First Week of Grad School

It is a universal truth that the books you read in college will correspond to the events in your life.

Walking Home

I’m walking to my place after wrapping up the third week of life as a PhD candidate. I’m pretty tired, and I’m not in the mood for the music coming out of the party-reeking houses that line my block. Once I get home, I crack open a Coke, and put on some music. In this small window of time, I get to relax and reflect on everything I have experienced here at OSU. Today is Thursday, the day of the week where I don’t feel guilty if I don’t study. Binging on the new season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix is tempting, or I can throw out a mass text to see if anyone wants to meet up for drinks. Instead, I’m doing the thing that centers me the most: writing. Here’s a brief description of my first week of PhD Life.

OSU Student Union Center

My first week of grad studies was a really illuminating experience. A lot of awe was present during the introductory process. During this period, there was a lot of walking, which included (productively) getting lost several times. I attended as many activities as possible, including department orientations and Welcome events. On Sunday, there was a gigantic event on campus called Activities Day, where most, if not, all, student organizations line up to meet incoming students. There were signs for every organization, each of them giving away flyers, swag, and all kinds of treats for incoming students. The whole time I walked around, it felt like they were one sign short- there needed to be a sign that says “Freshman students only”. While library privileges and having an office is cool, so much of the resources at these Welcome events are aimed towards Freshman students. For incoming grad students, your first year involves learning about the spaces you will visit the most and where you will feel comfortable. That’s because you will inhabit these spaces for most of the duration of your time here. There are libraries and reading rooms, lounges, and even small benches you learn to make the most out of. While that sounds limiting, you also learn to use that element to your advantage- if you find that right space, this will become the spot you get most of your work done, studying for hours at a time. Mine is the reading room in the Thompson Library, where it’s quiet, and wrapped in bookcases, filled with academic-esque reading tables and desk lamps. This was one of the first micro-lessons I picked up on my first week of grad school: find a place where you can study peacefully, and stick to it. The following Monday, I attended my first Departmental Orientation. Everyone was so supportive, and they were really helpful at making me feel welcomed. I think I’m gonna like it here.

Orientation Meeting Pic

On my very first day, in my very first class, I WAS THIRTY MINUTES LATE!! SERIOUSLY?!?!?! (turns out my class started at 9:10, but my brain interpreted 9:40; also, for the record, had class started at 9:40, I would have been early, so technically, I wasn’t late) My first class of the week is a survey class on Modernism. I’ve taken classes on this subject before, and it’s one that, though not my focus, I find fascinating. Before the first day of class, we received our first reading assignment as prep for the first discussion. The focus for our first class was T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and another critical essay on Modernism scholarship. I knew discussion was a big part of grad classes, but while I was sitting there, I had to remind myself how long it’s been since I’ve been a student. I’m trying to stay engaged, and wish to say something and not sound terrified. Then I start to do this one thing- I’m listening to every comment, grading it on a scale of how smart I think it sounds. This was another one of those lessons- I need to stop judging every comment made in class as if it’s trying to meet some kind of rubric. Once I caught myself doing that, I stopped. I’m not here to judge anyone; I got my own issues to deal with. And what do I know? How do I know if even I’m doing well on that rubric? I stopped putting every comment in this plus/minus system, and just listened. When you let go of that reflex, comments and discussions light up, becoming crystal clear in revealing their insight. The next book we were assigned was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, about a young man navigating a labyrinth of truth, religion, and family, to find solace in the artistic temperament. I came across this book years ago, but when I read it this time, one passage stood out: “The end he had been born to serve yet did not see had led him to escape by an unseen path: and now it beckoned to him once more and a new adventure was to be opened to him”. Like young Stephen Dedalus, I am surrounded by a newness I can barely comprehend, with my senses more receptive than ever, swaying to whatever direction the breeze of knowledge blows. We were also assigned guided discussions, where everyone chooses a week to lead the class discussion. I chose a week covering Periodicals in the early Twentieth Century, a subject area I know nothing about and have little training on. I made this way harder on myself, but challenges like these is where I strive. I have little knowledge about this topic, but there was also a point where I’ve never heard of William Faulkner, or read Native Son, or even knew what a graphic novel was. I started my research process at the library, looking for sources and jotting down anything helpful. Diving into the unknown is kinda my thing.

