02 April 2009

Out of my league

I've returned from my Grand Grad School Tour, exhausted but very well-informed about many programs I will not be attending. I haven't yet made a decision, although I've narrowed down the list significantly. One of the schools in this final round, however, has me totally stumped.

This school, which I've previously referred to as Excellent University, is the most highly-ranked program to which I was accepted. I was quite surprised by the acceptance, to be honest, because I didn't see myself on their level. What threw me even more was a few weeks later when I received an email congratulating me for receiving a small, but apparently prestigious, fellowship to supplement my assistantship offer (the award letter was full of the most enthusiastic superlatives). I had very little idea of what to expect from this school, aside from the stereotypical visions of "major research institution" that students at small universities often develop. These visions mostly involve undergraduates wandering lost for four years while their professors bury their heads in research, and administrative red tape to rival Purgatory. Turns out these characterizations aren't true, for the most part.

What I found most interesting about my visit to EU was how much I felt like I needed to defend myself. Students there were sharp; mentally as capable as the smartest students at my university, but dramatically more self-confident and genuinely intellectually curious. (The "smart kids" in my department tend to be the sort who are truly intelligent but try so hard to prove how smart they are that their actual brilliance is overshadowed by their distasteful attitudes.) The students at EU, including other prospectives, were interested in hearing about my research and asked engaged, insightful questions about my work. Sadly, that's something I hadn't experienced before, even at other grad visits. Unfortunately, the students' intellect made me feel like I wasn't quite up to par. At other schools I'd managed to stay in my comfort zone during intellectual discussion. At EU, other peoples' thoughtful questions made me lose control of the intellectual arc of our conversations, and forced me to answer questions I hadn't thought of and to categorize myself in unfamiliar ways.

Writing this all out, I'm disappointed in myself: am I really so tame and intellectually stagnant that I'm afraid of meeting smart people who might ask me difficult questions?

Perhaps my hindsight is 20/20 through rose-tinted glasses, or however you prefer to mix those metaphors. There was something a bit more contentious in the conversations than I've just described. I think I felt defensive for a reason: perhaps not all of the questions arose from purely intellectual curiosity; perhaps some people wanted to show how smart they were, too. I seem to be consistently bad at judging peoples' motives, and I like to give the benefit of the doubt. What I do know, however, is that throughout the visit I felt like I had to justify myself and my position there. It didn't help that other students had impossible acceptances to the very best universities, and so the "whose _______ is bigger" (insert preferred noun) game always ended up with me making apologies about the other schools on my list.

In other words, I felt totally out of my league, even though ostensibly I wasn't (I'd been accepted, after all). I'm not sure what to make of it, particularly in light of a different grad school visit that went really well and felt very comfortable and nurturing. Do I go to the place I feel a little bit uncomfortable and out of place? or do I stick with what I know, and risk not being challenged enough? Tough questions, tough choices.

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