I Survived the First Semester of my Ph.D. Program

Twas the night before Christmas,
and all through the house,
not a student was crying or stressing themselves out.

Sike nah…BUT I AM OFFICIALLY DONE WITH THE FIRST SEMESTER OF MY PH.D. PROGRAM. WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It’s been a LONG time coming. Ya girl went from academic probation in college to successfully completing the first semester of her Ph.D. Program, a program I’ve been trying to get into since 2012.

I remember being a soon-to-be graduate, wishing, praying, positive-affirming HARD to be like so many of the black women I admired in Ph.D. programs. I remember feeling discouraged when I compared how far I was from being on their level. But now, I finally feel like I’m the person that I’ve always wanted to be. I won’t say “to become the person I’ve always wanted to be” because I believe we’re born with all we need in life. We’re already the people we aspire to be, we just have to rise to the occasion…I digress.

After years of hard work and stuntin on these woes, it’s lit; I am that woman and I am grateful for that.

So… let’s get into the nitty gritty

How was the first semester?

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeewww Honeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy CCCCCChhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiillllllllllllllllleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Sisttteerrrr Girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrllllllllllllllllllll …………this semester was rough.

I switched Departments from Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) to Pharmacology. Since there’s no undergraduate major for Pharmacology, we basically learn everything in graduate school at an advanced level and pace. You must maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher (and you have to get a B or higher to pass the class) to remain in good standing. In other words, you have no choice but to excel. The Pharmacology curriculum was especially challenging for me because most of the material was completely new to me whereas many of my classmates had SOME kind of exposure working in a Pharmacology research lab or taking related classes in college. ANNNNNNNNNNNNNNDDDUUUHH we had real ass classes with homework, exams, cumulative finals, etc. I haven’t taken classes like that since I graduated from college in 2013 so I really had to ante up and get back into the groove.

Usually, graduate classes aren’t THAT tough… like they’re challenging, but if you do the work you’re good. And they tend not to be structured like undergraduate classes (i.e. they’re more literature/paper based). So this was a fun way to start school again after spending a year abroad in Europe.

Despite alllllllllllllaaattthhhaaattt, I passed all of my classes and finished the semester with 3.6 something (I don’t feel like looking it up) GPA.  Pharmacology destroyed the 4.0 GPA I had from my Master’s program in MCDB BUT IT’S COOL DOE.

Had I stayed in MCDB, I would have entered the program as a third year Ph.D. student (off paper), and my first year would have been a piece of cake because I completed all of the coursework during my Master’s program.

Okay sooooooooooooooo why you do that to yourself sis?

Excellent question. I ask myself that everyday. Why in God’s name did I switch Departments to basically start all over? Because I wanted to challenge myself and I’m interested in translational research, the process of taking discoveries made in the lab and translating that knowledge into medicine that people use.

Most importantly, I prefer to test things out before committing to them when I can. I had no experience in the field and this was the perfect opportunity to learn and try something new!

How did the lab rotation go?

It went wonderfully! I rotated in a cancer lab and studied how neutrophils (a type of defensive white blood cell that protects us from infection) are activated in the context of cancer. I was in a great lab with a very supportive environment and PI which meant the world to me especially when things felt rocky.

I’m pretty sure I broke down crying in my graduate program coordinator’s office bi-monthly ready to jump ship from Pharmacology and change my classes to pass/fail.

FYI – I couldn’t change my classes to pass/fail LOL BUT IT’S ALL GOOD CAUSE I PASSED.

What else made your semester challenging?

So the classes alone were enough to leave me SHOOKETH, but that in combination with general rotation expectations, fellowship applications, and extracurricular activities left me feeling like I always had too much on my plate and not enough time. I have a large wall calendar in my room where I write exam schedules, extra-curricular activities, due dates, etc. At one point during the semester my schedule was so full with so many overlapping events I literally just gave up (in a healthy way). I was like “welp…it’s gonna get done, I don’t know how but it will.” And it did get done…still can’t tell you how it got done but it did involve me cancelling a trip with friends to D.C. so that I could study for an exam (shout out to Delta for helping me rebook).

