My Tips (to myself) for Getting Through a Ph.D Program

So a Ph.D program can be a vile and violent thing that one cannot comprehend until experienced. On a different day, it can be inspiring, rewarding and amazing in how many naps you’re allowed to take.

My experience is similar and very different to other peoples in many ways — if you are a critical, social, woman of color activist who firmly believes in praxis and social justice while attending an elite academic institution, you may find these tips helpful also. In no order at all, here are some things I’ve learned and good advice I’ve gotten from lived experience or someone else I respect a great deal:

1. Walk around your campus in a dashiki and a circa ’03 House of Dereon puff coat every once in a while. Spend a few hours in the week catching up on all the Basketball Wives. Blast the most vile trap music from your office. Or, more simply, do things that will make you laugh. Academic institutions can be stale as week-old pizza crust and you may find few instances of genuine laughter or ratchetry so for self-care, you might have to create these for yourself. I felt so boxed in by elitism my first few years and was looking so hard for a partner-in-hoodrat that simply wasn’t there. Thus, me and Tamar Braxton on Braxton Family Values became best friends — simply because I needed to hear Black voices. Stay connected to your essence.

2. Twitter and Facebook are bad for your mental health — use in extreme moderation. All those studies that are reporting a correlation between mental health issues and social media usage are also true for you — you will compare your life to others, and you will feel miserable about it. People are out there making real money, getting awards, publishing papers, or smiling on Wednesdays. You don’t need to see that.

3. Acquire and secure a ridiculous cockiness. Things you don’t understand in class, 1) you can, and 2) as long as you give your full attention and effort, are the responsibility of the teaching staff to unpack, not a sign of your inadequacy. Carry this attitude with you and you will ask more questions instead of just feeling dumb.

4. You’re okay. Nobody gets it either. If they really do — that’s great! Use them as an ally. There are things you do better than them, even if they are not particularly relevant right now; you will have to take responsibility for organizing your peers to your advantage. See the strengths of others as your personal assets not as competition.

5. Develop a spiritual practice that includes daily silence, self affirmation and love. Spend at least 10 minutes in this space daily, or else you’ll be totally screwed. Work to surpress comparison, doubt, anxiousness, and depression.

6.Don’t do self-reflection too often — ongoing self critique is not helpful right now. Schedule specified times with close ones to look back and ahead.

7. There’s a lot of work… and if you’re not motivated, you’ll feel it later. Play a character to get things done. Pretend wholeheartedly (I mean really, commit) to being Solange, a dedicated graduate student in Biology who is discovering the cure for chicken pox. I just made Solange up, but if you need to, create some kind of storyline and act your way through your assignments.

8. Set daily goals of what you want to finish. Only 2–3 a day and one must be personal ,i.e. do my laundry, call my mom, clean my house.

9. When it gets so bad, treat your wellness as a job. Reach for help immediately. You are justified in how you feel for however long you feel it. Take fullllllll advantage of campus resources around mental health, time management, writing tips, etc. They will help make your life better, so do it even if you aren’t in crisis mode yet.

10. ID bad spirits/haters/demons/people who work your nerve quickly! There are some in every bunch. Once identified, you’ll need to create a strategy to ignore, avoid or deflect them, because their energy will mess you up if you don’t.

11. This situation is not ideal — but there are resources to get it closer to what you want. Invite the speakers you want to hear to campus, go to the conferences you want, and most importantly research whatever makes you feel good and interested and useful.

12. Get an ally to back up your statements in class and study with. Do the same for them.

13. You’ll need 2-3 available mentors who each meet different needs. At least one who speaks to your emotional needs (someone who will hand you tissues when you cry and say you’re not crazy) and one on your career needs (someone with tough feedback, belief in you, and mentorship on your future). Do NOT combine or confuse these two roles. Your career mentor should not know about your mental breakdowns.

14. If all else fails, take a moment to think of how you got here. You are not in danger, you are not enslaved, you are free to come and go as you please. Your ancestors built the land on which you walk. Honor them with your effort. And always remember you can leave.

15. Take your work to the community — they will remind you why this work needs to be done. Physically study where your people are. You may not be able to work with them the way you did in the past — in many ways getting through this program IS your activism.

16. Get a citation manager quickly. (I ❤ you Mendeley.)

17. You CANNOT READ EVERYTHING. Learn to skim articles, search the internet for critiques and book reviews (because they always summarize the contents of a text), and if you have to read an academic book, read the introduction, conclusion and scan the index for 4–5 topics discussed a lot. Choose some larger sections mentioned under a topic, and just read those pages.

This book’s index shows that it only talks about Aristotle on page 150, so Aristotle is obviously no that important. But see “artists: recording industry payments to”? That comes up many times and thus, must be critical to the argument of this book. I’d read pages 195–199 to get the gist of this topic.

18. Have reasonable standards of comparison. If you’re in your first year, you should concern yourself with the milestones that are mandatory and appropriate for first years. If first year’s don’t even publish, why are you worried about publishing?! Ask your advisor what you should work on that year and just worry about that stuff. Or, I created an ideal CV, which is an aspirational document of things I’d like to accomplish by the time I graduate. It is based on looking at the CVs of 3–4 successful job market candidates in my field. They roughly had very similar accomplishments which made it easy to see a trend on what I needed to get done, and about when did they do it. It now acts as a road map: I see I need 1–3 publications, an award of some kind, and teaching experience by years 5 and 6. So now I don’t worry about it — I’m focused on a big award this year, next year I need to have an article accepted by a journal.

19. Install the following productivity apps on your desktop/mobile: RescueTime, Self-Control, Pomodoro timer, Forest, Google Calendar, Mailbutler.

20. Subscribe to Table of Contents alerts for the 3–5 most important and relevant to you academic journals in your field. When the journal prints a new issue, they’ll send you an email with a list of all the articles . This is how folks stay up to date on new work in your field, but no one tells you to sign up for these alerts because they’re rude. I subscribe to the top 2 sociology journals, a soc journal on race, and this mid-tier journal I want to publish in. I now how a better sense on the types of article each journal typically puts out and when folks bring up so and so’s work, I know a bit about it.

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