What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Originally written 4/2, rewritten/updated 5/6

So there I sat, it was April 15th, a day with little significance to most everyone outside of PhD application circles.  I of course was in that circle and desperately waiting for word on what my future would entail.  I had been waiting for months and the past couple weeks had become agonizing.  I had been rejected from all of the viable options with funding except one.  Rutgers.  I was on the wait list there.  200 plus applicants and there was only two spots for socio-cultural anthropologists.  I didn't know where I was on the waiting list, but knew it was a small list and only two offers had gone out.

I had been working towards this for almost a decade.  Now it was down to final week of waiting.  It was agonizing, but not as agonizing as getting final notice that I was not accepted anywhere.  So please bare with me in this novelesque post as this is going to be a hard one for me to write.

I have put a lot of effort into "school" over the last ten years.  In 2002 when I went back to the US from Prague I went with the idea of going to business school for sports management.  I wanted to capitalize on the work I'd done with American Football in Europe.  I very quickly decided though that while I loved the work with football, developing the game, and working with kids in such a multicultural setting, it wasn't what I really wanted out of life.  I had for a long time been intrigued by the Peace Corps and instead chose to work towards that.  I went through the application process and was nominated to go to Central Asia, but with about a month to go I backed out for what I thought at the time could have been the love of my life.  I had planned to go back to school after the PC and was eyeing up international studies programs, sociology and anything really focusing on systematized inequality.  So I decided to move my studies up while giving that relationship a chance (two plus years in the hills of Central Asia doesn't make for much hope in a relationship!). 

But first things first, I have gone through an incredible evolution intellectually and personally here.  I started at West Virginia wanting to be an exercise physiologist and athletic trainer, I ended up studying sociology - reading people like Karl Marx and Max Weber, working on race relations and economic and social justice issues.  I was never presented with anything like that in high school and became incredibly intrigued by critical theory - especially critiques of Capitalism.  After graduation and a bit of time in corporate America I moved to Prague.  The two years I spent in there from 2000-02 really opened up the former socialist areas of the world to me and the in-depth intrigues of different ways of life.  I also had a keen interest in History and specifically Genghis Khan so I was brought closer to Central Asia and the parts of its socialist past and present.  I decided I wanted to study socialist transition, both to and from, as well as all in between (it still makes me nostalgic and curious even in this moment as I'm writing).  I applied to the University of Manchester in England for an Masters program in Economic and Social History.  I was going to study Central Asia the socio-economic transitions there as i found the racial and ethnic composition fascinating.  All the while I just wanted to learn different ways of systematized life throughout history.  How is it that societies structure themselves and people emerge as cultural entities.  With all of this understanding perhaps we could work towards new alternatives.

The British education system was a culture shock to me.  It was more of a self study environment than I was used to.  At the time I complained: "I went to school to be taught, not to be in a self study program!!"  But as it was, it was a great thing for me, and one I cherish now.  Of course though, my research changed tremendously.  Not on purpose mind you, but because the person I applied to work with on Central Asia went on sabbatical.  So as I had lived in Prague and spoke some Czech, I became an expert on the post conflict reconstruction of Eastern Europe and Czechoslovakia after World War II and debates on multilateral versus unilateral aid/development.  I focused on UNRRA and the united nation's involvement in reconstruction at that time.  It played heavily into cold war politics, sovereignty, and power politics.  It was right around the time the shooting in Iraq was slowing down and the world was starting to argue over the who would be involved in the reconstruction.  I loved the work.  I loved the learning, the analysis, the writing.  I spent over 6 weeks in the UN's archives in New York City and met some amazing people.  I then did my writing up in Boston while selling running shoes!  It left me yearning for more.

I had applied straight to the PhD program at Manchester and been accepted, but without funding.  The Master's degree had cost me a lot of money living in England for that year, and three to four more would have easily required at least a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in student loans at that time.

Instead, I decided to go to China and learn what life was like there.  you'll see this pattern throughout this post.  constantly reaching for something, getting teased by it, and then finding another outlet for my curiosities - as always, interested in how different people and places function.  I have always had a very keen interest in many things Chinese so going there tied a lot of things together for me.  But the friend I went to China with decided not to go through on his plans to start a school there (I was going to help him set it up).  I quickly found myself back in Prague looking to apply properly for PhD's throughout Europe.  However, I found a job through a friend doing research, writing, and development work for an organization working in Iraq and Afghanistan on reconstruction issues.  I figured, hey, this is what I'd be going to school for and would be doing after!  So why not now!?

