Category Archives: The Journey

On Graduate School and Loss

by Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown

Graduate school. Those two words were a tough road for me. I am a young black woman, first-generation PhD, seven months post-graduation. I wrote and defended my dissertation, yet this piece feels infinitely more difficult to write. It’s been a year since we lost you and committing that to paper hurts. I only hope that by sharing my own experience, it reaches someone and encourages them.

I don’t know exactly how to begin, so I guess it’s best to go to the very start. One of my earliest and most vivid memories of you is your first birthday. You were sitting in your high chair, brown, big-cheeked, and smiling at the small crowd and the sugary cake sitting before you. I’d watched you grow all those months before, curious, bright, and the most beautiful baby! The cake was like a puzzle you needed to figure out. You plunged your hands inside and brought it to your cute little face. Perhaps it was the shock of so much sugar at once, but immediately you recoiled; then, like a child, you attempted to taste it again. Baby’s first cake. That’s how I think of you now. That’s how I will always remember you. Curious, precocious, beautiful, bright. That’s who you were. And as I sit to write this now, it’s who I wish you still were. But you’re gone now. To where? I can contemplate and imagine, but I won’t know for certain until I leave this plane myself someday. But wherever you are, I write this for you, little cousin (little sister). I’ll carry you always.

Being in graduate school is a struggle, one that is hard to navigate even in the best of circumstances I presume. As I sit and write this, one year removed from the initial trauma, I still struggle to find the words to describe all I went through. However, I recognize the importance of talking about my experience, not just for myself, but for others as well. So, being vulnerable and honest, here I go:

It was January of what turned out to be the final year of my graduate study. I was in the midst of waiting to hear back from positions I applied for and dreading rejections, as well as the possibility of offers, as those would come with interviews and job talks—both of which terrified me to no end. It was just a few days after my 31st birthday when my phone rang, a call from your dad. There was nothing unusual about that. Your dad was (is) like a second father to me, so I answered hoping maybe for a second birthday surprise. But it wasn’t. Instead, he asked if I was sitting down, told me to sit down, and immediately I felt my heart stop. Rarely does anything good come after someone asks if you’re sitting down, so I’ve learned in my experiences. Unfortunately, I was right. Your dad called to tell me you were gone, that you had hung yourself, that you had died. An instant after the words left his mouth I went numb. I was devastated, disbelieving, heartbroken. You were thirteen years old. Exactly what it was that caused you to leave us as you did remains unclear to me, but whatever it was removed a light from my heart, a light from this earth.

That you could’ve taken your own life is still unfathomable to me, but perhaps it is not my place to understand. Nevertheless, I realize that there is no easy way to lose someone, a child no less, of that I am sure. But losing someone to suicide must be among the most painful. You weren’t my child to lose, you were my cousin, my little sister, but still my love, and I lost you. I lost you at one of the most difficult points in my adult life, and even today, a little after a year later, I am not sure how I am standing.

Writing a dissertation is not an easy feat, at least it wasn’t for me; yet, somehow in the wake of losing you, I somehow had to manage to put words to paper while dealing with the meaning of losing you. Advisors expected chapters and job applications expected responses. Yet I could barely breathe. All I could think about was the you in that beautiful dress, looking as if you were asleep within the coffin. Looking like yourself, but not at the same time.

How could I think about my next steps, knowing that you had taken the last of yours? How could I write, apply, or try, knowing that you’d never have the chance?

So I didn’t. For days I did nothing but cry. Remembering your face, your smile, your laugh. Days went by and the darkness around me grew. I was lost. Deeply and utterly lost. It took someone else to pull me out of the hole I had fallen into, one shrouded in pain, hurt, darkness. But her hand held mine, pulled me back to myself, back to happier memories of you. The you who supported me, the you that looked up to me, made me see things in myself that I may have otherwise missed. So slowly, but surely, I picked up a pen again. Put pen to paper and wrote. I dedicated my dissertation to you, the light in my darkness. My little Elira.

There is no easy way to write a dissertation through grief. The only advice that I can give, the only words that I can say, is that it doesn’t happen alone. Rely on your village, your person (or people) to help guide you through. Remember yourself and what you came to do. Pick up a pen, open a laptop, and let the words flow (even if they don’t make sense). I did. Eventually I found my way in words, using my writing as a way to remember you, as a way to move forward. It wasn’t a smooth process. It was rocky, marred with sleepless days and nights, tears, rewrites, curses, a trip to the hospital for insomnia driven psychosis, and feelings of hopelessness. But I wrote. I went to dissertation boot camp and I wrote. I went to write in sessions with my best friend and I wrote. I punched pillows, and cried for hours, but I wrote.

