PhD Culture Shock

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve been here in DC about two months now, and have finished 3 weeks of the semester as a doctoral student. I realize that it’s going to be super annoying if I overshare about #gradschoolproblems like “my schedule is so flexible, I don’t know what to do when I wake up,” or “I was so tired after that super cognitively-demanding class that I just had beer and oreos for dinner.” I really don’t deserve much sympathy from all of you who, you know, go to work everyday and then make dinner for your entire family. But, hey, everyone’s on their own path, and mine has felt rocky lately.

Moving here, I thought, “If I can move to Madagascar or Indonesia, surely I can move a couple of states away!” But it has been surprisingly difficult – I’ve never actually moved anywhere else in America. I think it might have been easier for me to move to Saudi Arabia than to DC! When you move to another country, it’s exotic, people are interested in “this new foreigner,” and you’re expected to need some time to learn the local customs and language. I realize now how much I took for granted living in Columbus: I knew how to get around; I had people to help me move furniture; I knew that “O-H” is followed by “I-O.” Things that were easy in Ohio are not easy here. In fact, almost nothing has felt easy here. The main challenge is that everything is new all at once – I’ve moved to a new city, got a new apartment, and started grad school, all of which are stressful enough just on their own.

The biggest source of stress, though, is school. I think I had an abstract understanding of the fact that getting a Ph.D. would be “difficult,” but I didn’t really think it through. Um… so… it turns out, it’s pretty difficult. The “core courses” I’m taking as a first year doctoral students are intended to develop a comprehensive understanding of the field of educational research. That seems like a reasonable enough proposition, until you consider the fact that the “field of educational research” is so broad that no one has a comprehensive understanding of it. Or at least that’s how it feels right now. I’m trying to digest so much new information that I feel totally overloaded and can’t begin to process it all. I was actually worried I had a degenerative brain disease that was interfering with my reading comprehension until a reading entitled “Terrorized by the Literature” informed me that many graduate students come to that conclusion. Am I so predictable? For my first assignment, I dutifully wrote what would have been a great master’s level paper – I pulled together citations from all of the readings, showed understanding of the concepts, and effectively synthesized the research. And then I got back feedback and realized that this approach ain’t gonna cut it anymore – apparently, I am expected to have my own ideas and use the literature to support my arguments. Ugh, why is thinking so hard?!?!

In conclusion, it’s been a rough transition. The biggest help has been talking to my friends who either have PhDs or are in grad school right now (thanks Jess and Liz!). They helped me realize that moving to another city in America is not all that different from moving abroad. In fact, if I look at everything I’m experiencing right now as culture shock, it all starts to make sense. If I were moving to another country, I would be patient and let myself understand the new culture gradually. I would look for friendly natives to show me around. I wouldn’t expect to be able to speak the language fluently or use the right lingo right away. And I wouldn’t feel like a failure if I wasn’t perfectly happy or comfortable at first. The times in my life that were especially challenging – freshman year of college, those first few months in Madagascar, my first year of teaching – preceded and prepared me for some of the happiest times of my life. Before I could get to the fun times (and there were some really fun times!), I had to get through the rough spots, the times when I learning and experiencing so much I couldn’t even understand what was going on. Starting a Ph.D program and moving to a new city may be hard, but that’s because it’s worth the effort, and I know that one day I’ll be able to look back and see that. I just hope that day comes soon!

4 Comments to “PhD Culture Shock”

  1. So proud of you for keeping it all in perspective. I have no doubt that you will succeed, I just hope you know that coming in first is not always the goal. Cliche, as this may seem, your worth does not come by your performance, but comes with seeing yourself as God looks upon you. I’ll continue to pray for you, even more fervently. Love, Aunt Leslie

  2. It’s hard at first, you are most certainly not alone. I felt that way too, as did Josh. But in time you will thrive. Believe in yourself as much as I believe in you and there will be nothing beyond your grasp.

  3. I hear ya. Moving from the midwest to the east coast has been, by far, my move with the biggest culture shock. And don’t worry, grad school will get easier 🙂

  4. All of your new experiences are part of the sum total of the woman you are forging. Stay on your path, it is your life. Dream beyond your grasp always.

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