It all began right when it all ended. In May 2004, I graduated from Rowan University with a bachelor's degree in History and a minor in Political Science. While some of my friends began their careers as financial advisors, police officers, and subcontractors, I took the alternative path and decided to hold off on the real world and go to graduate school. I enrolled in a history program at a university in Wayne, NJ and also applied for and was given a position as a "Graduate Assistant" for the history department. As a Graduate Assistant I was expected to work for the department for 20 hours a week. For my hard work I was given a stipend (a small salary) and free tuition to the University.
In grad school the class sizes were small and each student represented a diverse interest in history. Each student also believed they were an "expert," only to shortly find out that the only expert in the room was the professor sitting at the head of the table. This was the biggest blow to my educational ego - that the professor sitting next to me had probably forgotten more in his lifetime than I had ever learned about history. Also, unlike as an undergrad, in graduate school you have a more personalized relationship with both the professor and the other classmates, especially the Chair of the department and the Graduate Director. They treated me not as their inferior, but as a colleague, an associate, and a friend. Whether or not this was simply a ploy to get me to do their work for them is debatable, but it was a warm and welcoming experience.
During my first semester as a grad student I had three graduate level classes, one undergraduate Japanese language course (wasn't I ambitious), and 20 hours a week of work for the department. The worst part was all the reading. Some weeks you would have to read one book for each class and have to retain enough information to be able to hold a discussion in class for the following week. That's right, in graduate school it is up to the students to carry on discussions, not the professor. As an undergraduate you have the luxury of sleep walking through class, jotting down some notes, and acing "multiple guess" tests; but not in grad school. In graduate school, the 14 students sitting around the table have to be able to hold a three-hour conversation about the assigned reading for the class. The professor has the luxury of sitting back, throwing out questions, and dropping the proverbial "educational hammer" on us when we stray from the course or lose focus. That's not to say the professor is idle the entire period. Quite often a student will ask a question that will get a 25 minute answer discussing everything the student asked and then some. I once had a classmate ask a question about the French Revolution only to have the professor give an impromptu lecture on the entire history of the French Revolution using no notes. While I sometimes forget where I leave my car keys, it was impressive (and a little intimidating) to be subjected to that sort of intellectual onslaught.
After only a few weeks of work for the department I found out that "Graduate Assistant" really meant doing all the jobs that no one else wanted to do. In addition to working on a project collecting New Jersey historical resources, I also had computer lab hours, and had to do side projects for different professors in the department. It got to the point where I felt like I was going to have to hire my own personal assistant to help me get through all the various tasks in a given day. Usually during my History Lab hours I could get some work done, only to be interrupted by a nervous freshman asking me only the most important historical questions: "How do I log on to the computers?" and "What are footnotes?"
Everything was going smoothly until I got my first graded paper back, in which I read the words that I'll never forget, "Nick you have a problem with dangling participles." I thought to myself, "A dangling what?! Did he just insult me?" Sure I've heard of comma splices, run on sentences, and subject-verb disagreement, but never a dangling participle. It sounded like some form of rare disease that my grammar had, but it was curable. Luckily Google put my mind at ease and I learned to un-dangle any future participles.
With the exception of the traditional "end of the semester 20-page paper," the end of the semester was pretty much like the beginning: read two books a week, report to my boss every Monday and Wednesday for a meeting, do more of others peoples work, then do my own, then go to sleep, then wake up and do it all over again. I ended my first semester of graduate school with an A, A-, and B+, but truly gained the experience that would last a lifetime; well hopefully at least three more semesters.