolation is that everyone I know who is going through, has been through, or is thinking about going through this process (or one like it) feels exactly the same way.  I’m not alone in this crazy world of  personal prose for the propagation of potential professional philanthropy.  Somehow, that seems cold comfort.  That’s the thing about a nemesis: no matter how many people are on your team, you always have to face him alone.

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