As I quickly approach the 1 year anniversary of leaving the full-time workforce to enter graduate school, it seems only appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the previous year and what I've learned from being in a PhD program. Entering a doctoral program was something I did after speaking with friends and colleagues in programs, who had gone through programs, and after much reflection. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. While I would say that by-and-large things have gone as one would expect, I was surprised by what I learned about myself.
I consider myself to be a very reflective person and so going in to the program I thought I knew what would be my areas of strengths and areas of challenge. What I found was that being in a PhD program was not nearly as similar to my masters degree or work experiences as I thought it would be. Time management had never been a challenge for me in college or my masters degree. In my first semester it became a big challenge.
Whereas I had always had structure in my previous experiences, my PhD program provided me with very little structure. In addition to my 3 seminar classes a week, my 20 hours/week graduate assistantship was up to me to manage. I didn't have an office, and could do the work whenever I wanted/needed to, outside of a weekly team meeting. What this meant was that I was largely working from home, and easily distracted. What should have taken me 4 hours was taking 6 or 8 hours instead. Instead of planning ahead or staying on top of things, it became more about catching up and just finishing.
I believe that this is the challenge that many doctoral students face when they finish their coursework. So much freedom and little direction. I feel like I better understand why so many people end up ABD. This was not a challenge I anticipated and it really threw me for a loop. I had always thought of myself as not dependent upon external praise/validation, and it was unnerving to me how much that affected me. I remember finding out in my Intro Statistics class that while I had received an A on a homework assignment, I had actually scored in the bottom 50% of the class, and just feeling like I had been sucker punched. I was always used to being in the top of my class. Not necessarily #1, but definitely top 10-15%. That was no longer the case. I was definitely not the smartest person in the room, and maybe not even in the top half, and that was a humbling realization.
In my second semester (and even more in my summer class) I found myself being able to better structure my time. Part of the improvement was from my classes moving to mostly morning/afternoon classes, instead of afternoon/evening classes, but part of it was definitely me creating more structure. Instead of feeling like I was always behind, I instead felt like I was on top of things (but still not ahead of them). While my grades got better, I found my need for "gold stars" had diminished, and I was able to focus more on actually learning things and moving towards my degree rather being consumed by being validated by, or in relation to, others.
The other thing that I found surprising was how much I found myself enjoying my statistics classes and doing research. I came into the program thinking that I wanted to return to Student Affairs administration upon completion of my degree. Now I find myself leaning more towards some type of research/consulting focus after I graduate. As an administrator I always felt a large amount of satisfaction from feeling like I had "fixed" a problem or helped improve a process.
In research, I find a similar potential for problem solving. In discussing my research interest with others (both academics and non academics) I get the same feedback from people, which is that they think it's interesting, important, and of practical importance to people, which is very exciting that it's not only me who finds it fascinating. I hope that in researching masculinity and alcohol use/abuse, I can put together my experiences in Student Affairs and Residential Life with my new interests/skills in research in a way that tangibly improves peoples lives.
I'm wise enough to know that I don't know where this journey is going to take me. I'm certain that there will be more surprises, triumphs, and challenges along the way. While it hasn't always been fun, I feel like this program has helped me become a better and more self-aware person, and I'm optimistic that it will continue to do so as I continue.
[As a fun aside, if you ever meet someone who needs to humbled, tell them you think they'd be great for a PhD program. They'll think it's a compliment, and you'll know they'd get taken down a peg (or three).]