I didn’t see this coming: my application process for graduate schools

22 years old: more practice on being a nice being.

Focus: sharing.

I did not know how to write about my application process for graduate programmes. I understand that (1) it’s different for everyone, (2) even I cannot be too confident about what works and what doesn’t, and (3) just applying to graduate programmes might not be such a significant thing to share.

But hey, I’m trying to adult well.

Since I don’t know what works and what doesn’t, I guess I will be telling stories, with some reflections at the end. If it can be helpful, it serves the purpose well. If it doesn’t, I hope you enjoy the story itself. I recently put non-fiction writer as a career option.

I started researching for schools around July 2017. I guess the first luck I had was that I thought about graduate schools since the first day of university and somehow the thought did not fluctuate much. All destination options for schools, however, are either under-justified, random, or questionable. For the sake of comprehension, I mostly mention only the names of the universities rather than going into details of the specific programmes.

Helsinki and Tampere: these were first in the list. I wanted to be in Finland for many reasons; Helsinki was actually the school I wanted to go the most.

Glasgow university-based Eramus Mundus programme: one of my friends, in my second year, told me about the programme. The idea of jumping around different countries for 2 years somehow was still attractive to me at the time (probably because I’m a Europe virgin). Now I think I would have dreaded the programme just by the idea of having to move constantly.

Oxford: well it’s Oxford, with a great IR department. Why not go for a long shot.

Cambridge: this popped up much later. A professor (call him A) suggested that if I was applying to Oxford, why not the other school.

These were the ones in my first application period. My original plan was that if these did not work out, I will continue with Japan-based programmes in Tokyo University or Sophia.

“Under-justified, random, or questionable”

I separate preparation into three main blocks: recommendation letters, statement of purpose, and sample writings.

Recommendation letters:

I’m pretty sure luck just slapped me. Oxford and Cambridge asked for the most, 3 letters, and I conveniently had 3 at the time. My supervisor (call him R), my previous sub-supervisor (call her E), and my pseudo supervisor/farmer (still A) were readily over-praising me.

Statement of purpose:

This took the most time: I never wrote one before (cause I dodged the hell out of the American education system). Took me around 30 minutes almost everyday for 3 months to write all versions I needed (since schools asked for different lengths and content). Yuck, please don’t make me write one for PhD or a job or internship or volunteering or urgh.

Sample writings:

I took two parts of my thesis. And if you are familiar with the process of going from an uneducated and uncultured person to academia to finishing a thesis, you would probably sympathize when I claim that whatever was produced midway sucks, hard. At least I was extra careful with citations.

I prepared everything for Oxford first, as they asked for the most things. Then I moved things around to fit different schools. There are other things like CV, transcript, or research proposal, but there is not much about them to discuss.

And then I just applied.

Results, in chronological order:

Glasgow: I failed Eramus Mundus (on hindsight, as hinted, this could have been more of a good thing). Glasgow did accept me as a regular student, only after 2 weeks from my submission of application. It de-stressed me greatly for the rest of the process because I knew I would have been happy going to Glasgow.

Cambridge: failed, and right before I got on the bus to Fukuoka to go back to Vietnam for 2018 spring break.

Oxford: still pondering why I passed, yet is overshadowed by how terrified I am now that I’m actually going.

Helsinki and Tampere: passed, and almost at the same time. But at the time it was either Glasgow or Oxford already.

Here are some reflections. This might resemble self-help style of writing. I shall try to make it the least so.

Culture yourself into it:

I was extremely underexposed to academia and graduate studies. So I cultured myself into it. I spent at least 30 minutes a day just reading about programmes, students’ experience, dissertations and such. And on all kinds of platform, too, noticeably: Quora, Facebook, and reddit. I talked professors into sharing (well some, like A, did not need persuasion), and they were very open. I guess culture yourself into it means that I forced myself into thinking about it all the time.

Work with whatever you have:

A told me that if you are applying from [my current university], you are already handicapped. But luckily I don’t spend much time whining (potential “Perks of being raised in a strict Asian household”). While I had to throw most of my extracurricular activities away (trust me, it’s traumatizing when I could not mention that I dance), the remaining ones worked well.

Before I end, I need to make reservations by writing about my luck. I’m lucky to always be overestimated by my professors and peers, that gives a lot of pressure and motivation. I’m lucky to have 2 friends who understand and work towards similar goals as mine. I’m lucky that though I was parented strictly, choices of profession were never restricted. I’m lucky that my best trait is that I always persevere with everything I do, stubbornly. I’m lucky that I have met some key people in the last 4 years who triggered me to grow in multitudes of ways. It’s slowly getting cheesy, so Imma stop.

There are some parts I am not sharing, like what I specifically wrote in the statement of purpose, for obvious reasons. But I would be very happy to share them on a more private platform, like I have been. I do think graduate schools, at least for the master level, are the relatively better choices for young adults. Would love to give it a push in popularity.

This totally came out of the goodwill to share, and not to dodge the amount of academic writing I needed to do.



A year of books

I started this year by deciding that I needed to read more. Conveniently, this happened before my epiphany that I cannot imagine myself doing anything too far from academia.

