Courtesy of Pasadena City College
Courtesy of Pasadena City College

Whenever I pictured graduate school, I imagined myself driving to campus in a flying car, sporting a tweed overcoat, smoking a cigar Tony Soprano-style. I’m not quite sure where this image of a graduate student emerged, but it’s a look I’m confident I could rock.

Now that I’m a third-year who plans to attend graduate school the fall following my graduation date of spring 2016, I realized I should not be stressing over whether or not I am able to pull off a cigar (the answer is yes) — rather I should be focusing on where I want to live for the next five years of my life since I plan on pursuing a five-year Ph.D. program in linguistics. It’s a commitment that should be handled with care. I’m a planner, I always have been (in fact, I’m the loser who used to carry a first-aid kit in middle school).

My mind immediately started to race with stress-inducing queries: How many grad schools should I apply to? Which cities do I want to live in? What should I name the black cat I always dreamed of getting? Are my spiffy spectacles sophisticated enough for a Ph.D. candidate?

I found it helpful to list all my prospective schools and make corresponding pro and con lists. I had always imagined attending graduate school in the northeast to avoid the impending “Big One” earthquake by relocating to the land of blizzards — basically trading one natural disaster for another. For some peculiar reason I always pictured graduate students migrating to the northeast like how birds migrate north for the spring.

After bemusing my misconceptions surrounding graduate school-related things, I started to think about the GRE, aka the Graduate Records Examination. I looked up GRE prep courses, which are incredibly overpriced, and practice tests that made me wanna curl up in a ball. The math section was mocking me and I swear it actually said “You thought you were done with me, didn’t you?” Its voice sounded vaguely of John Belushi’s. I’d advise studying months in advance to avoid any unnecessary stress and mocking from various SNL actors.

The scariest part of all of this is that I only recently transferred to UCR this past fall. I just started to get used to everything only to be graduating next year. Attempting to acclimate to a new campus, studying in order to graduate summa cum laude while simultaneously planning my future is quite disconcerting as one might imagine. Maybe this is why growing up feels like an out-of-body experience for me.

When trying to compile my list of prospective graduate schools, the criteria made it quite the arduous task: (a) must offer a five-year Ph.D. program with full funding (b) in a city I would like to live in and (c) has a great reputation in regards to linguistics. After much research and speculation, I decided eight programs would be sufficient. I want options, especially since most of these programs accept less than ten people. Cue Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”

To add to my anxiety, the other day a classmate jokingly asked, “What do you wanna be when you grow up?” I felt seven again. This question stopped being phrased playfully once I got to high school, and started to be phrased more cynically: “Oh, okay, linguistics, huh? What do you plan to do with that?” My initial reaction when asked this was a half-assed chuckle on the outside, but on the inside I started to recall my previous answers to this question over the years, from doctor to storm chaser to film director. Nothing stuck until I found linguistics though I loved film more than life itself at one point.

So, what do I want to be when I grow up? The answer I would give now is “successful” in order to avoid having to actually tell people what I want to do, which requires much explanation since it’s a subfield of linguistics that even many linguistic majors do not know about since it’s not taught in an academic setting. “Successful” it is then. We all define success differently. Perhaps this is what makes preparing for graduate school so tedious — the fact that I have to choose which path will lead me to success and deal with the fallout for the rest of my life if I choose incorrectly, but in all actuality thinking this way is exhausting and counterproductive. If you do your best, as corny as it may sound, you are successful.

Usually when people talk about life-altering decisions such as these, they like to think of it as a sort of fork in the road. I don’t see it that way. I feel the way I did when I bungee-jumped for the first time. Nervous and excited, but ready to jump with the whole world at my feet. I can only hope that one of the prospective graduate schools on my list will catch me.