It was painful. Moving forward. Breathing. It hurt. It still hurts.

But with the help of my village I finished my dissertation, defended it and graduated in July 2018.


30412161_10105763080272873_6484055218454528000_nLetisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University. Her research focuses on social relationships and food practices, as well as media representations of black female athletes. Her work can be found in the South African Review of Sociology and the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, as well as the online publication The Shadow League.

How to Make Comps Reading Schedules

One question I’ve gotten since I published my last post was how I structure and organize all of my Comps readings. With my total number of “To Read” items coming in at 282, I knew I was going to have to get organized. So, this week, I’m going to share with you how I’ve been creating weekly reading lists for myself.

BIG PICTURE

  1. Find your preferred site for your organizing. For me, it’s an Excel spreadsheet that I haven’t closed since September 2018. I have a workbook page for each of my four lists, anda final page for my reading schedule.
  2. Divide each of your lists into smaller subsections. My lists are sometimes divided chronologically, and sometimes by theme. For example, my African American Literature list, from Slavery to the Civil Rights Movement is divided like this: Slave Narratives, Reconstruction and Nadir, Harlem Renaissance, Interwar Period, and Criticism. Each block of texts is color coded. I do this because tackling smaller subsections are easier than tackling a list of 50+ texts; and it makes preparing for meetings with your faculty easier. When I finish all of my Slave Narrative texts, I can schedule a meeting just to talk about that subsection. It helps if you don’t jump all over the place, but rather work with texts that can speak to each other at one time.
  3. PROTIP: I mark texts that I have read in a grad level setting, and have good notes on as “Read, to Return to,” so that I can review those more closely during my designated review period before exams.

WEEKLY PLANNING

Here’s the thing: every week is going to be different. Some weeks you can body several 600-page tomes, and some weeks you’ll barely be able to get through an article. The key here is to pay attention to your body and mind so that you don’t overwork yourself.

  1. Decide how you want to present your weekly lists. As I’ve said, my excel sheet is my life line.
  2. Know roughly how many texts you need to read per week to get through everything. For me, it was 10-12 texts per week.
  3. Assign yourself readings based on what you’ve got going on each week/how you’re feeling. Weeks where I don’t have any meetings, I usually assign myself 12 texts and they are typically on the longer side. Weeks where I have out of town conferences, meetings, etc. I assign myself closer to ten readings, and some of them might be on the shorter side, like poems, articles, and book chapters.
  4. Plan your readings for three or four weeks at a time, then give yourself a week to catch up on anything you missed. I know that reading 12 books a week is ambitious, particularly when I err on the side of reading every page. (PROTIP: have a better reading practice than I do.) So I if I don’t meet my goal in a given week, it’s fine– I’ll have an opportunity to catch up.
  5. Plan how you’re going to tackle your readings. Are you going list by list? Are you reading all monographs? Or a mix of articles and chapters? I’ve found that having variety in my weekly schedule keeps me focused and interested. I don’t know that I could have read all of one list and moved onto the next, but if that’s what will work for you try that. As I am typically trying to read 12 texts per week, I assign myself three texts from each of my four lists to read during the week. To keep myself from burning out, I try to mix and match monographs with poems, articles and book chapters. Some days, I simply can’t get through a monograph, but I can read and annotate three poems. And I work through my lists methodically, aiming to finish a subsection before moving onto the next and meeting with my professors.
  6. Then Read! (Blog post on how to read forthcoming)
  7. Take good notes! (Blog post on taking good notes forthcoming)

TIPS

  1. Mark off your readings as you finish them. It’s super satisfying and encourages you to work towards the next mark off on a finished text.
  2. Take advantage of the fact that you’re not confined to a classroom. Read in new places. Don’t stay cooped up in your apartment (unless that’s what you want to do.)
  3. When you can, talk to people about what you’re reading. My parents are the bomb.com when it comes to this. I’m an hour from home so I’ve spent a lot of comps in my childhood bedroom reading. When I’m done with a book, I revert to my childhood practice of telling my mother what I’ve just read, if I liked it, main arguments, things that made me uneasy. My mom’s a great listener and if I catch her while she’s doing the dishes, I’m free to chat about the text in great detail. My dad’s the questioner. He’ll ask me questions I never thought about and make me rethink my entire relationship with the text. I’ll read him quotes, and he’ll take the book, read it for himself, and come to his own conclusion. My family and I are definitely in this PhD game together.

There you have it, a short reflection on how I’ve been planning, organizing and tackling my readings! If you’re also reading for comps, best of luck to you! We got this!

