When I look back in 10 years, I wonder which parts of my doctoral undertaking will be most salient:
The moment in which I received the phone call from Dr. Sawaya, telling me I had been admitted into my program.
Walking around campus late at night, just before my first semester, smiling at the smell of freshly cut grass in humid southern air—unbridled excitement buzzing through my chest.
My first seminar, wherein I felt like a fraud for not knowing all of the three-suffix words that my peers spoke with unflagging confidence.
The semester during which I abruptly halted my studies, and hightailed it out of state to the solace of my best friend’s living room for several months—certain that I no longer had the fortitude to survive academia.
Returning to school, and successfully passing my qualifying exams; tearing up when my advisor looked me in the eyes and called me “brilliant”.
For those of us who embody marginalized identities, academia feels simultaneously like a treasure trove and a battle ground. We learn new tools—new words, ways of thinking, and new meanings with which to understand ourselves and our communities. We learn parts of our histories that had once been buried so deeply beneath the sheathing of dominant ideology. We learn that some few, brave others have come before us, thinking our same thoughts, writing themselves into existence, making knowledge, and trying to change the world.
We also feel nearly flattened by the weight of what we represent in these spaces. We know that getting this degree isn’t just for ourselves. Sometimes earning those three letters after my name feels like an elaborate quest to obtain the keys to massive doors; doors that will otherwise remain sealed shut in perpetuity for myself and my communities. I know that I’m getting this degree for other Black folks, for other trans* folks, and other queer folks. For my younger cousins; two little boys who look up at me with innocent eyes, their lanky little mahogany limbs dancing as they yell out “Hi Cousin Kelsey!”, still unaware that there are scholars who specifically study the frightening statistical likelihood that they could end up incarcerated one day.
When I started this degree, I swore that I wouldn’t lose myself in the process. And in some ways, that promise proved unsustainable. I have certainly lost versions of myself. I also gained some new self. Near-ish to the halfway point of this process, I can already see how much it has changed me. Broken me. Challenged me. Healed me. Grown me.
In this strange, sometimes beautiful, often arduous process, I have happened into a number of important realizations. In short, they are as follows:
Nourish your whole self, not just your student self.
This means giving yourself radical permission to do whatever it is you need to do in order to find joy. Sometimes this might look like playing hooky in order to hang out with your partner, and watch Netflix for the day. Sometimes this looks like getting that extra two hours of sleep, despite your previous commitment to stay up late doing research. Sometimes this looks like a formal mental-health leave of absence from school. There shouldn’t be shame associated with these self-loving acts. We’re mere mortals.
Find community. Bonus points for community outside of school.
This academic process is a long, often lonely endeavor. Even the most introverted among us need some amount of interpersonal connection. It can be tempting to isolate, and tuck your head into your highly specific, individual work. But really amazing ideas are often sparked by interactions with others—within and beyond our specific disciplines. And, just as significant, sometimes it’s highly beneficial to find community outside of school altogether. These are the folks that will bring you to a music show on the other side of town, that you would have never found out about otherwise. They remind you that there is more to life than school.
Stay open to a myriad of possibilities.
Let’s be frank. Not everyone who earns their PhD is going to land that perfect, tenure-track academic job on the other side. And by “not everyone” …you know that I’m being generous. But so many of us are telling ourselves that this is the only measure of success at the end of this journey. What I have come to cherish about my graduate work, is that I feel like I’m learning a host of skills that are transferable across fields. I think it behooves us to make connections in different directions—don’t think of non-academic jobs as last-resort contingency plans. If you’ve identified “professor” or “researcher” as something you’d like to do upon graduating, that’s great. You know a job that you’d be good at, or happy with. But there are so many other possibilities. Take time to reflect on what else you might be good at, or fulfilled by.
Create a legacy. Build a bridge.
Sometimes it’s easy to view your institution, and the city or town in which it exists, as mere stepping stones on your personal journey. And while this may be functionally true, there is a great benefit to stopping, looking around, and thinking about what small (or big) things you can personally do to make the space or community more accessible to folks whose presence precedes yours, and for those coming behind you. Maybe this means starting a graduate mentorship program. Or partnering with community members to organize an effort to assess and address a local issue. I know, as graduate students, we’re often short on time and resources. But there are many ways to reciprocate the few privileges that we do accrue by occupying a grad student identity.
Ultimately, these are my musings from my own, unique doctoral experience. I’m sure that when I do look back in 10 years, I will have insights that I can’t quite grasp yet. For every insight gained, there were…missteps. And that’s okay—we’re here to learn, right?