Although in the past I’ve concurrently taken graduate classes, taught as a Graduate Student Instructor, and did research during my Master’s program, the rigor of the coursework in Pharmacology in addition to lab rotations took it to the next level. As a Master’s student I was placed into a lab which is a very different experience than doing a Ph.D. rotation, which is like being on a high stakes job interview the entire semester. There are other students who will be competing for the same spots in labs and you have a short time to make a good impression while also determining whether you and the lab are a good fit for each other. That tipped the scale for me in making this one of the most stressful semesters of my life (except that one time I took 17 credits at Georgia Tech and failed all of my classes except for French… thank God for growth).

ANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNDDUUUHHHH I also applied for three competitive (fellowship) programs which is high-key like taking an extra class, continued diversity work for Fulbright, started a graduate student organization, and a bunch of other things.

How was your work-life balance?

This semester I was 100% committed to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I refused to sacrifice sleep or my health and well-being if I could avoid it. On average I got 8 hours of sleep per night. I pulled one or two all-nighters because I had deadlines to meet and there were several nights I slept 3-6 hours before exams.

The first half of the semester I didn’t really participate in extra-curricular activities so I could focus on school but I still felt like I didn’t have enough time for school. So then I said… well eff this, I still don’t have enough time for school I might as well do things I enjoy while I’m stressed lol. I took pole-dancing classes, started practicing afrobeats dance routines, and got more involved on campus. One of my goals this semester was to attend every single pole-class I signed up for this semester and I did! That was one of my greatest work-life balance achievements. Y’all know how easy it is to just let your social life fall by the wayside when you’re a graduate student? You just genuinely want to spend 90% of your time on the couch watching Netflix. But I was committed to prioritizing my social life equally with my academic and professional life.

For that reason, I give myself an A++++ for work-life balance this semester. I turned up and sometimes I chose having fun over my school work and I am very glad that I did.

Anything else that needs to be shared?

You know, I realllllllllly thought I was over the imposter syndrome, for real for real. I’ve heard the spiel and blah blah blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah but I had a somewhat forced non-linear path getting into graduate school. I’ve been denied admission to over 30 programs, including the one I’m currently in, so I knew that if I wasn’t qualified to be here I would have had a rejection letter in my inbox in 2017.

HOWEVER

After taking an imposter syndrome quiz during the semester, I realized that I was still impacted by it but in a different way. For example, I would be surprised when I did well on assignments. I had a negative attitude about my ability to succeed and planned for the worst before things actually got bad. I got a 97 on one of my exams and legitimately thought my professor had made a mistake until I saw my exam. I got a 95 on another exam and I didn’t even celebrate. I immediately began stressing about the next exam. I legitimately thought I was going to fail a class (like fail, fail with an F) that I got a B+ in… I say all of that to say that I became the person I COULD NOT STAND IN COLLEGE. “Omg that exam was so hard…I hope I did well.” Bam 99. Lol. Okay, I’m not that person…but I genuinely exhibited traits of self-doubt and negative affirmations. As I became aware of my self-defeating attitudes and behaviors, I actively practiced validating myself and my abilities.

In hindsight, I’m grateful for the challenging semester because I learned how to handle stress in a healthy way, let go and trust that my best will always be enough (even if I hadn’t done well in my courses I know this to be true), and assume the best of myself and future outcomes.

TLDR

The first semester was a challenge. It  kicked my butt and I kicked it right back. I grew from the challenges and stress of grad school and my support system in and outside of lab was pivotal to my success.

I’ve been on break for almost 3 weeks and it has been one of the most relaxing, rejuvenating breaks of my life. I’m glad I took this time off because I’ll be ready to tackle next semester with full force and a bright attitude ^_^.

Until next time and Happy New Year!!!

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