The biggest (most difficult, most important) thing I wish I’d known my first year as a Ph.D. student is that it’s okay to be different.
You won’t know all the same things as your peers. (Ever.)
One of the first things that scared the crap out of me was having the people around me mention scholars and texts and major trends in the field that I had never heard of. (Or maybe I’d heard of them but I hadn’t read them. Or I’d read them but not understood or absorbed them. You get the idea.) It triggered a mountain of insecurity and by midterm my first semester I was convinced I didn’t belong here. But I did. And I made it through. To be honest, I still don’t know some of the things my peers knew back then and guess what? That’s okay.
As your coursework goes on, you’ll develop some common ground with your classmates, but you’ll also keep forging ahead in your own direction as you design your exams and work toward your dissertation. Some situations will prompt you to learn broadly, others to drill deeply into a tiny scholarly niche where it’s possible none of your cohort-mates will ever venture. That’s okay, too, because someday someone is going to pick your brain because they heard you were the person to talk to about that thing. Then you’ll pay it forward by seeking out someone who is the expert in an area you don’t know much about. Find your thing, know it well, and don’t worry if your thing isn’t someone else’s thing.
Your brain might not work the same way.
Not only was I intimidated by what my classmates seemed to know that I didn’t, I was horrified to realize my brain didn’t store information the same way. Some of my classmates (and professors!) seemed to have these encyclopedic brains that meticulously stowed away names, titles, and dates and made it easy to recount those details at a moment’s notice.
My brain is SO not that brain. If you’re like me and the details and the constellations of critical conversations don’t come easily, there are ways to work at it. Ask around about citation management software that can help you keep track of what you’ve read and how it’s all related. And definitely ask Bronwyn about his solar system metaphor. Whatever it is you feel like you’re lacking, try to remember that for every supposed “weakness” you think you have, you also have a skill or character trait that someone else envies. Work with what you’ve got and then find ways to work on the rest.
Your goals might be different.
The first time I went to an EGO “Welcome Back” party a former member of the program asked what I wanted to do after the Ph.D. (Which is an absurd question to ask someone on day one of year one in the first place, but whatever…) When I said I imagined myself in a position that was primarily about teaching, pedagogy, and/or training future teachers of writing they said, “Yikes. I wouldn’t say that too loudly around here.” Thus began a whole host of anxieties about the value of my passions and my work.
I spent most of my first (and second) year thinking my “modest” goals made me less of a Ph.D. student and less of a scholar. These things are all false. You don’t have to be headed in the exact same direction as your peers and mentors to be a “good” student, professional, or scholar. The world (and yes, even academia) needs all kinds of smart people with different strengths and professional aims, and when your turn to go on the market comes around you’ll see that there are lots of different types of jobs out there. Of course you want to push yourself, expand your horizons, and all that jazz, but you also need to be true to yourself. Work hard, learn as much as you can, and just do you.
Ashley Ludewig is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric and Composition who is in the midst of finishing her dissertation, finding a job, and graduating in May… while also trying to still be a human being who takes time to care for herself and others. Her research is about the literacy practices of student veterans and the role writing teachers can have in supporting student veteran success. She also volunteers at a cat shelter and sends a lot of snail-mail to friends and family as strategies for maintaining her sanity.