Dispatches from Graduate School: Part 2

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University and a 2007 Messiah College History Department graduate.   For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

Faculty makes all the difference in a PhD program. When researching institutions, I stuck mainly to schools accessible by car from the Harrisburg area so I could meet the faculty members I might study under. I pounced around the east coast in late fall scheduling appointments with as many professors as possible. I succeeded in snagging some valuable time from faculty at Penn, Temple, and Boston University. It is possible I sounded a bit naïve as I discussed my rough research ideas (ideas on which I had read very little literature, no less). Most indulged me, while others did not. At one unnamed institution a very aloof professor informed me that as an Americanist my future job prospects are dim—she clearly did not think I had what it takes to thrive in the competitive world of academia. Her cool advice still echoing in my head, I walked out of her office and I decided that I would rather spend my $75 application fee on a new outfit than even attempt to work with an arrogant and snooty professor.

I sent my application to ASU on a whim. Aside from a few phone conversations, I had little way to gauge the personalities of the professors. When I received an offer from ASU that I could not pass up, I felt some anxiety over whether or not I would be a good fit in the department. My fears were assuaged almost immediately upon my arrival. I sat in my advisor’s office as we discussed my personal statement—which he loved, and probably sealed my entry into the program—and he exuberantly announced that although we are a generation apart, “we are two peas in a pod.” I giggled a bit at his comment, but his accessibility put me at tremendous ease.
Over the course of the next four years I will spend as much time with my faculty advisors as I will with my own family. If I found myself trembling outside of their offices in fear of approaching the ivory tower, it’d be unlikely that I’d reach my own potential as a scholar. The PhD program is as much about relationships as it is about learning. I am a pupil at the mercy of my tutors. I need their prodding and encouragement, not just their line edits on drafts of my dissertation.

In order to accept the offer from ASU, Quinn and I had to sacrifice. I uprooted my Pennsylvania-bred husband, put our lovely home on the market, and loaded our belongings into a U-Haul truck. We left behind a life that we had grown quite comfortable with in Harrisburg. The sacrifices, made with more than a measure of uncertainty, proved to be worthwhile.
Recently I found myself in my advisor’s office admitting my American Studies handicap amongst my M.A. History cohort. I was feeling overwhelmed and underprepared for the course load. Rather than acknowledging my obstacles, he told me that many had sat in my same place. His words were reminiscent of my recent “marathon” realization. I’m in this program to learn. I am in the program to be stretched. I’m in this program to mature into the best scholar I can be. And I’m not in it alone—my other well-seasoned pea will dutifully guide me through the process.

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