PhD Update: Battle stations!!!
I had a different idea for a blog post today. And then a few things happened...
- I passed my PhD portfolio review.
- I neared the end of my reading list for my comprehensive exam (I'm down to my last 2 books from an original list of 60 sources).
- I sent the email to start the scheduling process for my comprehensive exam.
Sound the alert and man the battle stations! Things are getting real here.
So I thought it might be a good time to do a bit of an update on where things are at with my PhD work. Just as a reminder for you all, I'm in my 4th year (which is rapidly coming to a close) of my PhD in English, with an emphasis in Rhetoric, specifically fashion rhetoric. It's been a tough one and a half years since I finished my course work. I feel like I haven't progressed as fast as I would have liked. I got sidetracked too much by my teaching duties (which is a whole other blog post) as well as health problems (I got diagnosed with fibromyalgia! Yay! Not. But that's also another blog post). So my 3rd year was pretty stagnant as far as progress went. Which means my 4th year has been intense, to say the least.
But, in the past year and a half, I've:
- Compiled a list of approximately 60 academic sources (mix of books, book chapters, and journal articles) in the 3 fields of research that I will be using for my dissertation.
- Read all those books, as well as a few others that were on the list but then got cut off
- Revised a paper five billion times until it was finally ready to be submitted
- Had more panic attacks than I can count
- Finally submitted my official PhD portfolio (aka Part 1 of my PhD exams)
- Passed my portfolio review!
- Initiated the scheduling process for my comp exam
That list may not look long, but trust me, some of these items took a substantial amount of time and energy, so I'm exhausted. Mixed in with all that during the past year and a half I also:
- Taught 7 classes between my uni and a local community college
- Got diagnosed with fibromyalgia
- Wrote a book review for a major academic journal
- Had to switch health insurance plans, which meant switching doctors and mental health providers
- Co-wrote a chapter
- Saw a sharp spike in my anxiety/depression
- Started a YouTube channel
- Dealt with private crises
- Traveled to London
- Submitted a conference presentation for a conference in London...and got accepted
YouTube and London were great, the rest were time consuming and stressful. Even the academic successes like the writing projects and the conference acceptance had their ups and downs. But when you're a PhD student you're literally living a double life.
On the one hand I'm already a teacher and scholar. I'm expected to teach my classes, work on research projects, submit for conferences and publications, and do all kinds of amazing things to put on my CV so that I can get a great job when I graduate. Those things are all a full time job.
But on the other hand I'm also a PhD student, with exams to prepare for, a prospectus to write, and then the dissertation. Even when you finish your coursework requirements, that time each week that was spent on coursework is now spent on reading for your comp exam, revising your portfolio papers, and preparing to write your dissertation. That's also a full time job.
Yet, despite working basically two full time jobs, and rarely taking a break or a holiday (even in London, I had work I did in the hotel at night), we still earn only a minor stipend that most of us then supplement with student loans. But that's also yet another blog post.
So yeah, I've been overworked, underpaid, and absolutely exhausted in every possible way. But that's taught me a few things:
I am definitely stronger than I think I am.
There's been a lot that I've had to deal with over the last year or so. I felt like I hit my breaking point at least a half a dozen times. But I didn't break. I may have bent a little at times. Or got knocked flat, once or twice (getting sick sucks). But I didn't break. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back to work. I learned the importance of giving myself time to recover. When I caught a bad cold just before Thanksgiving last year, I literally put myself to bed for a week. I watched Netflix. I slept. I ate. I slept some more. I cancelled appointments and I didn't do any work. I recovered faster than I usually do, and was able to get back to work. I didn't beat myself up for not doing any comp exam reading or portfolio paper revising, I just focused on getting better. It worked.
When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia I set to work researching ways to manage it that felt right for me and I slowly started learning how to bend with the fibro without letting that break me. Being "strong" isn't just about physical strength. It's about mental and emotional strength. It's also about flexibility and being able to adapt to new situations. I didn't get upset or convince myself that my life was "different" because of the fibro. It wasn't different. I had been living with all those symptoms for years. I just finally had a name for it. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back to work. I didn't break.
I have struggled with this for years. It goes back to my first MA program (which is another blog post too lol, I have a lot of blog posts to write). I've never been a confident academic. Even with two MA degrees and two years of PhD level coursework I still feel like I'm not as smart as others in my program sometimes. But that's started to change over the last year as I've been working through the portfolio and comp exam readings. Ok, I can't quote Aristotle despite being a rhetorician. Sue me. I don't study the classics. I'm a contemporary/alternative rhetorician. I talk about fashion and identity. That's my thing.
