Second-Year PhD Reflections

Hey everyone…long time no see. I’m not sure how many people have been keeping up-to-date with this blog, but if you have, you would know that I haven’t posted in oh, I don’t know…almost 13 months. Am I officially the worst blogger ever? Possibly, but hear me out!

I never intended to take such a long hiatus from posting, but the second year of my PhD frankly did a number on me. It was the most draining academic year I have ever experienced and I am still recovering from it (and probably will be for a while). This was the year that I tackled coursework, research, and teaching for the first time and let me tell you…I got the wind knocked out of me more times than I can count, especially during the Fall 2021 semester. I thought about dropping out of my program several times (but instead I became a joint degree student LOL) and questioned my capabilities more than I ever have.

On paper I was doing “well,” but physically, mentally, and emotionally, I was drowning. Most days I just wanted to curl up into a ball and stay in bed, but had to force myself to get up and moving. My sleeping habits were terrible to say the least. I’m doing better now, but I think it’s important to share these moments so that other grad students know they are not alone. Despite this being a really tough year, I learned a lot, not only about myself personally, but about myself as a scholar. Here are a few of my reflections…

  1. Balancing various responsibilities (e.g., coursework, research, teaching) is HARD. I’m not sure if this is a tidbit commonly shared with prospective students before they enter their grad program, but I don’t recall anyone telling me this. Not only are you trying to do well in your own classes, but you are also trying to get ahead on your research, and fulfilling other responsibilities. I started teaching for the first time during the 2021-2022 academic year and although it was an enjoyable experience, it added a lot to my plate that I wasn’t fully prepared for. Something to note is that, for both semesters, I was an instructor for an upper-level writing class, which means I was leading discussion sections and grading papers. Allot a significant amount of time for grading (it will take much longer than you think and it is not the most fun activity let me tell ya). I enjoyed reading my students’ papers, but wish I didn’t have to say, “oh this is an A- or this is a B.” I just want to help my students improve their writing, why does a grade need to be attached (I know why, but the question still remains)? This leads me to my next reflection.
  2. Many of the undergrads I have taught remind me so much of myself. As an undergrad, all I wanted was an A. An A to me symbolized a job well done, that I had “mastered” whatever the assignment or exam was asking for. A minus being placed in front of that A would crush me for days. It reflected that my work was *good* but not good enough. Now was I a grade grubber? No, I just accepted whatever grade I received and if it wasn’t an A, I would just beat myself up about it. These feelings arising in me had to do with my upbringing when it came to academics and also, just the college setting that puts pressure on students to always be at the top of their game. And then you get to grad school and you get told that grades don’t matter as long as you don’t fail…you have to imagine how much of a whirlwind that was for me! As an instructor, being on the other side makes me not only feel bad for my students because I know what it’s like to feel that pressure to do well, but also makes me feel bad for my younger self whose self-worth was so wrapped up in performing well academically. I try to convey to my students that a grade they receive is not a reflection of them as a person, but simply a reflection of how they responded to an assignment prompt, answered a question, and so on.
  3. Teaching has been a rewarding experience! Although teaching was a big adjustment since I had never done it before, I really enjoyed it! I loved connecting with my students and getting to know them, seeing their writing improve over the course of 15 weeks, and getting to teach courses that were related to my own research (I got to talk about representation on TV last semester for 4 months!). One of the fears I had about teaching was that I would be terrible at it and that none of my students would take me seriously. Turns out that my students did respect me as an authority figure and helped me build my confidence as an instructor (I still go back and read my midterm evaluations from the Fall semester from one of my discussion sections!).
  4. My career goals shifted slightly. This was one of the more surprising outcomes of this year. When I first entered grad school, I told my prospective advisors (who are now my current advisors) that I didn’t want to become a professor. I know one of the “kisses of death” is to tell folks in academia that you don’t want to be a tenure-track professor, but I wanted to be upfront. Both were understanding and supportive and vowed to help me in any way they could related to my future career aspirations. However, they did tell me that it’s totally okay if, for whatever reason, I decide that I wanted to enter into academia in a more “traditional” role later on. I thought to myself, “Great, but that probably won’t happen.” Well, turns out that I was wrong. As this past academic year came to a close, I realized that I could see myself being a tenure-track professor in a way that I never have before. Ask me again about this next year and see if I give the same response LOL.
  5. My vision for my scholarship has gotten much clearer. Y’all, I started thinking about what I may want to do for my dissertation…my DISSERTATION (who am I?!). As I enter the third year of my PhD, I have an idea of what funding sources I want to apply for, the types of projects I want to spend my time working on, and the kind of scholar I want to be. One of the steps that I took this past semester relating to this is that I submitted an application to pursue a joint PhD in Communication and Media and Psychology (with a focus in the developmental area). I have been working towards this goal since I was applying for grad programs; one of the reasons why I came to the University of Michigan is because doing an individualized joint degree was an option. Although this means doing a ton of extra work, it’s 100% worth it for me. I can talk more about my decision to do a joint program if anyone would like me to!
  6. Checking-in on your fellow academics is crucial. Earlier in this post, I mentioned that I struggled to get through this past year, but I wasn’t the only one. I know several grad students and faculty members who were also having a very hard time. Several people were drowning and just trying to make it to the next day. Even if it’s just texting, for example, your cohortmate or friend to ask how they are doing or if they want to hang out for a bit, I would encourage you to do so.
  7. I am capable of so much more than I think. Throughout this academic year, I took 24 credits (good, Lord), became a collaborator on several new projects, began my term as a grad student representative for the comm department at U-M, mentored undergrads for a new research group, applied for a major fellowship (that I didn’t get, but that’s okay!), and taught 4 total discussion sections across two writing intensive courses. Was some of this pain self-inflicted? Yes, of course! How did I manage to do all of this? I have no idea! Will third year be more of the same? Possibly worse because I will be doing even more (starting the year with taking comm prelims and ending the year taking psych prelims, gotta love that!). However, as this next year rolls around, I think I will be more prepared for what comes my way. Will I still complain about how everything sucks and I wanna drop out? You know I will because all grad students have those moments :).

I would promise that I will try to be more consistent with posting like I used to be, but I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. However, I will try my best!

I hope you are all doing well and staying safe and until next time, cheers!

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