A new year is starting, and that means a whole new group of PhD students are going to start their programs, secretly terrified that they are going to get found out for the impostors they are, or that they are not nearly as smart as they have always thought they were. So for all of you, I’m here to help.

First off, remember that these feelings you’re having are NORMAL. We all freak out sometimes. We all wonder about ourselves, doubt our abilities, all that stuff. The other people in your cohort will be doing it too. The trick is to try not to freak out at the same time, so you can help each other out.

Secondly, there are the lessons that I learned my first year in a PhD program in rhetoric and scientific/technical communication. Lessons that I learned, oddly enough, at a conference.

A PhD program is different from a Master’s program. As simple as this sounds, I didn’t think of it. So I started my first year thinking I could take three classes and teach one. I’d been taking two and teaching two for years, so I figured it wouldn’t be that hard. Then I discovered three things:

  1. Taking classes is harder than teaching them
  2. There’s more reading in a PhD level class than in a Master’s level class
  3. I took two of the most reading intensive classes in the program at the same time.

What this meant was that I was reading on average 800-1000 pages every week. At first, I even kept up with it, doing everything I needed to do every week. I stopped sleeping. I began to wear down. Already, by October, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this.

Then I went to a conference. At this conference, I talked to people I knew from my old program. I also talked to people I’d never met before from other programs, and people who finished their PhD’s before I was even born. And from them, and from everyone else I talked to, I got the same message. A message that turned into the most important lesson I’ve learned so far: You can’t read everything. It’s great to try, but it just can’t be done. 

That’s not to say that I stopped reading. But I did learn how to skim. And how to barely skim. And how to quickly skim. I learned that sometimes, what I really needed to do was just read enough to know what the piece was about. That way, at a later date when I needed to know something, I would at least know where to look.

That made things manageable.

The next lesson I learned at the CCCC. I was there and talking to various people. It turned out that more or less everyone I ever spoke to already had a PhD. All of them assumed that I did too. They figured that I knew what I was talking about, and seemed to be universally surprised to find out that I was a first year PhD student, that I wasn’t ABD or even finished with coursework yet.

Why were they surprised? Because for the most part, I could keep up with them in conversation. That told me something I really needed to know: I already know a lot. That sounds almost arrogant, but I think it’s vital for a new PhD student to know. There comes a time, usually in the first semester, when “Imposter Syndrome” kicks in. That’s when you start thinking that you don’t deserve to be there, that any minute now the department will figure that out and kick you to the curb. You start to get paranoid. Every time you have a conversation with someone and they drop a name here and there that you don’t know, you feel like an idiot. You wonder how it is that you even got in to the program in the first place.

Apparently, this syndrome never goes away.

But at the conference, I learned something that helps me fight it back sometimes. I do know some stuff. I can keep up with PhD folk. I DO deserve to be here, and I DO know what I’m talking about. I can drop names too. I can quote things no one has heard of. And my ideas are interesting.

That’s another thing I learned: my ideas are interesting. People want to talk to me about my research. My panel was packed, and I’ve gotten two requests since then for my notes and for bibliographies to point people towards where my research came from. So lesson three also came from a conference.

My next lesson did not come from a conference. But it lead up to one, so it still counts. My second semester, instead of teaching I agreed to be a research assistant. That led me all over the place, through the fields of pyschology, computer science, rhetoric, philosophy, lexicography, and so on. I learned to follow research back through bibliographies, a skill I’d only dabbled in before. And I learned to find things quickly, and how to organize information. But most of all, I learned that research is fun. I really liked following this research, because I made it my own. It was something I wanted to do, something I was interested in. I found myself finishing other work so that I could do more research. And I found out that all of this research I’m doing is helping to put together ideas that have never really been done before, and will lead to a presentation that I think will be very interesting.

My fifth lesson resulted in a class paper that was designed as a conference presentation, so I’m still counting it. I started working on one of those big papers for the semester with a friend from college. A friend in a different department at a different school. We’ve been sending drafts back and forth, each supplying our own expertise, discussing the issue at hand, and really developing a strong and interesting paper. So what I’ve learned from that is that Collaboration is a very, very good thing. It’s easier than I thought it would be, and much more fruitful.

So, my lessons for the year:

  1. You can’t read everything
  2. You already know a lot
  3. Your ideas are interesting
  4. Research is fun
  5. Collaboration is a very, very good thing.

Not bad for one year.


8 Responses to Everything I wish I’d known, I learned at a conference

  1. Ashley says:

    Excellent points in this post, especially the one about freaking out at different times. I’ve been calling it the “circle of crazy.” At any given time, one person in the cohort can be crazy. Another person pulls the person out of the crazy, and then it’s that person’s turn. It goes on until you’re back at the first person. I also agree with the points you make about conferences. I always come back energized from CCCC/ATTW for those reasons.

  2. pravinjeya says:

    I have just finished my second year and writing my first chapter. I was starting to freak out that I hadn’t read everything that I though I would need to. After reading ur post, I feel so relieved and relaxed.

  3. shelby says:

    It’s so nice to hear someone else acknowledge and put into words the “Impostor Syndrome”, it’s experienced by most of us I think, even us Masters students! Thank you so much for sharing such important lessons 🙂

  4. J-Doug says:

    While I agree with your article generally, I take issue with one point. I’ve been a graduate student for eight years now and an instructor/adjunct for six of them.

    The only way teaching a class could be easier than taking a class is if you’re not doing it right.

    • Joe says:

      In response to that, let me clarify: Teaching two sections of the same course is easier than taking an additional course. When I took two/taught two, they were two sections of the same course. So the prep was the same.

  5. […] Everything I wish I’d known, I learned at a conference […]

  6. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    Great article! Thanks for putting into words what I know all of us have felt (or are feeling in my case!). I was sitting at my desk the other day, looking at my shiny new e-mail account for my graduate school and wondering – “What am I doing here? What do I think I’m going to accomplish?” It lasted for just a second, but I know it won’t be the last time. I also have to remind myself, as an older graduate student, what I think I lack in academic experience, I make up for in LIFE experience. We all bring more to the table than we realize. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. J. Ryan Staples says:

    Hey Joe, nice post. I am a first year Master’s student starting class this week. So far, you’re dead on with the ‘research is fun’ part. I found myself asking the faculty member whom I assist with research for articles he uses for a class that I am not even taking. I’ll be attending a conference later next month so we’ll see if my experience continues to parallel yours.

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