Guest Post: Musings of a PhD Student

I never thought I’d be the girl who went on to do a PhD.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being in college and learning. I was good at school. It was the one thing that I had control over. I knew if I worked hard and did the right things then I would end up with good grades and, for the most part, I did. However, not once did I consider doing a PhD. My grand plan was to do a master’s and go on to work in some big pharmaceutical company and discover the cure for AIDS or something like that.

But I should have known, my plans never go the way I want or expect them to.
The first time someone mentioned doing a PhD I was just like, “but why?” Why would I want to subject myself to torture for at best 4 years and at worst n years? But then the idea grew on me and I realized that, to do what I wanted to do, a PhD was a great tool to have, most likely a necessary one.

So fast-forward to today and here I am knee-deep in the PhD life. I’m about halfway through my PhD in polymer chemistry and I must say it was not what I expected. I mean, I was prepared to be frustrated, but I was not prepared for the disappointment.
If you remember, I had a formula for doing well in college. You work hard and you get results. A PhD doesn’t work like that. You often work extremely hard and still end up disappointed. But I’ll get into that later.

Sometimes people ask me “oh, how is work going? How’s your research? Any results?” and I laugh in tears because all those questions, the answers are usually not encouraging and expressing that can be depressing. And, for me, the worst part is when I say it’s not going great or it’s so and so and the person in question proceeds to tell me how it’ll be fine or how I should do x, y, and z. I know it comes from a good place. But most of the time said person has little or no knowledge about what I’m doing and their suggestions often fall short. Other times when I say I spent my day reading articles I get asked “so basically you’re just studying, how is that work? ” or something along those lines. I won’t lie, I get defensive when people say that to me because a PhD is realistically 50% reading journal articles and staring at your computer screen. Maybe more. Or better yet, finding interesting articles that could potentially have the solution to your problem, opening them and never reading them. Then wondering to yourself “why on earth did I open this tab in the first place?” At least that’s what it’s like for me. Another thing I’ve definitely learned about this PhD grad school life is: it’s a confusing position to be in/occupy in the university hierarchy. You’re technically still a student but you teach other students. You’re not a staff member but you get staff related emails and have some of the perks such as staff parking. You also get to do a lot of the grunt work, which is good experience I think but still grunt work nonetheless. Anyways, like I said, it’s a confusing position to occupy.

So back to the PhD life. if you’re a high achiever like me (you most likely are if you’re in grad school) then you will find that it can be quite hard on your emotions and your mind. I used to think that I knew what it was like to be depressed but starting this PhD took me to a whole new level of depression. I mean, I love the research and I love what I do, especially when it works. But for me, it tends to work for a week and fail for 6 months.

I think the problem is that we walk into PhD programs with all sorts of expectations and expect to do them all within the allotted PhD time but these dreams get crushed because they are unrealistic and the system doesn’t work like that. I think a lot of life works that way, so I guess it isn’t completely a bad thing.

I know it all sounds pretty depressing, but it isn’t. There are moments of joy, like when I went into my lab this morning and something I thought was a flop wasn’t. Or when the abstract I wrote for a conference got accepted. That was a major victory for me.
I guess the long and short of the PhD life is this: a PhD is fucking hard. You don’t have to be super smart to do one, you just have to have a thick skin, be stubborn, and be willing to work hard. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a balance to my life which means I work hard and don’t take time off. Even when I try to take time off I’m stressing about work which defeats the whole purpose. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t need to disappear into your PhD to be successful. In fact, I strongly suggest that you don’t.

The life of a grad student is hard work but it’s also rewarding. If I could go back in time would I still do it? Yes, I’m a glutton for punishment. Would I do things differently? Yes, I’d definitely try to create time for myself right from the start.

The PhD life is one of intense emotions and ups and downs. It isn’t for everyone and that’s okay, but it is an interesting path to walk.

meSharon Bolanta (her friends call her Shay) is a Nigerian currently pursuing a PhD in the Republic of Ireland, at the University of Limerick. Her research is on the fabrication of smart hydrogels for biomedical applications.
She is also a writer. She writes mostly articles and poems/spoken word poetry. She has a personal blog where she shares my thoughts on a number of topics.

Life, Joy & Grad School

The last six months have been a whirlwind of ups and downs, highs and lows and wins and losses that my life has EVER been. Despite this thing called life trying to run me over… I THRIVED!

Since we last spoke, I successfully planned and executed my Inaugural Rentals Open House at my the Park. It went very well and received high praise. Not long after this event, I was presented with an opportunity to take my talents to a new level and I accepted the challenge. I no longer work at the National Park and am now a Meetings Coordinator for government agencies under an events management company. This job more directly related to my overall goals so taking this step made the most sense. So excited for this career move and will so keep you updated.

Grad School is kicking. my. butt! Really its only one class but because the class is in a subject matter of math and accounting; I am constantly telling myself “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” The previous course ended well and the course that starts in a couple weeks seems so interesting so I just have to keep pushing to get to next class. My current financial decision making work load reminds me why I switched my major at Towson from Business Administration to Communications. But since I do not have that option (bummer), I have just done my best and turned in all assignments.

