How Academic Sins of the Past Can Affect The Future

doctoral regalia phd hood Every so often, I get into my head that I need a Ph.D.  Right now, I not only think that I need one, but that I actively want it as well.

Not having a Ph.D. in this profession is like going to a Star Trek convention without a clearly outlined Kirk vs. Picard argument.  It’s just not done (if you want to teach anything higher than composition and literature surveys, that is).  You can typically expect to be treated like a second-class citizen by many of your colleagues.  Not all, but many.

So now with the new fall semester underway and my wife starting to teach her first college-level class, getting my doctorate is front-and-center in my mind and on my list of professional goals.

There’s just one tiny problem: I was an idiot my entire undergraduate career, and I’m paying for it now.

Past is Prologue

Let no one tell you that what you do early in your academic career won’t come into play later on.

It does.

I did two incredibly stupid things early on that I’m still paying for.  Well, let me rephrase that: I had an incredibly stupid mindset that had some unforeseen consequences that will affect my future whether I want them to or not.

What was the mindset? That being “good enough” was good enough.  I’ve always been a smart guy, and I’ve never really had to try in school (not until I had to fit an entire year’s worth of Master’s work into 4 months, that is).  I could get A’s in most classes and B’s in others without ever opening a textbook, without ever reading anything more than Sparknotes.  Why would I put forth the effort to get all A’s when I could do nothing and get mostly A’s?  It just didn’t make sense; I had better things to do with my time.

Unfortunately, that was my mindset from when I was a middle-schooler all the way up to when a professor in my Master’s program told me to (and I quote) get my head out of my ass.  I was smarter than that.

However, by the time he told me that, I had already made three mistakes that are still compounding interest and could very well affect my Ph.D. aspirations.

Mistake #1: I’m a College Dropout

Through high school, I dated a girl I met on the Internet.  When we were 18, she moved from Wyoming to Tennessee.  She had been here maybe 6 months when I had to move off to college.  In true 18-year-old fashion, I couldn’t stand being away from her those extended periods of time and withdrew from all my classes and moved home.

I returned the following semester, but the damage was done.  I lost my scholarships (despite being told they would be waiting for me when I came back), I changed from Honors classes in History, English, and Biology to normal classes with easy professors my friends recommended, and I was a semester behind my friends so I had to take summer classes all four years just to graduate on time.

Taken in isolation, none of these are that bad.  It’s when they’re combined that they snowball into a bigger deal.

Losing my scholarships wasn’t too bad because my family was (luckily) able to pay my tuition out of pocket.

Going from Honors to normal classes hurts a bit more now.  While I definitely got a lot from my graphic novel themed comp classes, the lack of Honors-level assignments and discussion didn’t instill in me the “take college seriously” mindset that I really needed.  By taking my friends’ suggestions, I had a great—and easy—time in college, but I know for a fact that I could have gotten more out of it had I stuck with my initial plan.

Taking summer classes was hard.  Never having any real time off during college led to some ridiculous burnout by the time my Master’s was nearing completion.  Couple that burnout with going straight into teaching, and being ready to start doctoral studies never happened.  I think I’ve had enough time now, but life’s picked up since then, and going back’s never as easy as it sounds.

Mistake #2: Foreign Language Fluency

Dropping out that one semester did something else: while my friends had the great German teacher who had been there for years, when it was time for me to jump into my foreign language requirement, he had found another job, and I was stuck with the new hire.

At this point, I can’t remember her name.  All I know is that I struggled to just get a C in her class because her style of teaching was two-fold: she never assigned vocabulary, thinking it would be picked up through grammar and mechanics exercises and she said constantly “You’re not going to understand this until German III, but I’ll tell you anyway.”

Needless to say, I learned nothing, and she lasted only a single year at the college.

But the damage was done.  By the time they hired a suitable replacement, I was well entrenched in the good enough is good enough mindset, and instead of retaking the one class I needed to give me a foundation in the language, I pushed through, learning nothing and gaining myself another batch of Cs.

Why this hurts now is simple: Ph.D. programs in English require a foreign language reading fluency.  I don’t have one.  I can say a few basic phrases in German, but more than that is out of my league.

So now, I have a few options, none of which are appealing.  I can learn German on my own time and hope to pass the exam.  I can take undergraduate level German courses (at my own time and expense) to fulfill the requirement, or I can take a sequence of Beowulf courses, where we translate the full text from Old English.

If things had gone well in college, and I had both cared and been able to take that semester abroad in Germany that I had planned, none of this would happen.  But because good enough has always been good enough, admittance into my doctorate program of choice may be iffy.

Mistake #3: I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ GRE

If good enough was good enough for class, then it had to be for the GRE exam, right?  And when they say that the subject test isn’t required, that means I don’t really need it, right?

