Lessons Learned: Reflections on Graduate School 10 Years Later

Just before I began the first semester of my graduate program, I nervously drafted an email to my advisor. To my surprise, I had been accepted into a program that would help me fulfill my goal of a rewarding career in health education. But part of me thought maybe the selection committee had made a huge mistake. Sure, I had enough experience, foresight, and passion to know I wanted to be in the program. I had the test scores and recommendations to get into the program. But for some reason, there was a small part of me that thought maybe they accidentally accepted me into the program and would rescind the offer any day. I was dealing with a major case of imposter syndrome before I ever knew it had a name. So, I emailed my advisor partly to be sure that my acceptance letter was not going to be rescinded and partly to get to know the person who would guide me through the process in a way that led to my successful completion of the program, assuming they had accepted me on purpose.


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During that first meeting with my advisor, he lauded the strength of my application package, specifically my references and my potential as demonstrated in my thoughtfully chosen work experiences. He mentioned the high ratings across the board but particularly in the area of ’emotional intelligence’, which at the time I thought was an odd thing to rate an applicant on.  He said that in a graduate program, you move from consuming knowledge to applying and contributing to the body of knowledge. He also mentioned that I had applied for entry into a selective program at a rigorous research university where the selection committee wouldn’t have accepted anyone who they weren’t absolutely sure could finish. I exhaled. It wasn’t a mistake after all. I left that meeting feeling supported by my advisor, curious about how I would develop in order to be prepared for graduation, and absolutely determined that I would indeed graduate. And I reflect on the lessons I’ve learned in the 10 years since graduation, the importance of those things, support, curiosity, and determination, stick out to me.  Here are a few things I’ve learned:


Be determined to build a life, not just make a living. 

Capitalism will try to convince you that making money is the most important thing. Academia will try to tell you that teaching and publishing are the most important things. Working in a helping profession will have you convinced that changing the world and helping others is the most important things. But what I learned in graduate school is that building a life you love is more important than all those other things. In fact, building a life you love, filled with people who add value to your life will motivate and inspire you to do everything else.


It took me an extra year to complete my Master’s because I needed to work while attending school. At the time, I was very conflicted about that. I wanted to focus on school so I could move on. But at some point, it dawned on me that life as a student is unique and fleeting and I was well advised to focus more on maximizing the opportunity, not rushing through it. I didn’t want to be in school a day longer than necessary. But the extra year allowed me time to improve my employability by gaining invaluable part-time, volunteer, and unpaid work doing exactly what people paid me to do when did graduate. I also had time to focus build some amazing and professional relationships that have been invaluable to my career and some absolutely priceless friendships that have been invaluable in my life.  



Be willing to seek and receive support.

Listen, asking for help, of any kind, is tough. I know. There was a time when my pride wouldn’t let me do it.  But, there is something about being committed to reaching a goal you’re not sure you can reach that will force you to either get some help or fail.  You can do what you want. Whatever you want. But you can’t do it alone. This is true in graduate school and it’s true in life.


I’m not a numbers person. If it’s not about counting money, I leave the numbers to other people. Like many women, I was steered away from math at a young age and since I never liked it anyway, I was fine with that.  But I loved all manner of human and behavioral sciences, which eventually requires some competence of numbers.  I knew I’d have to take some statistics courses in graduate school so I got my mind right and took the first one during my second semester.  I figured I should get the most difficult subject done and over with so I could quickly move on to more interesting things.  This turned out to be the right strategy for me because I dropped out of the course the first time.  It would take a second attempt at the subject (during which dropped out a second time) before I set aside my ego and sought out the support I knew I needed.  On my third attempt, and armed with an in-person tutor and every single book my university’s library had on statistics, I completed the course with a high “B”. Of all the grades I’ve ever earned, this was the one I was most proud of, partially because I had to work so hard at it and get a ton of support to get it done.


Similarly, the work experience I have been most proud of was not the one where I received the most accolades or the most money. It was developing a workplace wellness program from scratch and I was proud of the work because it required me to rally the support of dozens of people across several departments in county government.  It required me to ask people for money, time, and commitment and it required me to be more committed to the goal than I was to my own ego and my own comfort, lessons I learned in graduate school. 


Stay curious.

One of the beautiful things about attending a research university was the ability to engage in inquiry at every level, in every class, about any topic. I found spaces to safely inquire about why African-American women in the south often have disproportionately poor health outcomes and how to assess the value of a healthcare system where such inequalities exist. I had space to ask questions about what can be done to change such a system. I took deep dives into the reasons it so challenging to change human behavior, even in the face overwhelming evidence of that we ‘should’ do. Being able to ask these questions guided me toward doing work that helps answer them.


Professionally, I attribute much of my career success to being curious. Asking ‘how does this work’ or ‘why are things that way’ allows me to dig below the surface to a deeper understanding of the world around me. Asking similar questions of the people I come in contact with not only builds rapport, but it also helps me to continuously develop that emotional intelligence I once thought was non-essential for someone applying for entry into a graduate program.  Now, 10 years later, I understand its value more than ever and I’m grateful for a graduate school experience that allowed me to practice being curious in a way that got me comfortable asking questions and even more comfortable not having all the answers.


I’ve sometimes wondered, especially as I consider applying to a doctoral program, if the years I spent in graduate school were worth it. It didn’t provide me with a one-way ticket up the career ladder.  Though I have progressively moved into more challenge roles, made more money, and had a larger impact over the years, none of it was without many, many challenges. But as I reflect, what I know for sure is that the journey to achieving any big goal is not really about the goal.  It’s about the person you become on the way to achieving it.  And for that reason, it was absolutely worth it.


I could go on and on about what I learned about myself and the world while enrolled in school.  But, I’d much prefer to hear about the lessons you gathered along the way.  Type them in the comments below.


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