What I Wish I Knew Before Starting my PhD

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A replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond

Now in my fifth year, writing my dissertation, I’ve had some time to reflect on my beginnings as a PhD student and the years preceding it when I was getting my Masters. I’ve attended the same institution for 7 years and watched it change for 9 (I took a 2-year break between degrees). I’ve realized that if you’re not careful, there’s a lot that can bring you down within the walls of academia: impostor syndrome, competitiveness, interoffice politics, adjunct exploitation, and advisers who are, inevitably, extremely busy and not always able to be there for you.

Few people tell you about what can bring you up. So here are some things that may be useful if you’re just starting out or if you find yourself struggling.

1. It’s Easy to Critique and Harder to Be Generous

It takes a long time to feel like you’ve earned a seat at the table. Some scholars hide behind jargon and critique–don’t let it get you down. Jargon can be intimidating because it sounds impressive and grand, but what matters are ideas. Critique can get out of hand, too.

Scholars too often tear apart authors without consideration for context or an ounce of forgiveness. One cannot possibly cover everything there is to say in 30 pages or even in a book-length project. You can’t have it all. Don’t ask for the impossible because you’ll never write your own article if you hold yourself to the same standard.

Take-downs can be useful and productive, but they often distract from the merits of an author’s work. It’s easy to tear something apart but what are some ideas that you would introduce to complicate another author’s argument? Remember that we stand on the shoulders of all who came before us. Be generous and your criticism will become more nuanced and complex.

2. Go to the Small Conferences and Nerd Out

If you take all your coursework at your own institution without exposing yourself to ideas forming elsewhere, your knowledge of the field will be limited to the viewpoints of your immediate advisers and peers. Meet other scholars in the field. Once you know what you’re interested in (e.g., an author, a theory, a period) look for the small, specific conferences that will attract like-minded people. Don’t wait. Start early.

Your newly-met colleagues are your peer-reviewers, collaborators, and friends of the future. Go to two or three conferences a year until you feel that you grasp the field outside your own institution. It will make the prospect of graduating and moving somewhere else feel (slightly) less daunting. You’ll see the folks you know again soon at the next conference.

3. Learn About Milestones a Year Before You Hit Them

Pay attention to colleagues who are a year or two ahead of you. Buy them lunch and ask them for advice.

I was fortunate to come into my PhD program with five years of funding. Knowing I would need to apply for more for a sixth year, I went to workshops and panels about funding opportunities in year four, a year early, thanks to some wise advice from a friend. I also started flagging all of the emails about fellowships and funding that came into my inbox. I used to delete them, thinking they didn’t apply to me. Think again!

It takes persistence, preparation, and a bit of luck to win funding. In the spring of my fourth year, an opportunity came up that was in an email I would have deleted without my new habit–and I got the job. That never would have happened if I hadn’t taken the advice of friends a couple years ahead of me.

4. Those Books Will Wait for You to Read Them

You need to manage your time well and stop feeling guilty when you’re not working. Honor your commitment to work, and your commitment to fun time with your friends and loved ones. Worrying about work won’t get it done, will it?

Take a moment to schedule out your time in your calendar. Color code activities, schedule reminders, and set yourself goals. If you find you’re already working 40+ hour weeks, then remind yourself that you deserve a weekend off! Make a project plan for the dissertation. Yes you could be writing right now but should you be? Don’t guilt-trip yourself. Taking time off is not the same as procrastinating. Set yourself some obtainable goals (e.g., write for 10 hours a week).

As William James says, we learn to swim in the winter and to skate in the summer. That walk, run, shower, or chill time is necessary for your brain to come up with the next brilliant idea.

5. Get Used to Rejection, It Happens to Everyone

It’s inevitable. I wish I could say rejection hurts less later on, but it doesn’t. Rejection is rejection. Come up with a routine to cheer yourself up. Buy the fancy pint of ice cream, take the evening off to binge-watch a funny show, splurge on wine that tastes like the California coastline, and take a moment to breathe! Save your failures and successes in a folder for your future-self to analyze later. You’ll come to an understanding as to why one worked and the other didn’t but you don’t have to figure it all out right away.

Apply for everything, even if you doubt whether or not you’re fully qualified. This is especially true for women. Women tend to undersell their skills and to only apply for jobs (and funding) they feel qualified for. Apply for it even if you’re not. If you don’t apply, you’ll definitely not get it.

Remember that your advisers get rejected, too. No matter how much you publish, no matter how many awards you’ve earned, no matter what job you land, you will always need to hang your impostor syndrome at the door. We tend to only hear about acceptance, but there’s another side to that coin. You’re not alone.

6. Build a Rainy Day Fund

I paid through the nose (out of state) for my MA. After graduating, I took a full-time job, and started building up my base again. I was so excited a year later to contribute to a 401k through my job (such a nerd, I know). But one key nugget of wisdom the financial adviser gave me was to not save for retirement just yet.

Instead, I needed to build an emergency fund for graduate school, so I set a goal of keeping about 3-months backup in my savings account. To this day, I have 3 months saved up just in case. I’ve dipped below that when I’ve needed it–and there were times I really did–but I also did that only when I knew money was coming down the pipeline soon. And if that pipeline was dry, then I knew I needed to do something (e.g., work extra hours) to make sure I’d be set in a couple months. That’s how I’ve stayed debt-free.

Working on top of graduate school will burn you out. There’s no question it’s partly why I’m taking a little longer than my peers to graduate. So do what you need to do to protect your future-self and stay sane. Having some extra scratch on the side meant I could buy winter boots when I needed them, and it eased my financial anxieties. That backup, if you can manage it, can help you sleep better at night.

7. Your Life Outside of Academia Matters

There’s a lot that can bring you up: a supportive partner, happy major life events, hobbies, and communities that keep you feeling positive. No scholar is the same, so if you focus on having meaningful friendships and relationships, or honoring a commitment to finish that marathon or volunteer twice a week, don’t be surprised if it slows you down a bit. Your life outside of academia is important! Cherish it! But don’t compare yourself to the scholar who puts nose to the grind and finishes sooner than you. There’s nothing wrong with either of those paths, but they operate on completely different clocks.

There’s also a lot that can bring you down: loneliness as you pursue a career while other friends get married, have kids, and buy houses; life-long financial set-backs; vulnerability as a tenant in a home you don’t own; and the mental and emotional battles you fight as a 20- or 30-something coming into your own as a scholar. There are things you can’t plan for, like a death in the family. Coming into your own happens outside of academia, too. We all need to find our voices to write original dissertations. Sometimes that can be done in a library, and sometimes it is what comes out of personal mental and emotional struggle.

Don’t underestimate how much your work will be impacted by outside influences. I think every dissertation is, to some degree, collaborative. Dissertations are autobiographical to some extent. Embrace your unique life and your inner voice will shine through.

8. Be Kind to Yourself

Being ambitious doesn’t mean you have to be cruel and ruthless. In some corners of academia, kindness is a rarity and yours might be mistaken for insincerity. But if you are genuinely kind, people will come to know you for it. Some might try to take advantage of you, so look out for that, but there is no reason to be unkind.

Hopefully, you’re doing what you love and your ambition, determination, and resiliency are what got you here. So be ambitious and kind.

This applies to you, too. Think about how much stress you add to your plate when you judge yourself for taking too long to [insert milestone here] or blame yourself for not meeting an impossible standard. Show some self-compassion and be generous to others. I’ve found that those two things go a very long way.

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