What I Learned in Year One by Stephen Cohen

I learned a lot of things in my first year here. I learned what an ice scraper is for (to remind people from sunnier climes how drastically, inescapably altered life is after choosing to move across the country for – of all things! – a PhD).  I also learned what snow days are for (to remind people from Southern California about the joy of an unexpected, quiet day of reading and thinking – and probably too much napping). I cried a lot, and I read LOT. Sometimes I woke up wondering why I did this to myself (sometimes I still do), and sometimes I woke up excited about the new futures this experience would open (I still do that, too). It was exhausting and energizing, and I spent probably too much time being afraid that I would somehow screw it up – that if I talked too much to anyone, they’d figure out I didn’t belong here and call the authorities.  It was confusing, and most of the time it was all just…too much.
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There are important things I learned: about self-care, about working through “impostor syndrome,” and even small strategies to make daily tasks like grocery shopping and cooking and vacuuming more efficient so that I could have the time I needed to read and write my way through the coursework. There’s plenty of writing out there about grad school and self-care though, and though it’s tempting to rehash it here, I’ll leave it up to you to go find that writing because you’re smart and a good researcher, or you wouldn’t be here.
Since you are, I’ll share that one of the most important things I learned was to be generous. With my time and feedback and other emotional and academic labor. You cannot do this alone. Nobody can. (Okay, maybe you can, but you don’t have to). And although you will find faculty who will be giving of their time and nurture your interests and talents, they won’t substitute for the collegiality and familiarity the rest of us, as fellow students, can offer. I wish I had been more generous. I would not have made it through the coursework, and definitely not through the exams, without contributing to and benefiting from conversations in study groups and at coffee shops and in hallways and offices. Other people’s willingness to read and comment on my work was astounding, and invaluable, but not as surprising as the value of the insights that grew from reading and commenting on others’ work. Ask for help. All the time. And help other people when they ask – I got much more out of building relationships here than I would have thought possible.
I am kind of a misanthrope by nature. Social interaction is exhausting and anxiety provoking. I learned to go to things anyway. There are a lot of opportunities to meet and talk to other graduate students built into the calendar here – use them as often as you are able. In my first year, I missed my home, my routines, my family, the coast – all of it. And for a while, I was so full of loss there wasn’t a lot of room for learning about what I’d gained by coming here. It was in commiserating with my cohort that I actually began exploring my new city – and accidentally started to make it home. I guess this is all just to say that, if you’re kind of a loner, you’re not alone. I was surprised at the speed and grace and good humor with which other grad students took me in. Work hard to stay open (and boy, do I know it’s hard). Let yourself be surprised by the goodness of people. That’s how I survived year one. That’s what I wish I’d learned earlier. If you need anything – I’m here.
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