Tag Archives: phd program

Week 11: A Critical Self-Reflection on my Fighting Spirit

It’s time for some critical self-reflection.

I’ve always been a self-starter, and a little loud, probably to the chagrin of my mom, who had to work at the school where I was always doing something. I distinctly remember mobilizing the entire third grade to sign a petition against soggy cafeteria trays, which in my eight-year-old mind, ruined the sanctity of the chicken nugget. That same school year, I remember coming home determined to write my Black History Month report on the first Black woman involved in civil rights who wasn’t Rosa Parks that I could find: Angela Yvonne Davis. Then, at age ten, I decided that my fourth grade class needed a school magazine. So, naturally, some friends and I organized a bake sale, the proceeds of which went to the annual fair when the plans for the magazine proved too difficult.

By high school I had only gotten louder; spending a great deal of time fighting against the initial structure of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program in Suffolk, Virginia. As my class would be the first through, we dubbed ourselves “The Guinea Pigs.” I wanted more flexibility (at the time I wanted to do the Governor’s School of the Arts, which I was waitlisted for classical piano, and IB); more class offerings, including an IB music class; and I wanted to keep our IB director, but budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. I spent a great deal of time ranting in our IB director’s office, to my friends, my teachers, at school board meetings, to anyone who would listen. We lost student after student during the pre-IB years (freshman and sophomore year) until we were down to the sixteen that crossed the stage together in 2012.

I used to be loud, I used to demand change, I used to fight hard.

My fighting spirit came and went as I ran the gauntlet that was the University of Virginia (UVA). I spent a year on the Black Student Alliance executive board, and, disenchanted with the bureaucracy and male domination despite the female majority, promptly resigned the summer before my third year. The often hours long meetings in which I had to take ruthless comments, being talked over or ignored had finally taken its toll on me. So I left, determined to find another way to make a difference. To be sure I found ways: I became a leader in the language house community, eventually making my way up to RA of the French House; I took point in helping organizing my scholarship weekend in the spring of 2015 and 2016; I took on more responsibility in my position as an intern in the Outreach Office of Admission; and I became stage manager of a show that was more of a movement, the Black Monologues.

I’ll be brutally honest, UVA beat a lot of the fight out of me. Between the constant pressure to perform, the isolation that came with being the only Black person in many of the classes and spaces I inhabited, and the severe depression that I fought most of my four years there, it was nothing short of a miracle that I made it out of Charlottesville alive. Living there was rough. My class lived through the disappearance of Hannah Graham, the Rolling Stone article, and the Martese Johnson incident. It felt like I spent most of my upperclassmen years at rallies and vigils, condemning racially motivated brutality and sexual assault, then alternatively mourning the loss of classmates. In addition to all of these horrifying events, I, the golden child of Suffolk, Virginia, was learning for the first time what it meant to fail spectacularly at UVA. I will never forget the string of rejections I got my first year there, one after another, until I finally got a rejection in January 2013, which prompted a panic attack so severe I ended up calling the counseling center for an appointment that day.

It’s my third year out of UVA, and I think I’m still undoing some of the damage to my thought processes that happened while I was there. I don’t think I could pinpoint the moment that undid the fight in me, but I know when I recognized how broken I was: when I did Black Monologues. Black Monologues was a salve to my soul, my chance to simply be. To make art, and to be moved by it. To be in a community with Black people who understood me and loved me. Pouring myself into words for the first time in years, building something, saved me. It healed the wound I didn’t even know I had. Black Monologues gave me back my voice, and even amplified it.

Black Monologues built me up just enough to send me into the world armed with at least part of the confidence which UVA had stolen from me. But I’m realizing now, even with part of my confidence restored, I am still not the girl who demanded change from her school board. I’m not even the girl who mobilized the third grade.

Somewhere in that journey, I decided my moves would be in silence; that my calling was teaching and writing, and those would be my contributions. I decided to use my “self-care card” to self-preserve rather than fight back, but this week in particular has me questioning how I feel about that. I don’t know if I like that I’ve become a silent, but engaged observer; intervening only when particularly provoked or when I “have the time.” I consider myself to be strategic with my energy, picking and choosing my battles with care. Mental health wise, it’s been the right decision, but I do have to ask myself, am I being true to myself– am I feeding my spirit?

My tactics have changed and so have I. William & Mary has brought me to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, where I do a lot of work educating people on enslaved labor and Jim Crow segregation at William & Mary. I work with and teach students; help put on programming; run our social media; but most importantly, I learn and share. And when I realized the Academy might not make room for me, I decided to write my way in on this very blog; working countless hours to make sure that BGDGS became a space where Black women could share and fellowship together. I may not be making statements at school board meetings anymore, but I’m still working, moving slowly and intentionally.

