"A human being should be able to change a diaper,
plan an invasion,
butcher a hog,
design a building,
write a sonnet,
set a bone,
comfort the dying,
program a computer,
cook a tasty meal,
Specialization is for insects."
-- Robert Heinlein
Academia forces specialization. I knew this before college, even though I knew I wasn't ready for that at the start. Then I couldn't select a general thesis topic for at least 4 weeks into last fall semester, and it was close to another two after that before I'd settled on something I found interesting enough to work on for (the rest of) two semesters - even after thinking of ideas and reading for most of the summer, and even though I knew that it'd be much harder to finish if I didn't have a pretty solid idea at the start of the fall.
But academia is undeniably all about specialization. You want to do your thesis
on the traditional garb preferred by late medieval goatherders in Switzerland and Lithuania? Wonderful! How about Shakespeare's use of the word 'man' in the opening lines of his last three comedies, or the migration patterns of the bacteria on the back of the Mexican donkey frog? Excellent! The more interdisciplinary and specialized, the better! All of this graduate school information and literature is pouring down on me, whether I'm sitting at my computer or on the floor or reading something unrelated for a too-short and incomplete distraction, and it all wants me to just decide decide decide absolutely everything right now.
For I must somehow make a choice soon so that I can even make plans for fall 2006. I think it's too late already, for fall 2005, which is horribly depressing, for I miss classes and college and papers and studying and having a direct way to discuss new ideas, even if (or when, really) those ideas are only also interesting to a few other people. And I know how much everything seemed to change after a year away, and most of the people I knew also already graduated or they're being pushed into attempting to focus enough to manage it soon, so I worry about whether they'd even have time to do fun things, if I suggested them. Hell, there've been times I'd even go sit around and read thesis-drafts, for a few people, simply to feel useful and to stop feeling like whatever skills I had may wither too much before I can go on. (Perhaps this is progress, a bit, from feeling last year like I simply couldn't have any skills in writing, really? :P)
Programs are endlessly divided up based on whether they're offered in American, european, world, atlantic world, asian, medieval, modern, celtic, slavic, comparative, gender, comparative social, women's, political, economic, or medical history, with countless variations. And even more related fields that would also matter, whether strongly or slightly. And if you truly don't know yet which of those you want? Or if, heaven forbid, you think that someday you just might want to study something else without focusing on it? In that terrible situation you'll need comparative history or a program with all the appropriate specialties or some very good cooperation within the department and access to other departments, or you're looking at not just the wrong programs but entirely the wrong schools. And it's more complicated if you'd like to have some practice teaching (even if the idea scares you horribly at the moment but you think some practice could help), but the most highly respected and adored programs are offered at research-focused schools that tend to use adjuncts rather than TAs, since no one in their
program should ever
have to teach undergrads
or think about doing so in the future. Oh, and you'll have to read several languages, whether you'll typically use them or not. Now, what is your exact
field of interest? What are you going to research? Give us a statement of intent immediately! Submit a letter expressing your goals and interests! And all the websites and applications keep chanting "Be specific. Be forceful. Make an impression, make them be pretty sure that you'll succeed, or you'll get nowhere."
And I? I still just. don't. know. Even after almost 7 months since graduation, filled with trying to think of this and not much else beyond job-searching. And it's interfering with everything else, since I've known for too long that grad school should be something I do, for it's something I've wanted to do for a while... and there's all the studies that suggest that it's getting more and more ridiculously unlikely that a female who would perhaps like to be open to the chance of having kids someday should also have any hope of finding a steady, non-adjunct teaching position for anything past high school, unless they're in a non-humanities, non-social sciences field.
How -- though nobody can seem to tell me -- am I really ever supposed to choose among all the different topics that interest me right now? There are a hundred thousand things and more that I want to learn, and for most of them I've barely scratched the surface; then of course there are things I have studied and fallen in love with, and I can't easily just walk away from most of them. I want to know all of it, or at least enough so that I could go into grad school having some sort of confidence that I've found at least one
thing I can focus all of my energies and several years of my life into.
And this push to decide came even earlier than for some; "you really should start listing ideas and choosing the best of them to get an idea of what you want to do your thesis on," was always mentioned at every meeting with my advisor, from the second semester through the sixth. (After he stopped asking, at least twice, whether I was sure that I wanted to sign up for any of the classes he taught, in my first year. Still slightly puzzling.) When I went back, after the year away, it was worse, while I had even less confidence than before that I'd find something that I specifically wanted to focus on out of the vast oceans of things that were Interesting and things I knew far too little about, and then be able to complete it.
And it seemed, then, as though everybody else knew what they wanted to study, from their thesis to whatever graduate program they'd love to find. Everyone seemed to be so cheerfully choosing the perfect graduate program for them and writing confident statements of intent, certain that they had found something that they wanted to spend at least a few years or perhaps the rest of their life studying, while constantly getting closer to the Perfect Area for their interests.
I didn't find out until graduation that there were at least 8 others last spring who also either requested that nothing be listed for their future plans, in the graduation-program, or declared that they were also opting for a year off to figure out what to do next. I wish I'd known that in advance. Maybe then I would've felt brave enough to even list that I was taking a year off to figure out what to do, rather than deciding to not send in an email with anything for the list 'cause I felt like it'd seem too much like failure somehow... and I knew that the program had already been censored twice for things that "might make the school look less positive to potential donors", so I didn't know in advance what else might get cut, even though it was just a graduation program that should've been left as a memory-refresher for us.
Am I even cut out for all of this? There is so much left to learn that I just don't really know where to start, and all the thinking I do and searching I do seems like perpetually starting over, from finding something new about schools I'd previously thought of as real possibilities or not worth time. And I know there's probably no way to really lose this feeling, just as I know that, technically, studying one thing in grad school has not, so far, seemed to always lead only to permanently staying within that particular subfield.
All this, and this new writing-place, was sparked by something simple: I got my bound copy of my thesis in the mail, finally, today. And apparently it's been in the library since mid-September, now, and a torrent of thinking and missing was started. Again.