That’s what I thought in 2005, at least, as I prepared for my final year of college and started applying to Master’s programs.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

And while good enough was good enough to get into all Master’s programs that I applied to, I’m not so sure that my scores will do that with the Ph.D.’s I’m looking at.  The scores are good.  They’re workable.  They’re even above average, I think.  They’re just not exceptional.  They don’t scream “this guy is the perfect candidate for your program” like I want them to.

So I’m going to take it again, probably in the Spring depending on what the schools’ deadlines are.  Prepping for the GRE on top of everything else I have going on is less than appealing.  If I had just cared a little more 5 years ago, then my scores would already be where I want them to be.  I didn’t realize—or really care—at that point that so much of my professional future rested on some simple test scores.

Learn From My Mistakes

If you’re anything like I used to be, take my advice: don’t let good enough be good enough.  Sure, it’s fun and it’s easy, but it’s not worth it.

It took until my wife and I started dating for me to get myself in gear; seeing how hard she worked at everything inspired me to do better, and I was able to pull all As in my last couple semesters of grad school.

But it was too little, too late.

None of my regrets about my academic past are brick walls that will prevent future study.  I can—and will—get into a Ph.D. program to study what I love (pop culture and/or contemporary literature).  It would just have been a lot easier (a lot, a lot, a lot) if I had realized ten years ago that the choices I made would have such a dramatic and lasting impact on my professional future.

So if you find yourself drowning in a sea of good enough, do yourself a favor and reevaluate yourself and what you want to be doing.  Actively work toward taking yourself and your future seriously.  Or else, five or ten years from now, you’ll find yourself re-doing a few things that you could already have out of the way if you had just cared enough the first time around.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I completely understand, I’m up against a similar past. Not only did I take the same approach of “good enough” in under grad, I did not take the time to forge strong relationships with any of my professors, so I haven’t been able to get any professors to make solid, personable recommendation letters, particularly now that I’m 6 years out from graduating and none of them even remember me.

    I want to get my PhD as well, but at this point I think I’ll have to apply for a part time Masters program and get a few classes under my belt to show that I am dedicated now and to get some professor recs together, which is going to cost money and delay starting my PhD program that much longer… all because I made a couple mistakes in undergrad. C’est la vie!

  2. I’m in the same boat you are. I was always able to pull A’s and B’s with almost no effort at all. My whole Sophomore and Junior years of college had such easy/boring classes that I really didn’t try and got a lot of C’s and B’s when I could have easily gotten A’s.

    I’m hoping to someday go back for a masters but I can’t justify it when I just got done with undergrad and still haven’t found a full-time job (it’s been over a year). The mountain of debt already sucks and I don’t want to add to it. I think my 3.30 GPA is good enough for most masters programs, but I hope it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass.

    I really wish I had more difficult classes early in my freshman year. My challenging classes were all in my senior year and because they were so engaging and difficult I spent a lot of time working on them and got all A’s. If that had been my first semester instead of my last it would have set a really good habit for my whole college career.

  3. This is why I will not be getting a higher degree than my BS. My undergraduate career lasted 7 years for a 4 year degree, and I was biting my nails the week after finals, worried about maybe having to retake classes. I was literally sweating over whether Dr. Allan would give me a D that I didn’t deserve in Linear Algebra. Luckily he did, but in the end I look back and realize I did some really stupid things.

    On the other hand, I think that it is possible to overcome the hurdles you face. It will take more time, and definitely more money. All in all, I say if you think you need it, tighten your belt and take it on.

  4. I’ve always rebelled against GPAs. I loathe busywork with the fire of a thousand suns, and grinding out As meant busywork. I wound up with a 3.625 GPA in high school, but a 33 on my ACT. It’s not a perfect 36, but when the average incoming freshman at the university I went to (BYU) has a 3.9 GPA and a 23 ACT, I can’t help but think that there’s an imbalance in there somewhere. They have the grades, but not the knowledge and ability to test on it. They did the extra credit or played along like good little lapdogs, but didn’t learn anything beyond how to work the system. University classes were a little better than high school, but not much.

    Far too many people are functionally stupid, but carry a high GPA. One friend of my wife’s was a valedictorian a few years before me in high school, but had a 21 ACT. Neither GPA nor ACT (or GRE, if you want to extend the parallel) is in isolation a good indicator of work, wisdom or skill… but in my mind, if there’s going to be an imbalance, I’d rather it be in the direction of the knowledge-based test than a GPA that all too often reads like a brownnose list… especially if the GPA is high but the application of those grades leads back to the bulge of the bell curve or worse.

    All a GPA tells me is that someone plays by the system’s rules well. That doesn’t tell me that they are a good teacher (and in fact, are often too mired in the Way Things Are to actually be a good teacher).

    I know, I know, that’s not how the Deans usually see things, but then again… to me, that’s an indictment of the education system.

