…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

Year 1 of my PhD, in Gifs

My blog game has been weak this year. Between leaving one job and starting school, and writing hundreds of pages in assignments, work on anything other than coursework was a daunting task. Still, the story of my year deserves to be shared.

Last August I started my PhD journey. I felt good. I felt prepared. I felt ready.

But my pretentious bubble was soon popped, and three weeks into the first semester I realized I wasn’t actually as ready as I had promised myself.

By my third month, I had written two unsent letters to my advisor, swearing she made a mistake by admitting me into the program.

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I compared myself to everyone around me, and highlighted all the ways in which I wasn’t good enough. The intimidation factor was no joke. Many of the people in my classes and program were true superstars, brilliant and incredibly talented.

Up to that point, I thought I had a pretty good head on my shoulders. I thought I could take the challenge, the feedback, and the constant trial and error. I thought I knew it all.

I was concerned with everyone around me. The comparison trap was real.

Then my body started to give up on me.

I cried many times that first semester. I was unstable.

And then I learned that I didn’t know it all.

…and how to be quiet, sit still, and just listen – this came from teachers and classmates. Friends and colleagues paused me, told me to know how and when I take up space, and to just be still (quiet!). Those friends pushed me to be a better listener, which in turn made me a better student – specifically a better PhD student.

But this learning took time. And still, there were days when I struggled.

…and days when I really struggled.

But I owned that struggle, and used it to propel me into more confident days.

And then my angel of an advisor gave me really good feedback on a final paper, feedback that helped me realize how to be a better student and writer.

She validated and affirmed, and left me thankful that I never sent those letters of resignation.

And so, I leaned fully into winter break, and cleared my brain and heart for the next semester. I vowed to read and write differently, to study harder, and to be more committed in ways I just wasn’t during the fall semester. I fully embraced my identity as a full-time PhD student, and found pride in the things I could do and learn.

And I started to address the demons inside me that were telling me I wasn’t worthy.

And I sent them away. I demanded them away.

And I started making small changes that went a long way.

Stuff started to make sense. I was remembering things from my masters program. I was remembering and applying learning from the fall to the spring. By February, I finally felt confident (a tad, at least) for the first time during this entire year.

And I had made some really good friends, people who were in the same boat as me.

We collaborated on projects, pushed each other, and took risks to receive rewards. We started the process of becoming experts on our research topics. We shined.

And we built a tradition of cheering for each other, through the good and the bad.

As May neared, and final projects took over, I found myself excited, not scared like I had been in the fall. I knew I could do it. I finally believed in myself.

And before I knew it, all my papers were turned in, and I had successfully completed one year of PhD work. I did it. Despite the long road, I did it.

All is well…

…until classes resume in August, of course.

*gifs all found on GIPHY