Graduate School

Lessons From Year One

coffee and tulips

A few weeks ago one of my best friends casually mentioned that she thought I was crazy for leaving my job to pursue a PhD full-time. Had she said this to me in October I would have agreed with her and called my former supervisor to ask for my job back.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this first year has taken an emotional and physical toll I was not prepared for.

I knew the journey wouldn’t be easy (less than 2% of people in the U.S. have PhDs), but I did not know that it would often leave me in tears. Sometimes these tears were of joy (making coherent contributions to class discussions after 4 hours of sleep) other times they were tears of sadness (realizing that I can “function” on 4 hours of sleep). There were many moments of self-doubt with a heavy dose of imposter syndrome.

In the midst of all of this I  have a child to raise.

I mistakenly thought that leaving my full-time position to be a full-time student would make parenting easier. *insert maniacal laugh*  I’ve decided to petition the university to get a honorary doctorate for my kid. His patience, sense of humor and heart has made our transition so much easier. He’s one of the reasons I made it through this year.

Even with the tears and frustration I am so proud of all I’ve accomplished this year. I’ve taken classes with some of the most respected scholars in my field. I presented at my first international conference. I won an award for my research.  I’ve developed relationships with new friends that I know will last a lifetime.  I’ve watched my kid continue to develop his voice and come into his own.

Now that the year is done I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what this all means and how I want to continue to grow next year. I know that nothing is perfect, but I believe in progress. I believe that I can be intentional about how I engage with the people and environment around me.

Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it. – Maya Angelou

Here are some lessons from year one:

Nurture Community

I have been blessed with an amazing cohort. We have a variety of personal and professional experiences that make our time together incredibly rich. We also genuinely cheer each other on. These are my people. In addition to loving on my cohort, I have found it invaluable to  nurture community  away from my academic life. These are the people who don’t ask me about my dissertation topic or conferences. These are the people who I can talk to about reality tv drama. I love and need them.

Go to Sleep
There was a time in my life where I thought being able to stay up all night and make it to an 8am class was a good idea. I found myself falling into that trap this year. I would often wait until my kid was in bed to turn on my Keurig and begin working. After endless cups of coffee I found myself falling asleep at 3am and waking up at 6am to get ready for the day. I’m 1,000% sure sleep deprivation affected my ability to be the type of student I wanted to be, but more importantly the mom I want to be. It really hit me one day when my son asked me to play a video game with him and ended his sentence with  “…but I know you’re tired”.  It broke my heart, but it made me realize that I had to change my schedule for my health and for my family.

Ask for What You Need. And Ask Often.
The best advice that I’ve gotten this year was to ask for what I need. In many ways I felt like a freshman in college trying to navigate what it meant to be a PhD student and mama.  I’ve spent the year learning the “ways of being” as a PhD student in my program. Sometimes it has felt like a game where the rules were written in a language I didn’t understand. I realized that once I started sharing what I needed things started clicking. I think this is a testament to amazing faculty and staff who were willing to listen and help me.

Say No.
No is a complete sentence. No is also a word I struggle with. When I was working full-time it was nothing for me to volunteer for a committee or leadership opportunity. I’ve learned that this cannot be the case while I’m a student. There’s always a temptation to sign-up for something that may lead to an opportunity down the road. Every time I’m tempted I can hear my Dad’s voice saying –“What’s for you isn’t going to miss you”. There’s nothing wrong with being selective with your time and engaging only in projects that truly feed your soul vs. simply building your CV. You can do anything but not everything. 

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I knew it would be worth it. I’ve learned so much about myself and what I want in my journey. I’m prepared to ask for it. And ask often.

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  • Reply Eva

    I just finished year two of law school and I watched while everybody did everything. I felt left out because there was so much I couldn’t participate in because I had a family and they had stuff to do. Saying no wasn’t hard, but I’ve learned to say no and not feel guilty about it.

    June 15, 2016 at 12:57 pm
  • Reply Kirstin N. Fuller

    Great suggestions! A lot of people don’t realize how much of a toll sleep deprivation takes on your mind, body, spirit and your family. If we are not at our best we are no good to anyone else.

    June 15, 2016 at 8:03 pm
  • Reply Greg

    Congratulations on completing your first year! It definitely sounded like it was difficult, but you made it through. I know I’d be a wreck on only three hours of sleep per night!

    Regarding “…but I know you’re tired”, I’ve experienced this from the child’s point of view. My mom worked three jobs when I was a kid and I was sad that I wasn’t able to see her much (so much so that she decided to quit one of the jobs). As I got older, I learned to appreciate the hard work and sacrifices she made for me and my siblings.

    Good luck on the PhD pursuit!

    June 15, 2016 at 9:17 pm
  • Reply Allison Jones

    Kudos to you for pursuing your PhD! I’m finishing up my master’s and I’ve been thinking about possibly pursuing a doctorate in the future. These are all SO spot on! I definitely agree with getting sleep and asking for help – these two things work wonders.


    June 15, 2016 at 10:20 pm
  • Reply Marsha

    Great for you girl! I began a doctoral program in my field for a semester a while back but had to stop due the struggle between that and having very young children. So, I applaud you for sticking it through! Sounds like you have a great support system and are very aware of how to make it work and maintain your sanity!

    June 16, 2016 at 9:12 am
  • Reply DudeMom

    So many good tips. I went to grad school with a toddler and finished pregnant. It was super hard but I am so glad I did it, even if I don’t even use that degree now :). Congrats on your accomplishments!

    June 16, 2016 at 10:25 am
  • Reply Joanna

    Congratulations on completing your first year. I’m still on the fence of grade school. These are great tips. All the best with your journey.
    Joanna recently posted…Cut and Color on Natural Hair at Wesley Styles NYCMy Profile

    June 16, 2016 at 1:48 pm
  • Reply Donna Shana

    SO very awesome that you stepped out and pursued your dream! Congrats to you! Keep soaring

    June 16, 2016 at 3:57 pm
  • Reply Pamela

    Congratulations on finishing year one! You can do it. I’m so inspired by your journey. Stay the course and take care of yourself. The reward will be worth the effort.

    June 16, 2016 at 11:08 pm
  • Reply Stacie

    Congrats on your first year! I know it can be difficult but keep pressing. It’s all downhill from here. 😉
    Stacie recently posted…Easy Summer Morning Routine Tips for Busy MomsMy Profile

    June 17, 2016 at 9:39 am
  • Reply Christine @Moms 'N Charge®

    Congrats on getting through your first year, as I know that’s a major accomplishment! A good friend of mine just got her PhD last year with two kids in tow. There were many times she wanted to give up, but she did it. And I know you can too. These are great lessons for life (especially the last one as that is also the title of the last chapter of my book lol) that anyone can benefit from. Thanks for sharing and best wishes to you as you continue your studies.

    June 18, 2016 at 12:21 am
  • Reply Kim

    Congratulations on all of your achievements. You’re my hero for pursuing your PhD while parenting.

    June 21, 2016 at 7:06 pm
  • Reply Front Row Mama - September Goals - Front Row Mama

    […] trying to find it. There was one a time in my life where I thought I could thrive on minimal sleep. Last year proved that was a very bad, no good idea. I think if I budget my time correctly I can make this […]

    September 2, 2016 at 11:24 pm
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