Grad School at 40

OK, technically I recently turned 39. But 40 sounds so much older, doesn’t it? It definitely sounded ancient to me when I graduated for the first time a million years ago at the ripe young age of 21. I do remember seeing a few “nontraditional” students in my classes back then. There was the nice older woman with my grandma’s haircut who sat next to me in history, and the tall Sikh man in philosophy with the salt and pepper beard. People who were obviously in a different stage of life from the rest of us. Now, unaccountably, I am about to become one of those people. There are some good things, some bad things, and some just plain weird things about that.

It’s a bit unsettling, for example, that I’ll probably have multiple professors who are younger than me; almost like those movies where you suddenly find your adult self in the body of a kid (and not in a giddy kid-in-a-candy-store kind of way). Jumping back into the maelstrom of tests and grades and midnight paper-writing marathons may be a bit of an exercise in masochism, especially since my almost-40-year-old self is in a comfortable middle-aged habit of 10 p.m. bedtimes. Plus, will anyone want to do group projects with the weird old lady?

There are some definite upsides, though. For instance, I don’t anticipate eating a single package of ramen noodles this time around. Of course, that’s mostly because I have three other people to come home and feed every day. I will not be in the midst of figuring out my sense of self, working out my romantic life, or wondering if I will ever be able to find a paying job after I finish my degree. I already own a house, and I have a stable and fulfilling relationship with a long-term partner. He even has a job, so no need for student loans. I have a whole pile of professional skills and experience already, so my new master’s degree will be just the icing on the cake. I guess I’m kind of going to graduate school for fun–if by fun you mean an insatiable desire to learn everything possible about the most interesting subject in the world, and contribute in unique and meaningful ways to the overall body of human knowledge.

While I feel like I barely remember what it’s like to be a student, one thing I am a pro at is back-to-school shopping. I do this for my kids every year. In fact, confession: one of the first things I did after finding out I was accepted at Leiden was pop over to Hema (the Dutch version of Target) and buy myself some school supplies. After that many years school shopping with kids, it was so much fun picking out my own pencil case.

In a lot of ways, this going back to school thing is kind of like the experience of being a Xennial all over again. If you were born between 1977 and 1983 you know what I mean. We Xennials lived a liminal existence (because grad school is in a few months, and I need to start using the word “liminal” way more), growing up in an analog world and watching it all change to digital before our eyes. I’ve managed that transition nicely in my ordinary life. Even though I grew up in an age before digital cameras, let alone Instagram, I’m now totally proficient in the correct angles for perfect food porn, selfies, and vacation landscapes. I was an avid and adept user of the library card catalog back in the 80s and 90s, but now I live for Overdrive and Libby on my Kindle. I remember as a kid pulling into some obscure town to break a long family road trip, and hoping there would be space in the local Motel 6; now it’s all pre-booked on AirBnB.

In academic terms, though, the time between 2001 and 2019 doesn’t really exist for me. I am kind of wondering what’s changed, and what I need to do to get up to speed. For instance, during my four years at university from 1997 to 2001, I didn’t have a cell phone. Almost nobody did. In fact, during freshman year a friend and I mapped the numbers of every courtesy phone on campus, so we could randomly call each other as we were walking out of class. I signed up for classes by calling a phone number and pushing buttons (over and over at midnight, because the number was perpetually busy, and I really wanted to get into Arabic 101). I had a massive old DOS computer donated by a friend of my mom’s. It took several minutes to boot up, and was ancient even for the late 90s; I ended up typing most of my papers on my roommate’s laptop, or in the various computer labs that had just recently started sprouting up all over campus in those days. Blackboard was sort of introduced towards the end of my university career, but only a few very tech-savvy professors were using it.

The academic world has presumably also entered the 21st century by now, and I guess I’ll have to learn to navigate that too. For example, in order to get into grad school in the first place I had to write a research proposal citing several sources. I started out on Google Scholar, but the sort of catch-22 of trying to get into grad school is that you’re not in grad school yet, so you don’t have access to a university subscription for these fearfully expensive academic journals, and therefore have no sources to cite.