Lastly, I celebrated my 25th birthday and mannnn..  I feel so much more “instant adult,” it’s crazy. I am so blessed and grateful for all things accomplished the first quarter century of my life.

Till Next Time,

The Game Ain’t Over Yet

5 Tips and Tricks for Planning and Executing a Research Trip

As I type this, I am on my way back home from a four day long research trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Really, it was only two days because I spent most of days 1 and 4 sitting on a train.) I’ve had the entire train ride to think about my trip and I decided that I wanted discuss how to plan and execute a successful research trip by reviewing what went really wrong and what went so very right. So here are a few steps (which are not necessarily in order) to a good research trip:

Step 1: Decide on a research topic.

My topic (which I won’t discuss in detail because I am trying my hardest not to scoop myself) sort of fell into my lap– a classmate sent me an article about an African American Black Panther comic book artist whose granddaughter lives in Williamsburg– and everything sort of snowballed from there into a huge project that I’ve been working on ever since.

Step 2: Figure out where your sources are.

I found out that some of the artist’s materials could be found at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Before I had even really decided to make this trip, I started imagining how I could get my hands on those documents. Once you start fantasizing about materials, you know you’re working on the right project.

Step 3: Make the decision to go.

I know this sounds obvious but I had to actively make up my mind to go on this research trip and decide that I would do whatever I had to do to see those materials, even if it meant doing a solo trip.

Step 4: Apply for funds.

I applied for funding through my program. PROTIP: If you think one source may not be able to cover all the costs of your trip, apply for funding from more than one outlet. Actually, just do it anyway.

Applying for the funding was the easy part: I budgeted how much it would cost for a round-trip train ticket, a metro pass, food and a room. ROOKIE MISTAKE: I did not include in my budget costs for reproductions. PROTIP: Always budget for reproductions. At the Schomburg, it was .25 cents per 8 x 11 page, but considering the nature of the documents I was looking at it, it would have been impossible to get enough money for all the reproductions I wanted anyway.

I anticipated that the whole trip would cost me $800. From the one source I applied to, I got $300. Fortunately, I had money from my fellowship that I had yet to use so I had a cushion. But had that not been the case, I would have very seriously reconsidered making the trip.

PROTIP: Be on the lookout for pockets of funding: apply through your program or department, apply through the university, leadership initiatives, through your graduate student association (just to name a few potential avenues.)

Step 5: Plan your trip!

This part includes the usual business: like booking a hotel room and securing your train ticket. For a research trip, however, you also need to plan your time in the archive, which means reaching out to the library or center where you’re going ahead of time to make an appointment. If you don’t know what materials you want to look out, reach out to a librarian for help looking for documents. If you do know what you want to see, compile a list and figure out what the appropriate avenue is for securing an appointment. At some places (like the VCU comic archive) they may prefer an e-mail, and at others (like the Schomburg) they may have an online form for you to fill out. In either case, make sure to include the location of the materials you would like to see, whether it’s a box number or a call number. If you don’t know, ask.

PROTIP: Librarians are amazing, usually very kind and always very knowledgeable.

PROTIP: Make sure to ask ahead of time if you can take photographs of the collections you want to see. I couldn’t, which sucked, but it also meant I didn’t have to lug my camera around.

Step 5a: Plan your (fun) trip!

Research trips are fantastic ways to explore parts of the world that you haven’t been to yet. Make sure to get your work done but, if you’re going to a place like NYC, always budget some time to do some fun things in the city too! My cousin and I spent afternoons in Central Park, visited the Met and caught up with some of my college friends.

Step 6: Go on your trip!

My trip was such a great experience. A family friend met us at the Amtrak station and took us back to it at the end of the trip, I saw two of my good friends from UVA, my cousin and I explored a little, ate some good food, and most importantly, I did a lot of good research. Even though I wasn’t able to take pictures, I did take about 9 single spaced pages of notes, from which I am planning on writing either a journal article or a conference paper.

Bonus: Find a travel buddy. (Optional)

If you, like me, find traveling alone daunting, see if you can find someone that would be down for the ride. Since I already had to book a hotel room, I offered my cousin the extra bed. All she had to do was pay her way. Having a buddy to pal around New York with was supremely fun.

After the trip…

After you’ve rested up from your adventure, spend some time looking through your notes from your visit. Write up more about your thoughts while on the materials while they’re fresh in your mind. Write a rough draft of something, a blog post, an outline, anything, but just write something so that you can refer to while writing up a more formal document.

Currently, I’m thinking about using the materials that I explored for the last few days to expand on a paper that I wrote last semester for my Histories of Race course and write an abstract for a conference or two. (I’m always happy to write a post about creating a successful conference abstract. Leave me a comment if you’d read that.)

I hope these tips and tricks help you plan your next research trip. Happy researching!