I set the goal to be 30 books (2 – 3 per month), excluding the ones I had to read for my undergraduate thesis. I figured if I want to culture myself into this, I might as well eliminate the compulsory sentiments.

After I finished the 30th one early April, I decided “why not 100?”.

After I saw the syllabus for my graduate programme, I (not as enthusiastically) decided “why not 100 before October?”.

So I did: September 23rd 2018. Looking through the list, I made time to select some I particularly want to remember, and wrote them down so I would define this year through them.

These categories are self-made: I did not consult any standard format for reading challenges. Naming how you feel about certain books is hard, but is certainly an entertaining exercise.

Best academic book: Anarchical Society

I started applying for graduate schools last August, many of which base in the UK. Yet somehow the idea of familiarizing myself with the English School of IR slipped right through.

Best book about writing: I would have chosen Elements of Style but since that one is a given, 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace

Best novel: Mansfield Park

Book that got me weeping emotions: Call Me By Your Name

Outrageously bad: Revenge Wears Prada

So much thinking involved: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Best short book: Flatland

The rare gem of the self-help genre: Getting What You Came For

Author of the year: a tough competition between Austen, Douglas Adams, and Gladwell but I give the final call to Adams.

Millennial read (however you want to interpret it): Note to Self


Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” review in the form of a thanking email

Dear professor,

I finished the book last Friday. I guess for such a piece it takes some days to let it soak in.

I admit I was stereotyped against the book. I am not a fan of life-changing, patronizing types of readings (but I suppose such feature is obvious considering my personality?). Its reputation got hurt more when I found out that it was of high school reading kind in America.

The book did not change my life. But it left many thoughts. And I thought I was in for a peaceful 2 months before my departure (haha…).

I enjoyed the part about education the most. I never really thought about the university per se; the image of Church of Reasons resonates well. I thought the part about quality education extremely intriguing: how the author argues that the ones who excel are those who seek for an education, not a degree. It is funny because, in a way, I am surviving the premature academia well enough and, in a way, yes, I have not been seeking for a degree. Perhaps I found out what sorcery APU did on me.

I am not confident enough to say I fully understood the core argument of quality. But the impression is strong. I have been taught reasons for the last 22 years, and not once I felt “complete”. I guess there are certain qualities (haha…) of coldness and ruthlessness about reasons that I dislike. In de-aristocratizing (I made up the word) reasons, the book warmed me. Even if it turns out to be an oxymoron of an argument, Phaedrus’s quality is already helping me rationalizing (haha…) the way I want to live.¹

I would love to read the sequel. I do think, however, I need a bit of time to be ready for it.

Thank you for such a gift. I wish I could offer something equivalent. I am thoroughly enjoying Revolutionary Road, though I doubt you read such a book.

Best regards,


¹ Did you know Francis Fukuyama once (sassily) said when was enquired about his poststructuralism studying phase in France: “Perhaps when you’re young you think that something must be profound just because it is difficult and you don’t have the self-confidence to say this is just nonsense”? Ironically, his focus was the idea that language and meaning are shifting and unstable under the influence of, you guessed it, intersubjective understandings.

emotional crack (crap)

I am in the middle of an emotional turmoil after 2 incidents in just 1 week:

Amid a seminar gathering, my supervisor ended a sentence with “…unlike Boro, who will spend the rest of his life in the ivory tower”;

Figuring out that now I am often referred to as “that IR guy”. I, supposedly, love what I study so much I am it now.

Funny: pursuing researching and being ingrained in the affairs of countries never crossed my mind a couple years back. And yet I still have too many doubts. Pre impostor syndrome?

Sure I wanted to do something that involves the word “international”, considering my background. And sure I had a rough idea about attending a graduate school (predominantly to avoid working, nevertheless). What was not a part of the goals, though, is being now attracted intellectually to various old white guys (with an awesome increase in yellow and black these days, but not that I google authors’ faces). So much that I’m ready to prostitute my brain.

What drove me here? I guess because of me being a coward hating to lose. Coward who always settles with whatever in hands, and is too lazy to second guess anything (relationships included, but that’s not the point). Hate-to-lose loser who cannot stand being mediocre in anything (though is most at peace at the middle, but this, too, is not the point).

Well, I have been faking it so well I buy it myself. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. I like what I’m doing ish: I don’t hate it. I’m happy that good things are happening, in a way assuring that I’m not outrageously dumbshit.

I guess my problem is like cakes. Uninformed juvenile listed orange cake as his favorite. It’s good; but he thought it’s the best cake in the world, and he started appreciating cakes and looked for more of them. Now he is aware of too many cakes, and he is not sure he likes the orange one best.

I hope this makes sense in much the same way I expect my next couple years of life doesn’t. (completely plagiarised from Douglas Adams, yes).


It’s been a while since I last stayed up until 5

“I always think that a human can be happier knowing less” – I recall having such conversation with E on the bus once. I also recall encountering an equivalent of such idea in one of the tests I had in high school; maybe that what fed me the idea at first place.

