5 Notes from a First-Year PhD Survivor

On June 15th, my first year as a PhD student officially came to an end. Though I still have research and teaching to do for the summer term, I took several days to relax and reflect on my journey as a first year. After a jumbled mess of reflections, here are five main themes that emerged:

I never expected to be so lonely.

I’m an introvert and I love having my own space. I can spend a whole day with no real human contact and feel just fine. I hate orientation weeks because the number of people I interact with completely depletes my energy tank.

But, the isolation that I faced in PhD-land was different. While you are surrounded by people who are equally as passionate as you are about your field, it’s really easy to feel alone in the journey. Each person has their own unique path within the program and people are equally busy tending to their own lives’ demands. The PhD community is also very small, and the community that cares about your research interests is even smaller.

I recognize my PhD loneliness so I make conscious efforts to not further isolate myself. My natural tendency is to hide, but I know that I won’t make it if I don’t reach out. I’m lucky to have friends that text me to have coffee or lunch. I’m grateful to have advisors that take me out to lunch to talk about life outside of academia. I’m happy to have found an online PhD community that I can relate to.

Reading and writing are very important skills.


I love writing and reading so writing in PhD should be easy-peasy right? WRONG!! Creative writing and even normal academic writing is different from scientific/empirical writing. For me, it was a process of un-learning my tendency to use cool adjectives, metaphors, and thought-provoking analogies. Empirical writing is rigid and straightforward. Some may think it’s boring, but I found it to be pretty fun! In a way, it’s an art to be able to write an empirical paper. The only way to become better at it is to read as much as you can and keep writing as much as you can.

Advocate for yourself and claim your space.

PhD is filled with brilliant people who want to share their ideas and opinions. People love talking about themselves. As an Asian American woman, I’m far too familiar with people assuming my opinions, speaking over me, interrupting me, and dismissing my existence altogether. I knew I had to stop being scared of how people would perceive me. It became more important to be the one that defines how people should see me. When someone (usually a male) interrupts me, I stop and say “You’re interrupting me. Let me finish before you respond.” When I was hunting for projects to be on, I made it clear that I refuse to be used as a pawn. “I’m highly interested in this opportunity, but it is important to me that the time I put in produces either a paper or poster. Is that a possibility?” When I sit in meetings, I spread out. I’m petite so I know that if I want to be spatially recognized, I need to take up space. I sit up straight, extend my legs out a little, lean forward, and power pose the crap out of my body.

I clung, let go, and planted new relationships.

friendshipTransitioning to a whole new U.S. state while starting a new program was rough. In the midst of trying to get to know my geographical area, finding community, and doing school, I felt dizzied and lost. My social support was rooted in Colorado so when I moved elsewhere, it soon became clear that I needed to cling on to the relationships that mattered. I also learned that it’s even harder to let go of the relationships that no longer could be rekindled. I learned to plant new relationships and also realized how much work it takes to sustain them so that I can have strong roots here, too.

I learned to forgive myself.

Be forgiving. There is a culture in academia where a toxic type of hard work is glorified. Sleep deprivation, skipped meals, and tireless work on your research is expected and signs of a hard-working PhD. I refuse this kind of hard work. Hard work doesn’t equate to destroying my mental and physical health. I aim to be ferociously committed to my personal well-being as much as I am committed to my work. I can’t publish if I’m dead.


My first year had a lot of horrible moments, but it broke me down so that I could build myself back up stronger and better. I couldn’t have made it through this year without the support of my family, friends, advisors, and PhD community on Instagram (I’m serious!!).

To my readers, thank you for continuing to follow me on my journey.

One year down, many more to go!

Click ‘subscribe’ below and follow me on IG: @sujanee 

2 thoughts on “5 Notes from a First-Year PhD Survivor

  1. […] friend Susanna, recently wrote an article about her reflections on her first year of PhD and Nicola did her bit by sharing her reflection of a 3rd year PhD student working on cancer […]

  2. Taking care of yourself and being balanced is so important! I’m glad you learned that lesson in your first year, and not later 😉 Take care of yourself!

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