I'll leave that experience for another story (I actually started writing a book about it as it was so complex and mortifying!).  But anyway, two years later I was desperate to get back to academia and away from what I considered war profiteers.  I had spent a lot of time looking at European schools and questioned how to fund it, so I turned my attention to US schools not realizing I had missed the deadlines.  Rather than keep treading water, I applied to Central European University for another MA (this time in Sociology and Anthropology) while I waited to apply again the next year.  I was still studying reconstruction and development.  I'd started expanding into Africa from my Eastern European and Central Asian roots.  I loved what I was learning in Budapest, but didn't mesh well with the system and faculty there.  I "was a bit more of a revolutionary than an academic" I was told at one point by a professor.  He also said I was one of the most original students he'd ever had (and was very encouraging), but continued to say that the faculty was somewhat threatened by both that and my bold approach.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to say that I'm dyslexic.  I don't read as quickly as most apparently, spell like a drunk foreigner, and process information "differently".  All this translated at the time into a bit of a rebellious approach and a need for deadline extensions.  The issue at the time though was that while I went into Manchester somewhat subconsciously "timid" given my "disability", I went into CEU empowered by actually having a diagnosis of dyslexia and ways to deal with it.  I used to think everyone else was smart and I just had work hard and try to get there.  Now, I had been told that my ideas were not wrong, just that I saw things differently and that I should stand up for them and be firm in my analysis.  This however backfired a bit as I took it tool literally.  Anyway, I worked myself into the ground in many ways.  I have issues with allergies and something called Fybromialgia and it caught up to me.  I got sick and had to get extensions on my work.  This of course lead me back to NY as my work/student visa's for Europe all ran out.  While I was able to get some coursework done back in the US, eventually the realities of life got in the way and I had to focus on living, housing, food, etc. I never finished the degree.

This was really disappointing as I really liked the direction my work was going in.  I had started wholly interested in sociology but started to really get much more indepthly into Anthropology.  I got closer to the type of globally focused work on individuals and their agency within systems of economic, social, and political power.  Economic development, social transition, etc.  It was very interesting stuff.  I had started working on Sierra Leone and the concept of the individual.  How "liberalism" with its emphasis on individual and personal rights, private property, human rights, free markets and such, create and individualized society based on competition and conflict.  My work was on Liberal peace (liberal democracy), which is basically the theory that two countries that are both democracies would not go to war with each other because their two populaces would theoretically never actively choose to go to war with each other - that liberalism created less war and conflict.  My work was specifically showing the opposite of this that individuals acting solely out of self interest end u being inherently competitive, which of course more readily leads to conflict and perhaps even war.  

During that year in Budapest I had applied to seven schools in the US for Doctoral studies.  I had done extensive analysis of PhD programs in sociology that included an exhaustive excel spread sheet with personalized rankings and measures for each school based on school and departmental rankings, courses, faculty, ideology, collaboration, etc.  I very hastily applied as well to a few anthropology programs.  Sadly though, I did not get in anywhere.

This of course made returning to the US bittersweet in so many ways.  I had started writing a book on "the death of an idealist" a few years back and it all seemed so close at that time.  It was about how difficult it was for a person of principle of incredible ethical standards and fortitude to find a place in our world.  No matter what you were doing it seemed that working towards the common good was such a foreign concept.  I so desperately wanted to be doing this type of work.   

So as it was, while my academic interests were very important to me, I now had to sort out a life without it for a foreseeable future.  I applied everywhere with no luck, but managed to get random jobs and tried to start random businesses/non-profits.  One kept my intellectual interests alive.  It was a website that would be the precursor to the Occupy Think Tank of today.  Alternativeideas.org, an online platform where people could put ideas and where issues and the ideas related to them could be worked thorough in workshops aimed at creating new policy options.  The principle was that technocrats, academics, and political types held a monopoly on the information used to generate policy, and that a grassroots groundswell of ideas could be used to supplement this decision making process.  I didn't get far with it though as I didn't get funding to build a proper website.

I pressed on with looking for work in my field, but when I didn't find much of anything in my areas of interest, I threw everything into the trip to Africa that is discussed within this blog.  I had been looking to study and/or get development jobs in Africa, but had never been.  So I just went.  I planned, fundraised, and undertook an awareness raising and educational trip to Sierra Leone.  It was transformative for me.  But one thing that was not lost on me was that I wanted to be sure that there was an intellectual research and writing aspect surrounding any work I did in development. 

I came back determined to get back into academia - as always it now seems.  But I knew that finding the right school and supervisors was paramount given my experience.  I had to find the right person to work with.  I of course used the same excel statistical methodology as before.  I started with 176 schools in the US and Canada.  I narrowed that down to 74 with similar interests, and then to 12 definites and another 8 maybes.  This was in August.  I started sending out emails and getting books for all the professors I as interested in.  I was working with disabled people at this time, but spending all my spare time reading and thinking about projects, about Africa, about mineral rights in Sierra Leone, about liberalism, whatever....