I have a specialized research focus and I know it really well. Sure, I'm nervous as hell about my comp exam, because I've always had test anxiety, but I've read 60+ sources related to my research. I've been living, breathing, and sleeping this material for a years now. I know how my scholars talk to each other and about each other, how they agree and disagree with each other. I was absolutely terrified to submit my portfolio. But the feedback I got from my committee was incredible. And that feedback is in black and white and shared with directors and managers in my program. My committee has publicly validated my work and my intelligence and declared that my work is sound. Do I need that validation? No, I know I'm good enough. But it sure felt great. After the experiences of my first MA degree reading that review report felt like the doors to the attic had been thrown open and the ghosts were starting to be expelled. That attic isn't completely cleared of old ghosts. But it's getting there.
Sometimes life twists and turns. That's when I adjust my invisible crown and get stuff done.
I didn't expect to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I also didn't expect for someone I am close to to get hit with a health crisis of their own. And there were some unexpected twists with my PhD work as well that I wish hadn't happened. Oh well. That's life. It's unpredictable. And it's unfair sometimes. But if you sit and complain about that, you're only wasting precious energy. Life doesn't wait for us to be ready. Enjoy the good moments and persevere through the hard moments. Adjust that invisible crown you're wearing and get to work.
"Worry is a misuse of your imagination"
On my last day in London I wandered into a Cards Galore shop in Paddington Station. I found a small rack of motivational postcards and one of them said, "Worry is a misuse of your imagination." I've always been proud of my wild imagination. I think it's one of my strengths. It's helped me in a number of different ways. But it has also been my worst enemy at times. You see, a wild imagination can be a double edged sword. It can help me think outside the box and visualize amazing things happening to me. But it can also help me think of the worst outcome possible. I'm pretty great at doing the whole "worst case scenario" day dreaming. The two weeks I was waiting for my portfolio results could have been absolutely miserable. But I have this postcard framed and hanging by my bedroom door. I can see it from my bed and I see it when I leave my room each morning. So I purposely spent those two weeks imagining things working out. I try to imagine the positive these days. Worry is not only a misuse of our imagination, it's also a waste of it.
"It will be ok in the end. If it's not ok, it's not the end."
A couple summers ago I was living in Oxford for the summer and I was dealing with some health issues and other difficulties. That's a separate story, but definitely another example of how I am stronger than I think I am. But during that summer I happened to watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Dev Patel's character kept saying, "It will be ok in the end. If it's not ok, it's not the end." This idea not only got me through that summer, but it's helped me in the two years since. It helps me to remember that I'm simply going through a moment in time. And this moment, even if it's a really hard one, is not the totality of my life. It will pass. I won't be stuck in the hard times forever. So I try not to dwell on the times when it's no ok. Because I know it's not the end of my story. I got through my portfolio review. I'll get through my comp exam. I'm sure that writing my dissertation will have it's ups and downs, and I'll get through those too. Because things really are ok in the end, you just have to stick with it and believe that if things aren't ok, it's because it's not the end yet.
I think the biggest lessons that graduate students learn are the ones learned outside the classroom...
They're the lessons we learn about ourselves. About how strong and smart and capable we are. On one of the first days of my second MA, and my first time back in a graduate school classroom after my first MA experience, my professor (who is now also my PhD advisor/chair) told my Research Methods class that "high school is where you think you know everything, college is where you start to realize you don't know everything, and grad school is where you realize you know nothing at all." At the time I thought she was talking about school knowledge, but now I think she was including knowledge about ourselves. In high school we think we know exactly who we are and what we want. In college we have so many new experiences that that certainty in ourselves gets tested and our minds start to change about a lot of things. For those of us who go to grad school, we soon go through feeling like we don't know who we are at all. We doubt everything about ourselves. I struggled with this throughout both MA degrees. And it's taken me 4 years in my program to start to figure myself out and learn what I'm really capable of. I'm not all the way there yet, in a lot of ways I still feel like I'm in that darkest dark before the dawn and I've been stumbling in the dark for awhile. But these last few months especially have taught me that sometimes we have to stop stumbling blindly. We have to slow down. Stop. Breathe. Become aware of our surroundings. Let our eyes adjust to the darkness. And then, slowly, start taking cautious but steady steps in the direction we know we need to go. We have to trust that we really do know what we're doing.
Let go of the fear and be open to our inner strength.
The dawn will come.