What I learned in my first year of PhD school is…

Jen Xu
6 min readMay 7, 2022

Calendar. Put everything on your calendar. EVERY. THING.

Don’t read an email, re-mark it as unread, and say you’ll get to it later. Because you probably won’t. And you’ll probably forget. Do it then, not later.

Similarly, don’t say “I’ll figure it out next week because I need it for the week after”. Nope. Figure it out as soon as you think of it, if you can. Or you’re going to forget it. Or, sort your email so the unread emails are all at the top, something I didn’t do until just a few months ago, stupidly. Then the unread emails stare you in the face until you take care of them, so it puts a little more pressure on you…in a good way. I’m not sure if you can tell, but my email inbox haunts me, and I don’t even get that many a day! I shudder to think about the future of my inbox. More on that later.

Expect your plans to be thrown off by something that you have to do for work or research or whatever. It’s a normal 9–5 job…but it’s also a non-normal, not-always 9–5 job. I mean, I’m not entirely new to this after working as an athletic trainer, but that’s important.

Networking is key. I’ve had a few opportunities where I needed to reach out to people in other departments, or in my own department, and I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to because I didn’t have the right connections. I mean, reaching out is how you will make those connections…but I guess I mean to do it early, do it often, don’t wait. That also goes for reaching out to other researchers and clinicians — I still struggle with feeling like I’ll bother them. But I have to keep doing it.

Find the best way to organize your research & thoughts & questions. I mean, I still don’t know the best way to read articles and organize my thoughts and think ask good research questions. I think I’m getting there, but I’m doing the whole grass-is-greener sort of bit where I think to myself, hmm there’s got to be something better out there! So maybe it’s time to just stick with what I’ve got and be happy about it until I find something that fits better.

Even if you know that you don’t know what you don’t know (don’t come at me), you’re still absolutely going to run into things that you definitely don’t know, and you’re still going to get tripped up. And that’s okay. Just knowing it’ll happen helps, sometimes.

Be yourself. Have your personality. I mean, there’s definitely a line. But don’t be afraid to be yourself. I very recently had a dream where a prospective student (I forget at what level) asked me my one tip for getting into the school — and I said “be yourself”. Even my dream-self agrees with me…must mean it’s true!

Kinda similar to the one above, but learn to “take your space” (blah, I hate cliche statements like this but it’s very important). Make your statements, say what’s on your mind, and don’t be afraid.

Learn how to panic properly. This sounds crazy, I know, but I know that no matter what, my initial reaction to any adverse event will likely be panic. It’s just an emotional response. That’s just the way I’m wired. But it seems it’ll be very helpful to change the way that I emote and panic. Meaning, more internally, more controlled, etc. I suppose in general I mean to…find emotional regulation strategies that work for you — for your own sake, and for the sake of your relationships with others at work.

Time flies, and then it doesn’t. I feel like I’m always caught between wanting to hurry up and be done, but then wanting time to slow down so I can actually have time to do the things I want, fully knowing that I will never be in this place in my career ever again. So I guess the lesson here is to appreciate where you are and just be in the moment.

Re-configure your time management skills. Or, like in my case, get some time management skills. I often find myself setting a 20–25 min timer to do work. Then, when the timer goes off, I’ll ignore it and then spend, say, an hour on something. And by the time I go to take a break, I’m mentally drained and I struggle to get back on track. Not ideal! It actually takes some self-control here, since my workhorse brain yells at me to KEEP GOING! That’s usually how I end up not drinking water, eating food, or going to the bathroom for 3 hours sometimes just trying to get something done. Like writing this.

Figure out a management system for eye strain — including blue light blockers (either in glasses form or use night mode 24/7 on your devices, change your TV setting to warm, etc.), resting your eyes at regular intervals (20–20–20 rule, look it up!). This job is often just reading…everything on a computer screen so it helps to figure this out.

Making friends at this age/stage in life is really tough, especially when your time is limited and precious…you have to try a lot harder because it’s not undergrad where everyone is frantically searching for friends, but you also have to realize that some things are just not worth chasing.

Work-life balance isn’t always a straight 50–50 split. Sometimes work should take up more time (I learned that…this year). But sometimes work should take up no time (I’m still…learning and understanding this).

Figure out how you best work because it’s different for everyone. Some people do well at home — I do not. I love studying in student lounges, libraries, coffee shops. I just like being around people also studying because it feels…cooperatively productive, even if they’re complete strangers. I also realized when I read articles I need some kind of lofi-chillhop music (without words), I can write to songs with words (unless they’re moderately familiar, they either have to be completely new to me or ridiculously familiar), and I can do homework to just about anything. Even all of these small things are so helpful to figure out.

Self-management is really difficult. I’ve been working on it as you can see in the paragraph above, but it’s tough to go from answering to a person in charge to being the person in charge…to being the decision-maker.

Get a therapist. Ok, you don’t have to, because $$, but things have been infinitely better for me since going down this route again.

Don’t compare yourself to others. My least favorite piece of advice because I really suck at listening to it. I guess it means that it’s my most-needed piece of advice. You’ll get nowhere comparing yourself to someone who is a completely different person and on a completely different path. On the other hand, try some new things that students older than you have done or are doing.

Your comfort zone is your casket” — a lot of things are really difficult but if you work at them, they get better. I’m no stranger to trying to get out of my comfort zone — but the fun thing is that when you think you are pushing yourself, you get smacked in the face with the reality that you still aren’t pushing yourself nearly as hard as you can. Strangely enough, it helps to hit those points.

Chase your dream. And if your dream is to get a PhD but also maintain healthy lifestyle habits and relationships, make crazy gains in the gym (yes…I said what I said), and enjoy life, then you have to do what it takes to do that (it doesn’t just have to be one dream). I think there’s a joke out there that you can only have 2 when you’re in school: good sleep(/fitness, I’ll add this), good academics, good relationships. And I will say, after this year, I’m leaning closer to agreeing with this…but chase that dream!

Alright, this was a lot more than I wanted to write. But I tried to sprinkle practical thoughts among more soft-skill/emotional thoughts, so hopefully there was a good balance (and I’m too tired to go through and sort things by categories). Just a few days ago I was sitting there wondering what I’ve “actually” learned. I’ve done some cool stuff, but in my head I was like, “have I actually grown though?” And this tells me that I have, which I’m just really happy about.

Also, I don’t really know the purpose of this. Because anyone who is going to learn these, aka anyone who is going through or into their first-year in a PhD program, is going to have to learn them on their own. But hey. I like to write these things so I can go back and look at them later on and see where I was in life. Lastly, how is it possible that my first year of school is over already?? I do not feel ready, but…science waits for no one. I wonder what I’ll have to say next year. Oh boy!



Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.