phd-survivor
Image obtained from Google

On December 1, 2018, I walked out of my final class of my Ph.D. coursework. I was five days away from submitting my comprehensive exam for the program and life couldn’t have been so surreal at that moment. Three and a half years ago, I walked into my first Ph.D. course and I instantly felt the infamous “imposter syndrome” (I wrote about imposter syndrome for Sister PhD, a digital community for Black women in higher education. You can read that here https://www.sisterphd.com/blog/2018/01/15/true-life-i-have-imposter-syndrome?rq=imposter%20syndrome ) .

Everyone in my cohort was older than me – some with families – and have had many years working in the field of higher education. I was just beginning my second year working professionally out of graduate school. I had very little experience working in a college setting or how the political aspects of our higher education system worked.

The purpose of this blog post is to tell a little of my doctoral program journey up until this point, the point after comprehensive exams and the starting line of the dissertation process. I thought it would be cool to do a brief interview with one of my classmates as well, Lynn. I will share her short interview in another post. I charged Lynn with offering another perspective on the exam journey and about the doctoral journey. Lynn has been a critical person for me. She is someone who has a beautiful spirit and has been an essential role model and friend during our time together in classes. This stage of our lives has not only challenged us more than we’ve probably been challenged but it grew us into stronger people.

I was juggling with the idea of applying for the program. Like many 25-year-olds I knew at the time, we were all trying to figure out what to do with our lives. I completed the application with hesitation to press submit. The guy I was in the early stages of dating at the time urged me to finally submit it. And I’ll be honest, I think I only did it because I wanted him to be proud of me more than I cared about bettering my career with a terminal degree. Nonetheless, after I was accepted, I enrolled in coursework. My program was a little different than traditional Ph.D program. Many of us did not live in the same city as the university. A couple of my classmates and I were the only ones who worked at the university at the time (I had three more jobs after during my time as a student. I only spent one year working at the university while enrolled in the program). Our department created the “cohort model” of the Ph.D. program to accommodate students like us and to try another approach to learning. The cohort model allowed students to come to campus the last weekend of every month for our two classes and the rest of our time would be spent working on assignments and having class online asynchronously. From first thought, you would think that it was easy. It was not. Yes, we only met once a month but the homework felt like we were in classes like a traditional program.

I remember the first night I had homework that included an exponential amount of reading, I cried. I cried because it was a lot to do in so little time but I also cried because I was mad at myself for taking graduate school for granted all those nights I barely read my assigned articles and book chapters. I didn’t have those skills ingrained so all of the literature my Ph.D. program provided blew me away.

That was three and a half years ago which seems like a lifetime. I don’t recognize that young woman anymore. I now know how to read for content and how to point out some research problems. But outside of the academic development, I learned a few other things in the process that I believe is important for Black people who are considering a terminal degree to keep in mind mixed with some raw feelings about the overall first part of this doctoral commitment. Having context of both is beneficial in the decision-making process of Ph.D. programs.

The Good, the Bad, and the Real Ugly.

Since my blog is all about transparency, I want to be as transparent as I can about my experience in my program. I’ll keep it brief, though, but still long enough to fully examine my emotions.

The Good: There are many good things that I am grateful for during this experience. I chose to highlight two. The first are the invaluable classmates I had and the lifelong friendships I gained. Out of those classmates and friendships, I also found my community. I genuinely love and respect every one of my classmates (as well as the ones who started with us and did not complete for personal reasons). I admired all of their minds and the way we could turn a quick discussion about deficit theory into a thirty to forty-five minute back and forth conversation that included personal stories and situations. Or we started getting sick of each other but turned that irritation back into a brief smile. These people were directors, assistant deans, teachers, administrations, you name it and all brought their lived experiences into each class.

Out of the larger cohort came my community. There were a group of us students of color in our cohort and to me, that was so important. To see other people who looked like me striving for the same degree I was blew me away. These individuals allowed me space to be vulnerable when I didn’t understand an assignment or when things were getting too stressful. They also gave me room to celebrate my accomplishments. I really took to this group when they felt comfortable enough with me to share some of their struggles and their dislikes/likes about assignments or the department. If it were not for these people, I would not have made it this far. They have been my support systems in more ways than one. Their love for me and our community extended past what we were doing in class. We truly cared about each other’s well-being and families. The doctoral journey is one that you cannot conquer alone. Many people have, but from my experience and in conversation with other Black doctoral students, having a community is extremely important for your overall mental health and persistence in a program. They have been my accountability partners and are one of the reasons I will finish strong. They have been part of my foundation and I hope to continue to make the proud. I am excited to share with you a brief look into Lynn’s experience in the next blog post.

