Publication Date

September 21, 2015

To celebrate a new academic year, we solicited reflections from three early-career historians on their first years in new positions. Today,  talks about his first year in graduate school as a PhD candidate. 

In all honesty, I was worried about starting a PhD program at the University of Southern California last fall. I had earned my MA a few years earlier, and I remembered how stressful academic work could be. But after a spending some time away from school—mostly putting in long days on organic farms and bussing tables—I decided it was time to go back, to pursue my passion for history. That passion is what has made facing so many new challenges worthwhile. Flipping back through a long, complex book to see my cramped marginalia, or walking out of class after an afternoon of vibrant, rapid-fire discussion, gives me a real sense of accomplishment. I’ve been surprised at how rewarding the daily grind of grad school can be. A year ago, I thought I would only feel gratification the day I put on my flowing wizard robes to receive my diploma—or, worse, at my retirement party. Instead, I’ve found that waking up every day and doing hard things well is sort of its own reward.

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My fellow grad students and our professors have helped to make every day its own reward. I have fond memories of getting a syllabus with so much reading my jaw literally dropped. If you ever find yourself in the same position, I highly recommend reaching out to your fellow students. I e-mailed two other people from my cohort, and soon we had set up a reading group, running parallel to the class to help teach each other the material. These meetings, on a sunny bench outside the library, were a time of laughter, encouragement, and lots of learning. I always walked into our little meetings feeling overwhelmed with the readings and papers, but I left smiling, refreshed by our conversation. After all, when you’re sitting outside in sunny Los Angeles and talking about fascinating books with smart people, how hard can things really be?

I would also encourage incoming graduate students to take risks. During my first semester I enrolled in a course on the legal history of emancipation. I’d never tried legal history, because I assumed it would be too dry and too confusing for me to even attempt. However, I soon found a court opinion about a young New Mexican woman, recently freed from peonage, trying to reclaim her daughter from her former master’s family. Maybe legal history was boring, but Juana’s story certainly wasn’t. I applied for and received a grant to go to Santa Fe to continue tracing her case through the archives. When I got to the archives, I was surprised again to realize that most of the documents I wanted were missing. However, I soon found a number of other cases dealing with similar issues and legal questions. Much to my own surprise, I’m now working on a legal history paper, and I find it rewarding.

As I revise this project, I’m still finding gratification in my work. Trimming a few pages or rewriting an awkward paragraph may not be huge victories, but they bring a smile to my face. If there’s any lesson for other grad students here, it’s that every day can be rewarding. We’re lucky enough to be studying history at a professional level, tackling big challenges and overcoming them. If we take the time to look for it, we can find gratification, and even real happiness, in our daily work.

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is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California studying the Southwest borderlands in the 19th-century United States.

Read also the first and second posts in our “My First Year Series”: My First Year Beyond the Professoriate, by Thai Jones, talking about his first year as a special collections curator and My First Year on the Tenure Track, by Marsha Barrett, a new assistant professor of history and African American studies at Mississippi State University. Also remember that AHA offers discounts on various publications and scholarly services for members, so as you head into the new academic year, check out these member benefits

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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