10 Personal reflections of a first year PhD student
After finishing the first year of my PhD program, I spent all summer trying to reflect on what the heck just happened. I was exhausted, depleted, and thought I would bounce back to being myself after a 2-week break. When I couldn’t pinpoint these reflections in the first month, I was frustrated. When I couldn’t figure it out the week before I was heading into my 2nd year, I was even more infuriated! Until it hit me – I wasn’t able to reflect on these learnings until I actually saw the changes in myself during the first week of my 2nd year. And as soon as I started to discuss this with the incoming PhD students, I was able to articulate these reflections and learnings more clearly.
So now I would like to share with you 10 personal reflections from my 1st year as a PhD student:
1. You will change – but for the better
I still don’t know how to explain this one in depth (because I am also still experiencing it) but it is one of my biggest ah-ha moments. During the year, I took in so much knowledge through text, observation, and action. I am getting even more clear on the person I want to be, not only in academia, but also as I go about my daily life in the world. It is also showing me the people who I want to have around in my life. I am changing. My relationships are changing. But I think it’s for the better.
2. Imposter Syndrome – it’s real, but you are not alone
With an abundance of knowledge thrown at me from professors and other students, I found myself thinking: I don’t know that author, I should have read that article, I wonder when they will find out they accepted the wrong person. Until a guest speaker came in and said, “You are simply becoming more aware of what you don’t know.”
Not a lot of people even get to the point of learning this information – so kudos to me for taking a stab at it. And secondly, that is what I am here to do – learn. Not to know everything right now. So I learned to be okay with being a student again and to learn, not to be an expert.
Oh! And most importantly – I found out that every other PhD student is feeling the exact same way.
3. You will be pushed – be brave and get uncomfortable
Grad school is difficult. There have been challenging materials and opportunities that pushed me out of my comfort zone. But I embraced those opportunities, I didn’t run from them. Some went well, others didn’t. I was uncomfortable and I was brave. I let myself approach these opportunities as a learner and as an observer… and wow did I ever learn.
4. Build a relationship with your supervisor and other faculty members – get involved
Building a relationship with my supervisor and other faculty members is probably one of my most favourite memories in my 1st year. This takes time, should not be rushed, and required me to be my true authentic self. But if they asked me to be a part of something, no matter how small or big, I got involved and all I had to do was just be myself.
5. No matter how busy you are, sleep – it will help
Grad school is busy. I felt as though I needed to wake up early and go to sleep later just in order to get things done. But in fact, most of the time, if I slept when I needed the rest or went for a walk when I needed to clear my mind, I was much more effective. I know this may sound simple but please remember to sleep – you need it.
6. Guilt – let it go
If by chance I did get a break, whether it was an hour before bed or a few hours on a weekend or an entire weekend off to celebrate a friend’s wedding, I felt guilty for not working. There is always something you can be reading or working on. But these breaks are important too. I am still trying to work on letting go of this guilt, but it’s important.
7. Anxiety and excitement can feel very similar
I have mentioned my anxiety a few times now on Scholar Culture. I mostly see it as a weakness and something I am trying to get rid of – which I know is not healthy and I am still trying to shift this mindset. But it is so interesting how I could feel so anxious and yet so excited at the same time. There is a quote by Danielle LaPorte that I love and sums this up well, it goes something like this: “You can be really really terrified and really ready at the same time.” Even though I was anxious, it didn’t negate the fact that I am not exactly where I want to be.
8. Build a relationship with your colleagues
Building a relationship with my colleagues is similarly one of my favourite memories of my 1st year. Not only are my colleagues just the best but they are the only ones who truly know what I am going through. Having them as a sounding board, to bounce ideas off of, to listen, and to hold each other accountable has been a saving grace.
9. Don’t sweat the small stuff – sweat at the gym
If I had an opportunity to exercise, I took it. This may be going to the gym, a walk, yoga, or a spin class. Whatever made me feel good and got my endorphins up, I did it. I wasn’t able to do it all the time but when I did, I never regretted it.
10. Reflecting is important, so is being creative
Lastly, reflect. I always took the time to meditate and reflect on what I was learning. Even if it was for only 30 minutes after a class, I took that time to remember the main ideas. I also reflected on what I was experiencing, emotionally. This has helped me now, in order to look back on my 1st year with joy and encouragement. It is also slowly building confidence in my abilities, and I am learning to trust myself.
And on a similar note – create. Sometimes I was bored of reading and writing all the time. Allowing myself to create opened me up to looking at things in different ways. As Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
Now, I’m curious to hear what your reflections were from your 1st year? Were there any similar to mine? Comment below! I would love to hear them.
Christine Streeter (@ScholarCulture) is a second-year PhD Student in the School of Social Work at Carleton University. This story was published on September 27, 2018, on Christine’s blog, Scholar Culture (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.
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