Empowered & Surviving: Reflections of a Graduate Student



Empowered: to make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

A lot of things are challenging, but there is one aspect of my life that comes with a particular set of demands — graduate school. Graduate life is tough. It’s one thing to hear people say this, but entirely another to live it. Thus far, I have found my graduate journey taxing on my mind and body. My graduate student status has made me doubt abilities I hold and previously felt relatively certain about. This self-doubt has, in turn, increased my anxiety a condition that has forced me to recognize the importance of taking deep breaths and realizing I’m not alone and that this experience is one I share with others.

Since becoming a graduate student, I have repeatedly encountered things that I did not initially expect or anticipate. In fact, every semester has come with its own fine print leading me to think “it if ain’t one thing, it’s another.” The pressures of funding, networking, publishing, “comping,” “dissertating,” and anticipating future job markets are some things that I think are not detached from any graduate student’s life. These pressures result in some important coping/survival strategies – at the end of every semester I acknowledge my Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime/Sling accounts for being a part of one of my strategies. These strategies can be crucial in making it through one’s graduate experience.

This is where my graduate student survival begins!

Beyond surviving, I have started to think about another outcome of my graduate experience – empowerment. In my program, I broadly study Black women’s experiences in education from the Pre-Civil War era to the Civil Rights era. As I read books about Black women in higher education and conduct my own research, I encounter Black women who not only survived their academic spaces but became (more so) empowered in these spaces. My recent read of Rosalind Rosenberg’s biographical account of Pauli Murray, Jane Crow, left me with admiration for what Marshall accomplished during her graduate years. With her mind “set on the dream” of completing her degrees, Murray also advocated for the rights of Black women in contested academic spaces. This resulted in me contemplating how empowerment is and can further be reflected in my graduate experiences. In doing so, I have come up with three points for feeling empowered during the graduate journey:

  • Empowerment is not detached from disappointment.

As graduate students, we apply for lots of things such as fellowships, scholarships, and grants. In applying for these awards, sometimes we get accepted and sometimes we do not. As I reflected on my own rejections from awards, I realized that I not only fully embraced the disappointment, but I also became motivated to try again or to try for something else. Although rejection is discouraging, it helps to build that extra layer of skin needed to survive graduate school and become stronger as a graduate student.

  • Empowerment comes from recognizing your rights as a graduate student.

One of the first things I heard as a graduate student is that you must advocate for yourself. To advocate for yourself, you must know your rights and we as graduate students have rights. Although these rights may vary within different institutions, they should all equally aim to foster a quality graduate experience. As graduate students, knowing your rights can aid in your navigation of various academic situations and increase your confidence as a student in your institution and program.

  • Empowerment means utilizing your own metrics to define your graduate identity.

I acknowledge that your institution’s and adviser’s requirements you as a graduate student is important. Overall, those metrics such as publications and conferences are significant when you enter the job market. I also acknowledge that your research interest/dissertation topic, which especially define you at academic conferences, is vital to graduate students. However, there are other things that you can do, apart from what is expected, to define yourself in graduate school. These include various projects – either personal or not, simple or not — that builds on who you are and what you want to be as an individual and professional, but also diverge from the standard requirements you hear about surviving graduate school. These projects allow you to build on your own control over being a graduate student.

In closing, I recognize that the list of ways to be an empowered graduate student can be more in depth and exhaustive. I also recognize that surviving graduate school in itself is a laudable achievement. However, in navigating my graduate experience I have found these means of empowerment, not only achievable, but also valuable in persisting and gaining confidence from my graduate experience.

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