My First Semester as a Ph.D. Student

It’s the last week of classes at Syracuse, and I have considered blogging about my first semester: the classes, the workload, etc. It wasn’t until Jason posted this article, “Best of GradHacker: Personal and Wellness,” that I decided a reflection was in order.

"The Vicious Cycle" via

As an M.A. student at West Virginia, I participated in “the vicious cycle”: I stayed up late, woke up early, and felt guilty every moment where I wasn’t doing work. It wasn’t that the professors were giving us too much work; rather, it was the culture. All the other grad students I knew overworked themselves, and I quickly fell into that lifestyle.

On my campus visit to Syracuse last February, I was struck by the sense of community I saw. Everyone seemed so calm. So many people had hobbies. I often stress-baked at WVU, but I didn’t have time for any proper hobbies. Most importantly, there was camaraderie within the CCR department that made me want to be part of this community.

When we moved to Syracuse in August, I was terrified. I had forgotten all the warm, fuzzy feelings I had earlier in the year about Syracuse’s strong community and support, and was so anxious the first day of classes that the only thing I could eat were Tums. I anticipated a repeat of my M.A. experience times two. Don’t get me wrong: I loved WVU, and it helped prepare me for my current experience, but I never learned how to manage the stress.

As I moved through my first week of classes at Syracuse, into the second month of classes, and past the halfway point, I realized I was making it. I was getting my work finished, I was making new friends, and I was enjoying myself.

If I could go back to this summer and give myself some advice (in the first-person, apparently) about the upcoming semester, it would be this:

  1. Don’t panic. Yes, it’s going to be a LOT of work, but it’s manageable. I’ve made it this far because I can do the work that is expected of me. CCR is a rigorous program, but I have always been able to manage my workload, and I’m (almost) sure that I can continue to do so.
  2. Don’t feel guilty. In “Taking the Guilt out of Grad School,” Chris Stawski writes, “We are expected, by some unseen force, to always be working, always be reading, and always be writing.” During a pre-semester meeting, we listened to panels of both faculty and grad students who stressed the importance of taking care of yourself and taking time off. This goes hand in hand with the recognition that grad school is real life, that you don’t have to put your life on hold while you’re working to complete a degree. Taking a night off doesn’t mean I’m not a good student; it only means I’m human. This is my life, and I have the right to enjoy it.
  3. Create a schedule. I’ve always made extensive to-do lists, but I decided to pump it up this semester by making a legit calendar that is synced from my laptop to my iPhone. Of course, my calendar includes an intense work schedule of about 45 hours/week, which varies depending on the week. My calendar also (and nerdily) includes some mandatory fun-time. I include my morning yoga routines, and there are entire evenings blocked off so I can spend time with my partner. Obviously, most people don’t have to write fun into their schedule, but if I don’t, I know I’ll trick myself into thinking I don’t need it, leading to the aforementioned grad-student guilt.
  4. Be involved and have fun. CCR is a wonderful program comprised of really smart, really great people. I was rewarded a fellowship and heard stories of fellows being disconnected from the rest of their cohort, which worried me because—quite frankly—it’s hard to make friends. I should have known better. From the CCR Graduate Circle to casual office chatting to department parties, the people here make efforts to be available, to hang out as a group, and to foster that sense of community I saw when I visited.

My classes are over, but I still have a couple substantial final projects to work on. I anticipate the next week to be really hectic, but I have a plan for getting the work done. I also have plans to spend time with the friends I’ve made, which is just as (if not more) important.


2 thoughts on “My First Semester as a Ph.D. Student

  1. great advice! it’s important to keep it all in perspective, and each of the points above strike me as ways of doing that…


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