how did i get here?


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how exactly I got to this point in my life where I have no motivation to do what I thought I wanted to do. At some point, I went wrong somewhere, right?

I’ve mentioned before that I feel like I chose the wrong graduate program. This is still true, I think, but I had no way of knowing how disastrous things would turn out in my current program and I had legitimate reasons, both personal and professional, for not choosing the other option. So even though I feel now like the other school would have been the best place, I believe I made the best decision at the time.

So I think the problem goes a bit further back. The problem may be the decision to go to graduate school at all.

Like many college freshmen, I wanted to be a doctor and I rushed into intro calculus and intermediate chemistry. Freshman year is difficult for everyone and combining freshman year with pre-med courses is brutal. However, I was dealing with more than just freshman year uncertainties. I went to college fleeing an unpleasant and restrictive childhood that ended with my mother’s death two months before high school graduation. For many reasons that I won’t list here, the emotional fallout was beyond crippling. Postponing college was not an option nor was mourning properly. It all exploded freshman year when I did horribly in subjects I had loved in college. I tried to pick myself up second semester but I collapsed again after a horrible dorm incident involving my closest “friend” at the time. By February of my freshman year, I had few friends, none particularly close; little family support. I slept all day and all night. I did no work. I skipped quizzes and assignments. Pre-med just wasn’t happening. Somehow by the end of the semester, I pulled myself together enough to show up for exams and avoid failing courses but the damage had been done. Complicating all of my plans was the fact that I was on academic scholarship and I was expected to maintain a certain GPA, which I hadn’t done. I was put on probation meaning that I needed to maintain a higher GPA each semester if I wanted to keep the scholarship. As much as I hadn’t wanted to, I had to drop pre-med.

I really didn’t know what I was going to study; I’d done extremely well in high school but my strength was science, particularly chemistry. Nothing else had really struck my fancy but chemistry was no longer an option. I’d taken a high school AP class in European history with an amazing teacher. I’d done well, I’d enjoyed the material, so history it was.

My sophomore year I took several history courses. I loved the flexibility of the major; I could take whatever I wanted, which I did. The randomness of my course selection explains many of the gaps in my professional background but I didn’t go into history to be a professional historian. I just needed a major and I didn’t have a lot of time to explore other disciplines. I also had so much more success in the humanities than the sciences, or so it seemed. I got B+s with ease and A-s with a decent amount of effort. I enjoyed history, or maybe I enjoyed having better grades. But somehow by the beginning of junior year, I had convinced myself that I was actually good at history and that I should potentially get a PhD in the subject. I say “convinced myself” because B+s and A-s symbolized success to me when they should have suggested that I was competent but not great and probably not the best candidate to be a professional historian.

But how could I have known? History is one of the few disciplines where undergraduate work can bear little resemblance to professional applications. History professors often focus more extensively on historical fact and narrative, particularly in lecture courses, than they do on the interpretations and arguments that define professional history. Despite writing a senior thesis, I didn’t fully understand what professional historians really did (once they returned from the archives) until well into graduate school.

Whether I was adequately prepared for graduate work is a matter for another post. What’s key to me is the meandering road I took to graduate school; I basically stumbled into it. Usually when I think about my path, I chalk it up to luck or “that’s the way life works sometimes.” But maybe the fact that I fell into history means that I should never have fallen at all. I’m not here because I was too spontaneous; if anything, I could do with some spontaneity in my life. But somehow I took an upswing in my academic performance to be a career sign.


One Response to “how did i get here?”

  1. 1 Carnival of GRADual Progress 20th Edition « It’s Alive!

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