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Jaclyn A. Siegel



10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started my Ph.D.

Jaclyn A. Siegel - she/her/hers – Western University - @jaclynasiegel

The first two years of my Ph.D. have been full of exhilarating highs and crushing lows. Of course, we all have different circumstances, and there is no “right way” to survive academia, but here is a list of things which have helped me find peace, stability, and (dare I say) happiness amid the turmoil.

  1. See a therapist regularly. Therapy is expensive, and graduate school leaves you with little extra time or money, but nothing is more valuable than your health and happiness. It may be “normal” to experience anxiety, depression, or loneliness during this time, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Seeking help for mental health problems is still stigmatized, and at a time when you want to create the illusion of perfection, this may seem unintelligible. I promise you that your life will be fuller and your work will be better when your mental health is managed.
  2. You will make friends in unexpected places. It is possible that you will become friends with the other students in your cohort. However, your classmates are navigating the same tricky terrain as you: they are stressed about their work, struggling with imposter syndrome, and fearful about their career prospects after graduation. The people you spend time with (both during and outside of work) may be those in other departments or even outside of your university. Don’t be afraid to seek connections elsewhere, including online. No matter how you feel within your department, you are not alone.
  3. If you aren’t laughing every day, you are doing something wrong. Conducting research, writing papers, and applying for grants can be stressful and frustrating. It’s easy to get caught up in the seriousness of it all, but remember that you are a person first and a student second, and you deserve to be happy. Even during the most stressful times. Even if your experiments don’t work. Even if your papers get rejected. If you ever find yourself unable to laugh, stop what you are doing and don’t start again until you can.
  4. There are people who will respect and appreciate your research. Not everyone is going to love the research you do. Tenured professors and graduate students alike may have preferred methods and theories that are not consistent with the methods and theories that are relevant to your work, especially if you study a stigmatized topic or social issue. You may have to go to people outside of your department to find support, but trust that the work you are doing is important, interesting, and meaningful.
  5. Don’t stop doing the things you love. The culture of academia is extremely toxic: overworking is romanticized, and self-care is regarded as trivial. You may start to see your hobbies (e.g., baking elaborate snickerdoodles, competitive square dancing, extreme knitting) as a waste of precious research time, but you will feel so much more confident and balanced with all of these other parts of yourself integrated into your days.
  6. Take advantage of all of the services your university has to offer. Your university likely has bursaries, scholarships, clubs, and events for graduate students, many of which are free or low-cost. It may feel silly or uncomfortable to apply or attend, but these things are designed with you in mind. You might feel awkward going to events with people you don’t know, and you may think that you are not the kind of person for whom these services are designed, but you are completely entitled to all of these things!
  7. Just apply for everything that feels like a good opportunity. The Ph.D. is a time of uncertainty and self-doubt. You may not have much experience, but everyone has to start somewhere. If you don’t apply for grants and leadership positions, you lose out by default. For every 10 applications, you may receive nine rejections, but you just might end up with one wonderful opportunity that completely changes your graduate school experience.
  8. Ask for (and accept) help. There is a lot of pressure in academia to appear as though you know everything, but everyone around you is just as confused and uncertain as you are. You may be hesitant to ask your supervisor for assistance, but it is literally their job to help you through your Ph.D. Don’t be embarrassed to admit that you don’t know everything – you’re not supposed to yet!
  9. Advocate for yourself. You may have experiences as a graduate student that are unjust or inappropriate. The uneven power dynamic between students and faculty can make it feel inappropriate or even counterproductive to stand up for yourself. Nevertheless, it is important to speak up if you are being mistreated. No matter what the circumstances, you deserve to have a safe and respectful experience. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking with your supervisor or program chair directly, your university or community may have someone who can advocate on your behalf.
  10. Make it fun. This is a blanket statement, but it applies across domains. Find ways to make even the monotonous parts of the Ph.D. experience enjoyable. Read studies you enjoy. Get involved with organizations that are important to you. If you like purple ink, use purple pens. Make your presentations beautiful. Find a neat place to live, and decorate it with the things you love. Take dance breaks for showtunes. Eat more donuts. Get bigger jeans. Go to conferences and make friends with people who are like you. Make bad, nerdy jokes and laugh at them, even if no one else does. If you are doing something you hate, stop doing it and do something you love instead. Write in interesting places, and try all different kinds of coffee. Take breaks as needed. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself and others. Travel for conferences, and stay extra nights for exploring. Be your weird self, and take up more space. Academia will make room for you.

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