Being a new PhD Student

I am lucky enough to have an amazing group of women who all support one another in this grad school endeavor. We’re all at various stages of our PhD programs; I met some of them in the first semester of my MA. We are able to provide feedback on everything from work in progress to love lives to impostor syndrome. It’s unlikely I would have survived graduate school in as complete a piece if I hadn’t been able to lean on these women (the toll of graduate school on a person’s mental health is another post entirely…). This is why whenever someone is beginning their path to graduate school, I recommend them to find some people there that they can bond with. The best survival tactic for graduate school is neither time management nor speed reading, but rather having a support system of graduate students. Specifically graduate students because no matter how well-intentioned other friends and family are, they can never quite understand what it’s like being in graduate school (unless they’ve been there themselves). But I digress.

The first semester of my PhD program was more difficult that I imagined it would be. Having had this support system, I watched one of my close friends go through their first year as a PhD student and the stresses it involved. But still, I had a hard time wrapping my head around how it was going to be that much different than being a MA student. Weren’t we all taking the same classes? Didn’t we all have the same work load? I knew that teaching would add another dimension, but I was already working in a job where I was in a classroom, talking with students and grading papers.

But the thing is, it really is quite different being a PhD student. As a MA student, you’re thinking about getting a teaching job at a community college or else applying to get into PhD programs. So, there are still stressors. Get a B+ instead of an A-? Tragedy. Your GPA is lowered and so you look slightly less attractive to PhD programs. Going to conferences as a MA is quite an accomplishment, at least getting into national or international conferences is. Though everything feels rather high-stakes, as a MA student, they’re not quite, not yet. There is still another step to take before the degree is terminal.

As a PhD student, however, everything, and I mean everything, feels like it is going to affect your hireability. Each seminar paper must be planned to either support your dissertation or be crafted to fit a conference you’re planning to attend. Crafting papers in such a way, however, makes them difficult to write. Ones feels as though they must speak expertly on a subject, or risk ridicule from others in their field. “How could you write about identity without having read Goffman?” or perhaps “How can you write about power without referencing Foucault?” These are the kinds of questions new graduate students fear receiving at conferences. This fear then leads to what I call the “research rabbit hole” where one article leads to at least three others that you must read in order to have a good grasp of the subject you’re writing about, until you’ve amassed so many articles your reading load on top of coursework becomes insurmountable. This is followed by the inevitable “I have ALL THE THINGS to do, so I’m going to marathon Gilmore Girls on Netflix” paradox.


Not to mention, you also want to say yes to all of the things. Because you need to beef up your CV if you every want to get hired in this job market. Yes, I want to help plan that conference. Yes, I want to be part of that committee. Yes, I want to apply to this conference, that conference, and the other conference. Yes, I will apply to all of the grants. Yes, I will be a reviewer for those applications.

Not to mention teaching. You want to create dynamic lessons for students to keep them interested, but you’re teaching a required course and most of them don’t even want to be there. You also don’t want to seem like a fool babbling in front of the classroom about things that aren’t going to matter to them in future semesters. How much time do you spend on class prep? Because you want to be a good teacher (most English teachers want to be the one teacher that changes your mind about writing! Also a lot of responsibility.), but first and foremost you’re a graduate student. How do you create that balance?

Each decision you make is going to contribute to whether you do, or don’t, get hired in 5 years. And that is an enormous amount of responsibility when you’re simply trying to select a topic for a seminar paper. Whether or not this is entirely true, I have yet to see (I’ve only completed one semester, after all). But it does weigh on you, and it weighs on your differently than the pressures of a MA. Is some of this stress self-created and self-perpetuated? Most assuredly, but I think that’s half of what fuels academia in general.

Anyway. I don’t have a good ending for this little diatribe. But if you ever wanted insight into the first semester of a PhD program, this is what it looks like.

Please add your experiences or commiserations in the comments below. I’m not the only crazy one, right?


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