There are a ton of things in my life that I wouldn’t mind redoing or revisiting, but then again, I’m not completely positive that I would’ve had as much appreciation for my journey as I do now. My PhD experience for the most part was relatively “good”, but when it got hard, it was tough. In an effort to help you avoid some of the things I did or rather did not do, here are 7 things I wish I knew before starting my PhD. *Deep Sigh*
Networking, Networking, and MORE Networking
If you’re like me, a traditional introvert with extroverted tendencies, then, you can only be in large crowds for so long or even the mandatory small-talk that occasionally needs to happen can be extremely challenging. We’ve all heard how important networking is in your career, no matter what the field may be, however, in grad school this cannot be stressed enough. I’m naturally a pleasant and friendly person, so talking to people is not the issue, rather it’s the feeling like you are being a bother, a nuisance, and “begging” someone for something. I’m here to say, get over that, and get over that quickly.
Networking can literally make or break your career. Maybe not break it, but it can definitely slow down your professional mobility, and as a black woman it is doubly important. The thing about networking is, it’s not about what someone can do for you, but more about building relationships that can possibly go beyond just simple career talk, but true and honest connections. It’s also about learning from another person and filling gaps within your skillset that can be of importance both personally and professionally. That does not mean you will be besties with every person you meet (sometimes this happens), it means that you are expanding your network and growing your community. The reality is this, your end goal is to get a job, and to do that you need to be as well equipped as you possibly can, and that also means being able to reach out to people who may be able to help get you there. People need to and deserve to see your face, it’s the easiest way to remember anyone, even if you can’t remember their name. So show up, be present and get to it!
Pro Tip: Search local events around your interests both academically and leisurely and use apps like Eventbrite that help locate events, workshops, book-talks, happy hours etc., in your area. Print out business cards with all your social handles (they are still important in this digital age) and a few research interests. Then go mingle and challenge yourself to meet 2-3 new people.
Your health and wellness can and WILL decline
We are in a time now, where it seems that there is more health consciousness, especially as it relates to mental health. This is a very good thing. However, no one could’ve told me that my mental, emotional and physical health would take a turn for the worse. The doctoral process is already an unnatural process. The long hours of reading, studying, writing, teaching, field-work, clinic-hours, conferences, lab work, isolation, pressure of worrying about job placement post-graduation, getting into candidacy, immigration challenges, writing your dissertation, and FUNDING are no joke. Keep in mind; I haven’t even mentioned the challenge of maintaining your familial and personal relationships, let alone everyday life happenings and goings-on. With that said, there is a strong likelihood that at some level your wellness can take a hit. I’ve heard serious stories of grad students having life altering health issues while going through the academic motions. Not that the PhD causes these health issues directly, but it certainly exacerbates them.
Pro Tip: Make it a point to do the things and hobbies you love on a weekly basis. Just like you schedule your writing and classes, schedule hobbies, workouts, eat right, get checkups and stay on top of your health regularly EARLY on in your program
Your relationships may change
Grad school can really be an exciting time. You are exposed to new ideas, concepts, thoughts, people and experiences that will hopefully change and expand your worldview. With this new found YOU, almost comparable to an awakening of sorts, coupled with the demands and pressures of successfully matriculating with all your personal faculties still intact, your relationships will most definitely change. Some of them for the better and some of them may just completely vanish altogether. Many if not most people do not understand the grad school and particularly the doctoral experience and because of that, it can create tension within relationships that were once close.
As a first generation African immigrant woman and girl-child, expectations, responsibilities, and cultural obligations are always high. This can lead to big problems in the family when you no longer have the time to cater to every single request made by your parents, siblings, aunties, uncles, nieces and nephews. This makes for very unpleasant family gatherings, or if you’re like me, there were holiday seasons that all people got were text messages wishing them “Happy Holidays Love, Enjoy” and trust me you will have to draw boundaries, (and trust me they deserved it.)
How about friendships and coupleships you ask? Well, I can almost guarantee you that you may lose a couple of friends or the dynamics will drastically shift. I remember my therapist telling me this, and I fought her tooth and nail. Granted, I am not an angel or a saint, I have my stubborn-ish ways, but at the time I was not feeling understood by many of my friends. Ideologically I had evolved in different ways that I do not regret one bit, but it made my friendships increasingly uncomfortable for those friends and me. My therapist said that it would be unsustainable in the long-run because I would often find myself compromising my belief and value systems and it was imperative that I was able to be my full and authentic self with people. Not to mention the lack of personal time I had to pour into these relationships that I no longer had. This can also be true of coupleships and within marriages.I’ve seen those get sour too.
Pro Tip: It’s important to find community, so find it in people who pour into you and you can do the same for them. Stay away from “judgey” people. Real relationships will last, but they also ebb and flow. The ones that don’t, try not to take it personally, it is NOT a judgment on your worth as a person. Also, communicate with your partner, be patient with them and ask as well as demand they be patient with you.
