In September, a professor I've worked with sent me an e-mail suggesting a list of graduate schools he thought I should consider.
On November 17, as I began1 working on applications, I came up hard against the question I was supposed to answer in a "statement of purpose" essay: "Why do I want to study math at this grad school?" Question led to question... "Actually, why do I want to study math at any grad school? Do I even want to go to grad school at all? What do I want out of life anyway?"
I wrote my thoughts as raw as I could capture them in text. (It seemed that what I wanted out of life was time to do cool stuff.) I talked to my family—particularly my dad—over Thanksgiving break. (My dad said he saw a compelling eagerness to put curiosity first.) I searched my memory and my livejournal for the moments and patterns that defined my life. I reviewed the archives of a favorite webcomic2. Through it all, I kept writing, just taking notes on my thoughts as if I were an art student practicing figure drawing.
On December 10, as my fermenting thoughts bubbled, I woke up at 9am to write my actual essays from scratch in one sitting. Around 6pm, I submitted my first application. I'd written about a silly little trick3 to illustrate what I like about math. Kitschy? Yes. Perhaps it was inevitable for an essay inspired by a webcomic.
On January 25, I stumbled across Vi Hart's website for the first time and soon realized: she's approximately everything I want to be someday. People like her and leech are living proof that one can be active in both mathematics and music—and they give me much hope.
On January 26, I received my first graduate school rejection letter. Recording music was suddenly an urgently welcome distraction from the fear of being rejected everywhere. My first acceptance letter arrived the next day, about an hour after I posted "Prismatic". I think I've never had a more bipolar week.
On March 5, I began writing this entry, still wondering whether I was headed where I wanted. If I want to participate in the discovery of new ideas, academia seems like a well-tested path to doing so; yet I wonder if it might not be the life I want. I certainly don't relish the thought of an employer's market, bizarre attitudes about hobbies, or dumb games with grant proposals; and I wonder whether all of that would be acceptable inconvenience or a deal-breaker. I still wonder whether I have what it takes to discover interesting math or teach a real class well—and whether I'll enjoy one of them more than the other.
Maybe the only way to find out is to try it. If that's all I gain from a doctorate... I think I can live with that. I'll proceed with my eyes and ears open, watching how my research and teaching go and trying to feel out where I want my specialty to be. I'll try to learn from my advisor exactly what I'm in for if I proceed down the same path. Perhaps you out there also have advice to offer about life inside or outside of these narrow tracks. I'm listening.
I'll keep examining my thoughts too, since there's still much I don't understand about my doubts and passions. At most I have a vague conviction about my desires (which is at least more than I knew in September): I've (probably) only got this one life; if there's room for the beauty of both mathematics and music in it, I don't want to miss the chance.
I begin studying at the University of Chicago this fall. From there... we'll see where this goes.
- If you're thinking about going through the same process, start earlier; professors are busy people who prefer having at least a month to craft a good letter, and many will want to see your own essay drafts in order to help them get started. To leave more time and brain-space for this, you may want to consider easing up on your course load during your final year.
- R. Burlew, Order of the Stick. Amidst the chaos, watch the halfling: (1) (2) (3) (4).
- Wrap a rubber band around a pencil three times, with no twists and no backtracking. (Hint: mouseover to view) Now make it go around twice with no twists and no backtracking. (Hint: mouseover to view)