The Top Three Things I’ve Learned as PhD Student

One of my colleagues sent me this article by Te-Erika Patterson about why so many graduate students quit their studies. The various reasons include health and interactions with faculty. I have heard of students getting ulcers and other digestive ailments, throughout the semester. I also have suffered with my own ailments. From what I have gathered, attaining a Ph.D is more than just reading and completing assignments—it is also political. Patterson’s writings about power and how it affects the teacher-student relationship, hit a nerve for me. I saw it unfold many times in different spaces.

The power dynamics between the haves and have-nots shows itself in conversations and decisions made by students and faculty. For example, I was in a situation where the professor spoke to me as if it were a chore—but then state that they “love” their job as advisors. I empathized with the gradual disintegration and how professors “look for weaknesses in doctoral student’s arguments.” It is one thing to be critical of a student’s work and point to areas that need improvement. It is another thing, however, to make careless and sometimes spiteful arguments about students’ work because one has the power to do so.

Accordingly, here are the top three things that I have learned in order to survive attaining a PhD:

1. Your health comes first and foremost.
It sounds so basic, but it is so vital for your academic success. Whether it is physical or otherwise make sure that your health is a priority. If you feel a sniffle coming on, address it. If you are not eating, make the time to eat and include water. In the eon of coffee drinking, most people reach for caffeine instead of water. I get it and I won’t recommend the eight glasses, because people with a less demanding schedule still don’t meet that requirement, but if you can, kudos to you!

Your mental health is vital to the degree process. Everything you take in (food, required readings, interactions with others or news stories) will affect your health. Be selective. If you are reading material that is oppressive find an outlet (different readings or other activities to balance it out).

2. That school/work/life balance
I must warn you, I am not an expert. I do know that working full-time and being a full-time student can take a toll on your health. I learned that first hand. I am starting to find that balance is really about timing and organization.

For example, I have hustled a few hours here and shaved a few hours there by reading on the train or power napping on the train. Planners, alarms, and accountability partners all come in handy. At times, some things will suffer, that’s the way life is, but you don’t want to be flying through your graduate experience, while performing poorly elsewhere. It won’t be easy, but it is worth the effort to create a realistic balance where you don’t end up in the hospital and your sanity is somewhat still intact.

3. Strength in Numbers
I mentioned accountability partners above. When I first took a class at GC, a fellow student recommended that I find an accountability partner to get through the work. They are the checks and balance of what you need to get done. I have a couple for not only the coursework, but also to maintain my health. I had the privilege of having an amazing cohort that is unbelievably supportive. Yes, we have our differences but we respect each other and provide encouragement. Also, sharing your ideas can assist in overcoming certain challenges that may arise. There will be times when you have to “get away” from your academic life so it is important to surround yourself with positive people who cares but won’t talk about the paper that is almost due. Find your support groups inside and outside of school. They are gems.

Other valuable resources are staff and faculty. Not all of your professors will invest in your scholarly development (as mentioned). However, there will be a few who genuinely care and will point you in the right direction. They may point you to other advisors (even in other departments and institutions), readings, or events. In addition, if there is a wellness center in your school, definitely see what services they offer to help you along your academic endeavor.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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