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Getting to the Other Side: Surviving the Ph.D.

I recently finished my first year in a tenure-track position at American University in Washington DC and I have been thinking about what kinds of things I wish I had known when starting a PhD. Here, I aim to give advice for students just starting PhD programs in hopes of helping more students “get to the other side” of graduate school. Fair warning: there’s a good amount of pessimism here, but I’m nevertheless ultimately optimistic about the path of the PhD for lots of folks.

I should share a bit about myself as these are my thoughts about graduate school and beyond. People have different experiences depending on their temperaments, goals, and social identities. I thus first recommend that students seek lots of advice in this pursuit. That said, I have found that many scholars, especially from underrepresented backgrounds, share my experiences.

I grew up in a smallish town (St. George, Utah) in a small working class family. Neither of my parents finished high school. Their parents did manual labor and sales. I applied to only two colleges and was fortunate to be accepted to one with generous scholarship support. When I started college, I did not know what I wanted to study or that graduate school even existed. While I was aware of professional graduate degrees (law, business, medicine), I had literally never heard of a PhD or doctorate. Nevertheless, I ended up applying to PhD programs thanks to the encouragement of a professor and support of the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. I went to graduate school for a PhD in philosophy, a discipline where women and first generation students are still very outnumbered. I finished my PhD in 2016 and went on the academic job market three times (2013-2016).

In case you haven’t been told: very few people who start graduate school actually finish the PhD and even fewer land stable tenure track jobs. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2013 that only 50 percent of graduate students finish the PhD and I suspect the numbers are even more disheartening when disaggregated by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. I think it’s important to highlight these grim statistics not as a deterrent, but rather to give a realistic picture which students can then navigate.

Dr. Asia FerrinDr. Asia Ferrin

My aim in this essay is to help students prepare for what lies ahead so they can get to the other side quickly and in one piece. If you are lucky you may even thrive as a scholar, but I don’t think it’s helpful to set thriving as the goal, or more specifically, academic thriving (personal thriving is still very important!) The idea that grad school is “all your favorite parts of undergrad but even better!” is often inaccurate and subscribing to the idea can generate anxiety and depression when it turns out to be false.

Thus, I encourage students to focus simply on getting to the other side. This is primarily because graduate school is often terrible for mental health. Rates of anxiety and depression are higher in graduate school compared to the general population and talk is building of a “mental health crisis” in academia. In addition to a self-selection issue (perhaps anxious and depressed folks are more likely to steer toward academia), graduate school exacerbates mental crises for several reasons:

Challenges in graduate school

  1. 1. The pressure of perfectionism is intense. Students want to get good grades, get good feedback, get awards, get accepted for conferences, get papers published, get good teaching evaluations, etc. But rejection is the norm in academia. I had a mentor tell me that for every one paper he gets accepted for publication, he has six In my three years on the job market, I received about 130 job rejections, and numerous other rejections for papers and conferences. On top of that, many faculty and peers are often highly critical of your intellectual work. This can be very hard to adjust to if one hasn’t had to deal with much rejection thus far, which may be the case for many grad students: most students starting PhD programs have excelled and thrived in college and likely expect to continue doing so into the future. It can be hard, then, especially when we have our self-identities wrapped up with our academic identities, to process the rejection, criticism, and constant feelings of inadequacy.
  2. Graduate students get dismissed and talked down to a lot. Support is often much harder to come by in graduate school. Many PhD-granting faculty and institutions prioritize research, not teaching or mentoring. Students may be placed on the back burner by an admired scholar and or be made to feel inferior by peers. Faculty or departments may not take student concerns and anxieties seriously. Relationships with advisers can be rocky. Such experiences can make it hard to keep pushing through an already tough process.
  3. The same skills of success in undergraduate studies are not enough for success in graduate studies. Pure talent and knowledge will not be enough to finish the PhD nor get a job. Many bright and hard-working graduate students struggle to finish and land jobs. This is because a different perspective and set of skills are required for setting yourself up for the job market (and a bunch of luck). Furthermore, because of the structure of many graduate programs and the increasing competitiveness of the academic job market, much is out of students’ control in terms of what kinds of things they get to work on, who they get to work with, how they get to spend research time, and even what kinds of relationships they foster. There are surprising political and strategic elements to finishing the PhD and securing an academic position.

For at least these reasons, I, again, suggest that the goal of graduate school is just to get to the other side. The intellectual work required in graduate school is grueling enough, and these extra structural and social issues can make it unbearable for some. Fortunately, in recognizing the severity of the challenge, I believe students can properly develop tools and strategies. Let me give some examples of such tools and strategies:

