15 Real Facts About Being A PhD Student
I recently did a series of videos on my YouTube channel related to Back to School time. Some people are only a week or so into the fall term, others (like me) are nearly a month in. In some of those videos I gave advice to grad students that might help adjusting to life as a grad student, whether you're doing an MA, an MFA, or a PhD.
One thing I've learned as a 4th year PhD student (and throughout 2 MA degrees) is that grad school is NOT what you think it will be and it's definitely not what your family and friends think it is. The following are 15 "real facts" about being a PhD student. A lot of these will apply to MA and MFA students as well. Also, I'm an English major, in a Liberal Arts and Sciences College. Graduate work in the hard sciences, arts, or other programs might be a little different, but for the most part I think we all can relate to these facts.
1. There's no such thing as a vacation or "break"
During high school and your undergrad you eagerly count down to winter break, spring break, summer vacation, as well as all the other holidays and days off in between. School breaks used to be exciting and fun! Now they're just more work time. During a "break" the only thing that's different is I get a break from teaching, as all my students are enjoying their time off, and it gives me more time to work on my own projects and research and try to get caught up. But there is always something to do. Research, reading, writing, proposals, class prep, meetings, etc. It never ends and the work is never "done". I find that my "vacation" plans involve seeing how many pages I can get written or how many projects I can get progressed to the next stage. Though I do still let myself sleep in at least a couple times. :)
It's like things get more complicated as you go along! Finding sources, reading through endless journal articles and books, writing draft after draft...it could go on forever if you let it. If it weren't for deadlines I probably would take forever for a lot of these. Oh, and let's not forget grading! If you're a TA as well as a grad student the grading is endless. You try to say you'll only spend 5-10 minutes on a paper but inevitably you start spending more time, especially if the student didn't do very well (poorly done papers always take longer to grade). Learning to balance this is very difficult but has to be done if you're going to survive your degree. I'm a big fan of setting timers for things like grading (set for 1 hour and and grade as many papers as possible) or deadlines (by X date I can no longer look for research sources at the library, I have to use what I've got already). If you don't set deadlines and timers you can end up wasting a lot of time falling down rabbit holes or giving copious feedback notes to a student who's never going to read them anyway. I've got more advice on grading, that will have to be a separate post.
3. You are always running behind even though you're not procrastinating
I've had people assume, or just say to my face, that if I just need to manage my time more effectively and I won't constantly be running behind or racing a deadline. I kind of want to tell them to go sit in a corner and think about what they're saying. Yes, talk to any grad student in your life and they are probably behind on something. Papers to grade, books to read, papers to write, notes to organize. Not to mention laundry, dishes, and cleaning the toilet. There's always something that we're not doing. But that doesn't mean we're procrastinating. Even when it looks like we are. If you were to randomly knock on my door, you might find me doing work, or you might find me watching Netflix. Even as I write this I have a list a mile long of things I should be doing instead of writing a blog post or filming a video for my YouTube channel. But does being a PhD student mean I have to give up having any time for myself at all? No. It doesn't. So yeah, we might take a night to binge watch a new series on Netflix or we might enjoy playing video games or watching YouTube (and when you're a rhetoric student like me, you sometimes get to consider these hobbies research lol). We can't be "go! go! go!" 24/7. We have to give ourselves some down time and permission to take a break. Yes, that does mean that we will likely being working on a paper the day before a deadline or have to give our students an extension on a due date because we haven't given them draft feedback, but you adjust and you prioritize and you learn that your mental health deserves to be high on the list of priorities. So pass the popcorn and turn on Netflix please.
4. Emails...the never ending story
Seriously. They never end. Especially (I'm learning) when you teach online. Email is the primary way my students can reach me. But between students, colleagues, and countless department emails from the two campuses that I teach at the emails can get a little crazy. I can't remember the last time my inbox was empty. I wish I had advice for this but I don't. If anyone has great email management tips or tricks leave them below in the comments. But otherwise, if you're a PhD student...prepare for the emails.
