Tag Archives: grad school

Four Years, Four Lessons

Today, August 8, 2020, marks the four year anniversary of Black Girl Does Grad School!

 

On this day in 2016, I published my first post, hopefully entitled, “Ravynn Stringfield, (Someday) Ph.D.” I wrote it the morning before I was due to start my first day of training to become an Omohundro editorial apprentice, my first graduate assistantship. From there, I would go on to become the assistant for the Lemon Project, a position I held, and loved, for two years. I left Lemon to serve as a teaching assistant for a film and modernization class and this coming year I will finally get to teach my own 290 course on Black girls and fantasy.

Two weeks after I wrote that initial post and a couple about Omohundro training, I would attend my first grad class. Over the course of two and a half years, I would take fourteen classes: six courses which counted towards my master’s degree (which I graduated with in 2018) and eight that went towards my Ph.D. There were some really fun ones: I loved my Digital Humanities class and Critical Race Theory; I lived for Interracialism and the comics class that I, and a couple of my classmates, begged my advisor to teach. And some were…let’s say, challenging– and not because of the academic rigor.

I’ve come a long way since the first time I used the term “digital humanities” to describe my work in a blog post: from denying what I did counted as DH to taking my first DH class to being wrapped up in a cocoon of love by Black digital humanists at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” Then from my first DHSI to consistently proclaiming my identity as a digital human(ist) by showcasing it in my bio and wearing a hashtag on a chain around my neck (Left).

I’ve also come a long way since coursework. Since I finished my last semester in December 2018, I spent a semester reading for comps, I took the exams, defended my prospectus and began writing my dissertation in earnest.

I’m now in my last stretch of grad school, a stretch that could admittedly take a while to get through, but I have faith that everything will work out okay. Four years ago, writing a dissertation was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to figure out how to read at the graduate level, manage my time, and find ways to infuse my work with my own signature flair. But, as I said so long ago:

“But never mind how I got here; the point is, now I’m here.”

So in honor of my four years in graduate school and my four years of this blog, I decided I wanted to share with you four lessons I’ve learned since August 2016:

 

  1. You can chase clout if you want to, but I’d much rather work with someone who cares about me and has my best interests at heart. Picking an advisor is one of the most difficult parts about graduate school. In my early days, I switched about three times, only to land with exactly who they suggested for me to start with. As it turns out, I wasn’t ready to work with her in the early days; but as I matured and figured out who I wanted to be as a scholar, writer and person, I realized I wanted someone who would respect my work as both scholarship and art. Someone who would help me protect my work and find the right homes for it. I found an advocate, and I’m extraordinarily lucky, because some people don’t.
  2. Find your people. And accept that sometimes your people may not be in your program or even at your institution. I have a few folks that I can turn to from my university, but for the most part, when I have graduate school related concerns or need support, I trot to my digital network of peers I have developed over time on Twitter. (Shout out to the Digital Dreamgirls, Allante, Joy and Autumn + so many more.)
  3. Know your audience. Ultimately this advice has saved me so much heartache and grief. The moment I disavowed myself from the notion that my writing had to be all things to all people, I became free. Knowing who you’re writing for, the folks you’d like to serve, can help you focus your work and questions, and also helps you tune out voices who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.
  4. Grad school may be a big part of your life, but it’s not your whole life. You have a whole identity, full of parts who aren’t served or fulfilled by what you do in the classroom or in your research. Make sure you’re tending to those parts of yourself by doing whatever you need to do to feel full. For me, it was yoga, making art, spending time with my family and dog and continuing to write across genres.

*

To all those who have been on this journey with me thus far, thank you.

To all those about to begin their journey, good luck.

And to all: be well.

Dissertation Check-In #3: Organizing, Scheduling and Tools of the Trade

It’s been a while since I did a post on my writing process– from organizing my writing, to scheduling time to write/setting goals and my favorite tools of the trade. So here’s what I’ve been doing and using to get to Ph.Done:

Organizing

Because I do a lot of different types of writing and because my brain needs to separate each style, I have a different journal for each type that I do. I have a dotted neapolitan bullet journal for my calendars and personal journaling; a lined leather journal with a quote from Toni Morrison on the cover for my long form fiction notes; a lined cahier for short pieces including my freelance and blog posts; and a classic large black hardback dotted journal with my initials on it for my dissertation thoughts. (I have linked to all below.)

