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How To Be Successful In Graduate School? 

How To Be Successful In Graduate School?

My first go around the collegiate pool was not easy by any means. The late nights and homesickness. The sudden Black consciousness that made me simultaneously enlightened and irate as I learned more and more about our history. Pair that with the challenges of being a Black woman, walking into spaces and being thought of as anything but the real me. To make it worse, my stubbornness got the best of me.

There is already a learning curve while becoming acclimated to a new college environment. I only exacerbated the process by refusing, for a large part of my first year, to ask for help. Shame on me! Despite all of that, in addition to working a number of jobs, and doing everything possible to not go easy on myself, I graduated with honors two years ago and could not wait to hang the fawn calligraphy that was my Bachelor’s degree on my wall. It was a journey, to say the least, one that I did not think I could sanely do again, but knew I had to in order to achieve my dreams.

Grad School, The Next Step To Success

Here I am two years later, somewhat bored with the “real world” and itching to get back to what I love. I am less than a month away from enjoying all that this beautiful summer will bring me, and gearing up for what 21-year-old-me would have thought was a mistake. I will be walking through school halls once again come September, this time as a courageous, driven doctoral student.

To say I weighed this decision seriously would be an understatement. I took time for myself, did my research, and re-evaluated why I wanted to go back to school. Moreover, I reflected on my past collegiate experience and came to terms with the aspects that are inevitable as a Black woman in academia. I also had to face the reality that in order to really take this path again, and do it well, I would need to get out of my comfort zone and break bad habits. I acknowledge that I need to be grateful that I get to step into this new version of myself, while garnering the support of people who see my vision, encourage me, and reinforce my entire being, my research, and my quest for change.   

How To Be Successful In School: Staying Persistent

If there is anything that the last few years have taught me, it is that I cannot work myself into the ground. That is a surefire way to get burned out. I have since learned the difference between working hard and working smart. I have always been a hard worker, but my persistence has often been a detriment to my own wellbeing. Why recreate the wheel when there are plenty of things that have been designed to make my life easier?

For me, this means two key things: organization and play time. There is a myriad of apps, resources, and research findings out there on how best to be organized and have more productive days. One thing I’ve started doing recently is planning out my weeks ahead of time on Sundays, going as far as to rank weekly tasks by order of importance. I once found Mondays to be a complete waste, still exhausted from the week before and utterly diminished by my lack of focus. Now I enter the day feeling motivated, purposeful, and strategic.

Time-blocking is another strategy I use to stay persistent. Segmenting time for projects and breaks allows me to also make time for fun. I cannot feasibly do my best work academically without any catharsis. Productivity and high performance are not excuses for lack of rest and erasure of personal boundaries. I had to learn this the hard way, but it has been a valuable lesson in how I achieve my goals while also being kind to my physical and spiritual self.   

Graduate school is no joke. Here's how to be successful in school. Alexandria M. shares key elements for her upcoming Ph.D. journey.
Photo by Godisable Jacob on

How To Be Successful In School: Remaining Humble

My humility throughout this grad school process can be best summarized by the precocious teachings of one of my favorite contemporary Jamaican artists, “Gratitude is a must.” Much of my research is in tribute to my ancestors, particularly the matriarchs who have helped me get to where I am today. As the first in my family to pursue a graduate degree, I know their pride in this very moment. I, too, am proud, but I am also thankful for their sacrifices. For my mother who immigrated to the United States at eleven-years-old. For my maternal grandmother who held numerous roles as a homemaker and entrepreneur. The list could go on and on. So when I “come in wid a force” to quote reggae sensation Koffee again, I will be entering grad school with all of their love, support, and tenacity behind me.

Another important aspect of my humility is asking for help. I remember in undergrad when my grandmother passed away just before my midterm papers were due; I was doing my best to get what I could have done before jumping on a plane. In fact, I remember making a list of the notes and textbooks that had to make the journey with me. Not until my best friend berated me about not even considering to ask my professors for an extension. She reminded me to put down that damaging Strong Black Woman trope. A recent report by Jasmine Abrams, Ashley Hill, and Morgan Maxwell details the damage this trope has caused for Black women. They also discussed how self-silencing and the phenomenon of ‘pretending to be okay’ may often lead to depression. I will ask for help, even if that includes counseling services. I will take breaks when I need to and I will remember that my vulnerability is, in fact, one of my greatest strengths.

Discerning In Grad School

Graduate school is just plain difficult. There are long hours, working in a lab or as a TA, not to mention people always asking you when you’re going to be done with school. A 2018 study in Nature Biotechnology states that graduate school students are over six times as likely to have anxiety and depression than the general population. When factoring the challenges that arise as a woman of color, I’m sure the numbers are even more staggering.

Anthologies like Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, and Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics tell emotional stories of the various experiences of women in academia. More importantly, they also tell stories of sisterhood and I’ve already gotten a jumpstart on mine. I have dope, brilliant Black sister scholars who will be forging the journey with me and we’ll be supporting each other from some of the best schools across the country. Support systems are key to my process and emotional wellbeing. By creating and nurturing them now, being aware of challenges and in-tune with my emotions, and being willing to seek guidance from those in my circle, I know my support team will help me thwart any trials as they arise.

Overall, I feel so prepared for this next chapter. While I know grad school will come with new challenges and discoveries, I am confident that with persistence, humility, and discernment, I hope to give new life to the meaning of Ph.D.

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