5. It's impossible to explain what you do to people outside of the university/academic culture
I really enjoy this. *insert eyeroll* Going to social events like weddings or friends' birthday parties where you will meet people who aren't part of academia and you face having to explain to them what you do. For some reason rather than inquiring about hobbies or favorite films we just love asking strangers, "what do you do?" There is no simple answer to this. If I just say, "I'm a PhD student" that opens up the conversation to a lot of assumptions and stereotypes. Most people don't have a clue what higher education is like. Some people look amazed and think I must be really smart and cool. Others immediately tell me how much they hated college and they can't imagine why I would subject myself to that. My favorite (that's sarcasm) reply is, "oooh, what do you want to do when you graduate." The implication and misunderstanding here is that my career is something seen to be on hold and won't start until I get my degree. Make no mistake, grad students, especially at the PhD level, ARE professionals already. I have two Masters degrees. I'm already highly qualified for a number of jobs. But the jobs I really want all require a PhD (or some other terminal degree. My career has already started and when I graduate I will be judged for a job based on work that I am doing now. A graduate degree is not like an undergraduate degree. But unless you do a graduate degree you really don't understand that difference. But we're just making small talk at a party and "I want to be a professor" is the only answer most people are going to understand, so please don't make me get into the details of my research. Because even people in my own program don't always understand that. Which leads me to...
6. Sometimes it's even impossible to explain to people in your program what you do
Broadly I study rhetoric, more specifically alternative/contemporary, visual, and women's/feminist rhetorics. Yes, those are all separate forms of rhetoric. More specifically still (and here's where I really lose people) I study fashion rhetoric. To be an English major who studies fashion is a bit of a mind bender for a lot of people. I've long ago gotten used to incredulous and skeptical looks from people, even other academics, when I try to explain my research. The funny thing is, if I explain my research to anyone in the fashion/retail industry, they completely get it. I also study rhetoric of costume design. That also gets weird looks from academics but if I explain it to costume designers or actors they understand it immediately and can have brilliant conversations. But usually it's colleagues that I'm explaining my work to, new grad students, people I meet at conferences, etc. I know I'm not the only one with this struggle. I would imagine people in the hard sciences also struggle to explain their research. Especially when you're working on projects that are more "out there". I'm lucky that my program values unique research and I've been strongly encouraged in the directions I've gone in and thankfully my immediate advisors understand my work. But there's still a lot of people who don't, or (even worse) make typical assumptions that because I study fashion it's "not important". I'm doing pretty well for myself with my research so I feel like I'll have the last laugh but it's still annoying.
7. We don't spend all our time in the library
I wish we did. I feel like when people think of grad school they imagine us sitting around in the library just being really smart. If only. I can't remember the last time I got to go to the library. I need to get a bunch of books for my comp exam prep but I'm probably going to end up requesting to have them sent to the info desk and just pick them up there. Plus, if you're like me and research more contemporary subjects, a lot of your research is online in the various databases your university subscribes to. Books take so long to get published so sometimes the most current research is in an academic journal and is available online. Since we're so busy and racing a million deadlines, spending time at the library is sadly a luxury most of us don't have. Unless you study rare manuscripts, then you probably do practically live at the library. And I'm jealous.
8. "You must love reading"
This is usually accompanied by a laugh from whoever is saying. Oooh, clever you! You're so funny! And I haven't heard that a
9. You feel guilty for complaining about school, because you know how lucky you are.
One of the struggles I have as a PhD student is not complaining too much. It's easy to get caught up in the workload and the stress. Grad school is a 60+ hour a week job, it's not a 9-5, not even an 8-6 job. I don't get to come home from work and turn off. I'm always on. And I know I'm not the only PhD student who's like that. I have some colleagues that make me feel like a downright slacker! So yeah, it's tough and it's grueling. But it's also a huge privilege. And I'm not even talking about financial privilege, though that's definitely a big issue, there are lots of people who are more than smart enough but can't afford it. But even as someone fortunate enough to be in a financial position to do grad school, you're just plain lucky to get accepted. I attend a major research one, top tier university. It's huge. And my program is one of the top of its kind in the US. I don't know the specific numbers but from what has been hinted to me we get a pretty significant number of applicants to the PhD program. In my year there were only about 6 of us who were specifically rhetoric and composition focused, including me! 6 people out of what was certainly a large pool of applicants. I got rejected from 6 schools. It's incredibly competitive. And nearly everyone who applies is more than "good enough", there are so many factors that go into these decisions. Getting in is a huge deal. I was waitlisted for funding, and I know that the reason I'm here is because someone else turned down their offer. I could get insecure about that but I know that there are so many strong applicants each year and only a very limited number of slots available. So we may complain but we know how lucky we are and wouldn't trade it for anything. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think it was worth it.
10. You're nearly buried under the mountain of pressure you feel and that your program puts on you
Pressure in grad school comes from two places, your program and your mind. Your fighting a battle on two fronts. There are definitely pressures built into any graduate program. There are numerous degree requirements, department and college hoops to jump through, pressures of coursework and teaching and those pressures are definitely real. But there are also so many pressures that we create in our own minds. We tend to grab on to any pressure in the program and then magnify it times ten. It's not just molehills into mountains, it's mountains into Mt. Everest! As a PhD student you have to learn how to deal with those pressures and break things down into manageable pieces. It'd be very easy to let this pressure break you. But you have to realize that your program puts those requirements in place for a reason and it's to help break the program down into smaller steps. And the hoops...well, life is just a series of hoops you learn to jump through. I always joke that I minored in hoop jumping. Big hoops, little hoops, flaming hoops. I'm a pro. I don't enjoy it but I'm good at it.
And the pressures of coursework and teaching that we agonize over? It takes time but you learn to stop agonizing. This week I got behind on responding to student drafts. So I extended their deadline. Believe me, my students don't care. Have to cancel a class because you're sick? Your students will be delighted. Can only manage 80% of your best effort on a paper? You'll survive and likely still get an A in the class, because let's face it. At this stage we're all Type A perfectionists and what we think of as an 80% effort is still above and beyond what some of our professors expect. I've been beating myself up thinking I'm behind on reaching ABD status. I finally met and caught up with my advisor and told her how I was feeling and she looked horrified and assured me I'm right on track. (I will do another blog post on how to choose an amazing advisor lol). We think we're floundering and failing but we're actually succeeding. It's important to keep that perspective.
11. You have to learn how to embrace change and uncertainty
This is a tough one but so important. I've always hated change, I blame growing up in the Army and moving every couple of years lol. But as an adult I've learned to embrace change and uncertainty. Starting to travel again has helped with this. When I travel I'm happy to bury my map in the bottom of my bag and just go get lost in whatever city I'm exploring. I get excited to just explore new things and see what I discover. Grad school is similar. Even if you're like me and you come in to a program pretty much knowing what your dissertation project is you're still building yourself as a scholar and the small ideas and projects you work on in your coursework will become your first journal article or book chapter publications, your conference papers, your portfolio papers for your program (if they require that). It's important to be open to exploring new things. Don't be afraid to go in a different direction or develop a new research interest. If I had stayed locked in to my fashion and costume design research I don't think I would have ever discovered YouTube, I definitely would have never started my own channel. Don't be afraid to fall down a rabbit hole, you might find Wonderland. The best research breakthroughs often come out of moments of fear and uncertainty, so stand your ground and face down that fear, don't run and hide from it.
12. Competition is a fact of life, but one you can choose to avoid
I've learned there are two types of grad students. The ones who are confident and secure in their ideas and abilities and want to be part of a supportive academic community. And the ones who are insecure and competitive acting as if everyone is out to get them and steal their ideas, that the only way to demonstrate their own intelligence is to put others down. It's up to you to choose which kind you want to be.
This choice was easy for me, I'm not competitive by nature, if being better means that much to you I'll let you think you're better. I don't need to define myself based on how I compare to others. Also, I'm the only fashion scholar in my department. And that's how I think of myself. I'm a fashion scholar. Rhetoric is the perspective that I analyze fashion from, but fashion is where I ground myself. Which lets me set myself apart a little from others in my program. It's hard to compete when you're the only one doing your kind of research. I know things will get more competitive when I graduate but I'm enjoying having this time to develop my ideas and my identity as a scholar. When I look outside of my program at the work being done by fashion scholars I'm still the only one doing the type of work I'm doing. I found my niche and it feels good.
13. You have to develop a thick skin
Rejection is an inherent part of grad school. I find it amusing that I left acting because I didn't want to deal with rejection only to end up in academia. Only this time, instead of being rejected for superficial things like not being pretty enough or not being thin enough I get rejected for more devastating things like my ideas not being strong enough or my writing not being developed enough. I have 6 rejection letters from the PhD programs I didn't get into. Each one at the time felt like a knife stabbing me. But I got through it. I had an outright panic attack in my office at school when I got back the feedback on my first draft for my first publication. "This paper has potential..." O.M.G. Can the ground just open up and swallow me? It wasn't even a rejection, just a revise and resubmit, I was still a part of the project. But it was devastating at the time. Looking back, my editor's feedback was a gift and a sign that she truly believed in my work. I've been relatively lucky, the few things I've submitted to I've been successful with. But I have colleagues who've gotten some pretty nasty comments on their work. You really have to learn how to separate the helpful feedback from the destructive comments and rejection. Most of the time when you're rejected from something (a graduate program, a conference, and edited collection, a journal article) it's not because you're work isn't good enough it's because there were a lot of equally good applicants but only a limited amount of space. This is especially true of conferences and collections. Conference organizers and editors are thinking of the overall end product and making the best choices about how to fill all those spots. Sometimes it's as simple as someone else is just a better fit than you but it doesn't make you or your work any less valid or important.
14. Accept that you will be broke or that you will have a mountain of debt...or both.
When you go through a PhD program you basically have three options: 1) find some way of living off of the small stipend and/or financial assistance your program offers you and be broke throughout your studies, 2) take out student loans to maintain a somewhat normal standard of living but graduate with significant student loan debt, or 3) some combination of 1 and 2.
I was in my early 30s when I got accepted and really had no interest in having roommates (long story, but I've had bad experience with this lol) so I knew I was going to live by myself. I also was, until very recently, paying for my own health insurance instead of using the school insurance (another long story, but I'm on campus insurance now as my other insurance got too expensive). Plus my car got totaled at the start of my second year and I had to buy a new one. So, yeah, I've learned that student loans are kind of a necessary evil. It helps in the short term but I do worry about paying it all off. For the most part that fear is, not completely irrational, but definitely self-constructed. No one who's graduated from my program has just not gotten any job at all. So worrying that I'm going to end up working a minimum wage job is probably not that realistic. But if you have anxiety about money grad school will definitely magnify that. There's just no way around it. This is why researching your prospective program, the kind of financial assistance they offer, what additional elements are included in the acceptance package (like a tuition waiver, health insurance, etc.), cost of living in the town you'd be living in, different types of loans or grants you could qualify for, as well as what jobs people tend to get and the incomes they earn after graduation are all important before making the decision to go to grad school.
15. You have to love, really love, what you do.
Ultimately doing a PhD is an up and down process filled with just as many highs as there are lows (which is basically life in general). Grad school, either a Masters or a PhD is not something to enter into lightly. You need to be as sure as possible that it's what you want and need to do. I always tell people that if there is any other way to get the career you want, do that instead. If you do a PhD you should find the right program that will allow you to do the research you want and will prepare you for the career you want. If you make the right decision with your PhD it will be worth it, even when you have a rough day. My worst day as a PhD student is still better than some of the average days I had in other jobs. It's hard and grueling sometimes but I've had some amazing experiences that I wouldn't have had otherwise. Studying abroad in Oxford, presenting at a major international conference and meeting some of my academic role models, researching and writing about Bond Girls, YouTube, and fashion icons, these are things that I wouldn't have been able to do in any other job. I love my research, I love studying and writing (even when I hate it lol). Overall, as difficult as the hard times can be, they're worth it. My first year was rough, and I think some people get freaked out by how hard the first year is, but when you get past the first year and advance through coursework and get more involved in academia the more fun you can have if you let yourself.
My number one tip when you start a PhD...think if it as a job. You're not a student anymore even though people will use that word. You are a junior/apprentice scholar. The more you think of yourself as just a student the more difficulty you'll have adjusting to your new life as an academic. You're in the big leagues now. Hiding behind "student" status doesn't help you and will prevent you from enjoying everything a PhD program has to offer. It's not the last stage of your student journey, it's the beginning of the rest of your academic life.