After each year of my PhD, I have spent some time reflecting on the past year and writing up these reflections in blog posts. You can read my reflections from my first year here, my second year here, and third year here.
After a really difficult third year, my fourth year has become one of my most enjoyable years yet. Since everyone’s PhD varies so greatly, here is some more context on what my fourth year entailed. I wrote and defended my thesis proposal. I taught for two of the terms (winter and summer). I wrapped up an extensive research project. And began my data collection. But the best news of my fourth year was finding out that I was pregnant and expecting our first baby in January 2022.
With all of this happening, here are my 10 personal reflections from my 4th year as a PhD student:
Who is ready for another writing challenge? I know I am.
I have to get a solid first draft done for a published chapter, that I am working on in a team – by the end of August. I thought a writing challenge would be a great way to motivate me and hold me accountable. So, if this sounds like something you need too, I hope you will join me!
Last week was a rough one for me. I received two rejections in one day. And one of those rejections was for a SSHRC doctoral award, which is an award that I have been working to earn for the past four years. It was a personal goal that I wanted to achieve in my PhD, and this was my last year to apply.
I’ve had my share of rejection in the past; applying to other schools for my PhD, other funding opportunities and you can check out some of past past reflections here and here. But something hit different this time.
The typical narrative around rejection in grad school is “get used to it”, “this is something we need to face for the rest of our career”, “if you can’t take rejection, you will never make it.” If this was in fact true, you would think by my fourth year of my PhD I would be an expert on rejection and it wouldn’t affect me, right? Wrong.
One thing you must know about me is that I am a feeler, I am emotional, a really big empath. I used to hate this about myself, but it’s something I am growing to love. When I received the news of this rejection, I felt like I should have enough experience in rejection by now and be able to dust it off and move on. I am sure some people can do this, but not me, I don’t think it will ever be me. If you are like me, an emotional soul, then I say let’s embrace it. Let’s change the narrative of rejection in academia. Let’s allow ourselves to feel the hurt and see what we can learn from it. Here is what I am learning so far:
Lesson One: Feel your feelings – both the bad and the good
After I heard the news, my husband came in the room and double checked the e-mail to make sure it was correct (which in hindsight is very sweet), as I ended up on the ground crying and in disbelief. That night, the only thing I could do is try to focus on anything else but the negative thoughts in my head and doing anything I could to sleep that night. This was very much survival mode, it was very difficult to exist that day. The next morning, still in a bit of a shock, I shared the news on Instagram, which made it more real. I went for a morning walk. I wanted to be “strong” and move on, but I couldn’t help but cry for most of it. Unfortunately, my mask only covers half my face, leaving my blood-shot eyes out in the open for everyone to see. Then things got easier, minute by minute, hour by hour. It seemed less like running through mud and more like walking at a very slow pace.
But you see, I was strong; I face and felt all my feelings – the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness, the unworthiness, and the deep, deep sadness.
Allowing myself to tune into my feelings, I found something surprising. There were also a lot of wonderful moments amongst the saddness. At first, this was a bit uncomfortable to feel, I thought, “This is awful news, I can’t be enjoying some piece of this rejection, can I?” Well I did. The words my husband told me, while I was curled up in a ball on the ground that night, the out-pour of supportive comments, DM’s, cards, coffees and gifts that I received, were all so thoughtful and heartwarming. And I don’t want to forget those things – the unwavering support from my husband, the academic community of colleagues that support me and my work, the online community of scholars sharing in their own rejection stories to rewrite the narrative of rejection in academia, the check-in’s from family and friends. If I had brushed off my rejection, I would have missed it all.
I learned my first lesson, it’s okay to feel so incredibly sad, while also feeling loved and happy at the same moment, because of the same event. Practice liking what you are feeling – both the good and the bad.
Lesson Two: Get rid of that shame. We have all been here
I felt so embarrassed. Unworthy to be playing in the same arena as the other scholars who have received this award. I felt embarrassed that I took this silly award to heart so much. I felt like a disappointment to those who have been supporting me in my journey. I felt, shame. So. Much. Shame. But can we please work towards getting rid of that? If everyone experiences so much rejection in academia, then it shouldn’t be shameful. We should wear our rejections with pride. Imagine if there could be a section for rejections on our CV and we could see them too as significant milestones – because you put yourself out there, you worked hard on those applications; you tried.
My second lesson, my rejections are my battle wounds, check them out – aren’t they cool?
Lesson Three: Find something that helps with negative thoughts
But as I mentioned, there were dark days. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, dark times are tough. Tougher than I even want to admit to my therapist, or my husband, let alone in this blog post for the entire world to see. But something that helped me in these dark times is working through the present moment. This won’t work for everyone, but it worked for me. I found something that worked for me. At first, this was simply focusing on something to be grateful for, anything really, and repeat it until I was blue in the face. Then, I could reframe my thoughts a bit more easily. And eventually could bring myself to do things that brought me joy, like read, paint, or meditate. This comes with a warning however, working at your negative thoughts is exhausting. It’s a lot of work. But it was survival.
My third lesson, gratitude is exhausting, but it works (for me).
