Tuesday, June 18, 2013

School's Out

Well school is not exactly finished here yet I have a few more classes but it's mostly done. I've enjoyed being a teacher for the past five years but I'm ready to be a student again for a while. I pretty much just need to finish up writing the grades for this semester. I had four oral English classes, which went pretty much like they always do. I also had two writing classes. I'm not sure how well I did with those. I think I aimed too high for their level. I tried to being in various types of writing to keep it interesting, but they never seemed all that engaged. Also judging from the final essays their mastery of the basic five paragraph essay never got as strong as I would have hoped either. If I had a chance to do it again I think I'd be better at it. I'd focus much more on the elements of an essay, a whole class or even two just on writing a thesis or topic sentence may have been necessary. Oh well. At least I got them to turn in homework printed out and more or less formatted correctly. And as far as I could tell it wasn't copied from the internet. Or at least if it was copied form the internet they've gotten much better at hiding the fact.

But that's all pretty much done now. I have a bunch of fun stuff to look forward to this summer. First pretty much as soon as I'm done with classes I'm flying up to Beijing. Harry, one of my oldest friends, is coming to China to visit and tour around a little. He's only here about a week so we are just going to do Beijing and Xi'an. I've never actually been to Xi'an, a fact that is getting embarrassing after being in China for five years. It'll be great to get to play tour guide and show someone around. Besides Xi'an there is a ton of stuff to do in Beijing: Mao's tomb, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, plus we're hoping to see some music and maybe a sporting event. After Harry leaves I still have about two weeks with my parents in Beijing. David who I used to teach with back in Changzhou, also said he'd come down for a few days.

David left Changzhou after one year to go to graduate school for physics. But after a term he decided he didn't like it. Later he joined the Peace Corps and was in Kazakhstan for two years. Now he just got into the Foreign Service and just got sent back to China. David learned a huge amount of Chinese in his one year here. Way more than I've learned in my five, but that is a pretty low standard.

I'm going back to the US on July 14th. I'm going to go to school out in Denver, but I wanted to have some time back in DC before I went there. Some family friends have very nicely offered me a place to stay. I'm going to be in DC for two weeks and I'm looking forward to seeing all my friends. It's been two years since I was in DC the last time. After that I'm going out to Denver around the 1st. I don't have a place yet but I'm hoping to have one by the time I get out there. I'm actually coming back to the East Coast once more after that. In mid August there is going to be a family reunion in Maine so I'll be going to that as well. All in all a lot of stuff to look forward to this summer.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Grad School Part Six: Decision

When it finally came time for me to make a decision I was mostly deciding in between SAIS and San Diego. I also liked Denver and Columbia, but I figured that San Diego was a little better than Denver at about the same price and SAIS was better for me than Columbia at about the same price. The decision then was whether SAIS was worth the extra 40 thousand or so dollars it would cost over two years. I looked at a ton of stuff. I went over every detail on the SAIS and San Diego websites. I asked question after question of the current students whose e-mail I had gotten. I compared every part of the school and went though the descriptions of every course.

I finally decided on SAIS. I really liked everything I had heard about their program especially the China related stuff. They had a number of great China professors and I could take quite a few classes related to China. I also thought that the more economic focused classes that were required there would be interesting. San Diego looked good as well, but the program didn't seem very flexible and some of the required classes didn't seem as interesting.

So finally having made my decision I was just about to tell SAIS, actually I had pretty much already told them, when Denver suddenly offered me a much bigger scholarship. I was shocked. I hadn't really expected to get any scholarships in the first place. The new offer was a full tuition scholarship and they would give me a research assistant position to boot. The biggest problem was I had basically no time to make up my mind. I had about three days to decided if I still wanted to go to SAIS or if this put Denver ahead. What was more since Denver wasn't one of the last two schools I had looked at I hadn't done as much research about the program there as I had about SAIS and San Diego.

I spent three days rushing to find out as much as I could about Denver. I e-mailed basically everyone I could think of. The people there were really nice about responding really quickly to my panicked e-mails. I looked at the list of professors and descriptions of the school and the classes. I posted about my situation on a couple of grad student message boards looking for advice. I think I called my parents about 100 times. I even e-mailed a couple of professors at SAIS to ask them what they thought about the situation.

One of the most helpful things was when I called a professor at Denver, who was nice enough to spend a few minutes talking with on a Sunday. Most people agreed that SAIS was clearly the better school, especially for China, but quite a few people in all sorts of positions recommended that I take the money and go to Denver. The cost over two years, when housing and everything is considered, could come to $100,000 more to go to SAIS. It just wasn't worth it at that amount.

On top of that Denver is still a really good school and has a lot of stuff I like. It does have some China focus, the program seems really interesting and quite flexible, and everyone I've talked to was very positive about it. The RA position was also a big plus. Since I wanted to go into academia, getting to do some research work is a great opportunity and will look really good on my resume.