Then of course, Occupy happened.  My whole world changed.  The well mapped out strategy for the next year: school apps through January, Africa work in the spring, and then finishing writing a book in the summer before school all went to pot.  I was certain that this time around I was ready.  I had done a lot of personal work on my self, gotten much further into meditation and chi gung, and had really come to peace within myself and with what I wanted to do.  I felt really ready to settle in and get a PhD done.  I thought as it went on, that occupy was going to help the application process.  I was making a difference, I had started this great working group that had attracted anthropologist after anthropologist, while meeting all sorts of occupy and academic types.  I was getting really positive feedback.  I was doing everything I wanted to do!  But it seems that it wasn't what the programs wanted to see.  I put together my applications quickly in December with some fabulous help, but alas, I was still rejected from everywhere.  Actually that is not entirely true.  I was accepted to the MA program at the New School.  I was offered a 25% scholarship towards tuition!  Which meant I still had to pay $24,000 on tuition AND whatever living in NYC cost.  Which is not even remotely worth it having talked to a number of students there.  I already have a masters and their program doesn't guarantee a place in the PhD program.  I could get a PhD in England in 3-4 years and pay less.

But... I did get really close this time.  In January I went to an open house at Rutgers and "fell for it".  They have a great program in "engaged" anthropology that was a lot like the work I'd been doing in Africa and Occupy.  Using anthropology not just as a learning tool, but to instigate change as well.  The faculty was great, I even got to guest speak in a class on Occupy that day.  But close isn't good enough.  Rutgers didn't have to go to their waiting list.  I had to wait till that last day to find out, April 15th.  I found out that Sunday at 7:30 in the evening.   I wasn't consciously as crushed as I thought I would be.  I'd been prepared emotionally.  But physically I felt my body react.  I was hurt.

Overall it was a rough application process.  My one recommender from Budapest (who thought I was so original and a revolutionary) only sent the recommendation to one school - even though he assured me he'd done it for all.  He then disappeared.  Prick.  I know it affected my chances.  Not only was it my most recent work and the most relevant, but I didn't finish the program.  There was a lot to say.  A lot of questions to answer.  If he didn't believe in me enough he could have at least had the balls to tell me he wasn't going to do it so I could ask someone else.  Don Kalb....  WTF!!!  I know at one school the incomplete application excluded me from funding and th regular admissions process.

But hey, not that the blame should be put anywhere but on me.  I went to West Virginia University to play football, I got a 3.1 GPA there, I have crappy GRE scores and refuse to take them again on principle, it is my responsibility to pick good recommenders.  Still....  !@$%#%.  It sucks.  I understand that I am a different type of candidate.  I understand that I don't have all the good schools, all the good names, all the great grades and such behind me.  But I have experiences, I have an analytical lens, and apparently an incredibly unique view of things and way of doing things.  These are apparently things that I value but that programs do not.  I didn't get great grades in High School, I didn't blow college out of the water, and I haven't followed the typical career ladder for an academic.  BUT THAT IS WHY ACADEMIA SHOULD BE INTERESTED!!  I am different, and that is what academia needs!!  Or at least that's what I think.  It is however, just another institution of the capitalist vanguard. 

So as it is, this has been a very disappointing stretch.  I have put so much into academia and towards getting into a PhD program as my preferred method for both understanding and bringing about change.  Perhaps I'll never be able to separate myself from the dyslexic football player that has bounced around the world learning and doing various things in various atypical ways though.  But should I?  I study the individual and competition because I know what it is like to be called "the most competitive person I've every coached", I study the economics of post-conflict areas because I have seen first hand the horrors of working in that industry and walked through one, I know how to rebuild after a disaster in a foreign country because I have physically knocked down and rebuilt walls in Eastern Europe, and I apparently come to it all through different ways of thought because my brain is somehow constructed differently.  Yeah, I can read, but I've never learned nearly as much from reading as I have from living.      

The issue now though is what does this mean for me today.  It would seem that for now, I guess it means that the dream of spending my days learning and getting paid to do it aren't happening.  Yes, it is disappointing.  But it was the Buddha that said that life itself was about suffering.  Perhaps he was on to something?  Perhaps... but I think at this point it really could be about opportunity.  Just as in the other times I've applied and not gotten in or funding, I now have every door open to me.  I am in a very different position in life.  I am in NYC surrounded by and enmeshed within some solid networks.  I have gotten some great advice and had some wonderful things pop up this week that have allowed me to think of things in very different lights as well.  Perhaps it is time to focus on carving out my own niche, reinventing myself, and following my heart.  It is no coincidence that every stop along my academic career both others and myself have felt I am atypical and march to a different beat.  While I thought there should be a place for that in Academia, it may not be so.  As such, while what beat I will be marching to is yet to be found, I know where my passions lay, and I am excited at the opportunity to follow them (even if it means more struggle).  Of course, I will always want to be doing intellectual/academic type work - engaging in that type of thought process - but perhaps that isn't the right road for me.  I have to find a new path, one that isn't marked yet.  A trail isn't yet a trail if it goes off trail....