Last updated on November 18th, 2022 at 06:24 pm
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)!
- YOU are not your degree
- You do not have to have all the answers
- Imposter syndrome is a common feeling
- Look for jobs and funding within your program
- Plan for life AFTER graduate school
Succeeding in higher education
Higher education can feel like a string of overwhelming tasks, one after the other. If you find yourself wondering, "Should I have gone to graduate school?" Congratulations! You're 100% normal.
Despite how overwhelming things may seem while you’re pursuing your degree, there is a silver lining. There is insight that will help you succeed in graduate school!
In this article, I will share some of the insight that helped me during those tough moments when I questioned my ability to continue.
December 8, 2018: My knees started to shake as the usher motioned for my row to stand. I could see my family in the crowd right above the stage. They were all there. My mom, sisters, and older brother, Omar, all came to my graduation. I was the first person in the family to earn a graduate degree, and they were there supporting me.
I was 23 and a few seconds away from earning a degree I worked so hard to achieve. It was a long shot for someone like me. One of 10 children, raised by a single mother after tragically losing my father to cancer at age 11, classified as a first-generation low-income student.
I knew this was it. For the past year and a half, I was constantly telling myself that after I received my first graduate degree, I would be happy. The moment had finally come to meet happiness and she stood on the other side of that stage. I just knew it.
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The moment of truth...
I was next, I handed my name card to the announcer as he whispered the pronunciation of my last name. “Is it Har-rell?” Yes, that’s correct, I whispered back. “Ms. Crystal Harrell, Master of Science in Human Development and Family Studies.”
My family went crazy! A big grin formed on my face as I walked across that stage to grab a piece of paper from the hands of the Dean that signified my degree completion. “Don’t fall… walk in a straight line… almost there.” I made it!
A few seconds had passed to sum up the last year and a half of study. I made it back to my seat, and to my surprise, I didn’t feel any different than I had before walking across the stage. “It’s a scam,” I thought, “Why am I still not happy?”
It is four years later, and I created this blog because I coach so many graduate students who have either experienced what I described previously, or are on their way to. They just don’t realize it.
As an update, I did eventually find my happiness (I am still in graduate school), but it did not come from obtaining a degree. Actually, it didn’t come from anything outside of me. My happiness came by (1) not trying to chase it, and (2) realizing the 5 things I highlight in this blog post about succeeding in graduate school.
1. YOU are not your degree
This may come as a shock to you, but as someone who tied their self-worth to academic achievements for so long, this realization was the biggest relief in graduate school. It is so easy to feel like you NEED your degree for whatever reason. The truth is, you really don’t, and the sooner you realize that. The happier you will be.
Your degree is a tool
It is that simple. Think of it as a key, and with this key, certain doors are easier to unlock. That is not to say that the door will not open without the key, (there is always a way around) but you have a better chance with it.
2. You do not have to have all the answers
It was my first semester of graduate school when I realized this. I was constantly reading all of the articles, trying to consume as much information as possible. “I have to read this! What if I am called on in class and I don’t know the answer because I missed it in this article.”
I was basically fooling myself into believing that I had to be the most knowledgeable or articulate in order to prove my worth as a graduate student. Learn what you need from the material you are given and MOVE ON!
You do not have to consume all the information in a 20-page research article. You do not have to know everything about one subject. No one does, so why would you expect that from yourself? Let go of the need to be perfect and learn what is necessary for you to get your degree.
3. Imposter syndrome is a common issue
Being classified as a first-generation low-income student constantly left me feeling inadequate in graduate school. I felt as if there was so much I didn’t know and that everyone else was smarter than me, or was at least a lot closer to figuring it out than I was.
I was struggling to keep my head above water, especially that first semester, because I was still trying to operate like an undergraduate student, and they were two different worlds. It wasn’t until I begin to talk to other graduate students that I figured out the truth.
The truth was, we were all struggling.
You Are Not Alone!
There were moments where each of us felt like we were “the only ones.” I could break into an entirely different segment about the mental health of graduate students because of feelings like imposter syndrome, but I’ll save that for a later blog post. I just want you to realize that you are not alone.
If you don’t believe me, then talk to other graduate students in your program. Ask them if they ever feel the way you do. The chances are they are either currently dealing with imposter syndrome or have in the past.
4. Look for jobs and funding within the program
During my first graduate degree program, the Gates Millennium Scholarship I received as a high school senior did not cover my tuition. I had to figure out other ways to pay for school… That’s when I went to Google: “Scholarships for graduate students.”
I started to do some research and realized that graduate programs offered A CRAP-TON of funding in the form of fellowships and assistantships. They are essentially scholarships for the graduate level. Below is a screenshot of the funding page for one of the graduate programs I applied to. The list was long!
You will have to put in some hours to apply but trust me, it is a lot better than trying to work part-time or full-time (if that’s even possible!) as a graduate student.
5. Plan for life after graduate school
It Goes By Quickly!
Depending on the graduate degree you are pursuing (masters vs. doctorate), graduate school goes by quickly! You always want to set your sights on plans after you graduate. This keeps you focused and intentional during your degree program. And the point I made about not having to have all the answers will become clearer.
For example, if you want to work for the CDC after you complete your MPH, then it is important to start networking and connecting with researchers there. If you can get a summer internship there, EVEN BETTER! Ask questions. Become involved in various labs. Get the relevant research experience. You want to show future employers that you were willing to gain some experience while in graduate school. I always think in terms of “resume-building activities.”
Join the tribe!
There are so many things I wish I could share with you about the lows and highs of academia. Be sure to join my email list if you want to read more!
Is it true that you do not need a degree to be successful (whatever success looks like to you)? Absolutely!
Is the traditional educational system for everyone? I doubt it!
But, if you have found yourself in a position where you decided you want to continue your education, then that’s okay too. Never let anyone make you feel bad about your goals.
There are so many resources to help you be successful. I wrote my #1 Best Selling book, Crystal Clear: A Journey of Self-Discovery (From Public Housing to Ivy League), to help students who want to see their dreams fulfilled. You can also read more about it here! To show them that there is ALWAYS a way around (or through) any barrier.
Faith, mindset, and hard work will be required for you to succeed in graduate school, but those three things are required for any path you take in life. The question then becomes: What do YOU want out of your life and how will obtaining a college degree help you get there?