3 min read

Reflections on the first year of a PhD program

PhDs are kind of scary. I remember all the insecurities I had while debating whether I should go back to school. What was a 32 year old doing starting a PhD? Most people are younger than that when they finish! Would all the other students be 10 years younger than me? Would even the professors be younger? Was it selfish of me to make my spouse the breadwinner while I went back to the more carefree life of a student? Socially, I had some worries too. Everyone in my cohort, except me, is an international student from China or Korea. Would I fit in? And then there was the work. Would I be able to cut it? On every recruiting visit I did, the PhD students all seemed to be miserable and massively over-worked. They would talk about how often they cried, and strategies to fend off the ever-hovering specter of abject despair. I was worried.

Our first week of the program we had a “math camp” as a preparatory bootcamp. “This will all just be review for stuff you’ve already learned,” announced our instructor breezily. Except that I had never taken a calculus class in my life. I don’t even really know what calculus is. Matrix algebra. Linear algebra. We went through the material so quickly because it was ‘review’ that it all went straight over my head. That was not a good moment.

But then the semester started, and I learned that nobody in my cohort was particularly confident in their abilities. They were all as lost as me as our professor demonstrated statistical concepts in R. Furthermore, they were all delightful people. They say that you make your best friends in your PhD program, and I can see why. We’re all struggling together to understand and complete our coursework. I think that’s part of why sports teams can get so close-knit. You’re all fighting and struggling together. It probably helps that there are other people of my age in my cohort though. There is only one person 10 years younger than me, but he doesn’t lord his superior intelligence over me that often.

And the work. It was doable. In fact, half-way through the semester I wondered if grad students around the world weren’t being just a tad dramatic? It got harder after that cheeky thought, and then harder again the next semester, but I survived. I can cut it in a PhD program! That was a wonderfully surprising and welcome revelation.

At the time of writing, we have just been informed that the next semester will be entirely online because of the Coronovirus. That is not good news. I know it’s safer, but I loved being on campus and I hate online classes. The quality of discussion is so much poorer online. I don’t fully know why that is the case, but I firmly believe it. I saw the results last semester (which was online for the second half). It means this upcoming year will all be spent in my living room. I know that is not the world’s worst problem, and I am incredibly lucky, but I confess I was bitterly disappointed when I heard the news. Ah well, come what may and love it.