In my alternate life, I am applying to grad school. Not so much to individual programs as to a singular gleaming citadel called Grad School that perches above the workaday world, winking at passersby. It has a library and dining halls and courtyards filled with colored leaves. Unless those leaves are surfboards or cross-country skiers. I’m not picky about location.
In real life, of course, I have a job that I like and a professional future I’m pursuing avidly. But Grad School represents the life of the mind. It makes worries about grown-up responsibilities like money and promotions and rent melt away. And for a lot of twentysomethings, it’s a safety valve as well as a fantasy destination. That more of us have turned to tertiary education in the face of an anemic job market has been well documented. And because the federal government allows people to put off paying their debts while in school, enrolling in a grad program has become a strategy for coping (at least in the short term) with undergrad loans—counter-intuitively, perhaps, because of course many of those grad students incur further loans while deferring their original ones. The Educational Testing Service reports that in 2011, 800,000 people took the GREs, a 13 percent increase from 2010 and a record high. In a recession-plagued economy (and careerist society), Grad School stands for hope.
In my alternate life, acceptance will come via a friendly email from Grad School’s Admissions Office, delivered mere moments after I submit my application. In real life, though, the Grad Cafe is puncturing my illusions about what grad school could represent for a young adult eager to take a time-out from the neurotic competitiveness of real life.
Grad Cafe, “an online community for grad and potential grad students,” has 64,380 members, plus however many users—like me—sneak around the discussion threads and blogs without signing up. The point of the forum is to allow people in the throes of the graduate admissions process to give and solicit advice. For instance, I recently learned on Grad Cafe that POI means “professor of importance,” and that if you miss a call from the area code of a school to which you applied, you should not necessarily phone your admissions officer immediately (though you should not necessarily not do so, either). But the site’s big draw is its results page, which lists in meticulous detail who got accepted, rejected, or waitlisted where; how they were notified; and when they received the news. (Occasionally it also catalogs test scores and grade point averages.) This information is volunteer-only, and there’s no surefire way to verify its accuracy short of hijacking every mail truck from Chapel Hill to Berkeley, but the litany of hopes realized or dashed is weirdly, mesmerizingly awful.
There’s something Sebaldian, as a grad student might write, about Grad Cafe’s endless archive of admissions results, especially because the information presented seems either useless or counterproductive. Toward the end of February, a friend spent a miserable week thinking she’d been shunned by her top choice program because an anonymous user on Grad Cafe reported an early acceptance from the same school. My friend was heartbroken—until her own acceptance arrived. Strangest of all, with her result in hand, it was suddenly important for her to deny that she had ever been enthralled to anything as “dumb” as the Grad Cafe. When I asked whether she intended to post the news on the results survey, she looked at me like I was crazy. Only gunners do that.