When I started my PhD program last fall, my biggest fear was the academic work. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the other students; imposter syndrome gripped my anxious mind as I rehearsed all of the disastrous moments that were sure to ensue: I would forget a major deadline, fail all of my classes, sound like an idiot whenever I tried to voice my opinions, and ultimately, bring great shame to all of my friends and family who were so confident that I was well on my way to becoming Dr. Smoot. Much to my relief, as I slide into the finish line of my first year of doctoral education, I can confidently say that my initial worries were unfounded. While my work has been by no means easy, it has certainly been manageable. I am brilliant, and slowly beginning to own this as my truth, in spite of copious external forces that try to wrestle this fact from my hands. What has been the most challenging, however, is navigating all of the unspoken politics and quotidian instances of systemic violence that are intrinsic to navigating graduate education as a Black, queer, trans masculine scholar.
From recognizing that my voice has been tokenized in a number of spaces—wherein my actual opinions were completely devalued—to having classmates openly espousing deeply hurtful and problematic rhetoric aimed at multiple of my identities, this past academic year has been fraught with realizations regarding my emotional resilience, as well as the innumerable challenges of graduate education at a PWI. To be clear, I love the work that I am producing—as dorky as it sounds, I can feel myself getting smarter, and sometimes I re-read my papers and think “damn! I wrote this?! I’m lit!” But sometimes I sit in my apartment and cry, wondering if I am right for academia, or if academia is right for me. Thankfully I have managed to make a few, very kind, very supportive friend-peers who regularly reassure me that I am valued, in spite of the moments in which this process makes me feel worthless. That said, below are a couple of things that I’ve learned, all of which I would have liked to know before starting this degree. Hopefully sharing them here will help someone else as they begin their doctoral program journey.
Visit the school/department before you accept admission.
I cannot stress this enough. A PhD program is a marathon, not a sprint. When I did my masters, I was relatively unconcerned about what my long-term future would look like in the city where the school was because I was fairly confident that I would not have a long term future there. However, my PhD was a different story. I figured, having lived in more than a couple of college towns, that I would have a pretty good idea regarding what life would be like here—without taking the time to visit. I was…incorrect. And in transparency, that decision has definitely been one that I’ve thought about often, and wondered if I would make again if given the chance to go back. The answer is, honestly, I don’t know. I am here now, and committed to staying present and enjoying all of the positive things that this experience has to offer me. But, one thing that I know that I would do, if given a do-over, is visit. That way, if I did make the same choice, I would have a very clear understanding of the life that I was signing up for—at least for the next several years.
People are important, but not everyone should be a close friend. Build community, but prioritize good energies; quality is better than quantity.
This, I believe, is paramount to one’s social success and mental health in grad school. I came into this program assuming that I would quickly make friends, many of whom I would become very close with, based on my assumption that we would have shared interests and/or world views. This was…not the case. My first few months here were lonely as hell. Fortunately for me, I have a large network of good friends and family scattered around the country, so I struggled through that time with copious teary-eyed phone calls to my folx. I did ultimately end up connecting with some people from school, but if I’m being honest, I have yet to develop what I would consider to be a very close friendship. And I’ve come to realize that this is okay. Actually, it’s ideal. The people with whom I get along are great, but I am able to prioritize study/alone time, and see them when I need social time. Plus, having spent almost a full year here, I have come to effectively identify the people that I enjoy, and have identified the people that I enjoy…less. And that might not have happened if we had all latched onto each other from jump, purely motivated by loneliness. Loneliness is okay. It will pass, but surrounding yourself with kind, affirming people takes time. Don’t rush the process!
Advocate for yourself. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself.
This one is hard. Well, harder. Being a graduate student renders one extremely vulnerable. To the powers that reign supreme over your academic/financial fate and trajectory, to your peers, to many sorts of illnesses, and to your own insecurities. There are many instances in which you will be forced to make very difficult decisions: study vs sleep, work outand eat healthy vs eat affordably and take leisure time, stay silent and stew in heartache vs speak up and face the consequences, stay because of all the work you’ve put in to get here vs leave because you are being dehumanized. The choices are endless, and unlike my examples, most of them are not binary in nature—they are nuanced and murky and scary and hurtful. Being vulnerable all of the time is exhausting. But ultimately, I am of the belief that no degree is worth literally destroying yourself for. As long as it remains feasible (and conscionable) carry on, but care for yourself. Sometimes, pick the gym over that hour of Netflix; sometimes pick the Netflix. Make that dentist appointment if you get health insurance through your institution. Maybe decide not to curse out that person in your class that said that heinously racist thing, and instead call a friend from back home to vent. Get some rest—that paper is not going to be A1 if you write it at 4am after staying up for the prior 36 hours. Also, realize that faculty and administrators aren’t gods, they are people just like you. And while you owe them respect, they don’t have the right to bulldoze your emotions or abuse you. Draw that line of distinction for yourself, and if it’s crossed…check them. Again, a degree is not worth your total degradation.
You can’t read everything. It’s literally not possible, unless you don’t enjoy human-ing.
Get the main ideas, and craft some interesting discussion questions for class. Skimming is not only helpful, but it’s a necessary skill. You have to be able to read something, synthesize information, and make new meanings from it, quickly. That’s literally what this is about. Welcome to Skimming Bootcamp, y’all!
You don’t need to put your life on hold for 4-7 years; this is your life. Here. Now. Enjoy it.
This past week my niece was born…6 hours away from me. Next week I will be driving those 6 hours to meet her—during finals week. Amidst final papers. Why? Because I value my chosen family, and they are just as (if not more) important to me as finishing this semester with relative ease. I know I can do both, so I will. In the short time that I have been in grad school, I have traveled much, gone to parties, hosted parties, photographed my best friend’s engagement (also 6 hours away), attended 2 funerals, and managed to get my hair done once a month like clockwork. Because I am a whole person, not just a student. And life is still happening around me. I refuse to be that person who denies myself fulfillment and close relationships with the people I love the most in the name of prioritizing school. All of my life is important to me, not just the portion of it that is in front of me on a daily basis. Showing up my best self to this process means showing up whole.
Ultimately, though, you will determine what works best for you. No one’s experience needs to be the blueprint for your graduate school experience. Take what you need and leave the rest.
Kelsey Smoot is a queer, non-binary writer. They consider themselves to be bicoastal but culturally southern, a master at crafting hypothetical questions, and really damn cool. They are currently working on their PhD in the interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities.