Category Archives: Mental Health

Surviving Postponement: Facing Fears During the Journey to PHinisheD

by Chantae Still

Three is typically my favorite number. I pledged a sorority and was the “Tre,” I am the first of my mother’s three children, and I grew up feeling comforted by the Holy Trinity (father, son, and holy ghost). However, this semester, entering the third year of the doctoral program and still completing coursework, felt oppressive. In 2016 I started this degree feeling confident that I could exceed expectations and do the four-year program in three. At the very least, I planned to graduate in December and complete it in three in a half. I registered for a full-time load every semester and probably could have finished my coursework in two years had I not picked up a graduate certificate that required an extra four classes. Either way, I was planning to finish my coursework the summer after my second year and take my exam in the Fall. Before life happened.

I was one of the doctoral students whose marriage didn’t survive. Even worse than experiencing a major breakup, a dissolution of marriage that I have to say was pretty amicable, my mother passed suddenly in the summer of 2017. Within one month I had suffered two major losses. One was legally gone with the banging of a judge’s gavel, and the other ended with a phone call that changed my life.

During the last conversation I had with my mother she asked me how school was going. “So when you finish they will call you doctor right?” The week after she passed, as my sisters and I picked up her ashes from the crematorium, I thought back to that conversation and realized I had to finish. It was the last thing she knew that I was doing. I was going to be the first in my grandmother’s bloodline to obtain a doctoral degree; quitting was not an option.

Despite advisement from close friends and relatives, I didn’t take any time off. I believed that even the smallest break would result in me becoming another statistic: the failing fifty percent of doctoral students that dropout, often before doctoral candidacy. I continued taking a full-time load while working forty plus hours a week to support myself as a commuter student who lived over an hour away from campus. When things got too challenging I quit my job and relocated closer to my university to make sure that school remained a priority. I was dead-set on finishing by any means necessary.

This August I met with a committee member to discuss the qual question that I would be given for the qualifying exam and my fueled freight train was forced into an emergency halt. “To be honest, based on what I am seeing, I don’t think you’re ready.” In a fourteen-word sentence, my confidence was hit with a figurative bullet and one of my academic fears was realized. I almost didn’t make it out of the office and to the ladies room. It took me digging my nails into my thighs and looking away to prevent a premature breakdown. Initially, I couldn’t tell if it was anger or sadness, but part of me wanted to flip a desk over while another part of me wanted to crawl under a table and lay in fetal position. I entered a stall and began to cry with a convulsing pain. I have never before experienced a panic attack, but this may be the best way to describe what I was going through. Looking back, I think I cried the tears that I suppressed for my failed marriage and the children we didn’t stay together long enough to have. I cried the tears that I stifled after my mom passed before I could experience a healthy mother daughter relationship or make her a grandmother. I cried the tears that I generally concealed when I felt insecure about, unsure with, or unworthy of the opportunity to enter this graduate school journey. I cried with intensity for eighty minutes straight without an ability to talk without hyperventilating.

I survived that day.

After a lot of face-washing in the College of Education bathroom I even attended a campus event that I previously committed to and went to class that evening. In bed that evening I reflected heavily, as what I identify as Imposter Syndrome related thoughts, crept in my mind.

I was raised by a bipolar single mother in Los Angeles, California so I knew how to survive and exist; but, I wanted to obtain this degree and the tools necessary to confidently declare that I was a researcher. I want to stand at the intersections of all my margins, covered by the shadows of people’s suspicion of my aptness, and remain feverently undisturbed or distracted. To do that, existing wouldn’t cut it. Doctoral students need to thrive.

I decided to heed the professor’s advice and postpone taking my Qualifying exams to the next semester even though doing so would push back the anticipated graduation date I worked so hard to maintain. Several times I considered taking the exam anyway to show that my abilities should not be doubted. I concluded it was just too big a risk, and not worth the appeal process that would be necessary if I took them and failed.

I had not told many people, but at the beginning of that third year I was so full of anxiety that I did begin seeing a counselor. Sessions had been sporadic due to my busy work schedule; but the day after this breakdown, I quickly made an appointment and committed to consistent visits with my counselor. I also made an appointment with a previous professor who I admired. She was a well published Minority Scholar whose class I thoroughly enjoyed. I emailed and informed her that I was in need of a “come to Jesus meeting.” When I took her class, she encouraged me to perfect my craft and made me feel that my work would be a valuable contribution once published. I was in need of the morale boosting that she supplied. The following week I went to the church I had been visiting and decided that I would join. I also began reviewing the course catalog to identify additional research methods courses that could strengthen my research skills. This experience of presenting my work to someone and having them dismiss it due to their doubt about my abilities was actually one of my biggest fears. And I faced it.

I was told by several faculty members that you will receive a lot of “no’s” before you get that one yes that you need. This experience drove home that point for me. The next time someone expresses their disbelief or disinterest in my work, my world won’t fall apart. I have now learned how to navigate after academic rejection by utilizing campus resources and accepting the support my support system has been attempting to provide for the last year and a half. The next time I encounter a person with an opinion like this I plan to encourage them to “say less.” They won’t be the first and they won’t be the last and they won’t be able to knock me off of my journey to PHinisheD.


Chantae Still is a Los Angeles, California native, third year doctoral student, attending a university in the South Eastern United States. She holds a Masters in Adult Education, with a concentration in Counseling, from North Carolina A&T State University and recently obtained a graduate certificate in Evaluation. Chantae has a heart for Qualitative research and is interested in investigating the role of Spoken word venues as contemporary learning environments, Mandated Parent Education classes and parent behavioral change, Protective Factors against Colorism for Black Women and Evaluation as a tool for community improvement.

Twitter: @D_Chantae

Balancing Being While Becoming

by Arriana Covington

Transformative would be the word I’d use to describe my graduate school experience thus far. I find it amazing to acknowledge that everything I am evolving into and learning is what I asked the universe to give me. Prior to graduate school, I asked for a challenge and an opportunity to be able to discover who I am. I knew that I needed to be away from my home, and the familiarity of my loved ones, in order to have time to dedicate time to myself. Little did I know, this journey would be nothing short of easy. On the first night of me being completely alone in my new state, I kneeled down beside my bed and simply just prayed. I prayed for protection, discernment and patience as I began my new journey in an unfamiliar place.

When I asked for a challenge, I knew my experience wouldn’t be easy; but, I knew that this sacrifice would be worth it in the end. Obviously, I had a lot of faith; but, I needed to really trust myself. Within my first four months of my first semester of graduate school….I survived the challenge. Unlike my undergrad experience, graduate school required me to really tune into myself. Some days I enjoyed exploring and being in a new space, while other days I wanted to be alone to simply just cry. I spent a lot of my time feeling as if I was missing out on everything going on back home. The hardest part for me was having to acknowledge that I placed myself in this new space and that I had chosen to be here. I questioned myself and my abilities (especially when my grades didn’t match my peers), when there was knowledge I didn’t know, and when I was in spaces surrounded by people who didn’t look like me. Managing being a student, while also learning how to be a professional, is a whole journey in itself. Self-reflection, phone calls with my loved ones and making new friends is what really got me through my rough moments.

Completing my first semester of graduate school was a relief and the achievement I needed to confirm that I am capable of getting through this. During my second semester, I turned all of my negative energy into opportunities. Instead of aiming to go home at any chance I had, I became a part of opportunities that would keep my mind busy. I still missed home, but I learned how to cope. It’s hard to be in a new place and not really give it a chance, so I kept an open mind. My mind was so open that I accepted a summer internship opportunity that was further away from my home than my graduate school was. I was more at ease with the thought of being across the country during the summer because I knew the experience was not nearly as long as my time in graduate school. During my summer, I managed my homesickness a lot better and I was even a lot more open than my prior experience.

Now I am in my second and final year of graduate school and I am in a weird space. A weird space because I am now aware of how fast time flies. All of my worries about being in this new space are now nearly coming to an end. In less than eight months, I will obtain my Master’s Degree, yet I still have mixed feelings about what’s next. In this time of uncertainty, I have honed in the mantra, “I already am, the woman that I aspire to be.’’ My constant urge to figure out what happens next defines why I enjoy having complete control of my journey. I am learning that this desire to have control is what will get the best of me. I am learning to just be and to acknowledge my accomplishments, while being confident that my destiny is literally within me. The future me needs the current me to focus on today; and this is how I continue to learn how to balance being, while becoming and just letting things be.


IMG_7793 2Arriana Covington is a North Carolina native, but is currently pursuing her Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis on College Student Affairs, at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Arriana received her B.A. in Organizational Communications and Africana Studies. She aspires to use the knowledge from her degrees to contribute to the field of Higher Education by focusing on access for students of marginalized identities. In her free time, Arriana enjoys podcasts, naps, cookies and working out.

Week 3: Comprehensive Exams Advice

As I approach the end of coursework for my Ph.D. program, it’s now time to start worrying about what I’m calling “Phase 2”: Comprehensive Exams. I’ve written before about what these exams are and how I prepare for them, but still found myself nervous about this next phase.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation: I asked for advice. I put out a call for people’s best comprehensive exam advice on Twitter and Instagram; I even e-mailed a few old friends. What follows is the tips and tricks I’ve collected from various friends and followers:

On Preparing for the Exam (Studying, Note Taking, Etc):

Matthew Teutsch: “For one of my areas, Rhetoric and Composition, I entered my PhD program not knowing anything about classical rhetoric. After taking a class that covered Augustine to Nietzsche, I, along with most of the others in the class, were utterly confused. To help us get caught up on classic rhetoricians, we decided to form a study group. We went through the anthology, reading each text, and commenting on each one. Then, we met, like a book club, to discuss. Honestly, that helped me on that comprehensive exam more than anything else.”

