First Year PhD Reflections

So, apparently, I am a second-year PhD student now…

If you are wondering how that happened, you are not the only one. My first year of grad school flew by so fast that I currently have whiplash. Although this year was difficult for many reasons, here are 6 lessons I learned:

  1. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.” No one knows everything. Not the senior grad students in your program, not your advisors, no one. It is totally valid to respond to a question with “I don’t know” than to pretend like you know the answer. As a personal anecdote, in my Quantitative Research Methods course, we had two assigned readings for the first day of class. No matter how many times I read one of the articles, I could barely understand it. While in class, my professor asked us what we thought about the piece that I was struggling with, and I was honest and said that I was not really sure what it was trying to say and asked if he could explain it. Spoiler alert: he said sure and proceeded to go over the main points of the paper! When I was in undergrad, I almost felt ashamed when I did not know the answer to a question but now, I feel the complete opposite. If I knew everything, then what would be the point of being in grad school?
  2. Ask for an extension if you need one. Most professors are understanding if unforeseen life events come up and you need more time to complete an assignment. If possible, ask for the extension a few days in advance from the due date so they can have enough time to hopefully accept your request. This is something I have also changed my mind on since being in grad school. I used to be so afraid to ask for an extension in undergrad because I felt like a failure that could not get their work done on time, even when I desperately needed the extra time. In my experience in grad school so far, some professors will actually offer the extension up front in case anyone thinks they may need one. Asking for an extension also translates to other areas of grad school such as doing research. If you were supposed to get revisions for a manuscript to your co-authors by a certain date so that it can be resubmitted to a journal, be open if you need more time to do so. Hopefully, your co-authors are reasonable people that will understand. You are not a robot!
  3. Building community is everything. I would not have gotten through the first year of my PhD without my cohort, my advisors, and other grad students in my program. There were many times when I wanted to quit (and seriously thought about doing so), but because of their support, I did not. Grad school is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Even if you are the most independent person in the world, you need people around you who you can confide in and lean on. Your community or “village” does not just have to be people in your program but can also be family members, friends from other programs, friends who are not in academia, mentors, and so on. You may be the one doing the work to get this degree but those around you help you get there.
  4. Protect your time and energy. You cannot say yes to everything! I know you may want to, but you cannot. I should really take my own advice here, but I digress. My main advisor always tells me that what I say yes to should make sense for my research program and future career goals. Oftentimes we do not want to say no because we feel like opportunities will not come our way again. There will always be more opportunities; saying no to the ones that you do not have the capacity to do is better than running yourself into the ground. You have to look out for yourself and your well-being first.
  5. Do not accept everything you read as gospel. One of my professors told me this last semester. It is totally fine to be critical of the research in your field, even the seminal works. Nothing published is without flaw. If you find that you are reading an article and do not necessarily buy what the author(s) are trying to sell, that is fine! Part of our job as academics is to analyze the literature out in the world and figure out where more work can be done. You will not agree with everything you come across and you do not have to.
  6. “Publish or perish” culture is problematic. I knew this before but now that I have gone through the publication process, I can say this confidently. The only part of publishing really in our control is the work we produce; the rest is really a toss-up. The length of time it takes just to hear an initial decision about a submitted manuscript can take months. If it gets a revise and resubmit (yay!), then you have to spend time editing and reorganizing the paper which can also take months depending on how extensive the edits need to be and how many other tasks are on your plate. However, if the paper gets rejected, then you have to spend more time sending it to other journals and the process basically restarts. Now, your paper can get accepted the first time you submit it, but this is very rare (unless you are a unicorn and if so, please tell me your secrets). I say all this to say that it can take a very long time to get your work published and the fact that publications are used as a metric for success in academia is unfortunate.

And those are the 6 lessons I learned in the first year of my PhD program! To all my colleagues in the “COVID cohort,” both in my program and in other programs/universities, congratulations on finishing during one hell of a year. To everyone about to start grad school, you will do great! This is a journey like no other; enjoy it as much as possible but do not let it consume your life. Onward and upward!

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