What I Wish I’d Known Before Starting a Doctoral Program

I started my doctoral program at my alma mater (for my Bachelor of Arts degree as well as my Master of Arts degree) back in August of 2017. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long most of the time.

I feel like I’m a completely different program since then. I’ve had 3 different full-time jobs, about as many part-time jobs, and I’ve started (and ended) several businesses since the time I began. Oh, and how could I forget? A little global pandemic began somewhere in the time that I’ve been enrolled in my program. And, today, people are suggesting that World War III may have just begun.

I feel like I struggle with talking with other people about my dissertation today without feeling angry, like I’m a really deeply pathetic human being, or becoming sad. So I thought I’d try to write a cute little list about what I wish I’d known before I started my program instead. Here it goes.

  1. I wish I knew that a global pandemic would hit that would cause my program and my experience in my program to completely change.
  2. I wish I knew that I’d never get a chance to say goodbye to my cohort-mates who I began to view as very close friends, which isn’t something I do easily.
  3. I wish I knew that, though I’m someone who keeps up so many walls when it comes to friendships–I essentially have a rule to never get attached to people in friendships, and never ever at work or school, because I know they’ll always leave–that I’d let myself get attached to the people in this program. And I’d feel sad and foolish whenever I remembered how close I thought we were becoming and how sincerely I thought most of them would be in my life, to some extent, forever.
  4. I wish I knew that it would feel like I was wasting time and money. That no matter how many times I changed my topic that nothing would ever seem as important as the rest of my life obligations, dreams, and responsibilities.
  5. That people would stop caring. That it would seem like those closest to me didn’t even remember that I’m doing this thing with my life that takes up so much of my mental space (even when I’m not writing) that’s supposed to be a big deal. They’d forget to ask me about it. Or they’d even forget to forget. It would seem like this thing that I consider some self-defining journey wouldn’t even be on their radar.
  6. That when people actually did ask me about my dissertation, they’d be the people who had already finished or were a heck of a lot closer than me to finishing. And I’d feel deeply ashamed to even answer. I’d compare myself to them constantly in this arena and feel like I’d never measure up.
  7. That there would come a time when I wouldn’t even look forward to graduating. That finishing would simply feel like I’d finally relieved myself from some over-arching, self-inflicted mental angst that no one else could see and that no one else cared about. I would no longer look forward to completing this big, important goal that I dreamed would change the world and the way that others see me in it. It would simply feel like finishing would mean I had one less thing to worry about, or one less thing to feel bad about myself for, every day. So maybe I’d feel less like a failure every day, which would be great.
  8. That I’d get extremely anxious/depressed/want to cry whenever I had to speak to my dissertation chair or anyone who was considered an authority figure in the program.
  9. That I’d stop feeling like I was “good at school.” That, instead, I’d feel like an idiot. I’d feel like everyone in my program saw me that way. Like for the first time ever in an academic setting, I’d feel like I completely and total did not belong. I’d feel that none of my professors were impressed by me or found me innovative or interesting. I’d feel like their words of encouragement were simply some jargon they’d become accustomed to pulling out from a box of stock phrases for their slacker students who couldn’t get their stuff together.
  10. That it would all seem completely, entirely, all consumingly like one of the biggest mistakes of my life. But that I’d keep pushing through because I’d come “so close” to finishing.

To be continued.

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