I took a couple of sleepless nights, but I eventually decided to go to Denver. The whole processes was exhausting. From the time I started studying for the GRE to finally deciding where to go the better part of a year had passed. I was just glad to be finally done with the whole process. I'll talk a little bit about the University of Denver in my next grad school post.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Grad School Part Five: Accepted!

Applying was quite an intense process, but in the end so was getting accepted. To start with I didn't get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Berkeley. Harvard and Princeton were the schools I was the most disappointing to not get into since Harvard was my first choice, and Princeton was one of the rare schools known for giving out great scholarships. Yale I wasn't so concerned with since it was one of the last schools I decided to apply to, and besides the name I wasn't really sure what made it a good fit. Berkeley I still don't understand. I got into a number of better schools and in some ways my application seemed like a really good fit there. But in the end I guess it's impossible to know exactly how each school evaluates the applications.

I also got wait listed by two more schools, AU and Tufts. The way wait listing works for these schools you basically have to forgo anywhere else. It takes them so long to decided if to take more people off the wait list that the deadline for decisions from everywhere else would have passed. I wasn't so disappointed to not get into these schools since by the time I found out I already had a lot of good options.

The first school I was accepted at, and the first to tell me one way or the other, was Denver. Denver was an odd one since I had added it to my application list late in the process, and mostly the only thing I knew about it was that Condoleezza Rice had gone there. After I got accepted I had a while to look at the school though, since they accepted me far before any other school, and there were a number of good qualities. They had at least one person who studied China, and they published a journal of China studies. The school also seemed to be an up-and-coming International Relations school. The best part though was that they offered me a scholarship. The tuition was about $40,000 a year, pretty much the standard price, and they offered me a $20,000 a year scholarship. It was definitely a good way to begin hearing decisions, with not only an acceptance but a scholarship as well.

I can't remember the order for the other schools. I also got accepted into Michigan with a $10,000 scholarship, and into Pittsburgh. I have to admit that I didn't really consider these schools to much though since neither were really better than Denver and Denver had offered me a better deal. The other schools I did consider were SAIS, San Diego, and Columbia.

SAIS or the School of Advanced International Studies is actually part of Johns Hopkins, but since it's in DC and Hopkins is in Baltimore people usually just call it SAIS not Hopkins. SAIS was a school that when I was first thinking of where to apply I had ruled out. It was considered one of the most policy focused schools, and I was more interested in an academic focus, and it was so highly ranked that I thought I'd never get in. I decided to apply in the end when I realized that it was one of the absolutely top places to study China. I figured with so many applications what was one or two more. I was pretty shocked when I got it. It jumped up pretty much immediately to be my top choice. Besides the great reputation I liked a lot of what I learned about the flexibility and the focus of the program. The biggest drawback was the money. Besides $40,000 a year in tuition living in DC is just massively expensive. $1200 a month even with a roommate was what I was thinking I was going to have to spend. Compared with maybe $600 a month alone in Denver.

San Diego was actually where I thought I'd wind up before I started applying. It was a good school but not so highly ranked that I didn't think I had a shot of getting in. It has a good China focus and San Diego itself is supposed to be amazing. Actually another advantage of the school was that with in state tuition, which I think I could have gotten in my second year, It would have been about half the cost of SAIS, or pretty much the same as Denver even with the scholarship. This meant that mostly when I was figuring out where to go it came down to San Diego and SAIS since San Diego seemed a little better than Denver and at a similar cost.

Columbia was the strangest one I got into. I know I said I thought SAIS was a long shot, but I thought Columbia was impossible. Not just because it was highly ranked, but because all the questions and stuff they asked for on the application seemed to indicate that they wanted a person not at all like me. On there website they said that they strongly preferred students who had taken economics, not me, and spoke a second language, not me either. In fact they required filling out a list of every math, economics, and political science course you'd taken in college. For me that list was two math classes I'd taken about eight years ago and nothing else. It seemed ridiculous. After filling out that form I almost didn't apply at all. But I figured I'd already filled out everything else I might as well. I still have no idea exactly why they accepted me.

Well this post is getting pretty long so I'll finish it next time with where I actually ended up going and why.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Grad School Part Four: The Application

With the GRE done I could finally get down to deciding where to apply to. I found a number of resources that ranked and described the strengths of the various international relations master's programs. My ideal program was something that had some focus on China, was highly ranked, and was at a school with a good PhD program. I couldn't necessarily find all those things in each school, but that was largely what I looked for. The problem was I had no idea how good a school I could get into. I had some really strong parts to my application, living in China for the last five years, getting great GRE scores, but I also had some really weak parts, a bad undergraduate GPA, not speaking much Chinese. There was also other stuff that I didn't really know how it would play. I hadn't taken a single political science or economics class as an undergrad, and had taken only a few math courses. My letters of recommendation were also a little bit all over the place.