The dissertation journal

I can not recommend having a dissertation journal enough. I use mine to take notes on readings, free write and do idea work before going into my Scrivener project to add pages, keep track of suggested edits from my advisor and draft periodic writing timelines as well as weekly and monthly writing goals. (I also sometimes use mine as a sketchbook….) Sometimes having a place to work through your thoughts before committing them to your dissertation file is super helpful.

The actual writing

My writing process is aided in large part by the software that I use for my dissertation. You don’t need fancy software at all– a word document or google doc will do– but I got Scrivener last year because I often write large projects, nonfiction, research, and fiction, and felt I could benefit from some specialized software. What Scrivener is most useful for in my opinion is the ability to jump from section to section with ease and move those sections around. You can write in chunks, which are then moveable on the left hand side of the screen. You can also outline as index cards on a cork board, which then expand out into a page that you can write in. You can set yourself daily word count goals and whole project goals, which the software keeps track of for you.

Scrivener is a one time cost of $38 and I have written three fiction manuscripts, a journal article and half a dissertation in it since I got it so I can say with confidence that it transformed my writing experience. I use it for almost anything longer than about 10 pages. If you’re a visual person, all of the functions of the software may help you to your writing goal(s). (I have linked to Scrivener below.)

 

Scheduling

I constantly and consistently adjust my writing goals, which then impacts my writing schedule for the week and/or month. The most important tidbit I can pass on for dissertation writing is to be firm about your goals but flexible about how you get there. Adjust, and do it often.

When I first sat down to break apart my dissertation into manageable chunks, I gave myself an ambitious deadline for a first draft and a realistic deadline for a first draft. From there, I calculated how many words/pages I would need to produce per month to reach that goal. Then each month I broke down how many words/pages I would need to produce per week to get to the monthly goal. I then broke it down to a daily average, which for me worked out to about 250 words per week day, or about an hour of writing per week day. I wrote down all of those goals and numbers in my dissertation journal to keep myself accountable.

Now, do I consistently write 250 words in my dissertation Scrivener project a day? Absolutely not. Some days, often several in a row, I write nothing at all, preferring to read and take notes over synthesizing into dissertation pages. But I might write 1,000 one day during the week, and 250 another day, getting me to my weekly goal. Some weeks I do write 250 words every day, but those weeks are few and far between. I try to schedule and goal set so that I can be flexible about how I’m getting my work done without being rigid. It helps me strike a nice balance between allowing myself to write when the mood strikes and holding myself accountable to write a set amount per day or week.

On a day to day, given the fact that we are living through unprecedented times in which every morning seems to bring a new disaster, I can’t count on being focused or disciplined enough to write every morning of the work week from 9 AM to 10 AM. Under other circumstances, I might block out an hour every morning to write, but in the spirit of waking up every morning and paying attention to myself so that I may tend to what I need to be okay in this moment, I prefer to take stock of myself and see what I feel is reasonable, every single day.

Bonus: Extend Yourself Grace

And because I do this stock taking exercise every day, there are some weeks where I can’t work at all, which necessitates review and adjusting my schedule so that I can stay on track but give myself grace for the next week. Extending myself lots of grace is the only thing that I can do to pull myself through.

 

Tools of the Trade

Here are links to some of the tools that I have mentioned above and some others that I have found particularly useful in my dissertation writing adventure.

 

Journals

Archer & Olive A5 Neapolitan Dotted Journal

lined Moleskine cahier

Large hard cover dotted Moleskine journal

Jenni Bick Toni Morrison Black Voices Journal

Pens

Yellow Lamy Fountain Pen

Pilot V5 Retractable Deco Collection

Cloth + Paper Penspiration Subscription Box Pens

Writing Software

Scrivener

Citation Manager

Zotero

Deferred Maintenance

By Enjoli Hall

How and why I made healthcare my top priority in my first semester

Twenty-nine. The number of visits I made to a doctor’s office during my first semester as a PhD student. In any given week, my Google calendar was a fall-themed collage of classes, advising meetings, on-campus events, and doctor’s visits. Scheduling my doctor’s appointments was akin to a research assistantship—I mapped the locations of Black female primary care physicians. I analyzed what combination of dental procedures I could afford with my insurance benefits. I reviewed literature on the antidepressants recommended by a counselor. I wrote reports detailing my medical history on intake forms. I presented my life story to the six therapists I was forced to meet with in order to evaluate my request for an emotional support animal in university housing. While I couldn’t add these lines to my CV, perhaps I could add a few years to my life.

