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Looking Back at Year One of Graduate School

My bags are packed, my final papers submitted, my apartment sublet, and as of next week I’ll be gone from George Washington University and the United States until the end of August. It’s been a fast nine months, but I’ve officially reached the halfway point of my two-year graduate school program.

To mark reaching the end of year one, I’ve put together some superlatives for my first year at graduate school:

Biggest Adjustment:

My first blog post last October was all about the workload difference between graduate school and undergrad.

Having to read 1,000 pages a week for class, depending on the week, was pretty miserable sometimes. There were definitely some long nights in the library where I wanted to be anyplace else.

With two semesters under my belt now, I can say the academic workload has become a lot easier to manage. Cranking through a 300 page book in a day, if I have to, isn’t particularly daunting anymore. Part of it is because I’ve become more efficient in reading and taking notes, but I think another part is because my knowledge base increased so much in the first few months. As fewer and fewer of the readings involve completely new concepts and ideas, I’ve started to feel a lot more comfortable with the material.

Most Pleasant Surprise:

My favorite class this year had little to do with my Asian studies concentration. The class was called Theories of Political Development, and it was part of a pool of core courses from which I begrudgingly had to select. I wasn’t looking forward to the class at all when I was finalizing my schedule last summer. I would much rather have taken a politics, history, or economics course that was more clearly related to my area of specialization.

As it turned out, I ended up loving the class and the professor, and I learned a lot that I could apply to my other studies. I enjoyed reading all of the political science heavy hitters like Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Barrington Moore (even if their books can be dense sometimes).

Graduate school doesn’t allow too many opportunities to explore other subject areas, but I think it’s good that the university pushes us to diversify our studies a little bit. In retrospect it’s especially true considering how easy it is to get burned out, and lose the forest from the trees, if I only read books and articles about Asia.

Biggest Regret:

Schoolwork and school-related activities were pretty much my life these past nine months. I guess that’s fine, and that’s just how grad school is, but I wish I’d branched out a little more. My non-school life was pretty heavily focused on activities organized through the Asian studies center and Asian studies student organization at my university. I frequently used schoolwork as an excuse to not bother going out with my roommate or not stay in touch with old friends still living in D.C.

Even though I learned a lot and there were fun times, it wasn’t really a “fun year.” It’s a shame, because in the past, like when I worked and studied overseas and knew that my time was limited, I have been much better about taking advantage of opportunities to go out and explore.

Proudest Accomplishment (academic):

The final research paper that I had to write this semester was a killer. Between April and May, I read at least a couple of thousands of pages for it, including five books cover-to-cover, book sections, journal articles, and news articles. I interviewed the directors of two NGOs and listened to any relevant webcasts I could find online. Then I spent a good five days in the library putting everything together.

I wrote in an earlier post how original research is one of the big differences, in my experience, between graduate and undergraduate coursework. I have to say it felt good to put together a good, strong paper with a lot of independent research and creativity. Not to mention it was the last big assignment of the year for all of my classes.

Proudest Accomplishment (extracurricular):

The Organization of Asian Studies student group that I started leading in January had a really good spring semester. The other executive board members were great to work with, and altogether we organized over twenty events between January and April, including several guest speakers, social events, and an Asian film series.

In my graduate program, there aren’t too many organized opportunities to engage with other students and professors outside of the classroom, but I feel like we did a nice job in changing some of that. One of the things I loved the most about my old school in China, where I used to teach, was the sense of community among the teachers and students on campus. I think because of that I really like the idea of helping to build up the academic community at my current university.