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How I Survived my First Year in a Doctoral Program!!

June 9, 2018

THE FIRST YEAR IS OFFICIALLY OVERRRR!!!!! It was touch and go after midterms, but I made it! I'm a self-proclaimed nerd and I am not ashamed. I love homework, doing worksheets, shopping for school supplies; you know the regular stuff. Unfortunately, all of that changed when I entered this Ph.D. program. Sometimes, the mere thought of work, literature searches, and writing papers flares my anxiety and allergies (hive nation). Entering a doctoral program is not for the faint of heart. My first year in this program was definitiely an eye opening experience. I will say it over and over again, and even scream it from the mountain tops..."A doctoral program in Biology/STEM is drastically different from a traditional Ph.D." Why do I say that?? First of all, as a Biology student, I am in school YEAR-ROUND. Ain't no summer breaks around here sis!!


By all means this post is not meant to scare anyone, but it is what it is; with the exception of major holidays, we are literally in school all the time. While other Doctoral students-- in Humanities for example-- are arriving to campus in the evening for classes after having worked an actual job somewhere; STEM majors are on campus all day. On several occasions this year, I didn't see daylight because I was in lab before the sun came up and after the sun went down (no exaggeration). But I digress...this post isn't meant for my graduate school grievances, it's a post for the people. Kudos to you for risking it all to start your degree program and not explore options of becoming a stripper (lol, no shade). Anyway, here are a few do's and don'ts for anyone who wants to know how to survive their first year, or any year for that matter in a graduate program:


1. DO: Work during the week & play on the weekend. It took awhile for me to master, but towards the tail end of the academic year, I finally got it. Once again, I'll reiterate this; it may not apply to other disciplines, but if you are in the STEM field, 9 times out of 10 your degree program is essentially a FULL-TIME job, with minimal pay (Don't worry...the big bucks are waiting for you at the finish line). With that being said, we deserve to let loose every once in awhile. WORK HARD during the week! Complete as much work as possible so that when the weekend hits, you don't feel guilty about indulging in a little turn up session. I had TOO much fun on several weekends this past semester and I don't regret an ounce of it. I took the opportunity to explore my independence and go to events around the city BY MYSELF and sometimes with friends. Oh and it was worth every minute! I actually wish I had done more; but I have plenty more weekends to engage in fun activities. 



2. DO: Maintain your mental & physical health. I was lacking in this department more than just a little bit. I was super stressed, and moments from ripping out all of my hair by the end of the semester. I stayed up later than I should have on many nights...skipped lunch a lot...and gained ____ lbs (we'll discuss this in another post) of stress fat. Find a hobby, or something that you can turn to, in between studying, to calm you. I mean if you go crazy or end up in the hospital, how will that help you obtain your degree? IT WON'T! Self-care is the best care, and I plan on doing better in the future.


3. DON'T: Forget that your program is a process. What gets me through long days in the research lab? The thought of defending my dissertation and walking across the stage at graduation to claim my degree (I already have my outfit, hairstyle, and graduation party planned out in my head). Whenever experiments go awry, I remind myself that it is all a part of the process. No matter how long it takes, successfully completing any task (experimental or otherwise) will get me one baby step closer to the ultimate goal.


4. DON'T: Isolate yourself from your cohort. I'll be the first to tell you, I can be extremely anti-social (especially if I have an attitude). However, this year, I learned to step out of my comfort zone and make new friends. As a result, I became very close with a few people in my cohort. I mean think about it, these are the people who know first-hand what you are going through!! They can help you study, help you understand how to analyze experimental results in the lab, and/or just be a shoulder to cry on; and vice versa. You might have been able to get by in undergrad, but a graduate degree should not be something you have to endure alone. Now go ahead and foster new relationships!!


If this post touches at least one person, then I'm satisfied. Hindsight is 20/20; and contrary to what I thought, I was completely unprepared when I began this program in August. If you're entering graduate school or any other program, remember that Rome wasn't built in a day. Take it one step at a time down the yellow brick road to graduation.


It's easier said than done, but try not to get overwhelmed. Don't do what I did and worry for the whole year only to realize that I had nothing to worry about. Embrace all challenges that come your way....cause it only makes you stronger right?! KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON! Happy studying!!


P.S. If you have any advice for students, leave them in the comment section below!

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