My Wednesdays consists of two classes, Film Theory, a class I took because it was taught by my advisor (more on him later), and Medical Humanities, a class that is opening up worlds for me. This particular class has been great in showing me the value of my academic pursuits. There are lively discussions, filled with students who love to engage, investigating really important concerns. With every question our professor asked, or each new voice presented in class, my interest only grew. My favorite part is how interdisciplinary it is, sharing a class with actual med students and reading books I would have never been exposed to. We were assigned Siddharta Muhkerjee’s The Laws of Medicine, a book on new ways of thinking about being a doctor, emphasizing knowledge like intuition and experience in practicing medical care, while understanding how things like bias and environment creep into your decision making. While I’m no doctor, nor wish to pretend I know anything about medicine, a lot of this felt… (I can’t think of a better word) wrong. Aren’t doctors supposed to use what they learned in medical school to treat patients? Isn’t the practice of medicine solely objective? In one section called Law One: A Strong Intuition is Much More Powerful Than a Weak Test, he says one quote that dismantled every notion I had about medicine, as well as everything I have studied since…possibly ever: “There is no absolute knowledge; there is only conditional knowledge”. I had so much trouble with this. Does that mean that the rules of math aren’t set in stone? That no medicine actually does its job, but just has a really high chance of working? So many questions came to mind, until the actual message finally kicked in- it’s not the content of knowledge that is in question, but how we arrive at its answers. If I’m trying to analyze something, and the only way I can make sense of it is through a bad joke or a story my dad passed down years ago, it’s absolutely valid, offering a kind of breadth that exists nowhere else. If anything, this is even more liberating than I initially thought, bringing in my history to the class while contextualizing what I’m studying. (truth be told, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll stick with this for now) Studying the stories of doctors, patients, and experts on the health care system is like a whole body of narratives that illuminate a new dimension of the human condition. It’s physical, social, historical, emotional, communal, corporeal, intellectual. It’s everything I want to explore, and it’s all fascinating.

My next class is Intro to Grad Studies, which is a kind of introduction to being a grad student. (was that clause in my sentence a bit redundant? Kinda was, huh? Yeah, that’s why I’m taking this class) While it sounds like we’re focusing on scholarship, it’s actually more like we’re learning about how to be a scholar of literature, which includes focusing on a writer’s methodology, and how to navigate literature in a way to write about it, leading up to a cleanly written argument. What made this class so interesting, falling on the last day of my week, was this one quote that stood out in class, turning into my next lesson. My instructor told us about how our classes are discussion-heavy, and he said, “You can take a survey class, not talk, but write an awesome paper, and still get a PhD successfully; if the inverse is happening, contributing to discussions but not writing, you’re going to have a problem”. While this sounds logical and relevant, it meant something different for me. It told me that the stakes are a lot higher, and producing barely passable work will not be tolerated. I have to deliver my best, and nothing less, all the time, with the accelerator pedal slammed to the floor. I leave class, and all I can think about is the dearth of work ahead of me. By this point of the week, instead of having a grasp on my workload, my workload was grasping me, leaving me exhausted and barely breathing. I picked up more lessons by the time I got home, including “there is no such thing as ‘I didn’t read’ when showing up to class”, “overprepared is the new prepared”, “if you have a question, ask, regardless of how embarrassed you may feel asking it”, and “whatever you need to get through the day, take it, no matter how self-destructive it may be”. I went home, and tried knocking out, failing for the first five hours. I couldn’t take any more lessons.

End of My School Week

That weekend, I attended a couple more meetings and orientations. Some were focused on personal development, like “how to survive in grad school” (Survival tip: If a meeting offers free food, go to the meeting), while others were ran by specific organizations. One meeting was set up by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), where faculty members, PhD candidates, and the Dean of College of Education and Ecology discussed their experiences in doctoral studies. They took questions from the

Me and Colby Taylor, Project Manager of Office of Diversity and Inclusion 

audience and addressed specific concerns that most grad students deal with, like networking with others and maintaining a healthy lifestyle while juggling your studies. Here, I met people also new to OSU from other departments. By the end of the night, I shared a table with students studying architecture, mathematics, and political science. The conversation started with where we were from to our favorite movies and the restaurants we miss back home. (Sidenote: if someone from California is reading this, please figure out if there’s a way to freeze dry In-N-Out burgers) I even had the chance to speak to Colby Taylor, Project Manager of ODI, asking him about grad school life, and what life after grad school looks like. He was very insightful in his discussions and very intelligent, but what I valued most was how approachable he was. He gave me his card and told me to email him when I wanted to start getting more involved in OSU student activities- a really nice guy. I also attended the first Latinx Space for Enrichment and Research (LASER) meeting of the semester. There, I met students from all over campus, advocating for student outreach and promoting the inclusion of Latinx students on campus. Their mission is so admirable, especially when you consider the populations of student bodies across the country, and how underrepresented Students

Me and Frederick Aldama

of Color are. For a brief moment, I think about how different my life could have been if I was exposed to organizations like this when I was in high school. After the meeting, I volunteered to become a LASER mentor, working with a local high school to promote college enrollment, to OSU as well as wherever these students desire to go; the goal is to get them to think about college, to the point where college materializes into an actual path. I also met a professor from my own department, whose work I studied before coming to the university, Frederick Aldama. We talked about his latest book, which took home the Eisner Award at this year’s Comic Con, and he introduced me to other First Year students I should get to know. I left both meetings reflecting on the new lesson I took from these meetings: Connect with others, not because of their major, or for your academic benefit, but just because. There are a lot of cool people on campus- stop by and get to know some of them. You’ll be glad you did.