On the one hand, I thought I might be able to get into a top program with my GREs and international experience, but on the other I worried that I wouldn't get in anywhere with my low GPA and no language skill. I also remembered that I ended up wishing that I had applied to more colleges when I was an undergrad. Not that I didn't like Wisconsin, just that I wish I'd given myself more choice. So I decided to apply to a ton of schools. I considered almost every international relations school out there. I removed some that were just too different from what I wanted, and ones where I didn't meet there entrance requirements. I was still left with 12 schools to apply to. I think my parents thought I had lost it when I told them I was going to apply to 12 schools. The fees for applying alone where pretty stiff.

The actual process of applying was also pretty intense. A lot of the application dates were fairly close together and I felt like I didn't have time to do anything other than write essays and fill out forums. Thank God not every school required totally different essays, but I still had to adapt the ones I had done already. I think there were 30 drafts of my "Why I Want to go to this School" essay. I took basically the whole autumn to write all the essays and fill out all the forums. Some it took so long that I finished applying with literally hours to go before the deadline. Some of the forums were so vague or confusing that I'm still not sure if I filled them in correctly. I owe my parents a huge amount for all there help looking at the essays and advising me about the more confusing questions on the forums.

To give you a sense of just how big a project this all was I'm going to list all the schools I applied to and why I applied to each one. The list is organized vaguely in the order I had ranked them in my head when I started, though by the end I had pretty significantly revised my opinion of some schools. You should also know that what I'm putting here is a very short version of the information I collected on each school. I made an eight page list of what I thought of each school that is too long to post here, and probably evidence of my insanity.

-Harvard-Kennedy School
Harvard has some of the absolutely top China scholars and ranks very highly for masters programs, plus it ranks first in PhD programs. This was basically my ideal school, though I'm sure the same could be said for a lot of people.

Not specifically known for china, but a very highly ranked program with a good PhD program and some amazing professors, though the best are economists. I had heard this program was also supposed to be good for people who wanted to go on to get a PhD, which was a big reason I regarded it so highly.

-Princeton-Wilson School
Highly ranked with some impressive professors though not specifically know for China. The students tended to be more focused on policy careers, as opposed to academic, which wasn't what I wanted. Princeton though is known as the only masters international relations program to give out a ton of scholarships, almost every student gets one. Which considering the huge cost of these programs is reason enough.

-Johns Hopkins-SAIS
SAIS, as its usually called, is actually located in DC not in Baltimore with the rest of Hopkins. While it is also more focused on policy careers it is very highly ranked, usually number one or two. It also has one of the most impressive China programs with a number of great professors.

-UC San Diego-IR/PS
San Diego isn't nearly as highly ranked as those first four, it's PhD program is ranked a lot higher than its masters program, but it still ranks well. It also has a significant China focus and as a state school was somewhat cheaper than the others. At the time I applied I basically thought that this was where I'd end up.

-Yale-Jackson Institute
A very new program, but a highly ranked one. Mostly I wanted to go there because of how well it was ranked, and I thought they gave out some scholarships.

-Tufts-Fletcher School
Also a highly ranked program. Was also more focused on policy, as opposed to academic, but was supposed to be a great school.

-UC Berkeley-GSPP
This was actually a public policy rather than a international relations school, but they had a international relations focus and there PhD program seems to be specifically for people completing masters, which was what I was looking for. They had some notable China people in the past as well.

-American University-SIS
AU has a surprisingly highly ranked international relations school, I always remember AU as not a great school from when I was a kid. It's gotten a lot better and SIS is supposed to be really good, and being in DC is always a plus for international relations.

-University of Denver-Korbel School
Not as famous as some of there but had at least some China focus, which not all the schools did. It also had a few famous alumni the most notable being Condoleezza Rice, who even before she worked for Bush was a big deal professor at Stanford. DU also ranked pretty well 10 or 11 on some lists.

-University of Michigan: Ann Arbor-Ford School
Michigan was one the place to study China and still has some China focus. It also has a good PhD program and ranks well generally for political science.

-University of Pittsburgh-GSPIA
This one was definitely in the safety school category, though it was still one of the few universities to have a dedicated international relations school.

Given that this post has gotten really long I'll cover where I actually got into next time.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Grad School Part Three: The GRE

Once I decided to go to grad school the biggest obstacle was taking the GRE. One nice thing about going to grad school is it is a chance to do over things I wished I'd done differently when going to college. I've always been good at taking standardized tests, I think it is because when I was little they had us take a ton of them as the school district got paid extra to test out new tests. When it came time for the SAT I don't think I studied at all. They used to say that you couldn't really study for test like the SAT, but that's just not really true. They're not the same as normal tests where you learn the material in a class, but you can still definitely study for them. I did well on the SAT, but there was just no reason to pass up studying a little and doing better. When it came time for the GREs I really needed to study. I haven't taken a math class in about seven or eight years, or taken a test of any sort since I graduated.

