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

Guest Post: A Series of Unexpected Events

When I finished undergrad three years ago, I told myself a thousand times that I was never going to graduate school. Finishing a Bachelor’s degree was hard enough, why would I willingly put myself through more academic torture at an even higher cost (both mental and financial)? It seemed unnecessary at the time and even if I were to go, I had not a clue what I would study. My career path upon graduation was uncertain to say the least – the last thing on my mind was another degree. Now fast-forward to today… *cue maniacal laughter at my previous naiveté* …and I am headed back to grad school this coming fall. Yes, I said back, as in for my second attempt. It has been quite an interesting chain of events and along this journey, I’ve learned that sometimes where you need to be is right where you started from the beginning. *clears throat* Let me explain.

As a Virginian who grew up near Charlottesville, UVA was an obvious choice for college. I knew a lot about the University and had been there for football games and that sort of thing. From what I had experienced prior to enrolling, UVA offered the quintessential college experience, the kind you see depicted in the movies. When I got in, I was thrilled, proud, over-the-moon– but I was also nervous. My mom didn’t go back to finish her Bachelor’s degree until she was pregnant with me, so her college experience as a married woman with a family looked very different than mine would and my dad did not attend college at all. Not being able to rely on my parents to give me advice on what to expect as I ventured into unknown territory was scary, but I knew that I would figure it out. What I didn’t know was that most of the lessons I would learn throughout my undergraduate career would not take place in the classroom but in my day-to-day interactions with other students and other members of the University community. The biggest lesson that I learned about myself during those ever-important four years? I have anxiety. At times, borderline crippling anxiety, and the worst part was not that it took me until college to figure it out. The worst part was that I was unaware that it wasn’t normal.

Growing up in a small, rural town in Central Virginia, mental health was a rare topic of discussion and during instances where it was actually acknowledged it was always with regard to extreme cases of mental health disorders. In high school my classmates would make ignorant jokes toward others about having multiple personalities or being “special.” So that was really my only exposure to what constituted mental health issues. At home, there was even less talk of it. My parents maintained a very traditional black household where things like “what do you have to worry about?” and “mind over matter” were phrases that framed anything stress related. They always made it seem like my sister and I were too young to know what anxiety was so I didn’t know any different. Maintaining the idea that nothing was wrong kept me from seeking help, kept me from understanding that it’s okay to talk about my anxiety and depression, especially when it came to being a young black woman studying at a very prestigious predominantly white institution.

The source of my anxiety and depression while in undergrad was this: I never thought I was good enough. I compared myself to everyone at every turn. I had no concept of my worth. Then my self-esteem hit the lowest of lows following a bad break-up that took place during my first year of college. I didn’t know it then, but I was seriously depressed for over a year after that split. College is hard, breakups are hard, finding confidence in yourself as a single black woman when it feels like the world is on your shoulders at all times is hard. Finally getting my diploma at graduation and reflecting on all of those tough experiences had me thinking, “there’s no way I could ever go back and do this again,” but then I landed an unexpected job offer. Four months after graduation I was hired as an Admission Counselor for UVA and I found my passion– working with students who don’t see their potential, students who struggle to see their worth. Students like me. That’s when everything changed.

After finishing two admission cycles at my alma mater and loving the work that I was doing, I decided that I did want to go to grad school. So I applied and was accepted into UVA’s Master of Higher Education Administration program and I began taking classes part-time while I continued to work full-time. However, juggling both work and school simultaneously proved to be a challenge that triggered my anxiety in a slightly different kind of way than before. This time, my anxiety came from feeling stagnant. I got antsy with the idea that I was “stuck” at UVA, being that I had studied there, worked there, and was still studying and working there while many of my friends had moved on and found higher-paying jobs in cooler cities. I started to compare myself to others again, I felt like this whole “adulting” thing was a competition and it seemed like I was losing by a mile. So in an overwhelming state of frustration I made a rash decision. I chose not to enroll in grad classes for the coming semester and I applied for jobs at other universities until I got an offer to work for a school in DC. This was like a dream come true! I could finally move out of my parents’ house and have my first real apartment on my own, I would be in a city that was full of young black professionals, and I would be making more money (or so I initially thought). Well, life has a really funny way of humbling you when you least expect it and that’s exactly what happened.

I took the new job and hated every second of it. The leadership was awful, the electronic processes were archaic, the office culture was unhealthy, and given the higher cost of living in DC I really wasn’t making more money. This is when my anxiety and depression caused me to hit rock bottom. I started taking the prescription anxiety medicine that my doctor had given me several months prior hoping that it would make a difference in my day-to-day functioning, but I still had days where I could barely find the motivation to get out of bed. I was broke, unhappy, and I had never felt so alone. Emphasis on alone, living by yourself in the city sounds cool in theory until you realize that you come home to an empty apartment everyday. That’s not something that makes you feel any better when your work life is hell on Earth. I lasted six months in that position before I quit and decided to come back to UVA for grad school full-time. I’m even taking a class this summer to catch up so that I’ll still be on track to finish the program next spring (yay!) and it finally feels like I have my life back on track.

This time last year I never thought that I would be so excited to be moving back home and starting grad school again, that just goes to show that sometimes we have to go through difficult situations before we can see things clearly. It’s so true what they say about how the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I definitely learned that the hard way but that’s okay. Not every lesson we learn in life will come easy. Moving forward I know that my anxiety hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s something that I will have to deal with through grad school and beyond. The difference is that now I’ve been through things that have taught me that I am stronger and wiser than I used to think I was. I have found ways to better manage the moments where I feel like I’m on the verge of a panic attack. Those are life skills that I may not have learned as quickly if I didn’t take that leap of faith and accept that other job. It may not have been where I needed to be but we gain insight from every experience we have as human beings, good or bad, and that’s the silver lining.

Do I still have moments where I question my worth? Absolutely. Are there times when I doubt myself? 100%. But at the end of the day, I don’t beat myself up about those things nearly as much anymore. What brings me peace of mind through those inevitable ups and downs is the reassurance that, despite the detours I may have taken along the way, I know I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

IMG_1593Alexis Richardson, 25, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia in 2015. After three years of working in college admissions she has returned to UVA as a full-time grad student to finish her Master of Higher Education Administration.

My attempt at joining the Academy