I’m scheduled to defend my dissertation 29 days from today and I’m feeling rather retrospective about the last seven years’ journey. So this post is in the spirit of the movie deja vu where If I could go back after all I’ve been through, this is the advice I would give my young self.

But first a disclaimer: My sense is that Ph.Ds are a different ball game in Europe so this only applies to those interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in the U.S.

-Only sign up to go if you really really want to. Its not a fun place
to ‘kill time’ as you figure out what you really want to do with your
life. Its the hardest thing i’ve ever done in my life. It has been
incredibly difficult emotionally and the last seven years have also
taken a severe toll on my physical health. The stress is unbelievable
and your self esteem gets completely crushed. It is brutal.

-That said, I know a lot more than I knew seven years ago. I feel
proud of myself for doing something really really hard and coming out on
the other end (just about). Its like running a marathon. Its not about how smart you are, its about your pain threshold and your stick-to-it-iveness. Its not fun when you’re doing it but the finish line looks damn good.

If you decide to go ahead:

1.Make sure you cultivate a support network around you that is broader
than just other grad students.

2. Have a goal for why you are doing this. Write it down because you
might need to refer to it frequently in the first couple of years (heck, throughout)

3. Know that you are more than just a grad student and find other things
to do that will boost your self-esteem. Get good at something else. I
chose to knit, crochet, sew, and cook for friends and also started an organization to give back to other African women. These activities continue to feed my spirit as much as grad school continues to drain it.

4. Always remember that you think about your professors a lot more than they
think about you. On the whole they are pretty self-focused and don’t
say things to spite you. They probably don’t know when they hurt your
feelings. Their job is not to hold your hand through grad school, their
job is to put you through your paces. (try not to end up as self-obsessed as they are. Grad school did it to them!)

5. Its not about how smart you are. Its about your ability to endure the
long haul. If you weren’t academically up to snuff, you wouldn’t have gotten admitted. If you did get admitted, its now not about your brain abilities, its about your endurance, tolerance for emotional pain and humiliation, shaming and ability to pick yourself up from the dirt after every bruising punch.

Yes, for me it has been that bad. I”m keen what others might add to the list of advice though. Keguro?….


Keguro did not dissapoint. Here is his list:

I have no sage advice, but I’ll try, in no particular order

1. Research before you start graduate school. Have an idea of what average completion rates are (9-10 yrs in the humanities); about the state of the job market (okay, not great); and realistic view of funding possibilities at your institutions of choice. Loving a subject is great; it might not be enough to get you through.

2. Understand that 70-90% of your work will be self-driven. You will have to read new journals, learn the history of your field, keep up with new scholarship, all while possibly teaching and taking classes. It’s a full time job, if you want to do it well.

3. Surround yourself with people who love knowledge and are enthusiastic about thinking. It will make your academic labor all the sweeter.

4. Cultivate a vice. Watch too much tv, learn how to make the best chocolate cake in the world, dye your hair every few days (I did this one); do something that will take you out of thinking mode for a few hours every day. Some people do useful things (like start life-changing organizations). Me, I suggest cultivating a vice.

5. Done is better than thinking about being done. Just get it done. Seriously. You will live with the dissertation for many more years as you transform it into a book. Just get it done.