How I’m Staying Sane During Comps

Comps was the first thing I asked about when I came to my grad program’s admitted students day in 2016. I wanted to know how it worked, what the exams were like, how you made your lists, how you studied for them– and my now friend, James, said to me: “Worry about that when you’ve done your Masters.”

Well, James, it’s definitely time to worry about them.

In truth, I have moved past my initial fear and anxiety surrounding the exams. I’ll worry about taking the actual tests in April. Right now, I’m just focusing most of my energy on reading, organizing my schedule for readings, note taking and meeting with professors. So I thought I would take this time to break down how I’m structuring my time, making the most out of meetings with my professors and caring for myself during what would otherwise be a pretty stressful time.

Reading

The most productive piece of advice I can give you is to make yourself a reading schedule in whatever feels like the most effective way for you get the job done. I have an Excel spreadsheet open at all times with five tabs: four tabs for each of my four lists and a tab for my reading schedule.

For my sheets with the lists on them, I have columns for the title, author, date published, and whether or not I’ve read it. The books are broken down into smaller sections, which group the books according to time period or theme, about 4 or 5 sections per list. At the bottom of each list, I’ve got a running count of how many of the list I’ve read and how many I have left to read.

PROTIP: If you read something in a graduate level classroom, I have typically marked those books as “read” but highlighted them as something to come back to at the end to review if I have time.

My reading schedule is fairly rigid but also pretty flexible at the same time. I read on average 10-12 books per week, but I’m flexible about when during the week I read them. I could read three books two days out of the week, two books two more days, and take a day to rest. I could read one every day, and then a few days I read two. Whatever works so long as I get the books that I’ve listed for that week read with notes.

Meeting with Professors

Every professor is going to be different but so far, I’ve found the most effective use of everyone’s time is to just send your professor a quick email update with what you’ve read since the last meeting and single out a few texts that you really want to talk about or have questions about.

But the best advice I could give you about meeting with your professors is to establish some ground “rules” for how meetings should go: What do they expect from you? Do they want written reviews? Email updates? Can you email questions in between sessions? How often do they want to meet? How best can you utilize that time?

PROTIP: Take your notes and any texts you want to discuss so it’s easy to refer to. (Don’t bring your entire library cart. Your meetings won’t last particularly long, as they do have to work after all. 3-4 texts seems to be working for me.)

Self-Care

And most importantly, I’m caring for myself during this time. I have

  • picked up a relaxing new hobby
  • started going to the gym (semi) regularly
  • Been taking a weekly Mindfulness class
  • Started writing comic book scripts for a series I want to publish one day (writing 30 minutes a day)
  • Started cooking more meals at home and
  • Been spending time with my family.

Even though doing comps requires doing an insane amount of reading, in reality, it’s kind of nice if you let yourself believe it. Most days, I’m in bed or on my couch with a stack of books, some coffee and my dog, reading and taking notes.

In order to make the best use of my time, I’ve set my days up to look like this:

  • 7 AM-8 AM Wake up
  • 8 AM- 9 AM Morning routine (walk dog, breakfast, coffee, meditation, etc.)
  • 9 AM- 12 PM Work Block #1
    • Using the Pomodoro Method, I try to read at least one book in this three hour block (and if time permits, take notes)
  • 12 PM-2 PM Afternoon Break (lunch, gym, walk dog, catch up on TV, nap, etc.)
  • 2 PM- 5 PM Work Block #2
    • Using the Pomodoro Method, I try to either finish the first book or read a second. (if time permits, notes)
  • 5 PM-7 PM Evening Break (walk dog, dinner, self-care time)
  • 7 PM-8:30 PM Work Block #3
    • This is time that I reserve for note taking, making connections between texts, reflecting on them, etc.
  • 8:30 PM- 10 PM Evening Routine (walk dog, shower, journal, write for fun, catch up on TV, meditate)
  • 10 PM-11 PM Sleep

Granted, this is what my ideal comps day looks like. Not every day pans out like this, I’m okay with that. Generally speaking though, I do like to work between 7 and 8 hours a day, broken up into blocks of 2-3 hours. This method helps me focus, but do what feels right to you!

The last thing that I do for myself every week is I give myself at least a half a day, to a whole day, off every week. I always give myself Sunday mornings off for church. I can read for the whole rest of the day if I want, but from the time I wake up on Sunday to the time I get back from church, I am offline.

Structure and organization will most definitely help you get through comps, but don’t be rigid to the point of breaking with your scheduling. It’s there to guide you, but do know that life happens. Just do the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask of you.