Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 32

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
(Cross-posted by permission of John Fea’s blog *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*)

I learned a valuable lesson this week: momentum should not drive your destiny. When I entered the PhD program, it seemed the natural choice. Upon completing my undergrad degree I immediately enrolled in an MA program. I took one year after the MA to apply to PhD programs because that too seemed the natural progression of my career in the history field.

I thought the skills I had developed and honed applied only to academia. Yet over the course of the past nine months I gained a greater grasp on what it means to pursue a career in higher education. Before the program started, I had no point of reference. I had romanticized the career path—one day I might sit behind a desk, situated between my overcrowded bookshelf and a tower stack of undergraduate essays. I’d sip my green tea, push my glasses from the bridge of my nose, and prepare my lesson plans. Of course, this scenario does not have to be a figment of my imagination, but with a year under my belt I also understand the realities associated with aspiring to such a life.

Further, I had never thought deliberately about my own giftedness and how it might fit into the academic world. I write. Writing brings me great joy. To tell a tale, to craft a well-written and thoughtful narrative, is to exercise my aptitude for storytelling. Of course I have much to learn. I can hone my skills. I can trim the fat—writing shorter, leaner, and clearer prose. I can expand my vocabulary and develop my syntax. I can gain a tighter grip on grammar.

But am I, or do I, want to be an historian? Is a fully funded opportunity always the right opportunity? Do others’ expectations shape my decision making? Should momentum, rather than insight and prayer, carry me toward a career? These questions force me to take pause.

My first two semesters, now behind me, functioned much like a mirror for me. Not only did they expose my immaturity and failings, they also revealed my strengths. In the first year I demonstrated my ability to offer a close reading of short passages and then provide a concise,coherent analysis. I also felt confident in my ability to weave together a historiography—to put books in conversation with one another.

But my ability to open up the hood of a book and to understand its mechanics, how the content informs the structure, and where the shortcomings present themselves, lags sorely behind. I understand that this skill develops over time. Few first-year students come to the table with the capacity to fully interrogate an author and his or her monograph. Most can point to the tragic flaws, but an eloquent examination comes only with time. Perhaps more problematic than my inability, however, is the fact that I have zero desire to gain this knack for dissection.

I embark on summer vacation fully aware of what I need to do in order to make myself a better graduate student. In addition to sharpening my skills, however, I must also reflect on the larger questions that emerged during the first year—the deeper questions, the ones that force me to consider why I do what I do and if this is the right path for me.

Explore posts in the same categories: Academic Anecdotes, Dispatches, Life of the Mind

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