Courtney Kidd LCSW

Courtney Kidd LCSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Things They Don’t Teach You Before A PhD Program

It’s become a social work tradition to do a top list of things I wish I had known, or things I’ve learned in various aspects of my social work career. For a full list, please check out:
5 Things I figured out While Teaching Social Work

Things They Don’t Tell You In Social Work Part IPart II,   Part III

Things I Wish I Would Have Mastered Before Leaving Social Work School Part I,   Part II

Last year I made the decision to leave my job at the Department of Veteran Affairs and pursue a PhD for two reasons. The first, is that I have always been a square peg in a round hole within the field, I wanted to do macro level work, research, and teach. The second is because I really require titles and as we have no titles of nobility there is a need to be referred to Dr. Kidd…okay, just kidding. The second is because I believe this profession has way more to offer to the world, and the doctoral level allows me to branch into that in ways difficult if not barred at the master’s level. But man (or woman), are there things I *everyone now* wish I had known.

  1. What the hell am I doing?

This is certainly not subject only to the PhD program, in fact within college, graduate, employment, and yes, even PhD level, there are endless moments where you look around hoping to catch the eye of the next person you meet regardless of standing to confirm the question “what the hell am I doing?” It might be awkward if that person happens to be the professor, however, there is an understanding that no one truly knows what they’re doing regardless if you’re a first-year student or a tenured professor. The truth will always remain that we fly by the seat of our pants (hopefully not on fire) while gathering endless amounts of information that hopefully will be imparted to your cohorts and audience with real and fake confidence. So, go on and own that knowledge, because no one really knows what they’re doing you learn and grow on the way.


  1. I’ve done my waiting….8 years of it…In Azkaban

Okay, so 8 years might be a bit melodramatic, but there are days when you wonder how many years it has been and how many more could you possibly keep going on like this. I mean really…you look into the eyes of the individuals in more advanced cohorts and go “one day I too will look like this.” Then you look in the mirror and realize that crazed, slightly feral look is already there, perhaps it came in the mail with the acceptance letter and complimentary pen? Or when the reading list came out? Or midway through PhD stats? Yeah…compartmentalization is my best friend. If you look at it as “this many years for coursework,” “this many for qualifying exams and prelim dissertation proposal,” and then finally “dissertation” you might actually be able to get to sleep and tonight…maybe tonight, without crying.

  1. It’s not difficult, but it is hard

Did you follow that one? Besides the Michael Scott moment? Yeah, it’s one of those tricky balancing acts. It’s not that the work is more difficult than what we’re able to do, though it is a step up from graduate level work, it’s that the work is a lot and it’s time consuming in ways you never dreamed of. They weren’t joking that PhD programs are hard, but it’s not in the traditional way you think (except stats, it always comes down to stats). These programs are meant to test you every which way, from large amounts of readings, to expectations of far reaching work. The best part is that every single doctorate has been where you’re at, and survived, and you will too. The worst part, you’re not through it yet. Talk to cohorts above yours, they’re often the greatest source of support because they’ve been there, they’ve done that, and they can tell you what they wish they had known. Turn your cohort into a support group, make sure you have a group chat the moment you begin, it’ll save your life, it’ll save time, and mistakes It’s not as simple as passing a class, it’s coming out of it with something tangible to build from. Each class, each assignment is just that; a Lego in your dissertation project. So, each one is vitally important to do well so it can be built upon soundly.

  1. It’s okay if no one gets you

This one can leave you feeling alone within a program. Your cohort should be your greatest supports but there’s no promising that. And you assume your professors are these all-knowing beings who will be knowledgeable in your area and can see what you are trying to do. The much simpler truth is that you’re lucky if there’s one person who sees your vision. Your cohort will focus on their areas of study. Your professors are experts, but often in the area of their study. Ideally, they know how to generalize that into teaching you the skills to build everything on your own, but especially if your research is a bit new, or a bit unique, you often find yourself hitting a wall. Feeling the black sheep that no one understands. I’ll let you in on a secret. It makes things more difficult, yes, but they don’t need to understand it, don’t let anyone get in your way when you believe in something. It’s not unusual for new ideas to be treated as confusion at best, and wrong at worst. You make your own case, back it up, and stand by it. If you’re lucky they’ll realize that it’s new or innovative, or just outside their area and be supportive. Your advisor should be the one to help you through those moments. Or as mine said “You let me worry about that that’s my job, you just keep going, the world will follow.”

  1. Don’t forget to take a moment and remember where you are

It’s easy to forget amongst the hustle and bustle of PhD life; wondering if you’re going to survive it, what happens if you don’t, how long will this take, will I be left behind, that you’ve done something incredible already… you’ve joined a path that at the finish line leaves you in the top 3% of American and 1% of the world population who have earned a PhD. While I don’t want that to go to anyone’s head, it’s a good reminder when you’re feeling overwhelmed and wondering what to do next, to just keep swimming because at the end of it all, even if you must make some sacrifices along the way, no one can take this away from you. Be immensely proud every day of the work you’re putting in. Allow yourself to own your accomplishments whether they be publications, funding, conferences, or even getting through it all. In the end, all of it will be worth it, and the pain, controversy, and even negativity will drain away and allow you to start upon an amazing journey. I know I can’t wait.


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