    For what it’s worth, I have a lot more respect for teachers who habitually buck convention and challenge students, and a lot less for those who just go through the motions and fit the system like a good little puppet.

    …I’m not really pegging you as either, Beej, just noting some general trends that I’ve dealt with, and my own reaction to the education system. I don’t want to be a good little cog, and the best teachers I’ve known don’t try to make me one. They don’t fit the system, and neither do I.

    Tangentially, I think that’s why I can teach a high school student more math in an afternoon than they can get at school in six months. 😉

    1. Oh, and another tangent… I wound up with a 3.8something GPA in university, without ever really pushing for grades (I pushed myself to learn, but never pushed for a grade, a critical distinction). Simply, there was less busywork and better teachers who cared about what I knew, not how much work I’d done. The one sub-B grade I got was a D in an Old Testament class that was indeed more concerned with busywork (reading journals, papers) than actual education. I consider that my middle finger to the system. 😛

  5. sometimes its the opposite. I used to be (still am sometimes) always trying to be better, push harder..and the mentality of you can be better is a very harsh one to live with, because you are never ever happy with what you have already accomplished.

    I have burned out to the point of not being able to design a single thing AT ALL for over 2 years, because no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it to be as good as I wanted it to be, as good (or preferably better then) as I saw other people design. I’m a jeweler and when I’m not beating myself down for not being able to craft certain things, I realize that someone who dreams in 3-dimensional pieces, inspired by the littlest random things is probably not as terrible as she thinks she is. For those 2 years I lost that ability. Even random doodling, playing around with pieces of metal and gemstones didn’t work. complete blank.

    I’m learning to accept good enough. I started dreaming again.

    P.S. as far as foreign language goes, from personal experience – reading in it (not textbooks, actual fiction or nonfiction written for native speakers) and then analyzing/discussing what you’ve read with someone else in that language is absolute best way to learn.

  6. Yikes, I can see where you’re coming from so clearly it’s scary. I’m not dissatisfied with my grades in undergrad at all – or my GRE score, which was significantly better than I had any right for it to be – but I definitely followed a similar path.

    Also, I trained to specifically toward one program, and when I got out I discovered I didn’t have the background to do anything different later on. I was a philosophy major in undergrad and I was very careful to make sure that the coursework I did was the right work to make it easiest to get into a grad program. In philosophy. I even changed my course catalog so I could have stricter graduation requirements in my major (30 required credits rather than 24) so it would look good to schools I applied to.

    However, I decided after graduation I didn’t want to pursue a grad degree in philosophy and I didn’t have the academic requirements for anything else. Eventually I studied up and took the LSAT and now I’m in law school, but I could have made it much easier on myself by not being so narrowly focused.

    And to a certain extend, I agree with Tesh as well. My academic experience has been a whole series of people telling me that at the next phase I wouldn’t be a big fish in a small pond anymore, and that I’d have to really start trying if I wanted to succeed. It was not true of high school. It was not true of undergrad. It isn’t, to a certain extent true in law school either. They tell you you’ll have to play the game to get by in law school. I don’t play the game. I don’t have as good grades as the people who do play the game, and I don’t particularly care. I intend this to be my last stint in academia, and I’m not aspiring to get into one of the huge big name firms after graduation. I don’t like the game. I don’t like to dress up for class every day as though I expect to be the next Hillary Clinton. I don’t like to suck up to professors and go to office hours every week or talk to TAs to make sure everyone knows how much effort I’m putting in. I don’t like to ask fake questions to get attention. I don’t want to be on a first name basis with the Dean. I don’t hang out at the appropriate bars to be seen (or any bars, honestly). Too much of the law school game is just a game, fitting into the club. I intend to learn my subjects and that’s all. I really hope it doesn’t come back to bite me later.

  7. It feels weird somehow to read this because while I totally understand your situation, I am coming from the other end and yet find myself so close to exactly the same thing. I always thought education is important and I always thought I knew exactly what I wanted and was a very driven student (even if far from a perfectionist). I went through higher education and academia with little downtimes, then headed straight into work – and there is a ton of work around for me where I live. and yet 2 years later I find myself in the situation that I feel I have totally erred in my choices in the past and that the things I am doing aren’t what I want to do at all. I don’t know where I’m going and whether my wonderful diploma is even gonna help me on my future path. sometimes I feel that it was all for nothing.
    anyways, maybe just another perspective to show you that papers ain’t everything. That said they don’t hurt I suppose, so all the best with that. 🙂

  8. I did okay in college, and didn’t worry about getting an MBA after that. It might have made a difference, but maybe not. I was never very good at the Monday morning quarterback position. Like you, it serves me better to not get hung up on where I thought I went wrong, but re-evaluate where I am now and work at changing my direction if I think I need to.

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