Five Lessons from My First Year of PhD-ing

Greetings, internet! It’s been an absurd amount of time since my last update, but my excuse is that I started a PhD program in History, and it has pretty much taken over my life. Over the semester, I put “write blog post” on my weekly calendar, and every week I’d look at my calendar and let out an Edna Krabappel-esque “ha!” Right, like I was going to take time to write something that wasn’t related to the pre-modern period.

But now, I have just two papers to go before I am officially done with year one of my program. That’s right, I’m still writing. I could write faster if I ditched my physical therapy, but that part of my life is non-negotiable. Also, I’ve been getting kind of vain about my arms, and if they shrink due to lack of exercise, I might cry.

Even though I have a couple of weeks of writing to go, I thought I was finally at the point where I could do something of a top five list of things I’ve learned about being a PhD student. I was going to do one of these over the winter break, but then realized I had another semester to go, and should probably give grad school a year before I come up with any generalizations. Maybe you’re considering applying to a PhD program (or are about to start one) and are wondering what the first year is like. Maybe you’re a PhD student and you won’t agree with any of this, or nod along and roll your eyes simultaneously. I’m planning to do a post in the future about Princeton, specifically, because I should probably write something disability-related about the campus, and how hilly it is. But for now, a list of the five main (non-academic) things I’ve learned over this past academic year:

  1. Everyone is brilliant, and everyone is behind on work.

My cohort of first-year history students is full of amazing people. Everyone I have met is studying something complex and interesting, and if we weren’t all perpetually buried under a pile of books and articles, I’m sure we’d learn what exactly everyone else studies. When I first got to my program, I thought I was some kind of mistake, because it took two tries to get into this program, whereas everyone else, I believe, had gotten in on their first try. I later found out that nearly everyone I spoke with in my cohort felt insecure or overwhelmed about something. So it turns out that we’re all fabulous people who don’t give ourselves enough credit. Super.

I wish I could talk to everyone regularly, but most of the time, I chat with other medievalists and the early modernists (the nickname “early mod squad” was uttered once, and I love it and shall continue to use it). They’re awesome. The women in my cohort remind me of my time at Murray Edwards College, when I lived with 39 badass women. If I had the time to bake (and an oven that I could actually use), I’d host tea and cookie events in my apartment.

That said, we’re all desperately behind on our work. And it’s not the “we watched cat videos for five hours and then watched Ali Wong’s special on Netflix” kind of procrastination that caused this. There’s just that much work. It’s entirely possible to do all of the reading for one class, but then you remember that you have two other classes with just as much reading. A class this past semester required that I come up with my own bibliography on a subject I was mildly familiar with, and then write a ten-page paper on a bi-weekly basis. It was madness. Another class had a weekly research scavenger hunt, in addition to readings. A third class required at least a book of reading a week (which is fine), but then the class itself turned into an “oh my goodness, why do all my students suck at Latin, I thought we screened them for this” type of pedagogical humiliation. It’s been rough, but it’s supposed to be rough. You figure out which readings can be skimmed or scanned, learn the importance of finding book reviews, and learn how to type ideas out quickly, delete them because they’re awful, and then type out slightly better ideas.

  1. You will be just as behind on work if you spend an hour watching YouTube videos, or force yourself to work when your brain doesn’t want to cooperate.

Turns out that when you throw yourself 100% into an assignment, you get about two hours tops before you start falling asleep at your desk (disclaimer: I don’t drink coffee), or at least typing nonsense. The cure is to do something else until your guilt catches up with you and you have to return to your assignment.

What something have I chosen to do? I fell deep down the rabbit hole of beauty YouTube videos/tutorials. I mean, I had watched YouTube videos and been interested in makeup for a couple of years now, but I maybe watched, like, five YouTubers. Now I watch about twenty, depending on who uploads when. I play videos while I cook dinner, eat a snack, or do my makeup in the morning. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve wanted to film a “Get Ready With Me” where I talk about stupid questions people have asked me on account of my wheelchair. I now collect my empty skincare and cosmetics products as if I am doing an “empties” video (odds are I’m going to recycle them at a place that recycles cosmetics products, because I’ve heard I’m not supposed to just throw them into a regular recycling bin). I bought a ridiculous amount of stuff from Sephora recently and contemplated doing a haul video, even though I do not have a YouTube channel. YouTube does things to you.

Then, spring came around and I purchased a subscription to Baseball is almost as stressful as a PhD program because I happen to be a Mets fan, but it’s a nice change from YouTube. I used to feel guilty about doing things other than schoolwork, but if I only do schoolwork, I turn into a hermit with poorly constructed ideas. Breaks are good.

  1. This program is not the bar exam.

I have to remind myself that my professors generally do not want me to fail, because failure reflects poorly on the program (also my higher ed program has taught me that retention is a thing that schools care about). Professors only want to stress me out, terrorize/terrify me a little, and teach me something. The teaching is in the terror. I do not believe that half the students in a PhD program fail out. It’s more likely that they found something else they’d rather be doing with their lives, and that’s cool. More often, students may freak out like Hermione Granger getting her O.W.L. results (that’s right, I’m throwing in a Harry Potter book reference), and they may convince you that they’re about to fail, but most of the time, they won’t.

There is, however, definitely an unspoken obligation to do more than the assigned work. Even though it’s the first year and I’m supposed to be focused on coursework, I went to a conference towards the end of classes in April to give a talk, and then two weeks later found myself on the road to Kalamazoo, Michigan to give another talk. No one asked me to give the talks, but I felt like I should do something. I’m glad I did, because it made up for some of the guilt I felt for watching a probably unhealthy amount of baseball.

  1. Whatever is left over from the stipend after rent and food is supposed to be stress-splurge money.

I am embarrassed to admit how much money I have spent at Sephora this year, and so I will not discuss the total amount. To be fair, some of my purchases were for holiday and birthday gifts. I’m unsure whether this is an indication of my stress level, or of my susceptibility to YouTube beauty influencers. Should I be saving my stipend? Probably, but look at how many shades of pink lipstick I have!

  1. This is a job.

There’s this pressure to love what you do, and it makes me question my dedication to the field when I’d rather watch the Stanley Cup Finals on television than read a survey about high medieval France. But then I’ll go to an exhibit at the Morgan Library and geek the hell out.

Morgan Library
Image Description: Woman in wheelchair smiling in front of giant medieval calendar scroll at the Morgan Library.

It’s not that I don’t love medieval history. It’s just that, at the end of the day, this is a job. It’s to be taken seriously, and it’s great if you get to study something interesting. But you’re free to love other things too (and quite frankly, it’s healthier that way, unless you love and are obsessed with medieval history, in which case, you do you, and feel free to obliterate your competition on the job market). And sure, I complain about my program lots, because it’s stressful and demanding, and I don’t want to suck at history. I still have no intention to leave.

All this is to say that PhD programs are chaos, and chaos is normal. The chaos will continue in the fall, and the summer will be spent on practicing Latin and German, while I keep up with physical therapy.

For those curious about physical therapy, this video is from February. PT is no joke. I’m planning to do a blog post in the future entitled “What I do in Physical Therapy” if there’s any demand for it. If yes, then leave a comment below. I’d really like to get more in depth about what it is I do to stay healthy, because I think that’s why I started this blog in the first place.

Thanks for reading!

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