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Applying to Graduate School in the Netherlands

After two years of various forms of office work in Europe and Chicago, I wanted to go back to school. You’re probably thinking two years, that’s baby talk, but after college two years puts you right at the threshold of your quarter life crisis. My bachelor’s degree in philosophy was true to form by not getting me anywhere. I wasn’t excepting to juggle offers but I also wasn’t excepting the major to be analogous to having a teenage pregnancy. Just as a teenage pregnancy makes life harder for quite some time, being a philosophy major was doing the same for me and the job market. I felt I needed at least a master’s to get anyone’s attention.

I wanted to refocus on architecture, study in English but not in England, and have it be a one year program so that financially I won’t be in too much of a hole. After having thought about it way too much to begin with, I spent even more time practically taking a survey of everyone’s opinion from friends to random art history professors whom I didn’t know, which lead to further indecision. Ultimately, after having been accepted and actually getting money from The Netherland-America Foundation, I didn’t go.

The most famous university in the Netherlands is Leiden University, a school widely recognized throughout continental Europe probably more so than most universities in the US. Whether it is because of this or not, Leiden charges about double the tuition of the University of Amsterdam and quadruple that of Rotterdam University. I found all this out after I had applied to Leiden. As for Dutch students, I think I heard something to the likes of them actually getting paid by the government to go to school.

Over the last several years there has been a surge of European universities trying to find the funding to compete with their American counterparts. With private universities in the US charging anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 a year, what can 130 euros a semester really do? One solution came in the form of creating international programs in English for foreign students charging less than American colleges but actually having a significant tuition fee. Not all of these programs are superfluous, some are in weighty topics like econometrics, molecular science, and law but I had somehow found comparative world architecture and became convinced that this was better than continuing my studies in philosophy.

Comparative world architecture was my attempt at becoming more practical. Although the name of the course sounds funny, its post-graduation job prospects dodgy, it still cost the same as getting a masters in international finance. The course can be seen as a specialized area of art history focusing on architecture. However, this program was more ambitious and tried to incorporate all the material, functional, symbolical, and theoretical aspects of the built environment in every part of the world all culminating in researching the iconography of architecture through history, anthropology and design. The professor in charge of this program assured me that this masters would prepare me for an international career in any field related to architecture besides actually building the thing. But surprisingly, most of the masters students currently in the program were applying to PhD programs.

In addition to my brain thinking that the major was a bit on the superfluous side, the international admissions office seemed amateurish and not to care. The university admissions team, which seemed to consist of a couple overworked MA graduates that were now working in the international office had comparable office skills to me and I’m pretty bad. For example, they emailed me the word document of my acceptance letter, and then five minutes later emailed again saying that I probably couldn’t open the previous attachment (which I was currently reading) and sent me another attachment but this time the acceptance letter of someone else with the same last name but from another country studying International diplomacy for 2,500 euros more than me. Basically it was like this till I supposedly deferred my acceptance till next year.

One of the coolest things about the Leiden program however, was that it was being jointly taught with Eindhoven University of Technology and all classes would be held at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. Three cities, three schools and a one of a kind approach no one outside of the Netherlands had heard about all for just 10,000 euros. The least cool aspect was that one of the only websites that I could find in association with this program through a Google search was on the Netherlands Education Support office of Beijing which ignited major red flags. Basically in most East Asian countries, getting a degree from the US or Europe is highly regarded and so not being able to actually use the degree in the Netherlands didn’t really matter since it had value in their own country. Coming from the US however, is a totally different story, where most credentials obtained outside of the country usually gets you as far as the front door. Americans would more likely think I was a terrorist than any kind of specialist or expert in the field of architecture if I had a European degree in world architecture. It was at this point that I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind that I was buying my degree and my one year in Leiden as part of a money making venture which made me further question the academic credentials of the program and how it would be received in the US.

To find out how the program’s reception would be to Americans in the field, I emailed a professor that I had taken a Frank Lloyd Wright class with and asked her if she had heard of this Leiden program. She hadn’t, but gave me the contact information of the editor or president of some Architectural Historical Society or similar organization for me to post my question on their website. I did, and got two responses from an architecture professor from Pratt and a New York University Professor in art history. Both hadn’t heard of the program but the NYU professor sent a New Yorker style/tell it like it is email about her views on the program and about preparing myself for the future. First, she harked back to her own mother and the advice that was given to her. “2) Whatever you do, be sure that you can support yourself and two children through your job. Your husband might die young in an accident, and you won’t want to starve.”

Holy crap, do all parents like to instill fear into their children? She then rounded off the email with this closing remark. “So give this program a great deal of thought. If you can afford to play around for a year or so (and remember, playing at age 22-24 can mean NOT preparing yourself for a REAL career, and NOT refining your most serious interests), okay. Okay is not the same thing as great…and you won’t have spent two valuable years of your youth, and plenty of your parents’ money procrastinating in Leiden, lovely as that city is.”

After receiving this email, how could I possibly go to Leiden now? I imagined myself with two starving kids and being unemployable on two continents thereby aging so fast that I would unlikely be able to procure another husband to feed the three of us. Basically, becoming informed and finding out as much information as possible and then making a wise decision had bitten me in the ass. I had found out a little too much about too many things I didn’t want to know and just ignore and now that I knew them, I couldn’t realistically ignore them. If I had left myself to abide by the mantra of ignorance is bliss, I’d probably have my masters from Leiden right now and be in the process of getting a PhD in the iconography of architecture.