Dispatches from Graduate School–Part 5

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

I received a nice e-mail from a reader (what, I have readers?) last week. As a recent PhD, he offered his encouragement and insisted that although graduate school can be a “tough season,” it can also be very rewarding. His note reminded me to look beyond the stress and struggle in order find moments of gratification and quite possibly, joy. I’ve been so bogged down by my own self-pity that I find myself dismissing the exciting moments.
A few days ago I came home to find one of my papers fastened to the refrigerator next to my cousin’s graduation photo and a Father’s Day card from two years ago. When I insisted that my mom remove the paper, covered in red ink no less, she reacted in the only way a proud mother knows how: “For crying out loud, Cali! It’s an A paper!” (For full effect you must read the previous sentence with a Boston accent with the image of a 5’2” sassy redhead in your mind.) I stood in the kitchen for a moment, and then thought to myself, “Gee. She’s right.” I’m doing well! But I’ve been so distracted by my first-year PhD anxiety to give myself a little credit. According to a quick Google search, in 2000 less than 1% of people 25 and older held a researched-based doctoral degree (U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Summary File 3). Although more people might be admitted into the “ivory tower” today than in 2000, I still need to laud myself for the endeavor I am undertaking.
A history PhD isn’t for the faint of heart, and neither is grading 200 essays on George Washington’s farewell address. I do not want to see another blue book until finals, but I must admit that engaging with the students in real life has been wonderful. I helped lead a discussion a few weeks ago and practically floated out of the lecture hall. I loved it! Answering questions about Common Sense, explaining the nuances of social life in the blackbelt south, and encouraging students to go beyond the pages of the textbook brought me a joy unexplainable. I experienced for a few minutes what I might one day get to do for a living…and it was incredible.
This is hard. No joke. But the newly minted assistant professor was right—it is and will continue to be a rewarding experience. Thank you for allowing me to see what I could have easily missed. This is a journey to be endured, but more importantly to be enjoyed.

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