Throwback Thursday: Back-to-School Beatitudes–10 Academic Survival Tips

30 Aug

Update, August 2012

Next week,  my full time grind starts again, after a year of being on fellowship, which allowed me the time to think, read and begin the process of writing my first book. I’m grateful for the time. It has been a year of re-learning old lessons, numbers 1, 2, 4,  and 5 below to be exact. This year, I have worked through a terrible case of imposter syndrome, learned over and over again to be patient with my own ideas, recognizing that good ones take time to develop, come to understand that gentleness with myself is the prerequisite for  and not an impediment to productivity, and finally, when I landed in the hospital, began to prioritize self-care. I try to remind myself  regularly to trust the process, to trust myself, and to trust God.  (On good days, I can do all three.)
In the meanwhile,  I started riding bikes again for the first time since childhood, took frequent trips to the beach, spent some extra time kicking it with the CFs this summer, and started juicing. They are all small ways that I have affirmed my own value with intention and deliberateness. I hope if you haven’t already, that you will do the same. It’s never too late to begin.

Original Post

Graduate school was nothing short of an emotional and physical rollercoaster. I spent the first semester depressed and homesick, years 2-4 battling a stress-induced stomach condition that caused me to lose not only 75 pounds but also a whole semester of work. I healed just in time to begin my dissertation, wherein I gained back most of the weight I lost, and experienced a nasty case of stress-induced shingles just as I was rounding third. I love my work, and I’m glad I made it, but as we all head into a new academic year, here are a few things I wish I’d known…

  • Be confident in your abilities.
    • If you feel like a fraud, you very likely are suffering from impostor syndrome, a chronic feeling of intellectual or personal inadequacy born of grandiose expectations about what it means to be competent. Women in particular suffer with this issue, but I argue that it is worse for women-of-color (particularly Blacks and Latinas) who labor under stereotypes of both racial and gender incompetence. The academy itself also creates grandiose expectations, given the general perception of academicians as hypercompetent people. Secret: Everybody that’s actin like they know, doesn’t really know. So ask your question. It’s probably not as stupid as you think. Now say this with me: “I’m smart enough, my work is important, and damn it, I’m gonna make it.”
  • Be patient with yourself.
    • Be patient with your own process of intellectual growth. You will get there and it will all come together. You aren’t supposed to know everything at the beginning. And you still won’t know everything at the end (of coursework, exams, the dissertation, life…).
    • Getting the actual degree isn’t about intellect. It is about sheer strength of will and dogged determination. “Damn it, I’m gonna walk out of here with that piece of paper if it’s the last cottonpickin’ thing I do.” That kind of thinking helps you to keep going after you’ve just been asked to revise a chapter for the third time, your committee member has failed to submit a letter of rec on time, and you feel like blowing something or someone up.
  • Be your own best advocate. Prioritize your own professional needs/goals.
    • You have not because you ask not.  You have to be willing to ask for what you need. You deserve transparency about the rules and procedures of your program, cordial treatment from faculty, staff and students, and a program that prepares you not only for the rigors of grad school but also for the job market (should you desire a career in academia).  But folks won’t hand it to you on a silver platter. You have to build relationships, ask questions, and make demands.
    • Figure out your writing process (the place [home, coffee shop, library], time [morning, afternoon, night], and conditions [background noise, total silence, cooler or warmer] under which you work best and try to create those conditions as frequently as possible during finals, qualifying exams, and dissertation.
    • Your self-advocacy will often be misperceived as aggression and anger, entitlement or selfishness. Don’t apologize. 
  • Be kind to yourself.
    • Reward yourself frequently.  Most of us need positive affirmation of a job well done, but for long stretches, especially during exams, dissertation, and the job market, the rewards elude us; and often given the time crunch, once we conquer the mountain, there is little time to enjoy the view before it’s time to trudge back down and start climbing the next one. All that hard work  in high stakes conditions for anti-climactic ends can take a toll on your psyche. So be kind to yourself. Figure out the things you really like and make sure to enjoy them as much as is possible and healthy.
  • Be proactive about self-care.
    • Figure out your non-negotiables. For me, sleep is non-negotiable. I must have it. I don’t do all nighters. I also generally don’t do weekends, so I adjust my schedule accordingly. What are your non-negotiables?
    • Take advantage of on-campus therapy services. My last two institutions have had women-of-color thesis and dissertation support groups. Consider joining.
    • Cultivate a spirit-affirming practice. Grad school/the academy is a mind-body-spirit endeavor. So meditate, pray, exercise, do yoga, go to church, cook a good healthy meal. Do whatever you need to do to keep your mind, body, and spirit in balance.
  • Be a friend/comrade to others and let them do the same for you.
    • Build community with colleagues inside or outside your department.
    • Build community with non-students/non-academics. You need folks who live life outside the dungeon. They will affirm you and help you keep things in perspective.
  • Be willing to get CRUNK!
    • If the environment is hostile, it is most probably characterized by microaggressions of various sorts.  Racial microaggressions –“brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color– are quite common for women of color, but microaggressions can be used in sexist, heterosexist, or ableist ways as well.  A microaggressive environment demands resistance of various sorts. So do you and be you. Unapologetically.  Keep a copy of Sister Audre near by so you can make sure you’re channeling your legitimate anger productively, and then, get crunk if necessary.
  • Be better not bitter.
    • Fail forward. Being the overachievers that we are, we tend not to deal with failure well. It tends to become an indicator to us of our intelligence, worth, and competence. (See #1). But failure is a part of the process. Unless you are incredibly, exceptionally lucky, you will hit a snag in a course, while writing the proposal, on the dissertation, submitting a journal article or submitting a book. Two tips: take the time to process, particularly for big issues like proposals, dissertation chapters or books. Cry, scream (not at your committee or editor), go to a kickboxing class. And then dust yourself off and try again. Look at the suggestions offered; determine their validity. Heed them or disregard them depending on your best judgment, and then proceed to the next step.  And one more thing…don’t let the resentment fester. It may be well-justified but it simply isn’t productive. Just think of it as hazing, and for your own sake, let it go.
    • A lot of anger comes from bitterness at mentors who have not met our expectations. But all mentors are not created equal. Some will build your confidence, some will give you hell,  some will go above and beyond, but a mentor is there to illumine the process and give you tools to be successful, not to be your friend. So have multiple mentors; know the difference in function; and adjust your expectations accordingly.
  • Be tight. Bring your A-game.
  • Be a light. As you make your way, show the sisters and brothers behind you how it’s done, so maybe they won’t have as many dark days as you’ve had.

