Letters to a Not-So-Young-Anymore Grad School Applicant

Reflections during critical moments
MAY 2020
Urban Studies and Planning

Now that I am close to graduating with a masters degree in City Planning, I’m reflecting on how I’ve grown in the past two years. It was a year before that, in the summer of 2017, when I decided to apply to grad school. By that time I had worked for five years at several architecture firms. I felt like I needed a career shift, but was also afraid of stepping away from a path I had carved for myself for more than a decade. The following letters are all written to myself in the summer of 2017 from myself at different times along my masters degree journey. While I hope future grad students at any stage in their career can connect to some aspect of this post, it is dedicated to anyone more than a few years into their career and who will likely be on the older side of their cohort’s median age.

November 2018, after the first two months of classes

Dear Agus,

Do you remember the freedom of feeling like you can do whatever you want? It’s like in undergrad, when you would put a twist on every assignment just to feel alive. Or when you’d stay up late, plotting some scheme, and then spend the rest of the weekend carrying it out.

In grad school, that energy is focused outward, into “the real” world. Flyers in the hallways; a daily dump truck of emails announcing opportunities; daily reminders from professors to reach out to folks you want to work with. The vibe is that if there’s anything you ever wanted to try, you just have to say it out loud, and a flock of resources will swarm around you, pick you up, and set you down gently wherever you want to be. Funds for travel and accommodations? Apply to PKG or head over to MISTI; you’ll probably get funded. Professors to offer guidance? Just send them an email. Suggestions from alumni? Just open your mouth, someone will connect you.

One of the biggest shocks of grad school will be realizing how restrained your imagination has become after years of working in industry. When outcomes are prioritized over process, it engenders lowest-common-denominator thinking: what’s the most efficient possible way of making X happen? The first two months of classes you will realize you need to unlearn those thought patterns. Or, rather, recognize their value and set them aside in order to explore bigger questions that situate those short-term goals into much more profound questions.

Hang on tight,

January 2019, upon completing the first semester

Dear Agus,

You’ll be on a bus, window seat, earbuds in, about an hour from NYC, when you feel the levity of having finished your first semester of grad school. It will feel like adrenaline, but rather than a response to fear, it’s a reaction to opportunity. You’ll feel plugged into the world in a way you never have before. And it’s with this energy that you’ll secure a last-minute internship in Barcelona, funded through your department, that aligns so perfectly with your interests that you’ll wonder if what’s descended is a super power that gives you the ability to align stars in your favor.


January 2020, looking ahead to my last semester

Dear Agus,

With a semester left to go, you’ll be thinking of that time in October of first year when you were at a dinner party, and everyone introduced themselves by sharing what brought them light. A second year student mentioned off-hand that they remember being at this same dinner a year prior, and that looking back they hardly recognize themselves: that’s how much they’ve changed. The comment will stick with you. As a second-year student, could you possibly look back and not recognize your first-year self?

Sitting here, halfway through your second year, you’ll see it came a lot closer to being true than you ever thought possible. That wave of confidence that carried you through the end of first year and into the summer nudged you to ask very difficult questions that unhinged core assumptions about yourself and your trajectory. Although you haven’t yet had any major epiphanies about what’s next for your career, and the world feels magnitudes more complicated than you were aware of before you started, it feels like (on the best of days) you’re approaching a more authentic version of yourself. So much so that yes: reflecting on who I was this time last year, I hardly recognize myself.

Stay courageous,