Lesson Four: Reflect on your unconscious feelings
And for my biggest lesson of all. In deep stillness comes deep reflection. My reflection taught me why I actually wanted this funding award so badly. Sure, the money would be great. Yes, it would look great on my CV when I apply for jobs. Oh, and I would gain significant bragging rights. But mostly, I wanted it because it would prove that I could be a respected scholar, that I am good enough to be in the playing field, that I belong.
What I am learning is that this funding award would could never give me that. I am the only one who can give that to me. I need to believe it, and no funding award will prove it. I am not there yet, but I am working on it. I feel hopeful and I feel powerful, because I felt my feelings.
Of course, I don’t have this whole rejection thing figured out, and I definitely don’t have this PhD thing figured out. But I know I can’t run from being who I am. So, if you are reading this blog post because you have recently faced rejection, I encourage you to take some time to sit with your unique feelings and emotions, whatever ones come up for you, and see what lessons you can take away from this experience. Rejection sucks. But you are strong.
Until next time,
P.S Don’t forget to use #ScholarCulture #ScholarSquad to keep me updated on your experiences as grad students.
P.P.S Applying to grad school for the 2021/22 school year? Check out this FREE eBook on 5 steps to a successful grad school application. Are you in grad school and struggling to find easy lunches to bring to campus? Check out three FREE recipes and full nutritional information here.
A pattern I’ve started to notice in my PhD is that every time I finish a big milestone, such as completing coursework, my qualifying exam, and now my proposal, I often lose motivation after it is complete. At first, I shrugged this off as me needing to take a break and nothing more. And I think that is part of it. It is necessary for us PhD students to rest or else this marathon will not be sustainable. We also need to recognize the difference between only needing a break and signs of burnout. After my qualifying exam, I was burnt out. But this time it is different. After completing my proposal, a goal I have been working on for so long, when I began to return to my work I was missing that sense of challenge, excitement, and stimulation. So, if you are finding yourself reading this after a major milestone, first off – congratulations. Secondly, whether you are experiencing burnout or simply just need some guidance to work towards your next goal, below I share some tips that help me get back to a routine after I finish a big accomplishment and hope they can help you too.
Giving and receiving feedback is a skill I highly underestimated I would be using before going into my PhD. I am not sure what I expected actually, was I expecting everyone to say, “this is fantastic” and me to fly through my PhD with ease? I think it mostly has to do with PhD students doing very well in their undergraduate and graduate degrees, rarely receiving in depth feedback because they are excelling and the students who need to improve, receive more of the feedback. This was my expectation for the PhD as well, and far from my reality.
But my journey with feedback hasn’t been so bad. I truly love receiving feedback because this is where I learn. The conflict I have with feedback is that it always stings a bit. I’ve talked about receiving feedback for my qualifying exam in this blog post, but currently I am working through revisions for my proposal. This process has allowed me to reflect on how others provide me with feedback, how I prefer to receive feedback, and how I give feedback myself.
It has become a tradition to reflect on each year of my PhD and somehow put my reflections to words in a blog post. You can read my reflections from my first year here, and from my second year here.
This year, it has taken me a while to write this post. My third year has been one of the most difficult ones yet, however the way my fourth year is shaping up might beat it. My third year was the first year without course work. I moved back full time from Ottawa to Toronto. I struggled to complete my qualifying exam – put did pass. And I taught for my first time. All while planning a wedding, that was “postponed” due to the pandemic.
But here I am, in my fourth year, reflecting on my third.
So, here are my 10 personal reflections from my 3rd year as a PhD student:
I am excited to share with you today the first part, of a three part series, in my experience with my qualifying exam. This first post will share an overview of my story with the qualifying exam – what it looked liked in my department at my school, my personal journey with it and some of my advice along the way. My qualifying exam was comprised of both a written and an oral exam, therefore part 2 will be specifically about my written exam and part 3 will share the oral exam. Part 2 and 3 will provide more specifics on my process of writing, how many hours and how I prepared for the oral exam, as well as what I think helped and didn’t.
DISCLAIMER: This is my story of anxiety and depression. Please consult a doctor or health care practitioner if you are seeking help for your anxiety or depression.
Now entering my fourth year of my PhD. I sit here a bit stunned thinking “how did I get here”? Perhaps it’s because I am entering into my fourth year and only starting my proposal now. Perhaps it’s because I was supposed to get married and couldn’t because of COVID-19. Or perhaps it’s because I can hardly look at myself in the mirror because of the acne on my face and my hair is literally falling out. Whatever it was led me to this question “how did I get here” and had me searching for answers.
This semester, my life outside of my PhD has been pushing me to pay attention to it. Many circumstances have forced me to put my work aside and put my personal life first; planning a wedding, health concerns with family, moving apartments, and most recently a death.
After two and a half years of my PhD, my body feels depleted. Last semester, nothing went to plan, which has made January was one of the hardest months of my PhD this far. I didn’t feel like myself, my body gave up on me and my mind felt against me. How could this be? I have only just finished my course work, I haven’t even started my dissertation! Am I burnt out before I have even started? Today’s blog post will share how I am restoring my body and mind in order to hopefully continue on this PhD marathon.