Confessions of a First-Year PhD Student

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


It's funny. I actually wrote this blog post 2 years ago, while I was still finishing up my first year of grad school. I went straight from college to a PhD program. (I'll talk about that transition a little later.) So at the time, I was experiencing burnout and still struggling to understand the grad school hustle.

Now, fast forward to today. I've finished up my coursework, successfully passed my qualifying exams, and figured out my dissertation topic. All I can say is, what a difference a year (or two) can make! These are my confessions. *Usher voice*

"So, what exactly do you do?" I've been asked this question this past year more times than I can remember. I usually respond by saying that I'm "just a student." But the reality is that this is only a half-truth. Yeah, I still attend class and have homework. However, graduate school, for me, is kinda like college on steroids. And after these conversations, I walk away thinking two things: I still have a long way to go before I graduate (Help!), but also many people don't understand the day-to-day grind of a PhD student.


So I wanted to offer a glimpse into my world by revealing some personal truths about my first year in a humanities graduate school program. But be warned, some are good, some are bad, and some are ugly.


I read (A lot of) books and wrote (A lot of) papers

Okay. Duh, right? I guess I did the same thing in college. But what makes grad school different is that you're responsible for doing a lot more reading and a lot more writing. I still remember laughing the first time I looked at the syllabus for one of my classes - that nervous, "Are you really about this life?" type of laugh.


What also makes grad school different from college is the way PhD students discuss the reading assignments in class. Maybe it was me, but during my very first class, it seemed like my classmates were purposely going out of their way to use fancy words and to discuss books and articles that we didn't even have to read that day. Sitting there, without a clue of what was happening, I remember thinking, "Come on, y'all. It's just the first day."

Oh, yeah. And in grad school, you're always writing. If you aren't writing a research paper for class, you're writing for something! Which brings me to my next point...


I did other stuff, too

In addition to reading and writing for my classes, I wrote a paper to present at a conference; I wrote proposals to scholarly journals to publish my writing (got rejected from both); I wrote multiple applications for research fellowships and grants (won two); I tried to watch Hulu; and I attended on-campus lectures whenever visiting professors gave talks. I'm sure that next year will be similar, but I'll also be working as a teaching assistant.


I earned money to be a student

Fun fact: Many PhD programs fully-fund the students that they admit. The funding packages typically last between 4 to 6 years and include your tuition and a stipend for your living expenses. The amount of the stipend varies from school to school.


Graduate students are also encouraged to apply for fellowships and grants. Depending on the particular award, students can use this money for their research projects or to simply better their quality of life.


I struggled with self-doubt

After a month in grad school, I realized that the students in my first class weren't the only ones who used scholarly words and made connections to outside books. Everyone else in my other classes did the same thing. The reading was difficult. I felt like I could only talk about the material at a 2nd grade level. But it seemed like everyone else talked as if they had already written books about the topic.


I'll just say that my professors later told me not to believe the hype. (People can, and do, say a whole lot about nothing.) But still, I've never been the most talkative student. So it was tough for me to overcome that initial culture shock and be vulnerable with my ideas in a classroom setting - even with the little things.


I enjoyed doing research (and still do)

Yeah, it's nerdy. But personally, I think writing academic papers about black athletes is kinda' dope. I grew up playing and watching sports, so I like being able to take it seriously from a scholarly standpoint.

Tip: If you decide to attend grad school, write about something that really interests you. It'll sustain you when things get tough!


I failed over and over and over again

True Life: I Couldn't Stop Taking L's ("Losses") - from misspeaking (or not speaking at all) during classroom discussions to reading articles 3+ times and still not understanding them to struggling to finish my final papers in time and needing extensions.

At the time, all of these felt like personal failures. I was used to being a good student, so it was tough, and incredibly humbling, when things didn't go how I intended.


I considered quitting (more than once)

Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." A year ago, my plan was to attend graduate school, become a college professor, and write some books. And then school actually started, and it felt like I got punched in the the the the head...and in the stomach.

I felt burned out by the end my first year, so I pretty much crawled across the finish line. But I finished!


I can't wait for Year Two

I'm still trying to figure out this whole PhD student thing. But through struggling this past year, and for some reason, returning for more, I see that I really do enjoy graduate school. It's tough, but it's also rewarding!

About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.