Then a couple years back, I came across, in either an op-ed article or a research (for some, should make no difference), a statement that claims the contradicting trend of increasing quality of life, and decreasing happiness. H reminded me, too, yesterday (today?), when we talked about the following.

We are living in the time of changes, be constantly exposed to novelty. It’s been a while since I started thinking my sole existence hailed on a pretty damn interesting period. True that traveling is easier, yet the real ace is the web. It has become nearly impossible to live “in the same village for one’s whole life” (this phrase specifically comes from E). Talking about how the internet has changed lives, nowadays, feels like talking about how indoor toilets have performed the similar task; yet still I feel not enough awe, and probably woe, is being devoted to the subject.

Exposure does well, and perhaps unwell. To me, at least, such creates the tendency of unhappiness. Changes are not user-friendly. Humans, or at least I, are, or at least are trained to be, comfortable with constant. Perhaps it is easier, or of nature, to assume that things have been the way they are; yet often time I find myself seeing the momentary nature of all things, through exposure, of course. We set goals, and we continuously doubt them: are they fulfilling?; are they sufficient?; are they achievable? (I could include a citation of H here). Such questions may not be evoked, if we were not living in such time of changes. Such questions, also, maybe, defer happiness.

Whereas in the past, humans may have lived in the time of constant. A human, born, grow, and die in the same village perhaps was not of scarcity. Were they happier, maybe in a way. The more I think about it, the more of a blessing it is to be living in a box, knowing exactly where you want to be, what you want to do, who do you prefer to be with, in that very box. The positive notion of limits, then, is in need of justification.

Maybe at a point in time, I shall run out of energy to pursue unhappiness. For now, nah.


It’s winter when…

When waking up in the morning feels less of a joy. The only motivation that beats the blanket is the urge to pee. It does, however, take longer than 10 minutes for the bladder to finalize the protest. Ergo alarms have to, hesitantly, go a tad earlier than the summer.

When the entire picture of a day-off covers only me migrating between the bed and the kotatsu right next to it. I hold my ego over not having bought a tall bed; rolling between the two costs close to zero effort.

When I invent a new progress of changing every year. The significant ones include stuffing inners under the kotatsu the previous night and taking the old piece off after putting the new piece on kinda technique. One shall never know the strength of internal indolence until one leaves the tropical area.

When I sacrifice the joy of sleeping naked. There are a whole lot of articles selling the benefits of it; I credulously buy them all. Majorly because I hate the way pants rub my legs while sleeping and I needed a few pieces of justification. Winter kills the comfort, anyway.

When I actually have to conduct beauty procedures. Fixing dry lips, taking care of dry skin, and actually having to dry my hair after bathing. Nevertheless, at least this winter my hair is a fourth the length of last year’s.

When I come up with millions of ways of properly layering the clothes that are not wet from the laundry 4 days ago. Fashion aside, the two main concerns are am I warm? and do I look like society would accept me? I made a combo of a zebra-stripe pink T-shirt, a blue collarless shirt and a windbreaker jacket work once.

When I expect the strawberry season while eating mikan. The moment strawberries hit 350 yen a pack is pretty damn close to orgasm.

When I wish the idea of wind was not invented. Then I realize I have enough common knowledge to know that is not how it works. I also wish APU was 300 meters lower.

Regardless, I do appreciate the gloom, the decrease in tolerance for cheesy music, and the lack of sight of humans on campus in the early hours. Very much ready for the last one here.


Overflowing delicacy

Public toilets are great when it comes to gasping the intricacy of social expectations.

The male one is especially intriguing. First is the hidden consensus about the choice of urinals: one shall not directly neighbor another unless there is no other choice. Meaning when there are five, if you choose the 4th when the 1st is occupied, you are failing society. The other is sticking to your pee spot. There exists a designated zone slightly above the urinal at where one shall stare to eliminate any peers’ business slipping into the peripheral vision. Japan, however, might hold a different World View. I have confronted some daring fellows seeking for social interactions by running the newcomers through their list of acquaintances.

The booths, however, are relative unimpressive and less sophisticated comparing to their counterparts on the female side. The males are barbaric enough to not need acoustic disguise when suppressing or flushing.¹ I once had a conversation with a booth colleague about the design of toilet booths in APU after he accidentally thumped the shared panel. Maybe we are slowly implementing the toilet talk; gender equality and all, y’all. After all, such widely celebrated human tradition should not be kept gendered.

I claim guilty for not wanting to dip my hands into cold running water after spending a penny. There are actually techniques to dodge physical contact with the tool to avoid it in this type of weather.² Regardless, inner hypocrite judges those who dip not; and surely, it is not alone. I have encountered situations of mutual inspection of actions while reluctantly decontaminating fingers. Ergo the third lesson is from the sink: the need for social recognition prevails discomfort.

To end, here is a list of things I fail to comprehend: toilet talk in the entrance (capital location); providing music from phones to the working space; knocking on an occupied booth; trying to open an occupied booth after knocking with no response³.

This type of written grousing substitutes nights when i refuses to be sandwiched by thesis.

¹I’m not sure this need is universal, or only is applied to the case of Japan.

²Best taught with visual aids.

³Multitasking is not my best feat.