6 Ways to Overcome the Emotional Challenge of a PhD Program


My first semester, I took a picture wearing a graduation robe (but not the tam because I’m slightly superstitious). The robe, with its puffy sleeves and three velvety stripes along each arm, became my source of inspiration. By “joining the three stripes crew” (graduating), I would accomplish something extraordinary for my family. Not only would I make them proud, but I would finally be called “doctor,” knowing that I had set myself up for a lifetime of professional success.


But on this day, none of that mattered.

“I just don’t give a fuck right now,” I said as my gaze met Professor Brown’s* concerned look.

That was the first time during our thirty-minute-long meeting that I had actually looked up. In the silence that followed, I sat there numb and unable to see any future besides the soul crushing darkness that had consumed me. I was almost two years into my program and had maintained a fairly solid image that everything was okay. But if you looked into my eyes, which always told the truth, you’d see the depth of my inner turmoil. Yes, I was regularly in therapy during this time; however, I was just scratching the surface of what has been a two-year long healing journey.


I started therapy after getting out of a toxic relationship where I completely lost my sense of self, eroded my self-worth, and questioned whether I’d ever be happy again. I went into my therapy sessions with a focus on learning to pick better partners. And yet, the true core of my problems was a belief that I wasn’t deserving of happiness.


This belief manifested itself in a pattern of self-sabotage, playing small, and upholding unhealthy boundaries. It wasn’t just my intimate relationships that suffered because of this, but also my relationship with my doctoral program. There were moments when I didn’t know how I was getting out of bed, let alone finishing a full-time program. I had to do a lot of personal work to get to where I am today—a Ph.D. candidate set to graduate May 2021.


I’d lead you astray if I said the process was an easy one. There is absolutely nothing easy about healing past trauma, unlearning self-defeating habits, and figuring out why you started such a difficult journey in the first place. During this time, one mentor said to me, “Think of all the students you’ll help by graduating, isn’t that enough?”


No, it wasn’t. I was already helping students and didn’t need three letters after my name to continue to do so. What I needed, and eventually found, was a way to amplify my own voice. I needed to learn to trust my inner mentor and listen to what my needs, wants, and desires truly were. Through therapy, self-care, and a lot of reflection, I was able to get to the imperfect place I am today—a place still filled with self-doubt, but also filled with healthy ways to reframe worries and see a more realistic picture.

For those who may be going through similar struggles, I offer you some words of wisdom:

Seek therapy. Even if it’s for something “minor,” I highly recommend everyone seek some sort of professional counseling. I use the on-campus counseling center and have had great experiences. I will admit it’s awkward to run into students and fellow graduate students, but there’s a mutual understanding of confidentiality.


Be kind to yourself. Whenever I’m in a dark place, I somehow convince myself that 1) I’ve never gotten through hard situations, 2) I’m unable to get through this one, and 3) no one is here to help me. In these times, it’s important to be kind to yourself and remember that you have all the skills and support to help you through this dark time.


Ask for help. Adding to #2, seek support from those around you, especially campus resources. I sought support through our Dean of Students Office and they worked with my therapist to get documentation for academic accommodations. As the woman who loves school, never did I think I would have accommodations. They have helped reduce the stress that comes from falling behind.


Reward yourself. It’s okay if “helping students” isn’t enough to motivate you to complete a paper or class. One semester I tied finishing my coursework to buying a messenger bag I had my eye on. I literally posted a picture of that bag everywhere and it helped me do even the smallest amount of work. I know one person who bought a puppy after they finished their program. No matter how big or small, remember to reward your progress.


Do what you can. No matter how small the step, progress is progress. Even if all you can do towards your goal is look up one citation, know that these small steps add up to big accomplishments.


And finally, trust the process. Your doctoral journey is your own. When you’re done, you will have a unique story that you can use to help others. Remember, no one is you, and that is your gift to the world.


I look forward to seeing us both join the three stripes crew!

With love,

-Asia

*Pseudonym


Asia R. Randolph is a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in William & Mary’s Higher Education Administration program. You can connect with her on her Instagram page “The Black Graduate” (@blackgraduate) where she offers inspiration for the doctoral journey and a glimpse into her world filled with motivational quotes, plants, and the occasional awkward selfie.


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