Sometimes I wonder if my sixteen year old self would be proud of the person I’ve become.

I think she would be. I’ve taken my fight to paper, armed with a pen. I think she would be glad to see that I transformed my fighting energy into building.

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.

Week 1, or Goal Setting for a New Semester

Well, it’s that time: the syllabi are posted and students have returned to campus. Soon, long summer days will turn into crisp mornings and brisk nights. That’s right– it’s the start of the semester. The start of a new semester for me is a moment of reflection– a moment to meditate on how I’ve done things in the past, which in turn informs how I set goals for myself in the future.

This semester in particular is very special to me. It’s my last semester of coursework as a Ph.D student, so things are set up a little differently than they have been for the last two years. In the past, I have taken three classes per semester, but in this last go around, I’ll only take two. The two classes I’m taking are a perfect fit for me: Introduction to the Digital Humanities and Critical Race Theory and Education. With the extra time, I will start to prepare for my Comprehensive Exams (Comps), which will tentatively take place in May 2019. And, if you’ve been following along, I will be completing my assistantship this year with the Lemon Project .

Given how much I have to accomplish this semester, I thought it would be a productive exercise to make my goals public, which might encourage me to hold myself more accountable as I go through this semester. So, here are my goals:

  1. Get through this last semester of coursework in one piece. I’ve done such a great job making my way through my classes for the last four semesters, and it’s amazing that I can celebrate yet another milestone along this process: my last first day of classes. The goal is not to be perfect, but to successfully complete these last two courses. To me, this means that I will do the readings, complete all the assignments, do the final papers/projects and most importantly I will do the best that I can in that moment, no matter what the final grade is.
  2. Finalize my Comps Committee. I had a snafu with someone who I assumed would be willing to be on my committee and therefore had to quickly scramble to find someone to replace him. Fortunately, I have found someone to replace him with, but I need to confirm that the replacement will be willing to work with and examine me.
  3. Set a date for my Comps Colloquium. Colloqs in my program are simply a formality; one must set a meeting with all the members of the committee and agree that the set of lists I come into the meeting with will be the final lists which I will be examined on. It is also the moment to set the date for my examination, which I hope will happen in mid to late May 2019.
  4. Start reading for Comps. This one will be hard, especially when I have readings for coursework to do, and an assistantship to prepare for each week. However, the more that I read now, the less stressed I will be come December when it’s really time to buckle down and start reading about a book or two a day.
  5. Prioritize my health. I mean all manners of my health. If I’m physically ill, I’m going to rest until I feel better and I won’t put off doctor appointments. I’m going to prioritize my mental health by making sure I’m eating properly, staying hydrated, taking breaks, and remembering to treat myself generally like a human and not a lean mean grad school machine. I’m also going to prioritize my fitness, and instead of laying in bed watching all of my favorite CW shows, I think I’ll take my iPad to the gym and walk on the treadmill while I watch instead.
  6. I am going to prioritize my joy. I think my own happiness comes second to literally anything grad school related. This year, I’m shifting my mindset. I’m going to do more of what makes me happy, whether it’s making art, knitting or crocheting, baking, writing, or spending time with friends and family, I plan on incorporating that into my daily life.
  7. I am going to write again. In full transparency, I started the semester off with a series of rejections. I finally worked up the courage to write stories that I was ready to share with the world, so I submitted them to literary magazines, and was rejected from both publications. Again, in full transparency, I’m going to be sad, I’m going to wallow, and I’m going to sulk for a while, but ultimately, I am going to write again. I am going to try to get published again. All I’ve ever wanted was to see my name in print and I deserve to have that feeling. Someone, somewhere, is waiting to read my words.
  8. I am going to spend more time with people. After the initial shock of how lonely grad school was, I got used to spending almost all of my time by myself. Aside from classes, I rarely see anyone. It’s partially grad school, partially my super introverted nature, and partially my social anxiety. Case in point– I went out with friends a few evenings ago and stayed out for a long time, much longer than usual for me, and my friends definitely mentioned it. The only reason it came up is because I usually isolate myself, but I was having such a good time that I wondered why I didn’t want that sort of interaction more often. Especially with Comps coming up, I think it’s more important than ever to make sure I’m seeking out healthy, mutually supportive friendships.

I think the most productive thing to do at the start of every semester is to sit down and make goals for yourself. Whether or not you follow through is up to you; at least you did make a concerted effort to better yourself, and were at one point committed to those goals. Now that I’ve shared my goals with you, I encourage you to write down your own list of goals and keep them somewhere visible so you can check in and note your progress every now and then.

Happy Grad Schooling!


P.S. Leave a comment down below with your top three goals for the semester!