Lessons Learned from Grad School

I suppose, my friends, that you could say I’ve been on a series of themed posts lately. Well, ok, maybe not, but you can say this post will be the second in a series. The first was my Goodbye New Haven post last friday, where I mentioned that since I completed my third year and would be leaving my uni and city behind me (though I’m not done with my dissertation yet, of course), I’d be offering a retrospective of my time there. Well, this is the second part of my retrospective. I already went over what I might have done differently in my search for housing. For this entry, I’ll go over my grad school career as a whole and explain what I think I did right and what I did wrong, or what I’d do differently. I’ll start with my mistakes first.

 1: First thing I did wrong: Got cocky! See, before I went to grad school, all my friends told me it would be the hardest thing ever, beyond anything I’d ever seen before. But when I actually went, at least for my first year, while the work was a challenge, I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I thought I’d be. I did pretty damn well, in fact, getting all As with maybe a B+ here and there. So when my second year rolled around, I was overconfident and didn’t take it as seriously, thinking it wouldn’t be so hard…

Hooooooo boy. Was THAT a mistake.

I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say I did terribly my second year! My first semester I nearly bombed out entirely, and only just BARELY managed to scrape up passing grades in my courses. Now, my second semester, I did a little better, but I was feeling so demoralized from my first that I still didn’t do as well as I could have, and still comparatively pretty poorly. My grad school career suffered somewhat heavily as a result. While I didn’t do bad enough to flunk out entirely, I was “strongly” recommended to take a year off–certainly not the most auspicious vote of confidence for me! Still, it would be good to destress after that ordeal, so I took the offer, taking one year of leave for personal reasons (my uni allows you to take a max of two). At the end of my first year, I asked my adviser if he might be willing to work with me again, but he said no, he’d be away doing research on a book. So I took ANOTHER year off, hoping he’d be back after 2 straight years of leave. When the second year was over and I had to return (or withdraw from the program entirely)…I found out that my adviser didn’t want to work with me at all and that he said it’d be best if I found a replacement for him! What a mess I ended up in D: Fortunately, I did somehow manage to find a replacement and it all ended up well enough, which I’ll explain later on, but still, it was a VERY close call. As one of my friends told me when I mentioned how tough my second year was…

sbahj stairs

(Credits to Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff for the original XD)

So yeah, if I could go back in time, at the beginning of my second year I’d tell myself, “Dude, this shit is harder than it looks! DO NOT get complacent! Think about your choices of courses better! Mess up now and you might not be able to make up for it later!”

2: Second thing I would have done differently: Put in more work during my two years off. Now, don’t get me wrong, my two years off were DEFINITELY not a waste, I mentioned earlier that I really liked the lil history job I got while I was hanging around 😀 Still, though, if I could travel back in time, I’d tell myself to put in more work with my graduate school affairs. See, during my leave I scrupulously avoided doing pretty much anything related to my future orals or dissertation (that didn’t apply to my paying history job, of course 😉 ) because I was told I’d suffer a penalty if they found out I was doing grad school related work on what was supposed to be a *personal* leave. When I got back, though, they didn’t really ask me about what I’d done for my leave, or for proof I hadn’t worked on my dissertation or whatever. So really, I might as well have tried to put away as much of my dissertation prospectus as possible! I managed to finish a first draft during my first couple months back at Uni, of course, but still, it would have been much less stressful if I had just produced a nice first draft of it the moment I showed up at the beginning of my third year. I suspect they wouldn’t have questioned when I finished it or how I had time to work on it, I just told them “I’m coming back” and that was it. ):T

About my orals, this is a pretty minor thing, but #3 for what I’d do differently might SORT OF be this: Maybe I should have chosen a more specific field for my 3rd orals field, “International Abolitionism.” I did well with that, and my orals professor for that field said I did a very good job, but since it involved so many countries (it was “outside of North America,” which meant I studied Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, other South American nations, etc.) it was tough keeping track of everything. If I were to do it again I might just do “British Abolitionism” to get thru the “outside of my geographical specialization (North America) requirement. 😮 Still, I did well, so it’s no big deal 😀

Well, that’s all the sad bad stuff out of the way. But I wanted to get it out of the way first, because aside from all of that, my grad school career, despite all odds, has been a pretty decent success so far! Let me tell you why:

1: The first thing I definitely did right: NO DEBT! My uni gave me a full ride scholarship (I paid no tuition) AND gave me a damn generous stipend! The only things I really had to pay for over the course of 3 years here were for food and housing, really (and personal purchases, like books, games, etc. XD) So while many left grad school saddled with unmanageable debts, loans, tuition fees, and that sort of stuff, I’m leaving twenty thousand dollars richer than I was when I started! Now you can sure call that a win, eh? Especially since I also have an M.A from an Ivy League university and a Ph.D in the works. And in the process of getting that Ph.D, I’ll be getting even more money thanks to generous writing fellowships my uni has provided me, and that’s not even mentioning coming back to New Haven for more teaching after I’ve done my research! So by the time I get my doctorate, I’ll have at least 30k more Benjamins weighting my wallet!

