I recently finished my first year in a tenure-track position at American University in Washington DC and I have been thinking about what kinds of things I wish I had known when starting a PhD. Here, I aim to give advice for students just starting PhD programs in hopes of helping more students “get to the other side” of graduate school. Fair warning: there’s a good amount of pessimism here, but I’m nevertheless ultimately optimistic about the path of the PhD for lots of folks.
I should share a bit about myself as these are my thoughts about graduate school and beyond. People have different experiences depending on their temperaments, goals, and social identities. I thus first recommend that students seek lots of advice in this pursuit. That said, I have found that many scholars, especially from underrepresented backgrounds, share my experiences.
I grew up in a smallish town (St. George, Utah) in a small working class family. Neither of my parents finished high school. Their parents did manual labor and sales. I applied to only two colleges and was fortunate to be accepted to one with generous scholarship support. When I started college, I did not know what I wanted to study or that graduate school even existed. While I was aware of professional graduate degrees (law, business, medicine), I had literally never heard of a PhD or doctorate. Nevertheless, I ended up applying to PhD programs thanks to the encouragement of a professor and support of the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. I went to graduate school for a PhD in philosophy, a discipline where women and first generation students are still very outnumbered. I finished my PhD in 2016 and went on the academic job market three times (2013-2016).
In case you haven’t been told: very few people who start graduate school actually finish the PhD and even fewer land stable tenure track jobs. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2013 that only 50 percent of graduate students finish the PhD and I suspect the numbers are even more disheartening when disaggregated by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. I think it’s important to highlight these grim statistics not as a deterrent, but rather to give a realistic picture which students can then navigate.
Dr. Asia Ferrin
My aim in this essay is to help students prepare for what lies ahead so they can get to the other side quickly and in one piece. If you are lucky you may even thrive as a scholar, but I don’t think it’s helpful to set thriving as the goal, or more specifically, academic thriving (personal thriving is still very important!) The idea that grad school is “all your favorite parts of undergrad but even better!” is often inaccurate and subscribing to the idea can generate anxiety and depression when it turns out to be false.
Thus, I encourage students to focus simply on getting to the other side. This is primarily because graduate school is often terrible for mental health. Rates of anxiety and depression are higher in graduate school compared to the general population and talk is building of a “mental health crisis” in academia. In addition to a self-selection issue (perhaps anxious and depressed folks are more likely to steer toward academia), graduate school exacerbates mental crises for several reasons:
Challenges in graduate school
For at least these reasons, I, again, suggest that the goal of graduate school is just to get to the other side. The intellectual work required in graduate school is grueling enough, and these extra structural and social issues can make it unbearable for some. Fortunately, in recognizing the severity of the challenge, I believe students can properly develop tools and strategies. Let me give some examples of such tools and strategies:
Tools and strategies for success in graduate school
I hope you can see here that even though graduate school is grueling for a host of reasons, you can get to the other side if you want. You have to be strategic, though, and you cannot hesitate to ask for help. Lots of help. Different kinds of help. Help from friends and family, health care professionals like a therapist, advisors, mentors in and out of your department, etc., etc. Do not ever hesitate to ask for help.
To boost morale—I don’t want to scare you off from graduate school, just help you prepare!—I want to say a bit about why getting to the other side is still often a worthy pursuit:
Why it’s worth it
In conclusion, for those embarking on this new journey: I hope I’ve given you a realistic picture of what lies ahead so you can prepare and strategize for success. In my opinion, it doesn’t get said enough that graduate school is hard (or I just didn’t listen?). And it’s not just hard the way your undergraduate studies were; it is hard because the structures are not really designed to take care of you. Despite this, I am confident that you can make it through if you want (you may decide at some point the PhD isn’t ultimately for you, which is completely respectable!). By prioritizing self-care, recruiting a support team, and thinking of grad school as a career, not a way of life, you can make it through to the other side. And I really do think we need you more than ever.
Dr. Asia Ferrin is an assistant professor of Philosophy at American University.