The second thing I am grateful for is the learning. I learned how to really use theory and research to develop an argument. I think that is how I passed my comprehensive exams. Our professors continued to tell us that we have to make an argument and convince our readers that what we were saying was grounded in research and convincing. I admit, I doubted my abilities to do this all the way up to exam time, during the exam writing process, and after I submitted it. How was I supposed to know what would convince my readers that Black women professionals who work in higher education were worth studying? My advice to anyone considering a doc program is to really engross yourself in the learning of it all. Ask questions when you don’t understand. That magnifies your thinking and will stretch it further than you’ve experienced before.

The Bad: The bad part of my doctoral experience was the lack of feedback we received in the program. We had a few professors who would read our papers and provide really good feedback for improvement but we also had others who did not provide any or very minimal feedback. We had no way in knowing what we did well and what we needed to improve on for the next time. This was something that frustrated many of us. Part of the learning process for us was knowing where we needed to grow in our writing and research. So, going into the comprehensive exam, we were praying that we were writing at a level that would send us to that next phase of dissertation. As students, we could have taken more initiative and asked for the feedback from previous classes but we didn’t ask. Well, let me speak for myself. I did not ask. In order to improve your writing, you have to be willing to put in that extra effort to do so. I remember spring 2017 semester I received a ‘B’ in one of my classes. That was was the only ‘B’ I got in the whole program. I was pissed because I wrote that paper exactly like the instructions said and yet, I still got a ‘B’ in the course. I think I did email the professor and asked for feedback about why I did not get an ‘A’ on that paper. I never heard back. I think that is what confirmed for me that I wasn’t going to ask anymore.

The Real Ugly: Don’t let me pretend as if my mental health was not effected during the coursework and comprehensive exam journey, because I experienced a mental shake that I never thought possible. People often tell you to do things to help you destress during this time but no matter how many workouts I did, how many self-care mental breaks I took, how many vacations I went on, I was still stressed. The thought of an article that I had to read or a discussion post that I had to reply to was always in the back of my mind. Sometimes, I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about everything I had to do. I found myself having random episodes of panic attacks (outside of the ones I had for my anxiety) and breakdowns of me balling crying at any random time. On top of that, things in my personal life started to take tremendous unexpected turns. My boyfriend and I at the time broke up and then I found out about the other woman he had. I changed jobs and experienced discrimination everyday, I faced lots of financial roadblocks while I watched my closest friends get promotions and watch their salaries increase. It was hard juggling all of that at once. Then, when I lost that job, I had to quickly move back home with my parents and I felt shame that I wasn’t working anymore. So, not only was I still in school with no source of income, I had to get back out on the job search market. If you know anything about job searching in higher education, you know that it is a long process. You have to impress so many people that you almost start to lose yourself in the process. You’re filling out hundreds of applications, going over interview questions, praying that you’re good enough, flying across the country for weeks at a time to do on campus interviews…just to be told no or not receive any notification at all. I’ll admit, out of the many times I wanted to quit my Ph.D. work, this past summer was the one where I almost said ‘I’m done.’ It was too much going on and I couldn’t handle it. But somehow I made it. God and my support systems really covered me. When I didn’t know what else to do, I had them to talk to and cry on.

The comprehensive exam process was probably one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. Especially, moving across the country to Florida when I got a new job. My move happened right when exams started so I had to try to learn my job and focus on writing an exam. Needless to say, ya’ girl was overwhelmed. I noticed myself eating tremendous amounts of sweets and foods for no reason other than to make myself feel better. It was only making me more down. But I kept eating. I stopped wanting to leave my apartment unless it had to do with me going to work. It was bad. I found myself sitting in front of my laptop trying to figure out what words to type sometimes and ultimately would just shut my laptop. I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to write. I even stopped writing for this blog during that time. I maybe wrote 1 or 2 posts in a 4 month time period. I would go weeks without writing or doing anything for that exam and that did nothing but give me more anxiety because as the deadline approached, I had nowhere to run. I had to write. Luckily, my new supervisor was very supportive of me finishing my exam and provided me some days off so I could focus solely on writing. I highly recommend if you work full-time, to chat with your supervisor about this journey. If they are not on board with supporting you and the things you need, I would say wait to start. There are going to be times where you need to focus on an assignment by taking off work and if your boss isn’t on board with that, it is going to be difficult. Also, think about if you have children. Many of my classmates had to juggle work, school, children, and everything outside of that. Communicate with your supervisor about everything you have going on. Hopefully, your supervisor is genuinely invested in your professional development because during normal conversations or one-on-one meetings, they should be asking you about your program and how things are going. All of the supervisors I’ve had (except the one in the last job) were all vested in me in my doctoral process.

Everyone’s journey is going to be different. My classmates all have varying feelings about their process. I hope these tips help you make a sound decision about your next steps in your educational endeavors. Also, please make sure you research each program you think you want to apply to. See if you can talk to some current students and professors before you apply to get an idea of what will be your experience. Make sure they are honest with you. You don’t want to apply to a program and then get in there and realize you were sold a dream.

Please check out Lynn’s short post next to read what she had to say about her experience.

❤ Queen T

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