Twelve Things I Learned From My First Semester as a Ph.D. Student

Twelve Things I Learned From My First Semester as a Ph.D. Student

(Written for Inside Higher Ed, January 2020)

As an undergraduate, I seldom felt overwhelmed by coursework. I found praise easily. I graduated summa cum laude and wrote an award-winning honors thesis. When I heard horror stories about graduate school, I knew I would be an exception. I was wrong.

Although I lost ten pounds in my first semester in Southern Methodist University’s history Ph.D. program from the stress of coursework, I want to avoid being all doom and gloom. I can confidently say that I have never learned so much in such a short period of time.

During my first semester of coursework at SMU, twelve significant lessons particularly standout. Hopefully, this list will prove beneficial and entertaining for current and future Ph.D. students.

Graduate School Shows You That You’re Capable. In 2012 and 2013, I hiked roughly a thousand miles on the Appalachian Trail and roughly two thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Graduate school, sans all the walking, is reminiscent of these long-distance treks: I am constantly hungry and I look like I’ve been living in the woods. Yet the most striking similarity is that I am constantly surprised by my capabilities. Never did I think I could write for seven hours straight. With deadlines looming, I can. Never did I think I could read five books in a week. With fear of disappointing a professor, I do. I am both excited and scared to continue discovering my capabilities.

Create Another Bubble. I began a romantic relationship when I moved to Dallas. Initially, I thought it foolish to date as I began a Ph.D. program, but my significant other allowed me to step out of the academic bubble. We went hiking, we saw movies, we enjoyed the symphony. To remain mentally sound in graduate school, a world outside of graduate school must be maintained. For me that turned out to be a romantic relationship. For others in my cohort, it means being active with church, with sports, or with family. That burgeoning relationship has since ended, teaching me another valuable lesson—maintaining a relationship while in a Ph.D. program is challenging.

Money Goes Quick. I am paid $20,000 over ten months at SMU, a rate below the living wage. Compared to other private institutions—Yale $32,000, Cornell $30,000, Duke $28,000—SMU is on the low end. Yet, SMU’s stipend is not nearly as bad as some public universities and is one of the best in the Southwest region. Only a few of us are in massive debt. Not all of us.

Graduate students, besides sometimes being dirt-cheap labor, bring repute to their universities. We are trophies in the making. All universities have to do is keep us half-alive, to give us enough to pay our bills. They are failing in that.

But I will say, in a twisted way, I have been so busy with graduate school that I have found myself spending less than I ever have. Books, food, gas, rent, repeat.

I Feel Guilty When I Don’t Work. In graduate school I have become my own boss–a demanding one at that. My biggest issue is that I rarely give myself enough free time. An hour spent grocery shopping, could be spent reading a page or two of Derrida. Two hours spent rock climbing could be used to mindlessly mull over potential grants before realizing that I don’t meet any of the qualifications.

On one hand, these guilty feelings are a boon professionally. I have produced a heap of articles, book reviews, and encyclopedia entries. On the other hand, these guilty feelings are dangerous to my well-being. I am not one of those rare academics who utterly enjoys digging into scholastic trenches. I need time to decompress.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but this feeling does not go away. We just become better at managing it, at buttering up our inner bosses to give us decompression time. Running a 5k every day impedes me from spiraling out of control,  but when deadlines are on the horizon, skipping a 5k “just this once,” is all too easy.

Gut, Gut, Gut, But Not Too Much. When tasked with reading 1,500 pages in the span of a week, you gut. You hit chapter intros and conclusions, you read topic sentences, you scrounge up dusty reviews. When I gut something I hardly enjoy it. “Survival reading” washes away nuances. Therefore, I have made it a rule to read at least one book front to back per week. I always have plenty of options to choose from.

My Butt Hurts. This is not any sort of pun. Really, my butt hurts. Graduate school is a sedentary occupation. I sit all day.

What You Wear Matters? I showed up to my first slate of classes in flip-flops, board shorts, and a t-shirt. Dallas is hot. Comfort is key. When it got cooler, I started wearing button-ups, jeans, and dress shoes. After doing so, I felt taken slightly more seriously. SMU’s program is inclusive. No one in the department wants their students or peers to feel uncomfortable, but perhaps unconsciously it is easier to see someone as an academic when they look “academic.”

Prioritize Your Future. In undergrad, grades are important. In graduate school, they are less important. Some may even venture that grades are insignificant on the path to a PhD. This is an overstatement. By putting in the hours and acquiring acceptable marks in graduate school, I train myself to work diligently in the future. I train myself to be dependable. That I impress my professors and peers is a wonderful side effect.

Yet, if I focused solely on coursework, I would be setting myself up for failure on the job market. Grades rarely lead to a professorship—they just get you closer to a paper diploma. My prioritization, therefore, is constantly tested. I ask when taking a hit to my grades is acceptable? Do I risk burning out or do I give myself a much-needed weekend vacation? Do I finish an op-ed or do I carefully read a book for class discussion? Pathways in my brain, trained from my undergraduate days, tell me that grades are everything. But prioritizing writing articles, op-eds, and reviews that relate to my field seem like an objectively wiser investment of my time. I could have spent sixteen hours perfecting an essay on The Jungle. Instead, I leeched eight of those hours to write this article.

Nearly Everyone is Brilliant. Once a big fish in a small pond, the pond has expanded exponentially and I have become a shrimp. My cohort of five, brilliant. My professors, brilliant. Most everyone here is brilliant.

Depression Is Prevalent. This comes as no surprise. Graduate students are overworked, isolated, and poor. In my field, history, we also tend to read an absurd amount about destruction, death, and disaster.

My program has an incredibly supportive graduate community—the people are a large reason why I came here. Depression is still rampant. Our heads are savagely hit with the fact that “the life of the mind is dead.” That our aspirations to become professors are increasingly ludicrous in the face of a dismal job market. And yet we push on. While depression is prevalent, so too is resilience.

DMing in Dungeons and Dragons Will Help You Lead Group Discussion. When I led my first class discussion on George Chauncey’s Gay New York it went mediocrely. I forgot a cardinal rule of being a Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons: being open to improvisation. I had read Gay New York cover-to-cover. I had spent weeks condensing down all of Chauncey’s arguments into tidy points that flowed from one to the next. I had a concrete list of questions, and by God, I had no intention of diverting from that list.

Competent dungeon masters know that a purely railroaded adventure in D&D is a drag. Group discussions are analogous. Skilled discussion leaders expand on classmates’ ideas, not brush them aside for their own. Class discussions need frameworks, they need signposts, but in my strictness, I never let real conversations take place: be flexible, be adaptable.

“Ph.D. Student” Carries Weight. In our profession, Ph.D. students are a dime a dozen. We are often considered the lowest rung of the totem pole, seen constantly scrounging for publications and relentlessly networking. But when someone outside of academia inquires about what I do and I say, “I’m a Ph.D. student,” I receive an, “Oh, wow!” I live for the “oh, wows.” They break the spell of imposter syndrome; the “oh, wows” make me proud of where I landed.

With the first semester of my Ph.D. program finished, I am pleased with what I achieved—and endured.

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