Academic Life: The Education of a First-Year Gerontology PhD Student

This is the final post in a series of stories about the academic experiences of a first-year UMass Boston gerontology PhD student.

By Caitlin Connelly

It happened in the blink of an eye.

My first year as a gerontology PhD student at UMass Boston is finished and it really did go by faster than I could have imagined. Those two semesters have been a great experience, but they were also filled with their fair share of highs and lows.

A few low periods revolved around panic over the amount of work that had to be crammed into what seemed like an impossibly short amount of time. But they were offset by many high points, like the opportunity to attend the Gerontological Society of America conference – something I have wanted to do for years! I went to presentations by scholars from around the globe and realized that they were talking about the theories and using statistics that I had been learning in my classes. It was such a neat opportunity that confirmed my choice to pursue further education in the field of gerontology.

I’m happy to say that my first year turned out well. But my experience has not just been about the acquisition of academic knowledge. It’s also been about learning how to be in a PhD program and getting the most out of it while trying to stay grounded. In many ways, those lessons were just as important.

One lesson that has been a bit hard for me to come to terms with is that it’s okay not to know everything. I am surrounded by intelligent, well-read, and experienced faculty and peers. At times, that has been rather intimidating. I could feel my insecurities bubbling up when I felt my level of gerontological knowledge was insufficient. However, at some point I remembered that is literally why I am in school – because I still have a lot left to learn! I am now practicing letting go of that fear and with that, releasing the stress that accompanies those doubts. Without that stress, I am much better able to trust in the process of doing my best and learning as I go.

Another lesson was really a reminder of something I have always known — the great value of relationships. It was challenging to move away from my roots in North Carolina, from my friends and family, to come to Boston where everything felt unfamiliar. But I wasn’t alone. This experience was shared among my cohort, with all of us living away from the place we grew up calling home to pursue our studies. Within my cohort and among all the gerontology students, I have found fantastic friendships and comradery. Going through a PhD program is an intense experience and sharing that with the people around me has been invaluable in getting through.

A final lesson I am only now getting a grasp of is the value of self-care. The importance of self-care is everywhere these days, from quotes shared on social media to self-help books featured in the windows of bookstores. Yet somehow, it is still so easy to forget. In the busiest points of the semester, I found myself thinking that I didn’t have time to go to the gym or to get those eight hours of sleep. I thought that if I sacrificed those things, I would have more time to devote to my studies. However, that always came back to bite me in the end. Trying to write a paper on four hours of sleep would take twice as long and the build-up of stress without taking time to release it would cloud my mind and set me back hours. I have come to learn first-hand that taking the time to take care of myself will always be worth it.

This past year has been a wild ride and one for which I am grateful. I look forward to working this summer on a few different research projects and starting my second year of school in the fall, equipped with these lessons and continuing to learn and grow as I go along.

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