The Doctoral Diaries: Surviving the First Week of a PhD Program
When I decided to get my PhD after I finished my master’s, I really thought I had a good idea of what it would be like. After all, I’d been in a graduate program for a few years. I knew the ins and outs of what it meant to be an advanced student, with all kinds of obligations and expectations that went far beyond those involved in an undergraduate degree. I knew how to balance teaching with my own schoolwork, and I knew how to stay (somewhat) organized and how to (somewhat) maintain my sanity during the semester. So, when I got into a doctoral program, I wasn’t all that nervous or anxious about starting. School was school, and it was one of the things I have always prided myself in being especially good at.
Boy, was I ever in for a shock.
In June, I relocated from my home in Florida to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I would be starting a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee come late August. I decided to move a little early to get acquainted with the area and allow myself to get settled before I was thrown into school. I spent those weeks of summer taking my dog to the park, swimming in the quarry at the nature reserve, sleeping in, and binge watching Stranger Things on Netflix—not exactly good preparation for the semester ahead.
My doctoral program had awarded me a generous tuition waiver and stipend with my assistantship, which would require me to work at our Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature in the university’s library, as well as put in research assistant hours with my major professor. Seemed easy (and maybe even fun), so I had no real worries about balancing the assistantship workload with my coursework.
In early August, the plans and commitments I had made for myself in the fall were looming steadily closer. But at that point, I was still excited for it. I was excited to be at a new school in a new city, meeting new people and experiencing a different side of academia that I hadn’t really immersed myself in since my undergraduate years. I bought new school supplies (this is like a natural high for people like me who love school), organized my desk, and prepared myself for a week of orientation events and departmental meet and greets.
At that first departmental meeting, the first thing I noticed was this: I am at a different place in my life than 99% of my new peers. I am easily younger than most if not all of them, I am single rather than married, I’m new to the state, and I don’t have any children (nor am I pregnant and/or expecting/planning for kids in the near future). I haven’t had any teaching experience outside of my 3 years of undergraduate teaching during my master’s program, whereas most of my peers in the department currently do or have previously taught for at least a few years in the K-12 system. Or, if they hadn’t taught, they had spent at least a few years in some other career. I went straight from undergraduate to graduate studies, so I lacked this “outside world” experience that all of my new peers seemed to have.
Then, as I met each person and learned more about them, I realized something else: they are really, really smart. These people are incredible. They have really impressive research and dissertation interests. They can spout off the names of other scholars in their fields, and they can reference specific journal articles and things they learned from them. They are carrying tons of responsibilities and obligations and doing it all with a smile on their faces—parenthood, jobs outside of academia, full time teaching gigs, research studies, independent studies, conference presentations, all alongside their regular coursework. And they’re all still standing upright and functioning.
I went into that first week of classes feeling suddenly anxious and overwhelmed, like maybe they had picked me by mistake, and that I didn’t belong there at all. I was in this program full of immensely smart and incredibly accomplished people, and all I really had was a master’s degree that allowed me to write stories and poems for three years. These people were scholars. I felt like a little kid alongside them, blinking up at them in awe.
Still, during that first week alone, they taught me a few things that I hope I will be able to keep sight of as I make my way through the murky, difficult waters of my doctoral program. If you’re thinking of going into doctoral studies, or if you’re just beginning a doctoral program yourself, here’s a few things to keep in mind during that first, terrifying week:
Imposter syndrome is real, but don’t let it win.
Feeling like I didn’t belong was one of the most discouraging feelings I faced during my first week of doctoral studies. I was intimidated by my impressive peers, and I felt like there was no way I belonged among their ranks. I felt about fifteen times smaller than I was while I sat and listened to their introductions at those department meetings. It was a third year doc student in my program who held my shoulder and said, “Trust me, you belong here.” She explained that what I was feeling—imposter syndrome—was real, and that they all had been exactly where I was, doubting they belonged, and feeling inferior. She promised me that it would fade, and I would realize I was just as smart, and had just as much to offer.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
I took on an adjunct teaching position at a local community college, and even though I’m only teaching one section, it’s taking its toll on me. Those responsibilities, paired with 10 hours of doctoral coursework in a brand new subject area and my assistantship, are difficult to balance. I want my students to have all of me when I’m in class, but when I’ve got other things weighing on my mind, it’s hard to put my best teaching foot forward. If you’re in a doc program or considering pursuing one, just remember to only take on what you are sure you can handle, while still keeping your own studies as your top priority.
Expect to be overwhelmed.
There’s no way around it. Beginnings of things, no matter what they are, can always feel like a lot at once. Doctoral studies are no different. I’m always highly, highly caffeinated, and I take a lot of unplanned naps. If I didn’t, I think I’d be in a corner, rocking back and forth, reciting vocabulary from my intro to qualitative studies textbook. So, with that said—
Remember self care.
Take care of yourself. I have a list of simple things I can do for a little morale boost whenever I need one. Something as small as taking the dog for a quick walk or taking a half hour break to read a book for pleasure can be all I really need to feel more centered, at ease, and ready to get back to work.
For those of you starting your academic semesters, good luck! I’ll be back with more advice and stories from the doctoral diaries in the weeks to come.