As a maturing third year PhD student, sorry, PhD candidate…(clearly I am getting quite cozy in this title-driven academic society 😉 ) I wanted to share some reflections from around this time a couple of years ago when I was a first year. Hard to imagine that time flies so fast. I hope this post will inspire future PhD students or encourage current peeps trying to get through first year. I’ll preface this by saying that our program is in theory four years long…
10. The welcome speech
It was a beautiful sunny September afternoon, and the department gathered to welcome us fresh first year PhD students. It felt like wow! Look at what we have achieved…I am doing my PhD! I literally felt like a rockstar and I know my mum told everyone she knows ad nauseum that her daughter was starting her PhD. Of course no welcome event is complete without a welcome speech. And here came the first bomb. I can’t remember whether it was the program coordinator OR the program director…their first (of many eventually successful) attempt (s) to burst our bubble came in the form of a statistic – ‘Although our program is four years, the National average for doing a PhD in Canada is 7 years’. Really. Thanks for not having displayed that in bold colours on the application page. Little did we know that this was just the beginning…
9. Hating on undergrads by dressing up like I’m going to work
I had a full-time job before signing up for PhD. And I had a hard time merging the fact that I was a student again, so in my attempt to raise my snobbish nose at undergrads, I dressed up like I was going to work…in a business office. I am talking heels, blazer, blouse…heck even pantyhose sometimes. And as I walked through campus I remember thinking when were sweats and a t-shirt the standard uniform at university. Obviously my memory is very short term considering that just 5 years prior I was proudly rocking a hoodie and sweats to basically everywhere. Of course I’d leave the house feeling superior and proud for my wardrobe choice only to get to campus and try to get across from one end to the next in heels…freezing my butt off given that winter starts early and the fall is not so kind to us in the East.
8. Reading, reading…and more reading
I thought after my masters that I could handle any form of reading. Afterall the program felt like speed-dating on crack or trying to get as much as you can from an all-you-can-eat buffet that is closing in 5 minutes. We were basically trying to fully know all there is to know in public health in a year. Right. So I figured, PhD, you have nothing on me…I got this…little did I know…Our assigned reading list for ONE course was pretty much the course content for one of my Masters entire course…ok I exaggerate…but on average we had about 500 to 1000 pages of reading per course per week. I read everywhere…while doing laundry, while on the bus, while in a line up at a grocery store…you name it. And even with all that reading I was never done…
By about the first month of the PhD it occurred to me that it was physically impossible to read every single word that was assigned for the readings. So like most of my other colleagues, I developed a knack of skill for speed-reading…apparently I was supposed to have learned that valuable skill in undergrad/masters but alas, some of us are late adopters. What, you might ask, is speed reading…well you basically take an article, read the abstract, and introduction, skim over the methods (if not summarized in the abstract) skip over to the discussion and the last line concluding the importance of their findings. 5 minutes and you’re done. Of course if there was much more in there you can then go back and mine for the ‘juicy details’ however if you want to get through your 1000 pages for the day, the way to go is to skim.
6. Re-reading, re-reading, re-reading…again (why didn’t I make summaries!)
Ok so this was actually a second year ‘regret’…one of those shoulda done it but didnt and it came back to bite me in the…well it bit me. I am getting ahead of myself to second year. But basically in the second year of our program we write our comprehensive exams based on the courses we completed in the first year. The 5 minute skimming ended up costing me alot more further down the road as I was preparing for said exams not having done the summaries. I knew it was too good to get away with reading so little.
5. Hating on working people by dressing like a student
So with all the reading to do and the not sleeping clearly something had to give. And sadly it was my fashion sense. First and foremost for practicality’s sake, the stilettos had to go. At least on the weekday – my shoe collection quickly became a novelty reserved for Sunday morning church service. Enter comfortable shoes. Comfortable shoes have never been so comfortable especially when you have to sprint across campus for a meeting with your supervisor that you are already late for. While I must say I didn’t ‘stoop’ fully to the sweats and t-shirt staple, I went for the fashion-conscious equivalent – ugg-like boots, black tights and a long sweater. Slap on my winter jacket and bam, I can leave the house without feeling so self conscious.
4. The one-conference-per-academic-year rule
PhD advice is like dating advice to single people – someone is always quick to offer it up but no one can ever really vouch for the results of having taken the advice. I can’t really recall which ‘someone’ offered up this advice…perhaps a prof…anyways the point is to try and attend at least one academic or professional conference per academic year. This is for the purposes of networking and of course bonus points if you are able to make some sort of a presentation, oral being the best and if not then a poster presentation as a consolation. In my first year I attended TWO and extra bonus points for the fact that one was in Cuba in November – score! And the other was in Seattle in the Spring. I must say I’d learned this one from my undergrad and masters days and still to this day believe conferences as some of the best ways to network in academic circles.
3. Summer institutes
In addition to conferences, one thing I discovered was summer institutes for graduate and post-graduate students. In the context of Canada, summer institutes are often 4 to 10 day learning opportunities hosted by institutes of research (I can only speak of the health and social sciences as these two broadly encompass my field). I was privileged to attend a summer institute in get this: Ecuador. It was a great opportunity to discuss various issues in my field in a fairly intimate setting with about 25-30 participants, as opposed to an academic conference which can have up to 1000 people. It is also a great opportunity to build your network and get mentorship from those in your field. I absolutely loved and appreciated the opportunity.
2. Applications and deadlines
Of course, attending conference and summer institutes requires that you apply for them and/or send in an abstract for your participation in them. I definitely recall many sleepless nights given that in addition to reading your 1000+ pages of material, submitting papers and materials for the course work, we also had application deadlines to adhere to, references to chase down and opportunities to seek out…bringing me to my final reflection on first year
1. The F-word
Funding will forever be the f-word of graduate school, and arguably the world of research. I cannot even begin to describe how many funding applications I put out in first year. It actually hit us in a flurry because soon after September, you think the dust is just beginning to settle, and then – deadlines. Most of the major funding application deadlines are around October/November. At this point in time you don’t eve know why you signed up for yet another degree, voluntarily. And as you are wondering how you can afford it, the reality of being a student once again checks in as whatever you’d saved from the summer slowly cheques out. And you realize, that you’d better get some funding or else…and then come April (yes, it takes most of the funding agencies about 8 months to review the applications) your ego is dealt with a massive blow as you receive regret letter after regret letter.
And yet we made it through. At the end of August, I remember filling out our annual review for the university and I was surprised that I had actually completed all my course work and was right on track for second year.
By God’s grace I’d made it through.
That was my first year experience…what a whirlwind…what was yours?
- Reflections at the end of Term 1 (honourablementions.wordpress.com)
- What It’s Really Like to Be a PhD Student (analyfe.com)
- #2. Five reasons NOT to do a PhD (beingmrsdrd.wordpress.com)
- #1. Is graduate school for me? (beingmrsdrd.wordpress.com)