This Grad Life: Learning Experiences as a Graduate Student

Education has its milestones in a person’s life; their first day at school, high school graduation, acceptance into college, college graduation, etc. We put a major emphasis on what we learn and what we do with the knowledge we gain. I thought for many years that just doing well in school would have guaranteed a future career, but I was wrong. There’s far more to school that obtaining high marks and getting listed on the Honor Roll. I should have known then, but I understand now that making a push towards what I want in my career stems from the drive to make your mark.

Attending graduate school and earning my MA in History was one of the best life decisions I made. Following my graduation from the University of Arkansas, there were absolutely zero job prospects in the history field. No state or National parks were hiring and neither any museums within a hundred mile radius of home. After securing a job with an auto parts company, I began working in their shipping and receiving bay where I put together orders and conducted inventories. After about two weeks there while standing in front of the derelict counter and computer with a malfunctioning monitor, I said out loud, “This sucks. I’m going back to school and do something to get a history job because I’m going to go insane here.” For a year I put up with overbearing managers who wanted to fire me because they wanted to feel superior over someone who had a college degree (I wager that only a handful of those there actually completed high school). There was no A/C, heating, or any functioning ventilation of any kind, so it was brutal in the summer and winter. The job did mandate that I become forklift certified so that was one upside I guess. All the while, I’m squirreling money away to go back to school. I spent weeks researching different schools and their graduate programs until I landed upon Emporia State University, located in Emporia, Kansas. I was amazed to find out that not only did they accept my application, but offered me a job as a Graduate Teaching Assistant! I would have been thrilled to just study, but to have gainful employment at the university was a significant bounty. After submitting my two weeks notice, I began packing my bags and I moved to Kansas.

Returning to  the academic environment was a smooth transition for me. I found that I can achieve peak productivity in an academic environment as a student because of all the learning possibilities. Armed with a graduate assistant position and after meeting my faculty counterpart, I was ready to return to the history world. For two years, the time I spent working alongside the faculty and students was incredibly rewarding. Graduate student colleagues were some of my best confidants out there in school and the times we spent rambling and ranting about our research filled long hours at Mulready’s Pub. There were six of us in a small, shared office with graduate students from the English Department and we all got along swimmingly. There were times the stress was visible; fast-approaching deadlines, trouble verifying sources, dealing with the politics of academia, working late hours grading papers and tests. You could always count on having to do some amount of work. Anyone in that office who said they had nothing to do was outright lying.

One piece of advice that I’d share with other graduate teaching assistants is that when you’re selected to lead a lecture or session, always find something to engage the students and have them participate collectively. Right off the bat in my first day of class, students in back rows were asleep, sneakily checking their phones, or finding some way to appear busy to cover their lack of discipline. That perspective from the front of the classroom was not new to me (having delivered presentations before) but in the role of educator, you find ways to uplift the students and encourage them to study what they might slough off as just a mandatory course box on their degree plan. You may find that an interactive quiz, interactive primary sources, using historical artifacts, or something similar can bring students to both a better understanding of the material and greater respect for the subject. Not every student reacts the same way and not everyone can garner the same level of interest. I struggled with that because I wanted everyone to emulate the passion that I had, but I accepted later on that not everyone would and it allowed me to refocus my teaching energy.

Before the first semester began, I vowed to steer clear of the cliche office politics that came with the territory of academia. Instead, I found myself right at the center. Full disclosure, I was not privy to many discussions taking place in the Social Sciences Department itself, but I was there to receive their decisions, many of which I disagreed. I hit upon the idea early in my studies to pursue a public history path. Public history centers on researching and portraying historical subjects in a manner easy to public education and bring widespread notice to the general public. This is ideal for those wanting to work in a museum, library, archives, or a historical park. I knew that was what I wanted to do career wise and I soon hit upon my thesis idea. In 2010, I spent time studying overseas at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and became obsessed with my Scottish heritage. I quickly connected with some local Scottish groups back home in Missouri and took that passion with me to Kansas. The idea of interviewing Scottish-Americans, recording their experiences, and seeing how people learn about historical topics through their heritage practices sounded golden. At least it was to me, but to the faculty, it took some convincing. Ultimately my advisor supported me wholeheartedly, one committee member remained a mix of cautiously optimistic and skeptical, and the third endorsed it because of the oral history approach I used for interviewing candidates. I had my share of obstacles, especially with the faculty and administration, but I endured it and finally walked across the stage with my new MA History degree.

My advice for graduate students: never let any office politics get in the way of your degree. Your research, the sole purpose of you being there, should not be held hostage by the actions of some squabbling professors who don’t like each other. You aren’t accepted into the program to be a pawn, you’re there to pursue a passion that shapes your future career path. I remember telling my colleagues in numerous ‘Mulready meetings’ that our research shouldn’t be held hostage to advance one professor’s agenda over another.

Another great demand that graduate school makes is one that lies with yourself. Work-life balance isn’t just for your full-time job, but with school also. Achieving that balance was difficult for me because I was went full-bore into my schoolwork, all the time. There was some venting with exercise and swimming at the school gym, but looking back I think I could have done better.

When you look back on an experience, you want to ask yourself; was it worth it? In my case, yes. I got my degree, secured a job with the National Archives, and now I’m finally applying my history knowledge to my job, which is something I’m immensely proud.

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