It’s Just a Title and You are Worthy of it
There are several perks of having a PhD. Access and visibility are the main ones. The PhD should ultimately be used for the service and advancement of humanity, so they say. However, getting a terminal degree from the long-loathed Ivory Tower can inflate one’s ego and their value becomes dependent on getting those three letters behind their name. There is a serious level of social and class stratification that is involved both in and outside of academia. We have all met PhDs with stank attitudes and they are virtually everywhere. Having received a PhD in African Studies, I am often in white spaces and my expertise and worth becomes questioned. These spaces can be intimidating, belittling and are often exhausting. I am here to tell you. YOU. ARE. WORTHY.
You are worthy of every good and amazing thing that comes during the process and every good and amazing thing that follows after you graduate. Getting a PhD can be a daunting task, but it is worth it in the long run, if not for the experience, network and career opportunities, but for the acquired knowledge of self. It is simply just a title. Don’t get me wrong, for black women it is vitally important we continue to peruse higher education and doctoral degrees. If not for us, for the culture, literally. However, It does not mean you are better than anyone else and it surely does not mean you are LESS than anyone else either. Your intelligence, abilities, and worth are not calculated by the degree, whatsoever.
Pro Tip: Do not get affected by not so nice people, it says more about them than you. Stay the course and detach as much as possible from academe and do regular-degular things, in regular degular spaces.
Get Experience & Publish BEFORE Graduation
If the ultimate end game of pursuing your PhD is securing gainful employment, then you also need to secure experience and dread I say, PUBLISH before you bedazzle your regalia (That’s a thing or should be a thing, *shrug*). Within my department there wasn’t heavy emphasis placed on post-graduation employment or even on the importance of publications and come to find out, this is true of many departments and institutions “high” and “low”. It didn’t hit me until I was nearing the final lap and finishing up those endless drafts of my dissertation. With that being said, you have to be willing to do internships, fellowships, and entry-level jobs RELEVANT to your interests and field earlier on in your program, if you are not already working as yet. Do not rely on the degree to open doors for you, because more often than not, it won’t. These positions and professional experience will speak volumes when it comes time to apply for jobs.
Make it a point to inquire about research assistant opportunities within your department and outside of your department as well. Seriously scour the interwebs for Open and Call for Papers for manuscripts and other similar opportunities. The easiest way to publish truly is to co-author with a couple or a few of your cohort or colleagues and submit a joint research article to an academic journal. Another way is to use research papers and assignments from your classes and also as you begin to write your dissertation, start thinking about publishing the chapters. Keeping in mind that research articles for academic journals follow their own formula and structure and this varies from journal to journal.
As a black woman, I know we get tired of hearing the adage, “You have to work 3x as hard, as everyone else,” but it is true. It is gospel. Until YOU and WE get into decision making positions that actually yield power, you will have to bust-yo-bum to get a seat at the table (or create your own *ding ding ding*). The process is long and tedious and surely there are structural barriers and biases that exist, but that shouldn’t discourage you, because remember YOU ARE WORTHY and YOU BELONG.
Pro Tip: Identify academic journals you are interested in within the first couple of years of your program. Clock em’. Clock em’ hard. Study how some of your favorite researchers and academicians write their work. Learn flow, structure and other technical aspects that make their work shine.
The job market for PhDs is BAD
So.This is where my head starts to hurt and I sip my red vino and just stare. Alright so boom, the job market is bad, like really bad and the PhD job market is no exception. After putting in all this work, 4, 5, 6, and 7 years of classes, research, and writing, and its now 4 years after you graduated and you are still unemployed, something is wrong, right? Simply, there are not enough academic jobs to go around and if you are in an area of specialty like my own, then you will find an even harder time getting a job. The reality is many departments and institutions have done a relatively poor job in preparing PhDs for the job market, let alone non-academic/industry jobs.
I remember applying to Sephora and I was excited because I love beauty and makeup and I really needed extra coinage. It was going to be a win, win. On the application I said I’m AVAILABLE ALWAYS, as in, EVERYDAY, EVERY HOUR. They sent my rejection email and said my time and availability did not match their current demands. Mind you, I removed all my degrees and just put my retail experience, which was quite a bit. I cringingly laughed and sipped my red vino.
Pro Tip: Don’t be scared to ask for help from trusted family and friends, if you don’t get a job right away. People are more kind and generous than you think. Remember to tell people you know, that you are on the job-hunt because you never know who they may know.
Academia is not the final destination
Finally dear friends, academia is not your final destination. As aspiring researchers, practitioners, scholars, and academics, it is so important to keep in mind that there is far more to life than landing an academic position, publishing, teaching and getting an industry job. Although, because of capitalism we spend more time at our places of work than with our friends, family, spouses, partners, kids and furry-pets. Inevitably this lone fact, should give you more of an incentive to look for happiness and things that fill you outside of it.
It’s also important to diversify and tap into those passion and creative projects and build those up. You never know where they can potentially lead you and can even be an extra income and revenue stream. These projects can give you outlets that keep you motivated to do the good work that the PhD calls for. I say all this to say, life should be spent with people you love and doing the things you love, so make sure to fill your time with these aspects as well.
Pro Tip: Create clear personal time and boundaries, whereby you do something that you enjoy outside of academia that you can be consistent with and do frequently. If that means weekly or monthly happy hours with the girls or guys or even sitting outside on a park bench for an hour a day reading your favorite romance novel, sketching/drawing, blogging, making music and singing in a band, designing clothes, JUST DO IT. Nike got it right.