There’s always the option of emailing authors, but I needed a lot of papers. I was starting from scratch, so I basically had to catch up on the field, pick a subfield, read up on it enough to know more or less what’s going on, come up with a research topic, and then winnow through enough articles on that topic to find at least the required five that were actually relevant (or more like ten, since my inner inferiority complex is an overachiever). Basically, I needed to either email a hundred or so different authors begging for pdf copies of their research, or find another solution.

So I googled around till I found, which apparently does its best to get researchers to upload their own articles. I found plenty of good material there, and by all appearances miraculously managed to pull together a coherent enough research proposal to convince the Powers-That-Be, even though I barely remember writing a proposal for my long-ago bachelor thesis, and had no idea how to even start.

Fortunately they didn’t ask to see said bachelor thesis, which is (also fortunately) not online at because of having been written back in the stone ages. In fact, it’s not even a proper bachelor thesis, since my university didn’t require a bachelor thesis back then; it’s just the paper I wrote for my capstone history class. I’d had all my research training back when I was a philosophy major, and those methods were basically useless when I tried to apply them to historiography. So I managed only a passing glimpse at historical methodology just as I was graduating. In fact–as I recalled when I dug the paper out of storage under the basement stairs–my professor got ill halfway through the semester. He never came back to class for a final draft, so I just have the second-to-last draft with his red marks all over it. He did end up giving me the only A in the class, but everything else must have been pretty bad.

At any rate, as I was madly downloading papers from (this, yes, WAS like being a kid in a candy shop), I dumped them straight into Trello, my go-to organising solution. Where they sit to this day, perfectly organised by broad and then narrower topics. Except that Trello isn’t the ideal place to keep and actually use these sorts of things; it may be flexible, but at heart it is a project management tool, not an academic filing system. Apparently, for that I need Zotero, Mendeley or EndNote, possibly integrated with Evernote. Presumably in addition to my brain. Looks like I have more meta-research to do on how to organise my research. In fact, maybe I should start with the basics, like should I take notes on my laptop or by hand? (Yes, I have googled this question.)

All the online AI spies have of course caught on to the fact that I can’t go two days without googling something to do with grad school, and have started showing me everything from backpacks to class rings to fancy notebooks with pages made out of stone. And of course, apps. Most recently Researcher, which I immediately downloaded on my phone. It sends me notifications whenever something is published by a journal or research keyword I follow. It seems I follow too many, since I receive notifications all day every day, and if I were to read all those papers I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. I was, however, delighted to find that even though my programme doesn’t start till September, my university credentials already give me access to All The Articles. I guess I’ll just have to learn to read faster.

In fact, I definitely will need to learn to read faster. According to further meta-research, one can expect to read 700-1500 pages per week in a history master’s programme. (!?!) Plus attending classes and doing the actual writing that is kind of the point of the programme. I did the math on how many hours that works out to, and promptly forgot it, because I must have made some kind of mistake somewhere. And I hadn’t even added in sleep yet. Current attitude toward grad school: still wildly excited, but also really nervous. Maybe falling back on that old philosophy training isn’t such a bad idea after all. At least I know where to start:

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3 thoughts on “Grad School at 40

  • Pingback: Thoughts on 40 – Casteluzzo

  • June 3, 2019 at 12:44 am

    This mirrors so much of what I was feeling when I started my grad program, and now you’re making me excited to go back again!! The digital learning curve was especially difficult, although now I have Zotero integrated into every browser I use. I was thinking about a random question the other day, and went to look it up… only to realize that my university library privileges had been revoked (they kept me on for almost a year after leaving!) and I got so, so sad. Clearly I need to get back at it, just for that!

    You are going to ROCK this program. I am so excited to read all about it!!


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