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Home » Discover Rackham » Tread Water — a Ph.D. student’s reflection on his first semester

“Always look to the positive and never drop your head
For the water will engulf us if we do not dare to tread
So let’s tread water.”

– De La Soul, “Tread Water”

Pop quiz: Who are your Top 5 hip-hop groups of the ‘90s? Sorry to drop this on you. It’s no easy question, and must be taken seriously. I’ve thought long and hard about this one and I’ve come up with my list (in no particular order): The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, The Pharcyde, and De La Soul. Honorable Mentions go out to Black Sheep and Jungle Brothers. But you might wonder, what does this have to do with the first semester of a Ph.D. student? Good question. You just have to trust me.

This just in, grad school is hard. Shocking, right? Who would have known? There are typically 3 core elements to any doctoral student workload: coursework, teaching, and research. Throw in the difficulty of moving to a new place with little to no support system and it’s fair to say it can be daunting. For some doctoral students, this will be the first time any of them have ever taught a class before. Luckily for me I’ve been teaching a class or two a semester for a while now, so teaching itself wasn’t the difficulty. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. Every class is different, every department is different. So any time you are given a new course to teach at a new school there’s a lot of work involved. All new lesson plans, new syllabi, new tests, etc. Most important, perhaps, is the manner in which you want to present the material. This is a very specific art, in which the teacher needs to find the best way he or she can present the material that will reach students in a manner they will best understand it. Every time you have new material to teach, you have to create a new style of presentation for it. No small task. If you don’t have that, you end up being the professor who just stands in front of people babbling in monotone.

The second element of a doctoral program is coursework. Generally coursework is pretty straightforward. You know what to expect: in depth material, detail oriented, in your field of study. You will be gaining insight that will challenge you to stretch the boundaries of your current knowledge, and be applicable to your future research. I was prepared for that, I thought, then came computer programming. Let me preface by saying the only computer programming course I took prior to Michigan was a C Basic class in high school. For those of you who have no idea what C Basic is, well that just proves my point. It’s an old, dead, computer language that ancient programmers in the mountains sing folks songs about. My area of study is biomechanics applied to injury rehabilitation. The research I will be doing includes the use of equipment that relies on a specific programming language called Matlab. If I want to be able to collect data or troubleshoot when something goes wrong, I need to know Matlab. And so begins my career as a computer programmer. That’s in my Top 5 list of “Things I Never Thought I’d Be Doing.”

The third element of a doctoral program is research. You can argue that this is the most important element and I don’t think many would disagree. So what’s there to do in your first semester as a doctoral student? Not much. Just learn your labs, their protocols, all of the equipment (inside and out), know all the software, how to process the data, and on…and on… It’s also important to read every journal article in your area of study for the past 10 years, and throw in some publications from the previous 3 decades.

So yeah, it’s a lot. We all know it going in. We prepare as much as we possibly can, but at some point it catches up with everyone. There comes a time when you go from writing one paper, to writing the next lesson plan, to reading the next journal article, to studying for the next class, to grading the next quiz, to meeting for the next project. You focus on the task in front of you just so you can get to the next one in line. And if one part of the academic conveyor slips up, takes longer than expected, the ripple effect is felt all the way down the line in the form of missed sleep or missed meals.

This is where I was towards the end of my first semester, battling through a laundry list of “have to get dones” with not enough hours in the day, or days in the week. And then something clicked. I was walking across campus with my “Top 5 ‘90s hip-hop” playlist cruising through my Dre Beats into my subconscious soundtrack when I heard “Tread Water.” Of course this is my playlist so I’ve heard this song many times, but at this perfect moment it just hit me. “Always look to the positive, and never drop your head, for the water will engulf us, if we do not dare to tread, so let’s tread water.” No truer lyrics were ever spit into a mic. “Always look to the positive” – the positive strengths inside of all of us, that got us where we are. “Never drop your head” – never fail in the belief of your own strength and ability. “For the water will engulf us”- The trials and stress of life, no matter what shape or form are always there to stand in your way. “If we do not dare to tread” – but we do dare to be bold and face challenges. “So let’s tread water.”

Now, you can make a case that I’m over-analyzing this, and maybe over-intellectualizing De La Soul. And you probably wouldn’t be wrong. This probably isn’t as profound as I’m making it out to be. But truthfully, that doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that at that moment in time, De la Soul helped me to get through. And whatever it is that speaks to you, whatever it is that becomes your momentary muse to move you forward, is something that is truly special. Be sure to hold onto it as you move forward through whatever challenges you face. And when you see me walking across campus, going from thing 1 to thing 2, with my Dre Beats and my Top 5, know that we are all just treading water.