LASER Mentors (I’m in the bottom left corner)

I studied all weekend, while digesting everything I was learning and exposed to, trying to maintain some kind of levelheadedness. It was a lot. And it was dizzying. And it was wonderful. And it was consuming. When I got to campus on Monday, I requested a meeting with my advisor. I wanted to ask about our class and how to handle the readings. Studying film was not my strong suit, so I went to ask if he knew of any strategies to think about approaching this. What happened next was actually pretty incredible. Instead of focusing on the class, we had a discussion about navigating the many routes and workways of grad life, including what it’s like to move to a different state, uprooting yourself for a crazy goal, and devoting your future to higher education. This chat became a transformative experience, and I feel like the only way of doing it justice would be to leave the rest of the conversation in that room. All I could think about when I left was how I lucky I was to land an advisor so in tune with the graduate student experience. I headed to the library to continue to study. It was another lesson to take at the close of my first week: if you ever need help, ask, no matter what it is. My advisor, my cohort, my department, the entire campus, all want to see me do well- it only makes sense to ask. My path was clear, and there was a light breeze in the air. I felt a little more at ease by the start of my new class week.

By the second week, I was already starting to feel the motions and living conditions of grad school life cementing themselves into my routine. Up to this point, I welcomed it since I wanted to fit in and start my studies, but it also didn’t take long to see what else that included. This has been a really challenging experience. I’ve never been away from home and my friends for this long, including the months leading up to the end of the semester. I have a gigantic reading list of books I have no idea how I will pay for. A good day when I’m not in class is ten hours of reading. The work load is so much, you feel guilty when you’re not studying. (Editor’s Note: this post was started on the third week of class and is just now getting published after squeezing in tiny increments of time over the last several weeks) I’m three time zones away from home, making it almost impossible to just pick up the phone and talk to someone back home. The suitcase I flew in with is currently my dresser, and I haven’t had a good night’s rest since I got here. I have friends who are also currently in programs and they all told me their own horrors from grad student life. I thought I knew what to expect, but when you’re living it, it’s an experience you feel all over your body, engulfed in its atmosphere. I think about this, then I think about how I got here. I worked hard to get to this point, working all kinds of gigs to help me afford this path. I cleaned and waited tables, changed kegs and threw beer bottles out at three in the morning, spent countless hours working as an adjunct instructor. But all of these odd jobs, and this entire collective struggle, all serve(d) a specific function- to fuel a dream over ten years in the making. I’m not just living a life I’ve always wanted; I’m cultivating it. I decided to pursue a life of knowledge, and that dream is now my reality. The lesson I take from this reflection: I’m a scholar, down to my bones. This is where I belong. It’s where my heart is. This is exactly where I need to be.

Car Seat Headrest at Newport Theater

After finishing my second week, two really great things happened: I figured out a routine that allows me to compartmentalize my time and reading schedule in order to maximize my efforts, and, as a result, learned when and how to step away from my studies and focus on my well being. I signed up for the student rec center, took a yoga class, and got back into my jogging/workout routine. I also joined a tango workshop, meeting every other Friday, and met some really great people. My cohort makes it an effort to meet every Wednesday for Happy Hour, where we vent, commiserate, laugh, all over three dollar beers. I love what I study, but my goal is not to become so consumed by what I read, it loses its value, and I turn invisible. My Final Lesson: Know when to put the books down. I’m writing these last words while standing in line at a Car Seat Headrest concert, happening on a Sunday night at The Newport Music Hall, across the street from my campus. Going to concerts for me is much more than an escape; it reminds me why I started this intellectual pursuit in the first place. (read all about that here) I’m walking in, run to the bar and buy one beer (because that’s what I can afford) and find a spot near the front. I’m standing around a group of people who love this niche little band, who can quote every song and own all of their albums. We chat about our favorite bands and concerts, impatiently looking at the edges of the stage to see if any band mates show up. The stage lights up and the band rocks. Hard. We all nod our heads and dance to our favorite tracks, while crossing our fingers in hopes of hearing that one song we just have to see live. (for me, it’s Something Soon, and yes, they played it!) Soon, we’re all singing in unison, with an energy that can power a city. We shout out the lyrics and jump up and down. I’m getting winded by all the jumping, but I don’t stop- I’m here for the whole experience, exhausting all of my energy for this moment. Sweats pours over my forehead, and my voice can barely keep up with the singing. Everything makes sense here. This is where I belong. This is where my heart is. This is exactly where I need to be.

Where I feel supported


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Yeah….I think I’m gonna like it here.

2 thoughts on “First Week of Grad School

  1. Wow Rolando. So happy to hear about all the challenges and how you’re adjusting to life in a doctoral program! I’m inspired. Not as sure what life holds for me at the moment. It’s great to hear that you’ve found your people. I knew you would. Hope you’ll be able to continue blogging w your workload mounting. If not, we forgive the pauses. Wonderful writing – funny and insightful. ;)))


  2. Pingback: Spring Break Catch-up and Program Update | Seeking Infinite Jest: My Road to the PhD

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