I’m About to Start My Ph.D. and I’m Pretty Sure I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

Suddenly everything is changing.

I’m not exaggerating there. My life is about to flip-turn and shoot off the wall in a brand new direction. After five years staying with my parents, I finally just moved in with a roommate. In early September I’ll begin working on a Ph.D., suddenly thrust from unemployment (I was laid off in March) to full-time graduate student mode.

I’m excited, of course, but to be honest, I couldn’t be more scared.

We fear change.

This all happened pretty quickly. When I went back to school for my Master’s a few years ago, I applied in December, was notified of my acceptance in March, and had until August to prepare. Granted, I didn’t move at the time, but I had to put notice at my job and get ready in other ways. This time, the entire process has been fast-tracked: I went through the entire application process in a few weeks, starting in early June, and have had to scramble to get financial aid, find an apartment and move, take care of all the school paperwork, and all that.

Maybe that’s better for me. As an over-thinker, I haven’t had a chance to second-guess my decision or fret and stew too much. But at the same time, since I’m so used to analyzing and rethinking and questioning every move I make, the lack of time for reflection is terrifying.

One thing that has plagued me is if I’m truly going to be able to pull off the coursework. My previous graduate school experience was in journalism, and even though it was busy and rigorous, it wasn’t particularly academic. There was more running around the city, reporting, making phone calls, writing and producing, and less reading, research and theory. I’m beyond worried that my attention span (or lack thereof) is going to be my downfall.

While I was in j-school, I was always full of self-doubt. I worried constantly that I wasn’t passionate enough, or street-savvy enough, or bold enough, or working hard enough. It got to the point that I was trying to take an afternoon off, and while I was out shopping with my mother I had a full-on panic attack, complete with snot-filled crying, right in the middle of the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. I really, really don’t want that to happen again.

I’ve been trying to take control in what little ways I can. I’m making sure my new room is really organized, so my dry erase calendar ready to go with color-coded markers and all my papers have a place to be filed. I’ve been updating my wardrobe so I look more like a professional adult and less like an overgrown 16-year-old punk brat with questionable taste (or at least I’ll save that look for weekends).

This flurry of adjustment is just adulthood finally catching up with me. I’m 28, so I’ve been running from it long enough. It was bound to happen eventually. I’m sure the stress and the self-doubt will be there, as will roommate disagreements, terrible commutes and overwhelming workloads. So here’s hoping I figure out a way to handle it all without too much liver damage.

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

9 replies on “I’m About to Start My Ph.D. and I’m Pretty Sure I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”

I went from my MA into my PhD, and I was still surprised at the amount of work involved. The adjustment period was significantly longer than I thought it would be–like I thought I’d been operating at 11 before, but really it turned out I was somewhere around a 7.5.

BUT you have a lot of practical, professional experience when it comes to self-direction, adhering to deadlines, and motivation, and that will be a huge advantage to you when it comes to adjusting to the peculiar demands of grad work. And you’re innately awesome, which will also help you out. Everything else is learning the details.

I know that feeling inside and out (with the exception of the just moving out of parents’ place and in with a roommate- I always managed to avoid living with the parents). I know the feeling of the fast-track (I was in the process of finishing my Masters when the lab I’d been volunteering with offered me a fully paid PhD-level grant. I had three days to make a decision and one week to apply to the PhD program. Then told my BF at the time that all our plans had just changed…).  I know the fear of the coursework (I was still technically still writing up my Masters work when I started PhD classes. All I wanted was to have a goddamn break from school.). I know the self-doubt (from what I can tell, it’s almost a function of being a woman in a high-degree program. Although I know some guys who feel the same way, too. Maybe the humility is a good sign. I can’t tell you the number of times I have sat in front of my computer and cried because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and like I shouldn’t be in a PhD program and I’m really just a big phony and why hadn’t anyone realized it yet??). I have the dry-erase calendar with multi-colored markers. I tried the professional wardrobe update (within budgetary reason…).

But it’ll all be okay. Maybe you’ll actually continue to use the white-board calendar (mine has writing on it from last year still…). Maybe you’ll manage to look more professional (last winter at the end of the semester I wore the same hoodie and jeans four days in a row. I changed t-shirts after day two. It was comfortable and comforting.). I never really got past the overgrown punk 16-yr old look myself, but I maintain that if you can converse, write, and think like a professional, you don’t have to look like it 97% of the time. But you will learn heaps and accomplish more than you think you will. There will be all manner of theoretical and esoteric stuff that will sound terrifying at first, only to become second-nature before you know it.

It’s a wild ride, kid. Good luck!

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