It’s that time of year again.
The leaves are dying a vibrant death and so, it seems, am I.
Don’t get me wrong. I deeply adore the fall—a season that for me was full of birthday celebrations, fresh school supplies, and unpacking my favorite sweaters from storage. Like Kathleen Kelly, I’d send you all a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I could. Autumn is a season of preparation and change-in-action—a brilliant shedding of the old to prepare for the long, bare winter and the hopeful rebirth of spring. But as much as I love the crisp mornings, the startling red leaves, and the pumpkin-nutmeg scent that permeates the air, I’ve begun to harbor a growing resentment for fall because this precious few weeks coincides with midterm season—which feels progressively more daunting each year. As we pass each other in the hallway, students and faculty alike ask, “How are you doing?” with increasing pity, as our responses shift from “Great!” to “Fine.” to “Hanging in there…” (this pattern will continue until mid-November when we communicate with only a heavy sigh and exchange looks of mutual understanding).
Halloween ushers in a different kind of fear this year as I take on PhD applications and a thesis in addition to my typical teaching and class workload. I am in the throes of those crucial couple of weeks that will determine whether I take the plunge this cycle and apply to a dozen or so programs, or take a gap year to strengthen my application and apply next cycle. Will my thesis be a polished-enough writing sample to demonstrate my skill? How can I strike the delicate balance between flattery and smarminess, confidence and arrogance in my statement of purpose? Do I spend the extra time and effort to curate the two writing samples that Harvard requires, or should I put that work toward other schools? Which programs will be prestigious enough to secure me a job without the cutthroat culture? Is it more important to apply for a strong mentor or a strong program as a whole? These questions and more are bouncing around my head on a constant loop these days. And while I admittedly have a pretty solid awareness of the process (thanks to many conversations with generous and candid professors and classes like the Future Scholars Program that equip BYU students to jump the required hoops on the way to academia), I’m still baffled by the esoteric nature of the knowledge required to even participate. Knowledge that nearly requires that you have an inside connection in the first place; knowledge meant to exclude rather than include.
My feelings about applying vacillate daily as I wonder whether my passion and work ethic is sufficient and genuine—or if I’m just debilitatingly competitive. And then there’s always the possibility that the decision will be made for me. I’m putting my fate squarely in the hands of a group of strangers who will read only a snapshot of my work and review a couple test scores (if the school even requires those—many don’t these days) in a stack of hundreds of applications, and from that, determine whether I’ll be a good fit.
Indeed, there is a unique kind of anxiety in the PhD application game—an anxiety which has always existed, but is perhaps compounded by the general affect and direction of the humanities field. For example, I attended a regional MLA conference a couple weeks ago. It was small and very friendly to grad student presenters, for which I was grateful as a first-timer. One of the nights, they conducted a panel where a recently graduated PhD student and two seasoned, tenured professors talked about the state of the job market with the intent of helping attendees improve their CVs. However, the conversation quickly turned less-than-productive as the older academics talked in various iterations of “Well in my day…but now…” They warned us about the rapid disappearance of tenured positions (replaced with underpaid adjunct jobs), shrinking humanities departments, and ambiguous postdoc positions. The “Crisis in the Humanities” talk isn’t new: it’s been a major concern for over ten years now (see here and here and here).
I’ve been hearing this talk since I first decided to pursue this career three years ago. It was a choice born from a sincere one-on-one conversation with my London Theatre professor as we walked down the streets of London, making our way to the National Theatre for our show that night. Over the following days and weeks in that study abroad program, I realized my dissatisfaction with the previous internships and jobs I’d held and my predilection for constant learning. I chose to pursue academia, and—though I continue to look to either side of me—I haven’t looked back. I am charging headlong into a career that I’m not even certain will have a place for me by the time I finish training for it.
So, considering the mountain of reasons piled against me, what keeps me here? I’m brought back to the fall, this brief season of brilliant change. It is, perhaps, the season perfectly representative of education because of the way education, at its best, is fundamentally transformative to the human spirit; we shed old ideals and habits of thought to make space for different perspectives, lenses, and philosophies. I look back at who I was when I entered the BYU English program and realize I now think in far more empathetic, nuanced, and complex ways. In short, I am a better person as a result of my humanities training, which has brought me both deep discomfort and personal fulfillment over and over again—must that come to an end? Am I to blame for wanting to continue chasing that betterment? George Eliot once wrote in a letter, “Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonise…Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” I believe, in pursuing these academic dreams, I am a bird seeking successive autumns, striving for continual improvement and the opportunity to help others find the same.
This post was written by Morgan Lewis, Humanities Center Intern.
 Eliot, George. “Letter to Miss Lewis.” 1 Oct. 1841. George Eliot’s Life, as Related in Her Letters and Journals—vol.1. Edited by J. W. Cross, Harper & Brothers, 1885, pp. 67-8.