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

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…
Little do they know, I already cry a lot.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
I have had a stress-related eye-twitch for most of my life.

“It’ll break you down,” they said…
Even when broken, I always land on my feet.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they demanded.
And so, I continue to cry.

In what feels like 1/3-part care and concern, 1/3-part projections of self-doubt, and 1/3-part hazing, the PhD journey has commenced, and I am deep in the waters of my first semester as a doctoral student. In true Michael manner, I jumped in with an Olympic diving attempt that probably looked more like a belly-flop than a gold medal dive. Loosely proud of my belly-flop, I am making new commitments and reevaluating the way in which I maneuver through this journey.

“One day at a time,” they said.
I nod ferociously, leaning into the comfort provided by a one-day-at-a-time mantra.

In addition to being a full-time student, I hold a graduate assistantship and also teach a class for first-year students interested in learning more about leadership (Introduction to Student Leadership). During my first class session, I promised the students we would take one week at a time. Selfishly, a few dozen assignments lurked over me.

I ended the first session and opened the syllabi for my classes, attempting to map out each assignment in my calendar. As I planned ahead for what seemed like a semester of tears, stress, and brokenness (“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said), my inner self-preserver begged, “Resist! Resist! Resist! Slow down!”

I paused, laughed, and whispered aloud, “How do you eat an elephant?”

How do you eat an elephant?

Huh?

Several years ago I had a colleague who completely unraveled during a staff meeting. They were frustrated and overwhelmed. They were grappling with the, “we should be doing more, and with more time and resources,” dilemma that new and para-professionals often unearth in their first few years of working in education.

Following our highly contentious staff meeting, I invited the colleague into my office and engaged the, “what’s going on,” conversation. Through some tears and voice-raising, it was clear the individual was trying to do the best they could with what they had, while making meaning of the politics involved on our campus and in our office.

Drawing on an old adage I used most of my young adulthood, I quickly asked this colleague, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Frustrated, they replied, “I don’t know. I can’t with your metaphorical BS, right now. What’s your point?”

We sat in silence for several minutes, and I gently asked one more time, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Both exasperated and curious, the colleague finally responded, “I don’t know…one bite at a time?”

“One bite at a time.”

One bite at a time. 

Flash forward several years later, my calendar, syllabi, and heart all out on the table (figuratively and literally); I was having my own, “how the heck do you actually eat an elephant,” moment. If I have learned anything one week in, it’s that keeping up is the only option – for better or for worse. One bite at a time.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
“It’ll break you down,” they said…
“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…

With tears in my eyes, I agree. And in courage, I move forward. A pinned, internal, one-day-at-a-time, banner flies viciously in my brain. And I pause, forced to breathe in a philosophy that has guided much of my work over the past few years.

“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
–Mexican Proverb*

Universe, build me up.

A seed to be watered,
Michael

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*”They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds,” is often attributed to a Mexican Proverb, as well as Dinos Christianopoulos. Either way, powerful and important connection, and one that continues to center me.