Luckily I didn't have much going on during the whole summer so I could spend a lot of time studying. Often I'd go down to this one restaurant that was open almost all summer but pretty empty. I'd eat lunch then study for several hours. At first it was a lot of math review, but after a while it was just endless practice questions. Besides the math there was also the language section. Most of those were reading comprehension questions. I've done a lot of these over the years, but the GRE ones were particularly hard. They'd often come down to a very subtle interpretation of one word or phrase in the passage or the question.

Besides just studying the material I spent a lot of time just practicing taking such a long test. The GRE is a massively long test. It starts with an hour long writing section than five 30 minute long math or language sections. With breaks the whole thing takes about four hours. Just trying to concentrate for that long is exhausting. I had to practice just sitting there taking the test for that long.

My sister also took the GRE, though about two months before me. She got a really good score which helped kick my studying into overdrive. Just before I took the test I was doing really well on most of the practice questions, especially the math ones, but it was hard to know how much that translated into the actual test.

I had to go down to Hong Kong to take the test. They have it in Guangzhou but I could figure out how to register for it. The morning of the test I woke up with a really sore neck, and managed to make it much worse by trying to stretch it. I was in real pain. I could barely move at all without my neck spasming  The pain was really intense. It felt like someone was twisting the mussels in my neck as hard as they could. I couldn't even put my head level, I spent the whole day with it crooked over to one side.

I almost didn't want to take the test, but I'd spent such a long time studying I just couldn't stop so close to being done. If you had seen me during the test, which was at some Hong Kong school, you'd have thought I was a crazy person. Every few minutes when my neck spasmed  I'd have to stop and make this horrible grimacing face while trying not to cry out and bother everyone else. I basically skipped every break because I felt so terrible I just wanted to get it done. I took very little medicine because I was worried it would effect my performance.

One of the interesting things about the GRE is that it gives you your score on two out of the three sections as soon as you are done. The last section the written part takes a few weeks. I was terrified when I got to the last screen that says basically, "do you want to see your scores and make the whole thing official, or throw them out but never know how you did." I had studied more than I had ever studied for any test, but I'd been in so much pain all day I had no idea how I did. I didn't think I did badly but it was a hard test.

Having done all that though there was no way I could  live with not seeing my scores. Even if I felt I'd done badly I'd still have been dying to know. After all that I got a 170 out of 170 on the language part, a perfect score and 99th percentile, though interestingly I learned later that I didn't get a few questions wrong. On the math section I got a 168 out of 170, a 96th percentile I think. No matter how much better I feel I'm doing at math I always score higher on language on standardized tests.

I was elated, these were giant score which was just what I needed given some of the deficiencies in my application. I learned later that I got 4.5 out of 6 on the written. An OK score but not nearly like the others. The written section scoring is a bit nuts. It's in half point increments with the percentiles going 4-50% 4.5-72% 5-90% 5.5-96% 6-99%. A 4.5 was OK but not nearly as good as the other two parts. Still I was thrilled with how I did and it helped a lot in applying for schools. But more on that next time.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Grad School Part Two: A Combination of Things

So what made me want to go to grad school anyways. I think in the end it wasn't really any one thing, but a combination of things. First is the fact that I like to travel. Studying International Relations isn't really the same thing as traveling, though it might involve some, but it is related. My interest in different countries and cultures definitely ties in to the study of International Relations, which is after all just how countries relate to one another. Second, I've enjoyed being a teacher for these past five years. I haven't always wanted to be an English teacher, but being able to teach about something more related to what I'm interested in seems great. This would take more than a masters degree but I'm planning to go on for a PhD at some point after finishing my masters.

This isn't the most common path when it comes to International Relations of Political Science, I believe a majority of those getting PhDs don't get masters first, but since my undergraduate grades were not very good I don't think I'd get into a top PhD program right now. And with academia as tough as it is today, I'm not sure it's worth going for a PhD if you're not in a top program, since the graduates from the top programs get so many of the academic jobs.

Third, I am interested in politics but don't really want to work for congress or the government like a lot of people I know in DC do. I think getting a masters or possibly a PhD would open up a lot of jobs that are connected to politics but with a more international bent and not inside the government. Finally, even after living in China for a while I'm still always interested in all the strange and unusual things that go on around here. Living here has shown me a lot, but I want to be able to study China in a more academic setting.

Well that's mostly why I want to go to grad school. I think it will combine what I've been doing for the past five years with my interest in different countries and politics. Next time I'm going to talk about all that was involved in taking the GRE.