Tools and strategies for success in graduate school

  1. Prioritize self-care. Graduate school is a different kind of beast than undergraduate. First, there’s all this nonsense that I’ve talked about to deal with. But also, it is a marathon, not a sprint (the average time to the PhD is 8 years). You have to pace yourself and make sure you put self-care first; otherwise you may burn out and perhaps not finish. I could give you lots of tips on self-care (I’ve found help in exercise, vacations, regularly binge-watching Netflix, finding social community and support, etc.). But self-care is going to be unique to you. So, instead, I suggest the first thing you do when you get to graduate school is find a good therapist. A certain number of therapy sessions should be provided for free by your university and long-term care is often covered by your graduate student insurance. I recommend establishing a relationship with a therapist whether you think you need one or not for several reasons. First, therapists have great insight about self-care and can make recommendations for you specifically and help with accountability. Second, therapists are some of the best advocates I found in graduate school; I found their validation and support incredibly helpful. Finally, while you might not feel the need for a therapist in the first, second, or third year, you will eventually face either some overwhelming academic challenge or just face a life challenge. Breakups, death, illness, are likely going to happen given that you will be in grad school for a long time. Having an established relationship with a therapist helped me process things like these and eventually find my way back to my work. To get to the other side, you’ve got to be physically and emotionally cared for. And no one in your program is going to make sure that happens; you’ll likely have to take it on yourself.
  2. Make a mentor map. Because the challenges one faces in graduate school are varied, you will need mentors who are also varied. You may already have one or two solid mentors from undergrad, which is great. You’ll need more. And despite my earlier pessimism, I am confident that you will find good people who are eager to assist you in your journey. You might just have to look a little harder. A mentor map helps identify what kind of mentoring you should seek—for example, someone who is good at sending opportunities your way, someone who gives good feedback, someone who will listen to you cry. Not only will you need different kinds of mentors—insofar as people have different skills, strengths, and weaknesses—you will also need several of each kind of mentor. This is because a lot can happen over 8 years. I had a mentor leave for another institution. One of my mentors developed a debilitating health issue and eventually left her job. Some of my mentoring relationships soured after several years and I had to renegotiate the relationships. It takes an evolving village. You cannot get to the other side on your own, you will need lots of help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.
  3. Think of graduate school as a career, not just more college. Some of the things I’ve mentioned here can be even harder to grapple with if you eat, breathe, and sleep graduate school. I’ve found that the healthiest perspective is to think of graduate school as your job and make sure you have a robust personal life outside of it. Staying up late studying every night and on the weekends, being around your peers all of the time, sleeping at your desk (so common)—these are not sustainable habits and often lead to resentment, burn out, anxiety, and/or depression. Think of your graduate studies as a job that you clock into and out of every weekday. Also, thinking of graduate school as a job from Day 1 will set you up to choose the right kinds of opportunities to pursue and make strategic choices that will help successfully get you to the other side. The sooner you start to think of yourself as a scholar and a teacher, rather than a student, the wiser you will become about how you spend your time. This will help get to the other side more efficiently and quickly.

I hope you can see here that even though graduate school is grueling for a host of reasons, you can get to the other side if you want. You have to be strategic, though, and you cannot hesitate to ask for help. Lots of help. Different kinds of help. Help from friends and family, health care professionals like a therapist, advisors, mentors in and out of your department, etc., etc. Do not ever hesitate to ask for help.

To boost morale—I don’t want to scare you off from graduate school, just help you prepare!—I want to say a bit about why getting to the other side is still often a worthy pursuit:

Why it’s worth it

  1. Academics have the power to do really good work in the world. For academics doing inspiring work, check out some of my favorites: Amy Reed-SandovalMichael Burroughs and Desiree ValentineKyle WhyteMyisha Cherry, and this upcoming conference at American University on Thinking Trans and Trans Thinking.
  2. Your country needs you.” I think the academy is increasingly threatened as an institution. Despite all of the good and important work that academics do, they are commonly portrayed (at best) as elites who are out of touch with their head in the clouds (to be fair, this does describe some academics I know, but not many). A number of state legislatures in the US have pulled commitment and funding for higher education. This is, in part, what makes it harder and harder to land an academic job. But, it’s also why we need bright, passionate folks in the field, to help make colleges and universities stronger. Furthermore, in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” intellectual work may be especially important. Academics alone will not solve social and political problems, but insofar as scholars a trained precisely to better understand our world and ourselves they are certainly part of the solution. PhDs are trained to identify questions and puzzles, examine them in depth, and provide some sort of resolution or path forward. This makes it simultaneously a terrifying and exhilarating time to be working in academia. There is so much still that we don’t understand, so much left to learn.
  3. Working in academia can be fun and rewarding. Academics get to study the issues they are most passionate about. Teaching is also delightful (in my opinion). I love working through philosophical puzzles with students and am so grateful for all that they bring to the table. I learn as much from them as they from me. Teaching helps make me a better person. Also, there is lots of opportunity for service, both at one’s university but also in the community.

In conclusion, for those embarking on this new journey: I hope I’ve given you a realistic picture of what lies ahead so you can prepare and strategize for success. In my opinion, it doesn’t get said enough that graduate school is hard (or I just didn’t listen?). And it’s not just hard the way your undergraduate studies were; it is hard because the structures are not really designed to take care of you. Despite this, I am confident that you can make it through if you want (you may decide at some point the PhD isn’t ultimately for you, which is completely respectable!). By prioritizing self-care, recruiting a support team, and thinking of grad school as a career, not a way of life, you can make it through to the other side. And I really do think we need you more than ever.

Dr. Asia Ferrin is an assistant professor of Philosophy at American University.

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