What I Learned My First Year in Graduate School

Thank you to my amiga Victoria Sánchez, who is currently at UC Santa Cruz, for the series of text messages that prompted this blog post. A short transcript of text messages is posted below with permission from Victoria.


raduate school is a toxic place. Rife with unequal and often disadvantageous power dynamics, relationships, and emotions. As hard as I try to stay positive for myself and towards my colleagues, there are unfortunate emotions and feelings that arise often along the lines of jealousy. Learning how to get me through these feelings has provided me a better perspective for my coming years.

Graduate school is set up for us to show our ugly side. The capitalistic institution functions on money and power and absorbs power from how often we produce academic work. Therefore it is beneficial to the institution that graduate students be trained and defined by competition and rivalry; feelings of jealousy, worthlessness, and, of course, the most common, impostor syndrome. In the neoliberal university, where we are told that productivity is the only way to be successful, where the mantra of “publish or perish” becomes more intimidating as years pass, how can we move past these feelings of competitiveness and this competitive culture, and build towards community empowerment?

For me, I found the answer within a process of rejecting processes of productivity. To acknowledge and appreciate the work that I do every day, no matter if I write one paragraph, send one email, or read two books. Where productivity often voids us of human nature, I am looking towards acknowledgment and appreciation of myself.

There are many factors that contribute to the competitive culture. Some of the most malicious are pre-existing, unequal relationships with faculty; unequal funding; matriculation immediately after undergrad; similar research topics; being a first-generation student; and the constant competition for attention. For me, my jealousy hovered around productivity of reading and writing that others seem to do at 100 times the rate I did. These can come at different levels and at different times, all at once or wash away in an instance.

Some of these do not necessarily apply to my situation. My department offers the same funding to every Ph.D. student and no graduate students are currently pursuing similar research. Rather, for me, it came from the realization that the market is saturated and recently minted Ph.D.s are not getting jobs. My best possible solution to increase my chances on the job market of landing a post-doc or tenure-track position, if anything could be done, would be able to map productivity from year one on my CV. To show my productivity inside the academy through conference attendance and possible publications.

Coming to a Ph.D. program straight from undergrad brings with it its own set of complications that surely contributed to my lack of productivity my first year of graduate school. In order to attend a conference, you must submit a paper for submission at least one year in advance (some conferences have a shorter submission-to-conference time). If I wanted to go to a conference my first year, I would have had to submit as an undergrad. Conferences were the last thing on my mind during my last semester of undergrad. And by the time the next call came around during my first year of grad school, I was in the process of shifting my research interests. As an interdisciplinary scholar whose methods are rooted in History, I had not completed fieldwork substantial enough to write a conference paper. This led to a feeling of constant failure.

I did not like it. Feelings of failure and competitiveness would sprout at any moment. The feelings of jealousy began to seep into my everyday persona and further toxify my graduate school experience. It affected my writing, social interactions, and participation in seminar. I was more reserved, more secretive with my paper topics and my next academic moves. I knew if I continued down this wormhole I would eventually tire myself out and I would be in constant stages of regret and bitterness. It has taken me a while to dig my way out of these feelings, but I have come a long way to realize what I need to be doing to overcome these issues.


My first year was I think really interesting. I feel like I’m doing something wrong or at least I’m not being as productive as I could be. Like I didn’t go to any conferences and a lot of my first year peers have gone. And I think my mistake was presenting my undergrad research my senior year instead of waiting for my first year in grad school to present. So now I’m having to write about new material that I’m just not ready to write about. And so this year has been a lot of feeling myself “it’s okay to be where I’m at.” And that I need to hold my space and appreciate the work my body/mind has done and continues to do. Because the academy can bring out really ugly sides of a person that they didn’t know existed. And so part of the struggle is talking myself through those struggles and bringing myself back to simply existing and appreciating.


But I also realize that my struggles with productivity is the neoliberal institutions trying to get me to produce knowledge for capital.


Yes! I feel this so much! I love the way you put it. It’s also been incredibly difficult for me to start a new project and work through the reframing of my research interests. I’ve struggled to articulate/introduce my new project to people when I myself am still trying to figure out/write/research my new project.

This became a process of resisting the neoliberal university’s definition of productivity. I started to appreciate my body and mind for the work we were producing at our own pace. I flipped the script to begin praising myself for writing one paragraph instead of scolding myself for not finishing the entire paper in one sitting. So part of the struggle is talking myself through those feelings of jealousy and failure and bringing myself back to simply existing and appreciating my positionality. It became a process of learning to hold my space and allowing for my work to stay true to how I see it moving forward instead of forcing it out of myself.

Much of my realization led me to the simple fact that I was not ready to submit to conferences. But also understanding that conferences are not the only measure of productivity in the academy. Looking back, I did a lot to engage publics. Since undergrad, my work has had a public humanities bend and this is where I truly believe my work has the most impact. And by no surprise completing public humanities projects (see here and here) has given me a clearer understanding of the work I want to move forward with. Accepting where I am in the process of an academic career and working towards the next stage at my own pace is part of the struggle.

Whereas the neoliberal university often voids us of humanity, a self-paced productivity allows for self-realization. Being okay with where we are is inherently anti-capitalist because it is productivity at our own pace. A self-paced productivity does not compete; rather, it appreciates, encourages, and propels.

Learning how to radically appreciate and love my colleagues came as a result of accepting my work at my own pace. It has opened up and allowed for relationships to flourish, making my entire graduate school experience more inviting and exciting. It has allowed for community building amongst graduate students rather than an isolating experience.
When we let the neoliberal institution take hold of our lives it can become toxic. My first year of graduate school I learned to constantly bring myself back to humility instead of jealousy; to remind myself it is okay to slow down productivity and enhance my appreciation. Because when I produce at a fully-realized, self-paced speed, my communities and myself are better for it.

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