This weekend five years ago I walked across the stage at Lamar University surrounded by friends and family as I received my doctorate. I remember being terrified of tripping nervous about messing up my hooding, and reminded that while I was never made to feel different, I was becoming a statistic I could be proud of. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013 there were 89,946 doctoral degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions in the United States, and I was one of the 1,355 (1.7%) multiracial women to make the same achievement that year.
Every person has a different experience, but for those of you considering making the same trip, here is my advice:
- Begin with gratitude. Early in my program I discovered that others had previously been denied admittance. While I was already grateful for the opportunity, these discussions reminded me that I took a spot that many others wanted. It was my duty to fully engage in the process and fulfill the requirements to graduate.
- Fear is your friend. Whether it was submitting our first assignment, learning SPSS, or developing our own adult learning theory, fear was always present. As I advanced in the program, I found that those who excelled embraced the fear, looked forward to the feedback, and kept their eye on the finishing the course. Your fear should be a symptom of humility and if you don’t experience some nerves, you aren’t fully engaged.
- It’s a family affair. One of the unspoken ripple effects of pursuing a doctorate is the impact it has on your personal life. I’ve seen many couples separate, while others have strengthened their relationships through the process. Every circumstance is different, but for those of you that cross the stage and still have a significant other, please make sure you express your gratitude to them for going through that journey with you. Personally I believe it is an accomplishment to be shared with the family.
- Faculty can be forever. Most people think the faculty/student relationship begins and ends with the semester a course is taken, however the relationships you build will continue beyond graduation. Even though there will be some tough times, remember they want you to graduate too. Regardless of how you value them during the program, there is no better feeling that connecting with them once you aren’t a student and finding that they still believe in you.
- Find a cohort or community. Although being a student in a doctoral program can be rewarding, it can also be an isolating experience. Developing a community, no matter the size, is important in normalizing the experience. The same concepts of social and academic integration that apply to undergraduates apply to doctoral students as well. Surrounding yourself with a strong tribe that can redirect you when you’re discouraged, celebrate you when you downplay an achievement, and give you permission to just be human when you’re exhausted is important because a doctoral program will transform you.
These five points only touch the surface of advice for doctoral students.