I have just completed my first year in a PhD program. I started blogging a little over a year ago when I transitioned from one phase of my life into another. It started as a way for people from the life I was leaving behind to keep up with what I was doing. It has turned into an arena to reflect on the various aspects of grad school life. That is why I was particularly interested in writing for the zomg grad skool carnival!!!1. So, this is my attempt to impart the vast wisdom that I have gained this year (ha!) to the group of folks about to start:
This year has been a big one for me in many ways. I felt dumb much of the time, but am beginning to believe that many of us do… and its kind of the point. When you are studying something that hasn’t been figured out there are no easy answers. Additionally, when you are surrounded by people who have been working on their projects for longer than you it is very easy to fall into the how-will-I-ever-know-as-much-as-they-do mindset. I took something that James Watson (I know, not the best role model, for many reasons) wrote in his autobiography (much of which was incredibly pompous). I don’t remember the exact quote but it went something like, if you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, you will learn much more than if you are the smartest person in the room. This helped me be ok with not being the top of the class. I learned a huge amount from the people that know more than me, which makes me lucky.
Having people to commiserate with is immensely useful in realizing that you are not alone in these feelings of inadequacy. That being said, I have realized that grad students (myself included) like to bitch, a lot. It is easy to dwell on frustrations, and while venting is important, it is also important to keep things in perspective. I often found myself thinking about how incredibly lucky I was that someone decided it was worth it to pay me to be in school. I earn money for learning stuff, and all the downsides (for me at least) pale in comparison to that.
I will give one piece of advice that might not work for everyone, but has helped me this year. Have a Plan B. Mine is knowing that I would be happy with a career as a middle or high school science teacher, or as an outdoor educator. Whenever things got particularly challenging this year, or I really felt like I was in over my head, I just told myself that no one is forcing me to be here, and if I decide I really hate it, I can always get a job as a science teacher that would be rewarding and probably fulfilling. Obviously Plan B would feel like a let down, and I would undoubtedly be very disappointed in myself if I left my program. I have no plans to do so (that’s why its not Plan A). However, simply having a Plan B takes the pressure off, and allowed me to keep the stress level relatively low this year.
In summary, to survive and even enjoy your first year of grad school you should…
Have a thick skin. Allow yourself to believe you are in the right place. Vent and commiserate, but not too much! Have a plan B.