Graduate school is a lot of work. I know this is true because I am now a grad student in history, but I had heard it many times before entering grad school myself. Various advice websites cautioned potential students to be aware of the differences between undergrad and grad school – especially the reading load – and to expect both more freedom and more responsibility. I can attest that all of these things are true. I would estimate that between my on-campus job (20 hours per week) and my studies, I work approximately 70 hours per week. I have taken exactly one (1) entire day off since I started, and I anticipate my next day completely free of work will probably be after the sememster has ended. I have read seven books cover-to-cover and an additional two or three thousand pages of skimming for a research project in the seven weeks of the semester that have elapsed so far. I have spent hours upon hours in front of a microfilm machine trying to decipher florid handwriting from the 1820s. While all of these things are “true” in the sense that they comprise the surface reality of my life, their simple enumeration is very misleading. The sheer volme of work involved seems to function as a warning, like the advice websites that caution students who simply think grad school is the logical next step to beware of the onerous demands it places on students.
What these various givers of advice rarely mention, however, is just how rewarding doing all of this work can be. Yes, deciphering handwriting takes concentration and patience, but when I found the “smoking gun” document for my project in an unpublished manuscript collection buried in thousands of pages of microfilm, I was esctatic. I gushed to whomever would listen to me. “Guess what I found! A letter that proves I wasn’t just making up my hypothesis! Want to see the PDF copy I scanned?” Something similar has been true of the books I have read thus far. I constantly find myself enriched by thoughtful analysis of historical questions and the knowledge that my conceptions are being continually broadened through these works. Class discussions might be the absolute best part of grad school. While there is an aspect of terror involved – sitting in a room with six other very intelligent people, including the professor, and trying to make insightful comments about the reading is not for the faint of heart – the contributions that each of these scholars or scholars-in-training make to my own understanding of the work can hardly be measured. I walk out of just about every class with the sense that I now actually understand a book and can at least semi-intelligently discuss concepts that I had never encountered even a week before. The empowerment of the discussion course – the back and forth of taking positions and having them critiqued, of trying to elucidate just exactly what one is trying to say, of jointly arriving at a superior understanding of a book – is unlike anything I have ever experienced before, and is certainly one of the most rewarding.
So while I may be working from when I wake up in the morning until when I go to bed, neglecting my family and friends, and generally ensconced in a cocoon of words and concepts, I am probably more fulfilled – and thus happier – than I have ever been.