You Can Do Anything You Put Your Mind To: Let My PhD Journey Encourage You

17In 2007, as a woman married for five years with a husband I’d helped complete a masters degree, I was ready to pursue a long time goal of mine—a PhD. Having done all that was necessary to apply, I waited in anticipation.

Early 2008 came and I received notification that I had been accepted! This was great news! Cheers all around, right?

Well..what I couldn’t have imagined was how much my life would change and how much harder it would become…

Before school began I would become a single mother—separated and eventually divorced. In addition to dealing with other complex emotions, this meant I’d have to work full time just to pay day care in order to be able to go to school. “Should I still pursue this degree? I already have a Master’s and am doing well in my career” might have crossed the average (sane) mind, but “can’t,” is as foreign to me as Mandarin might be to the Portugese.

Pursuing a PhD was hard, simply because… It. Is. Hard. –Let no one tell you different. But unless one had also been in the position I’m about to describe it would be hard to imagine what it was like changing diapers, feeding a child who was too young to have mastered feeding himself, working full time in a high stress job, while reading 400 pages a week and writing corresponding reaction papers, completing mid-semester projects,  submitting 3-4, 30 & 40 page papers at the end of each semester all while also being solely responsible for the care of a biological parent who had not raised you, but whom you decided to open your doors to because of her battle with paranoid schizophrenia and your fear that you would get a call one day that she had killed herself, if you didn’t.

If you read the above paragraph without taking a breath, then you have some inkling of the madness that was my life (times 6 years).

My life had become so high stress and so fast paced that I hadn’t even had time to grieve the loss of my marriage. It would be 4 years before I actually cried. Who had the time?

For the majority of the program I didn’t sleep. My child was emotionally suffering from his new family structure and would wake regularly in the middle of the night bawling. When I was able to comfort him and drift back to sleep I’d be awakened by the shouts of my sick mother arguing against the voices in her head…

This was all against the backdrop of being in an academic program where I was actually doing well, but felt inadequate and faced multiple rejections…

Then there was my social life…People outside couldn’t understand or see more globally what I was going through. I was changing…and that change might be because of the unimaginable stress that had become my life. I had become angry–sometimes ugly. Some friends, either not patient or compassionate enough to endure the journey with me, left. Other relationships that I might have worked on in other circumstances, I let go. I had very little left of myself to give, but the accumulated losses would take a toll on me.

Needless to say, this is but a taste of my experience. There isn’t enough space to mention the time I grieved the loss of a family member, the time my son was hospitalized or the time I had to quit my job and apply for food stamps. There were points where it was all just too much.

At one point I thought I was losing my mind. I wasn’t. What I was losing was, perhaps, my body…

Fevers, aches and pains had become a regular part of my existence. It wouldn’t be until I could barely walk that I realized something might really be wrong. Who knew I was sick all the while? Who knew that the stress of this program exacerbated a chronic illness I didn’t know I had?

Despite these things I continued…

And I’m happy to tell you, I succeeded…

In the weeks prior to June 11th, the day I defended my dissertation, there were several times where at unawares I would become choked with powerful emotion—thinking of these things. I couldn’t believe that it might finally be over. My life could go back to, “normal,” whatever normal might now be. My emotions were complex and ran the gamut, but in the midst of the of it all I was filled with enormous pride. And I thought, as Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now…”

I tell the story, not to belabor the struggle, but to emphasize that you should both strive for and complete those challenges that would appear to be the hardest for you. There is no richer an experience than to be able to look back and see how much stronger an individual you are for the trials and tribulations you endure. As you might imagine, there were times (especially at my sickest) when I would wonder if any of it was worth it.

I can honestly look back now and say… it most certainly was. 

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
― Wolfgang von Geothe

Take a moment to share your sentiments in the comment section below. I look forward to engaging with you. 


Norissa J. Williams, MSW, PhD

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