Three things I’ve learned from the first semester in my part-time PhD

I’ve now completed one semester of somewhere between the 15-20 semesters to come of my part-time PhD. With one semester under my academic belt, I’d like to reflect on how my first semester went and what I learned — both inside and out of the classroom.

So, what did I learn?

  1. Believe in yourself — you’re smarter and more capable than you think.
    I was worried when I started the semester. I was incredibly nervous to be back in a classroom after five years in the workforce. Plus, my experience in my master’s program, while also good, wasn’t great — especially in the classroom. I often felt out of place, like I wasn’t smart enough or well-read enough to be participating in discussions with my peers. Luckily, I had the support of my friends and family around me, who gave me tips, encouragement, and even gave me notebooks to help me prepare. I love a good notebook! notebook
    Weeks before my first class, I had started listening to motivational podcasts that gave me tips for how to boost my confidence. I must admit, I tried a number of these tactics, but nothing worked as well as going into the classroom and forcing myself to speak up and contribute. So, that’s exactly what I did. And within a couple of weeks, I felt far more comfortable speaking up, asking questions, and getting the most out of my classroom experience.
  2. Take it one week at a time, and do the best you can. The academic world seems to be full of people doing so, so much. Following academic accounts online, or looking around the graduate lounge on campus can make you feel like you’re not doing as much work as you should, or as much work as those around you are doing. The truth is that everyone is on their own journey and takes academic work at their own pace. For me, working a full-time job, working on conferences, papers, edited books, and making time for working out, cooking, and spending time with friends and family on top of my academic work means that I have to carefully schedule in almost everything I do. This alone can be extremely exhausting, and can leave you feeling inadequate for, say, not accepting a TA position in your first semester of your PhD. This one was particularly difficult for me. During slower times at work, I often felt like I wasn’t extending myself enough because I was only working until 11:00 pm most nights of the week. I was able to keep playing volleyball for three hours every Wednesday night, worked out between 3-4 times a week, and saw my friends at least once a month at our usual dinner meet up. But part-way through the semester, I remembered that one of the reasons I left academia for so many years was because of the lack of balance in my life. My Wednesday night volleyball games are important to me and provide a social and physical outlet for the week. It’s something I look forward to every week, and something I wouldn’t want to give up just to feel like I’m getting ahead in my program. This doesn’t mean my PhD isn’t important to me. Actually, it’s incredibly important and I’ve restructured major parts of my life to be able to do it. But, it’s not the only thing in my life, and I actually believe that continuing my other commitments makes me a better scholar.There’s a lot of work to do every single week when you’re doing a PhD. In the coursework stage of my studies, for me, this means taking it one week at a time. By dividing my work into week-sized bites and carefully scheduling in everything I need to do (which sometimes includes accepting the fact that some weeks, you just can’t do it all), it makes the work seem far more manageable and keeps the anxiety at bay, at least a little.
  3. Friends are so, so important.  When I first approached my supervisor and said I wanted to do a PhD part-time, she told me one of the biggest barriers I’d have to overcome was feeling separated from my cohort because I wasn’t on campus as much. She advised me to do everything I could within the first semester to get to know the other students in the program and make some friends. And, luckily, that proved to be easier than I’d feared. My program has a mentorship program set up between incoming PhDs and third to fourth year students. I was lucky to be paired with an exceptional mentor who has taken the time not only to show me the ropes, but to help me navigate the other ‘life things’ happening when you’re doing a PhD. She’s become not only a mentor, but a friend as well–and an invaluable one at that. In addition to my mentor, I also made friends with one other PhD student in particular, and we’ve been able to lean on each other, get each other’s advice, and develop a friendship over curated music lists, one failed craft event, and library working sessions together.

So, those are the things I’ve taken away from my first semester of my part-time PhD. If you’ve done, or are currently working towards your PhD or other academic studies, what tips would you want to know if you were just starting out? Let me know in the comments below!

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And stay tuned for more from my part-time PhD journey in blog posts to come.

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