…but what they didn’t say is that it would be lonely.

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Let me first say, all is well. I’m good. And I feel loved and supported, and in addition to a partner who treats me better than I usually deserve, I am employed, in a great doctoral program, and have a crew of people in my life who shower me with unconditional love.

That being said, 2017 has been really tough.

This PhD journey has been really tough.

I am one full year into my doctoral studies, and at two different points I almost gave up. Dramatically, I drafted two unsent emails to my advisor, throwing in the towel and apologizing for wasting her time. The first draft was written my third week of class, when impostor syndrome had set in and I was deep in the darkness of, “I don’t think I belong here.” I fell into the comparison trap, and was set off by the most trivial moments.

The second unsent email was drafted the Friday following Donald Trump’s electoral college win, and later revised when he nominated (and elected officials confirmed) Betsy DeVos as US Secretary of Education. If Secretary DeVos did not need a PhD to do her job, why did I?

Of course, neither email was sent, and both times I was left wondering if any of it would actually be worth it. Would the PhD be worth it?

Would it be worth me leaving full-time work (and pay) for a few years?
Would it be worth the hours of reading each day?
Would it be worth the unhealthy intake of coffee and ginger ale?
Would it be worth the 20lbs I gained?

Upon reflection and consultation, I learned these feelings were not uncommon. I found a community of other doctoral students who shared many of these same sentiments. My unsent resignation emails became a benchmark for Year 1 learning. It can only go up from here, right? I soon realized it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t cut out for this program (though, the verdict feels, at times, unresolved), it was that transition, in general, is hard. This transition, specifically, was hard.

This ongoing transition, is very, very hard.

And during this time of uncertainty, my brain will often do tricks on me that I never thought possible. I question my intelligence, my energy, my capacity. Phone calls and texts go unanswered, and the stories I tell myself lean more toward destructive than they do productive. But again, I am not alone, and (unsettlingly) there are many others who feel this same level of dissonance.

Now days away from starting Year 2, I am left contemplating what might exist in the next twelve months of studies.

In an attempt to help ease students’ transition to graduate school, a colleague recently posted on twitter, requesting a series of perspectives on what advice different folx wish they had before their first year of pursuing a PhD. I immediately responded with a practical perspective about the dissertation, something I truly wish I had understood before enduring several months of self-sabatoge. But after responding, I couldn’t stop thinking about an even deeper “wish” I had in relation to those starting the PhD experience, something that contributed to a lot of my discomfort.

Something that went beyond the first-year transition.

Something that went beyond impostor syndrome and the comparison trap.

My ‘ah-ha’ was that this experience is really isolating. 

Being a PhD student is incredibly isolating.

One of the toughest burdens of this doctoral journey has actually been the heavy pain of feeling alone – the countless hours of reading, writing, commuting to/from campus, and “waiting” for the next thing has all been really draining. As a strong E-Extrovert, I didn’t anticipate the amount of time I would be physically and emotionally flying solo.

And as I prepare for Year 2, I’m trying to make a conscious plan so I can avoid this feeling of isolation…a feeling many other graduate students feel, wade through, and fight on a daily, yearly basis. I believe I “survived” Year 1 because of my partner and community of friends and colleagues who love and support me despite the gymnastics in my brain. And still, I’m here, at the edge of Year 2, eager, and terrified.

Hopeful. Cautious.

Cautiously optimistic.

I am here for a reason. And despite the pressure I put on myself, and despite the hours and days of feeling completely solo, and despite the missed phone calls and unchecked emails, I truly believe there is an absolute reason that I am here, pressing on, and making this work. I don’t know what exists in this next year – personally or professionally – but I do know I can do this. And that, despite what my brain is telling me, I am not alone. I am worthy. I matter. This matters.

Simple reminders,

Michael

“You are about to start something amazing.”

This week I started my graduate assistantship, and soon I will begin my new routine as a full-time doctoral student. Ideally, this is my last degree.

“Terminal,” as many will assert. Terminal.

I will continue on to the Metro, where I will walk to campus and better understand this new personal and professional life journey. And as my partner reminded me a few weeks ago, I am about to start something amazing – something scary and terrifying, but ‘amazing,’ nonetheless. Fortunately, from pre-K kiddos to other doc-dreaming souls, I will not be alone.

“The first day of school,” is a rite of passage for many, and for others, it’s the reminder of a reality of education-based inequities.

“Is the student prepared?”
“Does the student have grit?”
“What will the student bring to our school, our program, our reputation?”
“What baggage accompanies the student?”
“Will the student survive?”

The idea of survival connected to an academic endeavor has always left me somewhat unsettled. At a previous institution where I worked, the reputable business school provided, “I survived…,” shirts to all students who finished their comprehensive exams. Related, my college experience housed a fraternity hazing process that reeked of, “JUST SURVIVE,” sentiments, and it has never been hard to see the connection between this survival-mentality and hazing. It’s surely there.

More than, “Will the student (I) survive,” as I start this new expedition, I am forced to navigate my own self-inflicted processing around worth.

“Am I good enough?”
“Is perfection enough?”
“What if I don’t deserve this?”
“Do I deserve this?”
“Surely, I don’t deserve this.”

I previously posted about this when I made the decision to officially go back to school, and packaged it simply as, “A Dark Place Called, ‘I’m Not Worthy.’”

Knowing all of this, and battling the worth-demons that swim through my brain, I continue to recenter myself by answering the following question:

Why am I going back to school to get a PhD?

For starters, curiosity guides much of my current perspective.

In separating a professional aim from my personal understanding, and perhaps more important than any other reason to press forward, I am training myself to believe and embrace the idea that I am good enough.

I am absolutely good enough.

Brené Brown argues, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” She also posits, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

“Imperfections are not inadequacies…”

The paralysis of perfection is so real for me.

As scared as I am of my imperfections (impostor syndrome, and all of that), I am more scared that I will lose some sense of myself along the way. This is where I understand the survival component to the academic process (“hazing,” as I previously suggest). And the idea of survival is not always present in the physical context.

Will I lose bits of who I am in this process?
Will I sacrifice my identity?
Will I be vulnerable to the parts of me that do need updating?
Can I truly embrace the imperfection?

This new endeavor is about more than survival, and it is certainly more than a quest for a perfect outcome or journey. This endeavor is about landing on my feet. It’s about understanding who I am, and what role I can and will play in this big world we live in.

For now, that is enough.

For now, landing on my feet is enough.

This is my peace, and I am enough.

Survivalist,

Michael

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