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Reflections From My First Year at Hogwarts

How grad school and Harry Potter resemble each other.

May 5, 2015

Shira Lurie is in the first year of her PhD in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political dissent in the early American republic. You can find her on Twitter @shirby9 and her blog Shirby’s Dream World.


Let me begin by clarifying that no, I did not attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (I’m still waiting on my letter; I assume the owl carrying it got lost crossing the Atlantic). But in many ways, the first year of my PhD reminded me a lot of Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts. I entered a fancy new school where I met gifted people who taught me things I had never even heard of before. While UVA remains well within the realm of muggledom, like Harry, I still feel as though a new world of opportunity has opened up for me. Of course, the comparison is not perfect. My year did not include battling a twelve-foot mountain troll, nor did I encounter a face growing out of the back of my teacher’s head (although I do maintain that my Economics professor has a terrible secret). Still, Harry and I are both scrappy underdogs who wear glasses and only have two friends, so I feel comfortable drawing on the wisdom of the Potterverse to describe what I have learned over the past year.  

“You don’t have to be ashamed of what you are.” - Rubeus Hagrid, Goblet of Fire

It’s easy to feel outclassed in grad school, especially in your first year. You won’t have read every book. You won’t be able to attend every conference. There will be things you don’t know and people you haven’t met yet. But remember that we’re all here to learn and that each one of us has something to offer.

“Very astute, Harry, but the mouth organ was only ever a mouth organ.” - Albus Dumbledore, Half-Blood Prince

Sometimes your advisor will say enigmatic things like this that make no sense to you at the time. Smile and nod, write them down, and come back to them later. Perhaps things will become clearer further down the road. And if not, at least you have a cool quote for your first book’s acknowledgments section.

“There are some things that you can’t share without coming to like each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” - Philosopher’s Stone

This is how I feel about the people in my department. Some personalities might clash, we might not all be good friends, but we’re in this together. Treat your colleagues well and lean on each other when you need help.  

“Because that’s what Hermione does … When in doubt, go to the library.” - Ron Weasley, Chamber of Secrets

Just stay out of the restricted section!

“No good sitting worrying about it. What’s coming will come, and we’ll meet it when it does.” - Rubeus Hagrid, Goblet of Fire

Grad school is full of future hurdles to stress over: comps, dissertation defense, the job market. But as Hagrid will tell you, there is no reason to freak out too much over distant events. You should think about these things enough to ensure that you’re prepared, but not so much that you overwhelm yourself. Don’t let these eventual pressures distract from your daily work and overall happiness. Besides, Harry only had a few weeks to prepare to battle a dragon and look how well that turned out.  

“Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery.” - Hermione Granger, Philosopher’s Stone

Grad school places enormous demands on your time, so it’s important to keep your life balanced and in perspective. Make sure you take breaks to do the things you enjoy and connect with the people who are important to you.

“You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” - Albus Dumbledore, Chamber of Secrets

The asking for it is the key part. There are so many people and places you can turn to for help on your campus. But, most likely, you will have to be the one to seek them out yourself.

And remember, it’s “leviOsa” not “levioSA.”

Tell us what you’ve learned from grad school in the comments. Ten points to Gryffindor if you include a Harry Potter quote!

[Photo by Flickr user Scott Smith and used under Creative Commons License]



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