Some of the appointments I scheduled might be considered “routine” check-ups: annual eye exam, seasonal flu shot, pap smear. But many of the appointments were for managing chronic pain and depression. Sometimes, these appointments were not planned, such as impromptu visits to the urgent care clinic on campus for frequent headaches or toothaches. What nearly all of these appointments have in common is that they were the result of deferred maintenance. In my field of urban planning, the term deferred maintenance is often used to describe the practice of postponing maintenance and repairs on essential infrastructure to save money, balance budgets, or reallocate resources to address more immediate needs. For example, a landlord might postpone fixing leaky pipes in an apartment to save money in the short term. Or a local government might delay replacement of lead pipes in its city’s water system due to budget shortfalls. The cumulative effects of deferred maintenance can be catastrophic—an apartment building that could have been rehabbed now needs to be demolished; a city’s population is poisoned by its water supply with lasting public health problems.

Prior to starting grad school, I deferred diagnostic tests, annual exams, small procedures, and mental health therapy for years. I was a first-generation, low-income college graduate barely making ends meet in an industry and city that people don’t choose to make money. While I am adept at understanding the functions of macro social systems such as racism and the economy, I often struggle to navigate individual institutions and bureaucracies to get my needs met. I could not afford the co-pays, the time off from work, or the transportation to get to doctor’s visits of all sorts. Sometimes I tried to schedule appointments, but would get discouraged when the closest doctor was located over an hour away, open during limited hours, not accepting new patients, or did not take my insurance. These challenges are common when you live in a poor, low-density region serviced by an inadequate public transit network. Or when you grow up in a community that discounts mental illness as laziness or a bad attitude: “You don’t need a doctor, you need discipline. Your problems will go away when you get a better job or a boyfriend.

I internalized my mental anguish as of my own making and normalized my physical discomfort as a fact of daily life. In effect, I deferred maintenance on the mental and physical systems that sustain my well-being. As a result, what were cavities became root canals. The situational depression I developed in college spiralled into clinical depression—a mighty vortex that seemed to grow more intense with each post-grad job, relationship, and life event. And what might have been managed with months of counseling sessions, probably requires several years of regular therapy. At times, it is very difficult to reconcile the access I’ve had to some of the most elite universities in the world with the barriers I’ve faced to accessing basic medical services. I don’t know how to describe the feeling of sitting in a class and knowing your lived experience is the outlying data point of educational success, the case example of why we need multifaceted definitions of “access” that consider affordability, availability, and awareness in addition to physical distance. When your GRE score is in the 99th percentile, and so is your cholesterol level.

I am sharing my story not because I think it is unique, but because I suspect it is quite common in some ways. Despite increasing awareness of the academic, financial, and sociocultural challenges experienced by minority, low-income and first-generation students, I have observed a persistent stigma and silence around health issues. I understand the disincentives and potential penalties that students—especially marginalized students—may encounter in sharing these stories. Or even just saying to someone “I have depression.” Our position in these programs is often marked by precarity and presumed incompetence. We’re constantly expected to prove our basic capabilities to handle the rigors of advanced research to our peers and professors. Our admission was not enough; at best it was a professional courtesy, at worst it was a statistical accounting. We should be so grateful. Talking about mental or physical illness—how it alters the way we process information, the way we move through space, the way we structure our schedule—carries tremendous risk in a profession that rewards intellectual acuity and constant productivity.

Grad school is hard. But for someone like me, it means improved access to care such as on-campus, free and subsidized providers, health screenings, and wellness services that I could not obtain for the last several years. The services are not comprehensive and my stipend is not enough, but it is more healthcare and more income than I’ve had for years. So, I am making my health my top priority. I cannot afford to defer maintenance of my mental and physical health any longer. Because the grim reality is, if I do not attend to these issues now, I might not survive to the end of my PhD program. I know this is only the very beginning of months and years of chronic pain, frequent appointments, and unforeseen consequences, but I am grateful for the opportunity to repair. My pain might not be my fault, but I am responsible for my healing.


Enjoli Hall is a PhD student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Enjoli’s research is focused on racism, social inequality, and urban policy, and the impact of these forces on local government planning, policy, and finance. Her work focuses on cities and counties facing chronic poverty related to deindustrialization. Enjoli’s research draws on over five years of experience working with non-profits, foundations, and research centers in her hometown of Buffalo, New York. She has worked in a variety of roles in community development, ranging from adult literacy tutor to youth advocate to program officer to regional planner.