I would say that’s probably my greatest coup of my grad school career so far. Debt can really crush your dreams, while even a little bit more money in the bank can help them soar. Academic success is important, but financial success equally so! So I’m definitely proud and happy I’ve managed to evade debt so well. 😀

2: Noice teaching! This was the very first time I EVER did anything teaching related, and hot damn, not to get too full of myself (I learned my lessons described in the first part well XD) but I did a pretty good job for a total amateur. There were some things I could improve on, of course; since I was so new I was a little unconfident and hesitant at first, so my students noted during my first semester that I could be a little awkward at times. As I continued holding lessons and grew more confident, though, that problem lessened 😀 And aside from that, my students really liked me and I got generally rave reviews! I think I might give some teaching advice in a separate post, but for now, as a general statement, I think what really got me through this was my concern for my students. They’ll really give you a lot of leeway if you prove you care about them, which I did! I was always available for meetings, emailed them back promptly whenever they sent me emails, and if one of ‘em missed class or just seemed to be having problems I’d reach out to them just to make sure they were okay. That, along with my speed in grading their papers and stuff, really paid off in my evaluations 😀 So yeah, being really in touch with my undergrads and getting their grades back to them quickly were the second thing I did right.

3: I’ll describe this in more detail in my oral exams review post, but for now: Having weekly/biweekly/monthly meetings with my orals professors made the exams SOOOO much easier. I probably would have failed them if I just went in cold, even if I had months of study time, but after meeting with my profs on a consistent basis the oral exams themselves were just a formality.

4: Choosing my Thesis Committee well. Now, this requires a bit of backstory. Following my troublesome second year, I was strongly advised to take a year or two off from grad school to recompose myself and regain my morale, as I mentioned above. I did so, and made reasonably good use of my time (though as I said, maybe I should have spent more time on my dissertation XD). Before I left, however, I thought I’d be working with 3 specific faculty members. When I got back from my ‘vacation’ for my third year, though, I found that 2 of those guys were no longer willing to work with me! I’ll describe that more in my next section, but the important thing here is that I had to find two new committee members for my dissertation. As luck would have it,

Now here’s the important thing. See, the other two professors I got were not only interested in my work, and they not only liked me (I took classes with them earlier in grad school), but they ALSO got along really well! I don’t just mean they were good colleagues and worked well together, I mean they actually seemed to be friends off the job. They all thanked each other in the acknowledgments of their books, for instance. So this meant they were all on the same page when it came to advising me for my dissertation, and this made my life SOOOOOO much easier. They all agreed with each other’s’ suggestions and supported each other in their guidance of me; the synergy they had with each other encouraged me and boosted my morale as well. In more practical terms, their teamwork and mutual support meant I could easily do everything they told me instead of having their advice be at odds with each other, or worrying about them getting angry at each other or whatnot. Seriously, I’ve heard that happens sometimes; I’ve read some real horror stories from grad students who had committees where the professors all hated each other, and their conflicts ended up hurting their grad student’s career. Me, on the other hand, I got a trio of bros who focused all their energies on helping me out, which resulted in me making a bang-up prospectus and setting myself up for a smooth ride to my Ph.D! So to conclude, while less fortunate grad students got themselves angry and contentious dissertation committees, I definitely did well in getting one that was more like this:

Gunlord and his dissertation committee

(Credit to Araki Hirohiko of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 3: Stardust Crusaders for the art XD)

5: Never give up!

I think that’s the most important thing I did right in my third year, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned in grad school.

Now, first off, keep in mind that I don’t encourage mindless obstinacy. If something plainly isn’t working, or if you’re clearly in a situation that’s of no benefit to you, there’s no point in foolishly carrying on, and no shame in abandoning it and finding another plan or place—no shame in “giving up” under those circumstances. Flexibility is a virtue!

