Next up in our SHE Educates series is Torie Burns. Torie is a PhD candidate in the University of Iowa’s English department. When she’s not reading or cooking, she’s probably taking pictures. You can find some of her work here. You can connect with Torie on Twitter or via email.
Name: Victoria Burns
School: University of Iowa
Major: PhD student—I’m studying 20th-21st century American literature with a cultural studies focus, specifically looking at life writing
Who are you, where are you from, what are you in school for?
I’m originally from Gainesville, Florida. I went to Duke University, convinced I wanted to be a civil engineer. I lasted one semester in the engineering school before fleeing to the liberal arts. I ended up with a double major in English and psychology, and I was one “class” (a public exhibition—whoops!) short of a photography minor. Now, I’m two and a half years into Iowa’s PhD program, with another three and a half (assuming all goes well) to go!
In my first semester of college, I was in three engineering classes and a required first-year writing seminar. Even though I knew nothing about the topic (I believe the class was called “Writing about Dance”), I would escape into my writing assignments to avoid doing programming labs or trying to tackle chemistry. I’d always loved English, and the more I studied it, the more I felt like I’d found my niche. But then, I realized, I wasn’t totally satisfied with English. It was in studying psychology that I found the intersection my research interests—I learned about eating disorders and mental health, which led me to think more about the people behind the texts I read. I was worried that I’d have to choose literature over psychology…I’m thinking my dissertation will explore memoirs written by women, merging cultural studies, psychology, and literature to consider how and why women write about (or deliberately avoid writing about) their bodies.When I came to Iowa, I was worried that I’d have to choose literature over psychology. Luckily, that hasn’t been the case. I’m thinking my dissertation will explore memoirs written by women, merging cultural studies, psychology, and literature to consider how and why women write about (or deliberately avoid writing about) their bodies. In terms of what comes next, I am glad I have another few years to think about it! Most people earn their PhDs and go on to teach—as adjunct professors, lecturers, tenure-track professors, high school teachers, etc.—but I feel like I might end up going in another direction. At this point, I’m exploring careers in publishing and higher education administration. I’m comfortable saying that I couldn’t predict the path that led me to this place in my life, and though I’m going to continue working towards things that interest me, I’m not going to make assumptions about where I’ll be three years from now.
What has been your experience as a student at your school and in your chosen major/field?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my time as a graduate student at Iowa. That’s not to say I haven’t struggled in my
program. There’s a reason why so many graduate students (myself included) seek counseling and pharmacological support for mental health—balancing a 20-hour a week teaching/grading/tutoring load with a full graduate-level course load does its damage quickly and efficiently—but in the tiny community of English graduate students, there’s a great deal of camaraderie and support.
I COULDN’T PREDICT THE PATH THAT LED ME TO THIS PLACE IN MY LIFE, AND THOUGH I’M GOING TO CONTINUE WORKING TOWARD THINGS THAT INTEREST ME, I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHERE I’LL BE THREE YEARS FROM NOW.I think it has to do with the wide variety in our research, as well as our shared battles with imposter syndrome, intense professors, loneliness, and the inability to balance our commitments. The result is that my classmates cheer on one another by showing up for talks; going out to celebrate successful comprehensive exams and dissertation defenses; throwing birthday parties; sharing syllabi and paper drafts from past classes…you get the drift. I can’t imagine how different my graduate school experience would be without this support system.
What do you love most about being in school? What do you find the most challenging?
I love being surrounded by people who push one another, who discuss ideas that aren’t easy (or even possible) to fully understand, and who constantly seek to learn more. I worked for two years in a university before deciding to go back to school, and being back in the classroom has really changed my perspective. I love that after this year (my last year of coursework! Woo!), I’ll exclusively be studying the things that interest me most. That being said, I feel like future PhD students in any field should be aware of the potential impact on mental health. I know plenty of science PhD students who spend all day, every day in their labs, running experiments for 10, 12, even 14+ hours a day (weekends included). For humanities PhD students, it can become trust me when I say a) you’re not the only one feeling this way and b) there is nothing shameful about getting help. incredibly difficult to balance teaching with school—what percent of your time and energy do you give to your students? When do you pick your own work over your students’ work? This is especially true if you have your comprehensive exam or a big paper due date looming in the near future. Many people at Iowa have been really open about their mental health struggles, but that isn’t always the case, so trust me when I say a) you’re not the only one feeling this way and b) there is nothing shameful about getting help—be it counseling, meds, or even time away from school. I’ve had to re-learn how to balance things and to practice self-love and self-care. For me, that means making time to work out, do yoga, cook, and spend time with family. For others, it might mean binge-watching Netflix, taking walks, visiting or calling family each week, or something else. But figuring out what you need to do to care for yourself, and prioritizing that as much as anything else, is crucial.
What do you wish you had known before starting school? What would you tell other SHEs going into your major or school?
I would reiterate my point above at least 100 times. Take care of yourself. Know that you’re not alone in feeling like an imposter (even faculty members feel it!). Remember that your program saw something in you. Oh, and at Iowa and many other schools, quite a few PhD students are admitted off the wait lists. Don’t feel like you don’t deserve to be at your school. Your grad school experience is what you make of it.
Also, when you’re looking at programs, don’t be surprised if you fall in love with a program at a school you never really considered. I never expected to end up in the Midwest, but I really wanted to work with a specific professor. Your department defines your experience. Even if you don’t really want to live in a small town, or a big city, or on the West coast, or the South, it’s a temporary commitment. Pick programs, not places, where you can see yourself. Trust me, you’ll be spending so much time doing work within your program, you probably won’t get much of a chance to see the outside world (unless you’re practicing self-care ☺).
Third, it’s perfectly fine (and even wonderful, in a lot of ways) to take a few years and work before returning to school.it’s perfectly fine (and even wonderful, in a lot of ways) to take a few years and work before returning to school. Having that perspective can be really helpful.Having that perspective can be really helpful. When I’m overwhelmed with my studies, it’s really powerful to remind myself that I’m studying what I love, not working 9-5 in a role where I feel stifled. You also make money, and if you’re thrifty, that will be really nice to pull from when you’re in grad school, when your stipend will probably be quite insignificant. On a related note, never pay for a PhD program. They should pay you, whether with tuition remission and a stipend for teaching or a fellowship.
Oh, and one other point. Find mentors. If you chose a program for a faculty member or two, get to know them immediately. They’ll be flattered that you have read any of their research and share their interests. Go to office hours. Become a familiar face, whether or not you can take their classes. Go see them speak at lectures or conferences. And then, once you get to know them, use them as resources. Faculty members can support you academically, but they can also give you guidance about what comes next, help you make connections, and more. Trust me: they know more than you do, and they are typically eager to help guide you in your research, pointing you to resources that you might never have heard about.