My First Semester as a Ph.D. Student

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Tis’ the season… (via phdcomics.com)

Having received all my grades for the classes I took in the past few months, I have finally completed my first semester as a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. It is with much joy and a sense of accomplishment that I celebrate this little milestone in my life — something I have never imagined putting myself through, not even a little, until my undergraduate senior year, when I talked to some professors in my major classes and a mentor who had shared with me the perks of being an academic.

As a senior, my vision was tunneled toward the corporate world. I wanted to complete a degree and go out there to work and earn some bucks. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I loved being a student. I enjoy learning new things, especially complex concepts and ideas that might seem impractical to the “real” world. I like working with folks who are passionate about creating and sharing knowledge. On the other hand, I am also fascinated by the idea of being an educator. I take pride and joy in teaching — something that has been cultivated in me since my years in the Boys’ Brigade, where I was assigned to lead small programs and life-skill classes — as well as working with students who care about the learning process and would make the most of their time inside and outside the classroom.

So, while attending graduate school in St. Cloud, I knew I wanted to become an academic and thus applied to PhD programs while celebrating the closing of 2013. In just a few months I found myself graduating from my masters programs, enjoying a summer break back at home in Malaysia, and moving to the Twin Cities where my new graduate program is located. It was indeed the second craziest transition I have had in my life (the first was coming to the U.S. itself).

Overall, I love my new program. The people here are extremely nice. Though rumors had it that a St. Cloud graduate might not fit in well at the U (because rivalry), but I find the people super helpful and friendly. They are supportive of my work and ambitions, which encourages me to try my best to be of help to others around me as well. The professors care about us graduate students like their own children while keeping a professional balance in molding us to be scholars in our respective interests. I cannot imagine finishing my first semester in such high spirit without their encouragement and guidance.

If I were to redo this semester all over and give myself some advice (in first person, of course), it would be these:

  1. Jump in early. Read all assigned materials and texts early and well. Get started on everything early (projects, papers, readings, gradings). Get used to the department and its culture right off the bat, and introduce myself to my advisor and other professors early — and let them know what I am up to. I find that the professors here are very generous in terms of sharing their resources.
  2. Figure out a schedule. It may not have to be a hard and fast timetable to live by, but a regular routine for reading, writing, grading, and prepping for classes (both teaching and learning) is helpful in a long run. I have also learned that it is important to schedule social time with the cohort and friends outside the department as well. They keep my life in perspective. Of course, include workout time.
  3. Enjoy the ride. Finally, I think being a Ph.D. student is a privileged experience and certainly most rewarding if I learn to cherish it. Though the ride might be tough at times, I know it will take me to a desirable destination in one way or another. I know some stress is motivational, but too much can be detrimental to health and well-being. So just sit tight and make the most of the ride!

Although this is only the start of a long journey, I am feeling optimistic about the upcoming semesters and more challenges that lie ahead of me. And this break is a great time to prep for my new classes as well as teaching (with Google Glass!) next semester. I look forward to exploring the possibilities untapped.

In the spirit of Christmas, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and happy holidays, and good time with yourselves and your loved ones. Cheers!

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