Still, don’t be too fast to deem a situation or course of action to be completely hopeless. I was on the verge of doing that my first few months of my third year. As I mentioned above, my first two years at uni I had a couple of specific people in mind to serve on my dissertation and orals committees. I needed 3 people, and only one of them was 100% certain he’d have me after my second year. After I took two years off and came back for my third academic year, however, I found out that NEITHER of the other two was willing to work with me! Understandably, I fell into complete despair. No way I could write my dissertation and pass my orals with only 1 advisor! I felt that I should have just left with my MA instead of trying to go for the Ph.D, that it was a mistake to return to New Haven, and that I should have just stayed home and found a new career! I was *this* close to handing in a resignation form and withdrawing from the grad school!

I stopped myself, though. Since I was already there, and it would have been so much trouble to come back home, I said to myself, “well, they haven’t kicked me out entirely, and I still have a little bit of time (it was early September), so why not give it one last shot and stick it out? No sense throwing in the towel before the fat lady sings (lol). Why not just hang on a little bit longer and see if there’s a last-ditch alternative?” I was bolstered in this effort by a nice email one of the people I’d hoped to work with sent me. He said, “Gunlord-kun, I might not be willing to work with you, but I’m sure someone else here is. Just reach out to people and ask. Even if you’ve never taken classes with someone before, if you want to write on something that interests them they might be happy to help you out. Same things with orals, if you’re reading in someone’s field, just ask if they’d be willing to read with you—it couldn’t hurt!”

So that’s what I did. I asked a couple professors whose classes I did well in my first year if they’d work with me, and…they said yes! As it happened, one was also willing to serve on my orals committee, and I found my third orals advisor by reaching out to a new professor my uni had recruited—it was her first year here, so she didn’t mind taking me on as an orals student, as the process of teaching me while I worked on other orals fields would help her get situated at the university, learn more about what her colleagues were doing, and so on. And the rest, as y’all know, is history. I managed to complete my prospectus defense, pass my orals with flying colors, and get back on track to winning a cool ph.d! All the money I’ll be getting next year as part of my fellowship is just icing on the cake, of course 😉 So in this case, what did I do right? Sticking it through even when all seemed loss, not giving up too easily, and persevering just long enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel and emerge with an EPIC win! I think this song, the Vifam ED, sums it up nicely:

So, to sum up the things I’d do differently:

1: As mentioned in my last entry, get better housing! I should have gone with a nice apartment rather than the grad dorms waaaay earlier on. XD XD

2: Again, not get cocky and choose some different courses my second year.

3: Do moar studying during my years off.

But anyways, after all this is said…

It’s currently Friday, May 22. I’ve just left New Haven and arrived back at my home in Buffalo. I’ll not stay here forever—probably just three months or so before I begin my wanderings across America to find primary sources for my dissertation. Still, I can at least rest a bit before resuming my work. As I do so, however, I can reflect back on my time and experiences at New Haven. This day does represent a watershed in my life, after all. After today, I’ll probably not return to New Haven to live for a very long time, if ever. I’ll only have to come back a couple of times for conferring with my advisers and getting my Ph.D, but other than that, I’ll be leaving the city behind me. This does, therefore, represent a not-insignificant turning point in my life, not only geographically but thematically as well, as I advance from a young budding grad student to someone on the cusp of getting his Ph.D.

So, overall, beyond both my academic career, my travails with housing, and everything that’s happened to me, how can I look back on the past 3–well, technically 5–years? What do I feel about my accomplishments? And how do I feel as the wonderful city of New Haven fades into the background? Well, as melodramatic as it may seem, I think this clip from Vampire Hunter D sums it up:

Yeah, I know, melodramatic XD I’m not a super cool hero like D, nor have I rescued a fair maiden from an evil vampire or served as a mentor figure to a kid who considers me an older brother because I saved the whole town from said evil vampire. Still, the feelings expressed in that ending do mirror my emotions, to an extent. If I haven’t triumphed over evil like D did, I did manage to triumph over a great deal of (academic) adversity. And while I may not be a hero to the people of New Haven, I am leaving behind a lot of great friends and good people, and I think I did leave a positive impact on that city, or at least my university, through the teaching I did. So, similar to D, while I’m sad to leave my friends behind, I’m happy that I got to know them in the first place, and I’m glad that I left them better than I found them, in some small way.

And, not so different than D (qualitatively, at least), I ride off into the sunset–in a car rather than a robot horse, but whatever–in search of a new adventure.

Farewell for now, my friends, and as always, thank you so much for sharing this adventure with me. But it’s not over yet! I’ll be back next week 😉




  1. Wow, that was super helpful and a really insightful read. Hope I’ll be able to do as well as you when I enter graduate school next year! Good luck with finding primary sources and have fun traveling!

    1. Thanks! Glad you found it useful 😀

  2. Hammershlag · · Reply

    I agree with basikilos. When I enter graduate school, I’m definitely going to take note of these.

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