When I applied to graduate school in the winter of 1996, there was a large emphasis on what was labeled "goodness of fit." That is, once certain academic criteria were reached (e.g., acceptable GRE scores, sufficient G.P.A.) the program was looking for applicants who were most likely to thrive in the institution. The thinking was that at the doctoral level of study most students were on equal footing when it came to grades and standardized test scores. Thus professors wanted students who shared common interests, whether that be in terms of research projects, populations for practice (e.g., adults vs. children) or even therapy approach (e.g., Neo-Freudianism vs. Behaviorism).
Knowing this "goodness of fit" approach was popular I was surprised when a Midwestern university contacted me about coming to their Interview Day. I knew little to nothing about their research interests and didn't share a desire to work with children. I also had no idea who my role models were for therapy and this school had a well-defined take on how treatment should and should not be handled. My parents were confused as well, given that we had all agreed that this was a Reach School at best, but sure enough I packed up the one suit I owned and caught a flight from the East Coast to what turned out to be frigid weather for Interview Day.
There were about 30 students on hand from all over the country competing for about five spots. Strangely, we all looked pretty much the same: young, white and knowing that we needed to be a better "fit" than 25 other people. Just about all of us, men and women, had on some version of a charcoal suit and black trench coat upon entering the Psychology Department, and when we all tossed the coats into a huge pile on the floor and sat down, I knew this wasn't going to work out. Everyone had journal articles that faculty members had written or at least the professors' research projects written out on a self-made summary sheet of the program. One person even had a poster that presented the findings of a research study he had completed which was appropriately similar to that of the head of the department.
The interviews I had attended prior to this had been much more relaxed. It seemed as though other programs might have been using basic conversation and a gauging of the applicants' personalities to see who might be a good fit. This school, however, was clearly research-oriented, and when we separated into small groups to talk about areas of interest I was at a disadvantage that I wasn't going to overcome.
One professor was doing research on sex dreams and, deciding that would be as interesting as anything else the department could offer, I stated that I too would like to be a sex dream researcher. The problem was that I didn't know anything about this professor's work while the other applicants, who had a veritable interest in this field of study, knew everything this guy had ever published. Faculty love it when you know their work. They practically bat their eyelashes upon hearing their own name. Really? You read my study on multiple orgasms in left-handed women during REM-sleep? Tell me, what did you like best about it?...all of it? Of course you did! When I couldn't contribute to the conversation I knew that it was one of those days where you just answered questions as best you could, as a dead man walking, and ran out the clock.
At the end of the day some of us were clearly more excited than others. I had an early evening flight back to New Jersey and was in a hurry to get to the airport. So I quickly grabbed my coat from the pile and headed out into the freezing weather. I couldn't find any public transportation to get to my flight, so I needed to walk around the area to find a pay phone to call for a ride. After about 20 minutes I found a donut shop to call for a cab, then I stood in front of the store, a cup of coffee in one hand and my arm wrapped around me for warmth. A man who, in retrospect, looked just like 50 Cent, walked by me, eyed me up and down, smiled and said, "Yo man, that's a really nice coat." I was young and stupid then and afraid he might hurt me if I said anything so I simply looked away. The cab came and took me to the airport. I flew home and waited for my rejection letter, which arrived promptly two days later.
A few weeks after that I received a letter from the school that had rejected me. It said that one of their newly accepted students (i.e., not me) had a coat go missing on Interview Day, and that this student had someone else's jacket instead. If any student might have the wrong trench coat would they please contact the Psychology Department?
As a child I had a long history of losing coats, something my mother won't let me forget to this day. When I mentioned the letter to my stepfather, he said, "I'll bet you $20 that it was you who took that guy's coat. Have you taken it out of the closet since that interview?"
I hadn't. "Of course not. You know I never wear anything even resembling professional clothing. I put the coat on, walked around town, hung out in front of a donut shop, wore it around the airport and then came home."
"You know," I said. "Some guy out there said he liked my coat. It's just a regular black coat that you'd wear with a suit, though. There's nothing special about it."
At that point my mother came in from the other room. "Here it is," she said.
We all looked. Yes, just a regular black coat that would be worn over a suit. Except that it tapered outward near the bottom.
"Um, dude," my stepfather said, "does that letter have the student's name on it? The one who lost the coat?"
I looked at the letter. "Yes....Jane."
As the realization set in that I had worn a woman's coat halfway across the country, my mother and stepfather burst into laughter. "Oh my," my mother said, wiping away some tears, "this is better than when I tricked you into wearing that Duran Duran outfit."
"I have to, simply have to be there when you call that school and tell them you wore a chick's coat that entire day" my stepfather said. I can't believe only that one guy noticed."
In retrospect, probably a lot of people noticed.
With my stepfather tenting his fingers, almost giddy with delight, I called the school. "Yes, this is Robert Dobrenski. I received your letter and it turns out I have Jane's coat. What? Yes, I wore it home accidentally...no, not Roberta, Robert. I understand it's a woman's coat. No, I told you, I didn't do it on purpose. Can I have my coat mailed back to me?...no, I wasn't accepted so you won't be seeing me in the fall...very good, thank you."
A year later my stepfather bought me a tutu for my birthday, lest I forget that day in the Midwest.
Fortunately, I don't remember this story all that often, as suppression is a powerful coping skill. However, recently I was hanging out at a bar in downtown NYC and met a couple, one of whom was a transvestite. When I told them I was a shrink he got wide-eyed and said, "Oh, do you get any cross-dressers in your practice?"
"No, I can't say that I do."
"Well it's quite the experience. You should try it yourself sometime."