I won’t be the first or the last person to say that getting a PhD is difficult. But I think what’s missing from most discussions of “what it’s like getting your doctorate” is a focus on the spiritual.
Graduate students and PhDs often talk about knowledge and intellectual work as if it’s somehow separate from feelings of emotion and spirit. They give advice on how to find the right program, how to study, and how to get articles published.
For me, graduate school was as much about personal transformation as it was an intake of specialized knowledge. I never knew what a profound spiritual shift I would experience, and as you might guess, it wasn’t easy.
I invoke the term “spiritual” to describe how experience leads us to a greater understanding of self and a sense of connectedness to the universe.
In my early experiences in graduate school, I felt somewhat detached. I started my Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition at age 23, and really, I went back to school because I liked to write.
I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but when I started studying composition theory, cultural rhetorics, and educational theory, I got a new lens on the world. For that reason alone, I decided to pursue a PhD. Maybe I would love teaching.
But all the books and theory in the world didn’t make the transition exactly comfortable. My program had a strong emphasis on literacy and teaching, and many of my fellow graduate students were older and had taught at the secondary level.
I started my doctorate at age 25. Blond curly hair. No experience teaching. Fresh off a breakup from my college sweetheart. Not to mention the fact that I have really long eyelashes, and I like to wear makeup and big earrings (I still don’t know whether to take it as an insult or a compliment when I see people’s visible shock upon finding out that I have a brain).
At the time, I guess I shocked myself: I wrote papers in this specialized, theoretical discourse. Was I really that person?
I cherished those moments when I felt like I really got it. But at times I worried incessantly. I would panic at the thought of presenting in front of my peers. I even got anxiety about showing up to an academic gathering “too dolled up” (Should I wear my bubble gum pink heels, really? Ok, but you have to strut as if it’s normal I would tell myself).
I was finding out who I was, and I didn’t really believe I could wear those shoes (the PhD shoes, not the pumps). Was I really entitled to be a doctor and create my own knowledge? (This might sound like a trite, humbled antidote to the arrogance many people associate with the PhD type. Maybe it would be more fitting and less deep to just say: “damn, it felt weird to be in that world”).
It wasn’t until I started teaching freshman composition that I started feeling a sense of purpose. I love hip hop and believed my students and I could study it as a political force. Once I got my students excited about thesis statements. As Tommy put it, “I’ve never seen someone smile so much about thesis statements!” (He had a you must be crazy look in his eyes, but I still took it as a compliment). And I remember feeling a sense of pride when my students “vibed” with an article about Black feminism, something they hadn’t read much about.
But once again, teaching brought up insecurity. Often I was so worried about being young and not taken seriously that I would stress about public speaking, question the activities I planned, or doubt whether or not my students were really learning.
I think humility is part of any good teacher’s makeup, but I’ve learned there’s a fine line with being humble and not believing in yourself.
What I didn’t know at the time is that most graduate students experience the same rollercoaster emotions; it’s just that it’s an environment where there’s an unspoken expectation to save face and act as if you know what you’re doing.
While I’m thankful that my experiences have taught me how to stand tall in my soon-to-be doctor shoes, I want other graduate students to know that it’s normal to feel detached, or isolated, or just plain weird.
We get study tips, go to seminars, and see other scholars speak about their work. We read and write until we’re exhausted. But often we don’t take the time to ask ourselves what it all means.
I’m not trying to start a “keep the faith” or “stay positive” campaign. Well I guess I am, but I also think that down and dark times teach us who really are. My best advice is to trust in the wisdom of your own experience and try to reach out.
I think the PhD community would benefit from support groups, and even just opening up channels of communication that would make it ok to talk about the emotional and spiritual shifts that many graduate students experience.
As for me, I just submitted chapter two of my dissertation, and I feel like I’ve come full circle. Now, full circle doesn’t mean that I wake up batting my eyelashes and churning out chapters. It means that I feel connected to my work, to the universe, and to the different sides of my identity.
I recently heard that every thought triggers a particular reality. During my graduate studies, I would have been much better off if I truly believed that I was entitled to being smart, humble, sweet, confident, and feminine-all at the same time.
It’s always a process, and while no theory, graduate student, or professor can teach you how to believe, I think it’s one of the most under-publicized survival tips for making it through graduate school.