Jan Huebenthal: “Take good notes, each with a concrete example, and no more than one page per book!”

Amanda Gibson: “Do something physical between books for the mind and body!”

Maggie DePond (@AcademicAuntie): “For oral exams: meet with professors in your committee early and often. A lot of my committee asked me questions that were the same ones we talked about in their office!”

Amanda Roberts (@phdproductivity): “Get a study buddy if you know someone taking exams at the same time as you! My friend and I made ourselves a syllabus of readings with due dates for discussion. Keep all your notes organized in a shared folder on Dropbox or Google Drive.”

@genuinely_jo: “Obvious but it never hurts to be reminded. Back up your work in a couple different places.”

Sarah Thomas, PhD: “Think of prepping for comps as your full-time job. Start working at 8 or 9 am, take a half hour lunch, then get back to work till 5 or 6 pm, then stop. Your brain needs a break in the evening. I watched a lot of cheerful British television. Try to get to bed by 11 at the latest, then wake up and start the process over again the next day. Getting into a routine and compartmentalizing that process was how I got through it. My dog and I got into a pattern of working, walking, eating, working, walking, etc. Routine helped me deal with the impossibility of the situation—how could I actually get through hundreds of books while still being mentally okay?”

On Taking the Exam:

Matthew Teutsch: “For the orals, I would just suggest looking over the graders’ comments and looking at places where you need to show more knowledge and understanding of a question or concept. If it is a timed exam, you won’t be able to say everything you want to say, so this would be a good time to do that. I would also ask around to see what your committee members might ask. Sometimes they will oblige, sometimes not. If they don’t, ask other colleagues who have had those members in their orals. Finally, talk with your professors and ask them questions. You can gather from these questions what they expect you to know and possibly how they expect you to answer.”

Zanovia Tucker, MA, LPC, NCC: “Don’t stress about what’s going to be on the test. You’ve been preparing for two years during coursework.”

Vineeta Singh, Ph.D.:

1. You don’t have to know everything. I was really scared of being asked a question that I wouldn’t know the answer to. Like what if they asked me about something I hadn’t read about? Or what if they asked about that one book that I read first year and never got back to? So it really helped me during prep to be reminded that the point of the exam isn’t to show that you have mastered every bit of research ever produced (that would be impossible!) but to show that you have a broad base of knowledge for your field and the capacity to do research in it.

2. It’s not just a test, it’s an opportunity to get feedback! Okay, I do hear how corny that sounds, but it’s true! How often do you (or any scholar) get to convene 3-6 scholars whose work you respect and have them engage with YOUR thoughts?! That is pretty dope! There are people out here thirsting for feedback, so don’t sleep on what an opportunity this is! If you have had success building a committee that’s truly invested in you as a scholar, they are going to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge you in GENERATIVE ways. The ‘exam’ setup can feel adversarial or confrontational, and many profs take that role very seriously, but (and I might just be spoiled because of my E[nthic] S[tudies] background) at its best, this is a CONVERSATION and a chance for you to shape your future work. So (if you have a supportive committee) don’t get defensive; this is your team.

Some Pep Talks:

Dana Cypress: “You always know more than you think you know by the time your comps date arrives. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves quite enough credit but if you’ve done the work, it’ll show.”

Holly Grunter: “Take it one day at a time! Every day you’ll be motivated differently. Be kind to yourself!”

Ramya Avadhanam, Ph.D.: “Remember that you’re more prepared than you think! So when you get nervous, believe in yourself and your skills!”

James Padilioni, Jr, Ph.D.: “Make sure you look up from the trees to glimpse the beauty of the forest: try to enjoy reading these books, and the opportunity you have, maybe for the only time in your life, to just sit down and read, expand your mind, and to tarry with some of the thinkers on your list. The aggressive schedule of reading makes it hard to appreciate the privilege afforded by it all. Oh and also, on the back end after everything sifts and settles, you’re going to be (even more) knowledgeable AF and have the receipts to prove it if need be!”


There you have it, folks, some of the best comprehensive exam advice from people who have either been through it or are in the midst of the storm as we speak. I want to take this moment to thank those who offered their advice, and to say that whether comps are impending, or a ways off, I hope this was as helpful to you as it was to me.