2015/05/24

Graduate School: A Reflection


I decided to apply to graduate school because my dad told me to.  I had always wanted to go (at 13 I decided I was going to be a professor; grad school was always in the plans), but by the end of my undergraduate education, I was feeling less sure. I was halfway through my last year at BYU, when Dad brought it up, saying that there was no harm in applying. You don't have to go if you get accepted. I thought about it and decided that I would apply, but I wasn't fully invested. At that point, I started talking to everyone I could about it. I met with every single history professor I had ever had (except for one....he was on leave for the semester) and talked about different schools, programs, possibilities, and careers. Most were really encouraging. Most had great advice. Dr. Carter told me to start with a Masters, so that if I hated it I could stop after two years and have something to show for it. Dr. Kimball mentioned George Mason as a program I should look into. "It seems like it might fit," were his actual words.

I'd never heard of Mason, but I put it on the list along with about 15 other schools, and then I went to do some research. I spent days after work pouring over campus websites, blogs, professors' CVs, booklists, syllabi, conference programs, and graduate profiles for all of these schools. For some reason, Mason kept coming to the top. It certainly wasn't the most competitive school on my list, but I wasn't striking it off either. After several weeks of thinking and praying, I decided to apply. To just the one school. I still wasn't set on going, but I figured the worst that could happen was they would reject me and I'd still be in the same boat I was before.

I sent in my completed application two days before the deadline. And then I went to the temple. I said a prayer, and in a moment of boldness that I regretted, on account of it being a bit disrespectful, I told God that if I got accepted I would probably go, so if I wasn't supposed to be there I needed some pretty clear direction otherwise. I felt calm and peace and had the distinct impression that I would know what to do.

Two weeks later I got my acceptance letter. It didn't take me very long at all (we're talking hours) until I was certain that I was going to Virginia.

All throughout my first year, I had the thought, "How did I end up here?" Everyone else in my program was from Northern Virginia or DC and had interests very different than mine. I felt a bit like a fish out of water. And I was younger than everyone. My first day of grad school was my 21st birthday. I ran into a crisis part way through that year when the career I had planned on, something in museums, suddenly became very unappealing. I felt even more confused. Why was I supposed to come, if I was just gonna shrivel up and die once I got here?

I almost quit after my first semester. We had five weeks off between terms and I spent the entire month home with my mom, dad, brother, and sister. I remember sitting on my parents' bed and telling my mom that I didn't think I wanted to go back. The move itself was difficult--I didn't have any friends. And with career plans out the window, I feared I was getting a degree for nothing. I'm not sure what made me go back, but I'm glad I did. I figured it out. I figured out that I could keep working even though I don't know where I'm headed. I made friends, created relationships with my professors, and found my niche. And most importantly, I started to love it.

I learned a lot. A whole lot. Lots about history: about Andrew Jackson, about summer camp in the early-twentieth century, about Mormon mothers, about Confederate ladies, about espionage, about British Florida, about money, about ideas. I learned skills: writing (LOTS of writing), research, presentation, leading discussion, speed-reading, careful reading, and the process of evaluating other's work. I learned how to be patient, how to manage my time, and how to correct my efforts when they were wrongly distributed.

Grad school taught me humility. I learned to ask for help from everyone around me. Last fall, in October, I was completely falling apart. I felt like there was no way I was going to make it out of that semester with my sanity and a decent GPA. It was hard. It was exhausting. Eventually, I got tired of being stressed. After one massive breakdown, with heaving sobs on my floor, I decided to make some changes. I asked for help from everyone. My Heavenly Father, my family, my friends, my professors, my boss at work, and even once a complete stranger on the metro. I learned that it is sometimes more important to ask for help than to try and push through.

Probably more than anything else, graduate school taught me to work. I can write a ten page paper with my eyes closed, complete with footnotes and bibliography. I learned to read EVERYWHERE, and I never carried a small handbag, because then I couldn't bring a book. I'm a master at scouring footnotes and I know that if I want to be productive, I leave my headphones and my cell phone locked in the trunk of my car. I perfected my go-to study outfit (that one white t-shirt, that one pair of jeans, converse, grey sweater, hair down but pinned back, mascara, and chapstick). I learned to pay attention to the details the first time around, cause then you have to go back fewer times. I learned to get out of the house early and stay late until you're finished. I learned to check off everything on your list, but also to make realistic lists. Also, that I'm super productive when I listen to bagpipe music (not sure what that says about me but I'm happy about it). I learned that there are few things as satisfying as a truly productive day.

I'm grateful for the chance I had to go to grad school. I'm grateful for my education, and for all of the things I learned.

I'll never regret it.

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