If pursuing my PhD has taught me anything, it is the reality of my mortality and how important it is to take care of myself. I have never been very sickly; if anything, I have exceptional health. However, over the last five years I have dealt with health scares, acid reflux, more colds than usual, and being confronted with high anxiety and depression. No one ever tells you how deep getting a PhD is. I have seen my friends and colleagues go through similar things, as well as manage various kinds of substance dependency. Watching them use daily self-medication such as alcohol and smoking has only made me more determined to gain control of my mental and emotional health, so that I come of my program whole. This, dear reader, is no small feat. It has become almost a daily obsession to ensure that I will recognize myself once I finally earn my freedom papers.
PhD work is a beast of immeasurable size. I remember my advisor in seminary telling me more than once that if I was going to pursue a PhD, the first thing I needed to do was find a therapist. She said, “Whatever issues you have not reconciled, you will confront during the run of your PhD program.” Black woman to black woman, I believed her. As she told me this, I began to think about the things that I had buried in my mental closet and knew she was right. Six years later, I can tell you with certainty this is true. This was not the only lesson I have learned over this period of my life, especially as a black PhD student studying black folks in a predominantly white research institution. Here are my four commandments for self care in the midst of the PhD program:
Self Care Commandment #1: Thou shalt pick your battles wisely
When I first began my program, a few colleagues that were ahead of me would tell me horror stories about how the white folks (students and professors alike) would come for the African American religion students about the validity of our work, despite the reality that African American scholars always have to know “classical” theory, as well as the African American landscape of the field. I have been in situations that induced the best of side eyes. For instance, the time my professor asked me what African Americans were writing about a subject in the 19th century, after presenting a syllabus that had no people of color in the readings. These situations are the pressure cookers that are normalized for black PhD students in white spaces, but every battle is not for you to go in and fight. You are always at your leisure to deny people the dignity of responding to ignorance. You are no one’s personal Google. That’s not why you are there. However, if someone comes for you personally and you have the time, by all means, get ‘em.
Self Care Commandment #2: Thou shalt have a devotional practice
This was another bit of wisdom my seminary advisor gave me. Whether you consider yourself to be religious, spiritual, or neither, you absolutely need to carve out the first part of your day as sacred uninterrupted time to ease into the day. You’ve got to gird your loins. Every. Day. Because life comes at you fast, it is important to go out there with a full personal bucket so that when the stressors of life and the program hit you, you are not totally run over.
Too often, we wake up and reach for the phone and start our day with checking emails and social media. We start working as soon as our eyes open and bombard ourselves with endless stimulation until we close our eyes for the night. That, in and of itself, is quite stressful and unhealthy. It turns our days into a sort of vacuum and, if you are at all like me, can cause you to feel lost at sea at times.
The first 30 (or more) minutes of my day are mine to get myself together. For me this includes sitting at my desk and writing in my gratitude journal, reading a book for pleasure for 15 minutes, and meditating on both the Bible and my breath. After all of that, I pull out a physical planner and plan my day. I make goals for the week and then a to do list for the day. This helps me to not try to do it all every day, which lowers my stress because I then have a set of responsibilities for the day that I do not add to once I set them.
By setting aside dedicated time to ease into the day, you start on the right foot with your personal tank on full. I have been doing this consistently for a year and I can definitely feel the difference. I am able to be more present, more focused, and generally a little less stressed from day to day.
Self Care Commandment #3: Thou shalt lean on your tribe
I will always say, “It takes a village to raise a PhD.” I am an introvert and, admittedly, the emotional and spiritual rock for quite a few people. However, because of that I have never felt comfortable letting my friends really be present for me. Through therapy, I began opening myself up to allowing those I trusted the most to really show up when I needed them. This was a radical turning point in my self-care practice. When I allowed myself to let my friends and family really be aware of my struggles, they showed up. EVERY. TIME. I have come out of meetings with my advisor or my committee absolutely distraught and ready to quit my program (I actually ask myself why I am in the program weekly). My support system, however, is what has kept me in the program. I go to my therapist for the tools to tend to my mental wellness. I go to a small number of colleagues to commiserate and they assure me that I am not faking it, but that I belong. I go to my sister friends for wine and they promise to show up to my dissertation defense like the Dora Milaje, complete with black girl scowls for my committee so they do not say anything off the wall.
But seriously, a strong support system is the difference in feeling like you are out on a limb by yourself and actually being out on a limb by yourself. No one can be an island. We thrive when we are part of communities of care.
Self Care Commandment #4: Thou shalt put yourself first.
This might be my most important piece of advice. It is really easy to lose yourself in the waters of the PhD program. You may forget why you started. You may look up and not recognize yourself after a while. It was at the moment that I started to not know the person I was becoming that I pumped the brakes fast. My desire to achieve and astronomical (and nebulous) expectations put on me from self and advisor made me crazy. I was literally going crazy, breaking down in tears every other day. Do not do that to yourself. If this is already where you are, you have to back up a few steps.
The reality is, if you are not taking care of yourself you will end up sick, broken, or not finishing the program. One of my sister friends who was in the PhD program in another department was my partner in stress. We would sit up writing our end of term papers at two in the morning, both burping with acid reflux, stressed the hell out. After our second year she left the program for a myriad of reasons, one being the effects of the stress on her body. Her quality of life became more valuable than staying. She left and has been flourishing. I pumped the brakes and really went on a journey to figure out how to finish this program and still be whole. Part of that has been honoring my own needs. Every morning during my devotional time I ask myself, “Sharde’, what do you need to be ok today?” There are few days where I can honestly answer that. But, the fact that I ask puts my well being above checking the work off. The work will always be there, but if you are not the work won’t get done.
Taking care of yourself is just as hard, if not harder, than going through the program and it is so important. Being black and pursuing an advanced degree is absolutely no joke. At the end of the day, we owe it to ourselves to come out of this thing whole. We experience too many hoops and challenges that can totally harden our hearts and intensify cynicism. Part of my self-care strategy is meant to help me not do some of the things that I have experienced through other PhD students because I believe there is a better way. Your wellness benefits you first and foremost, to be sure, but, it also benefits your work and sphere of influence as well. It helps you to be the best person and scholar that you can be, which is what the world deserves.
Rev. Sharde’ Chapman was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. Currently she is pursuing a PhD in Religion with emphasis in African American Religion. Prior to pursuing her PhD she earned a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she was also a student at Lincoln College, Oxford University in Oxford, UK. Sharde’s research interests focus on the forms and function black non-traditional religious spaces. Sharde’ is also an ordained minister in the Baptist church.
As she pursued higher education she has been a child literacy advocate and educational trainer through the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program. Sharde’ also shares 31 countries worth of travel insight and her self care journey on her YouTube channel at ShardeNoDyzOff.