Tag Archives: phd program

The Art of Self Care as a Black PhD Student

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.


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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.

Comps Reading: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider has been on my reading list for years. Ever since I read “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” for the first time years ago, Audre Lorde has been high on my list of favorite theorists– though it is mentioned in the book that she did not view herself as a theorist, but rather a poet. (Introduction, p. 8) I even have a pair of Audre Lorde tattoos on my wrist which read, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” (“New Year’s Day”)

Poetry reveals itself through out this text as Audre Lorde uses prose to do what she claimed poetry did for her: help put words to an unnamed feeling, unmask that which has been hidden away, and build community between those who have difficulty hearing each other. She sprinkles actual lines of poetry amid her prose, because as she tells Adrienne Rich in an interview, “somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, the vital piece of information….The poem was my response.” (p. 82) The lines slip in when she gets close to a feeling that it seems she might not otherwise be able to identify. It’s moving.

Reading Sister Outsider had me feeling like Lorde, in that her sentences provided vital pieces of information, providing a response for feelings that were previously unnamed. I think this is interesting, this need to name feeling that she has. This is one part of the difference between pain and suffering that she notes in “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”: pain becomes suffering when the feeling is “incomplete” and unnamed. (p. 172) I find her discussion of the difference between pain and suffering intriguing, but I do not know if I am convinced. She writes that pain is an event and it must be named, but suffering is something that one can “condemn” oneself to, a relieving of unnamed pain over and over again. I suppose the part which I take issue is the condemnation because it implies that suffering is a choice. What I think Lorde may mean there however, is where pain can be named and acknowledged, it should be, because it is one way to avoid suffering.

In a similar vein, Lorde describes the difference between hatred and anger in “Eye to Eye,” stating that anger is a “passion of displeasure” and hatred is an “emotional habit or attitude…which is coupled with ill will.” (p. 152) Lorde writes that anger does not destroy; hatred does. She writes that anger can be a powerful fuel and in “The Uses of Anger,” a piece which compliments “Eye to Eye” nicely, in my humble opinion, she writes that “anger is loaded with information and energy.” (p. 127) Again, I believe her discussion of both anger and hatred are novel and convincing, but not perfect. I am not sure that I believe that anger cannot destroy, but I suppose when it has morphed into hatred, the point is mute. But that raises a question: she argues that hatred becomes the source of anger, but is it not the other way around? Wouldn’t anger about a situation lead to hatred?

But her main point of these particular essays, or at least what I am taking away from them, is that Black women have internalized self-hatred and thus are angry at each other in a self-destructive way. While Lorde struggles to unpack the inexplicable animosity between Black women, I struggle to unpack that she believes that animosity is there at all. She struggles with this animosity because she cites women as the main source of her restorative energy and thus finds it concerning; as someone whose main support system is a pack of Black women, I really want to know what kind of relationships has she had which have exposed such powerful hatred that she felt compelled to write two separate essays about it. It makes me want to write about Black female friendship and relationships because there is no power greater than the feeling of being supported by Black women.

On an unrelated note, I found it interesting that Lorde bookended her text with essays about other countries. The first are notes from her trip to Russia, in which she basked in the glory of the country like an other tourist, while also being sensitive to racial difference in order to provide a comparison between Russia and the United States. It seems every Black intellectual that I admire has some notes on “Another Country” (for a little Baldwin joke), in which being abroad makes even more stark the state of American racism. The last is “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report,” which was mostly interesting to see Grenada through the eyes of an outsider-insider: Lorde herself is Grenadian but she views the country with the sensibilities of an American, having lived there all of her life. (Brief and related side note: no where in her text is “American/America” capitalized. Because it is consistent, I am sure there is a reason for such a choice, but I do not know what it is. If someone knows, please leave me a note in the comments.)

Lorde has so many different identities, which she weaves seamlessly into the text to create a complex interwoven web, and I’ve chosen to simply follow a few of the strands. Among those that I have missed in my brief discussion of her work are her identities as a feminist, as a lesbian, as a Cancer survivor, as a Grenadian-American, and particularly as a poet. What she says about these things which make her different is that we must not merely tolerate difference. It must go deeper than that. We must not merely say “Black is beautiful.” It must go deeper. The question which springs immediately to my mind is: How? Lorde is invested in the means of offering solutions: a solution is what she is offering when she says “the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” A solution is what she is offering when she says that we need to practice being as kind to ourselves as we are to our neighbors, for only that will off-set the hatred which we have internalized. We must raise our children to feel for themselves and not do the feeling for them. I think her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response” which discusses raising a boy as a lesbian feminist, tackles that issue justly.

The last thing I want to think about is the relationships between Black women, white women, and Women of Color, which can sometimes include Black women, but the way that Lorde uses it, (when quoting white women) is a way of including the issues of Black women, but softened by the perspectives of other non-white women. I do not believe this is a view that Lorde holds herself, but rather the way that white women use the term “Women of Color.” (See her discussion of This Bridge Called My Back in “Eye to Eye.”) Some of these tensions become most prevalent in Lorde’s interview with Adrienne Rich, who sometimes seems impatient with Lorde’s view of intuiting and feeling as a way of understanding and knowledge making. When she says the white man says, “I think therefore I am” and the Black woman says, “I feel, therefore I can be free,” Rich points out that people have found this sentiment anti-feminist, drawing on preconceived notions of femininity. I don’t agree: I think there is something very feminist in reclaiming emotion for women, which is so much of what Lorde’s work is. She is reclaiming anger, helping to reshape hatred, teaching us that guilt is ineffective. But I guess my question is, if rationality is to the white man as emotion is to the black woman (which is a problematic dichotomy in of itself) where does that leave Black men and white women? It seems as though white women get clumped into the rationality of white men. But what of Black men? Just something else to think about while I’m driving through town tomorrow.

There are so many things to think about when discussing Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and I do not believe I can do it justice in a short blog post, but I did want to take the time to write down a few of my many thoughts because for one, I had a lot of them while I was reading, and two, it is probably a good practice to review my books as such as I read them. I probably won’t have time to do such an in depth review of every one of my books, but I probably will do this for the important ones, my favorite ones, and the ones which have given me the most to think about.

So to leave you today, I want to offer you some of my favorite quotes from Sister Outsider, on the off chance you don’t plan on reading it yourself. (Which you most definitely should.)

Favorite Quotes and Ideas:

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” (p. 37)

“The Black mother within each of us– the poet– whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” (p. 38)

“I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” (p. 41)

“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.” (p. 60)

“One oppression does not justify another.” (p. 63)

“Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” (p. 78)

“Documentation does not help one perceive.” (p. 104)

“The mythical norm.” (p. 116)

“Change means growth, and growth can be painful.” (p. 123)

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” (p. 138)