A little musical inspiration for the journey...

Alright, fam. Please share your survival tips for grad school newbies and veterans and junior faculty as well.

18 Responses to “Throwback Thursday: Back-to-School Beatitudes–10 Academic Survival Tips”

  1. Reflexiones de una RIta August 30, 2012 at 8:21 AM #

    Thank you for this. I will starting graduate school in a couple of weeks and this is not only timely, but a perfect reminder to stand up for myself.

  2. Max Blue August 30, 2012 at 9:26 AM #

    One of my survival strategies: to make sure I read non-academic books (because I refuse to have my love of reading ruined by the pace of swallowing books whole for school.) Also to teach outside of the ivy league (which is where I attend school.) Last quarter I got miles of energy from serving on a panel at a local community college about queer studies, and lots of the students had practical questions for us about graduate school and how we had all gotten to where we did and what our backgrounds are, etc. It felt really nice to do something productive with the pain I’ve experienced. It has been crucial to stay connected to my communities– it helps me to remember why I do what I do.

    • Casey August 30, 2012 at 2:35 PM #

      +1 on reading non-academic books. I make it a mandatory part of my day to read fiction or something enjoyable before bed…it keeps my work from ruining my sleep (another required part of my graduate school self-care)

  3. V. Monterosa August 30, 2012 at 10:34 PM #

    Reblogged this on Vanessa Monterosa, Ed.M..

  4. michelepbeverly September 1, 2012 at 2:58 PM #

    Beautiful pieces of advice. I just finished my doctoral program having survived the dissolution of a marriage, raising three children, a lengthy commute, teaching too many classes, and flat out poverty. At the end of the experience I find myself unemployed, and after much despair, I am finally at peace and feel spiritually renewed. It was about the journey after all–not the destination. Peace.

  5. yvettedupree September 1, 2012 at 10:14 PM #

    Reblogged this on Yvette Dupree: My Take and commented:
    Great article for those in academia as a new school year begins.

  6. N. Renee September 1, 2012 at 11:57 PM #

    Thank you for this, I’m at the beginning of my scholastic career while re-discovering self in full color and volume. In establishing my own peace, I thank you for the encouraging words.

    Love and Light,

    N. Renee

  7. justanotheropinion September 3, 2012 at 2:36 AM #

    Whether in school or not, these are ALL lesson’s that are of use to use all. Bottom line – BRING YOUR ‘A’ GAME. Nothing-less is acceptable or warranted. It is ugly out there – be it academia or corporate. If you come with your ‘A’ game, it gives them less to work with when they try to break you down,

  8. DeAnna September 5, 2012 at 10:28 AM #

    Fantastic tips for every black and brown woman who works in a high-stakes environment. Thank you!

  9. Laura September 7, 2012 at 12:04 PM #

    Great advice! I would only add more emphasis on class as well as race. Growing up as poor as I did has really contributed to impostor syndrome in my life (not just academia), and microaggressions include class as well. My experience is that even in discussions which include class differences, very few people in the academy really understand what I mean by poor. Because they’ve never experienced it, our definitions are totally different.

  10. Bene September 8, 2012 at 12:17 PM #

    This is amazing!
    I’m wrapping up my first year in Masters and handing in drafts for dissertation soon, while tryna mark and prepare for essays. It’s been ridiculous.
    This light reading here has rejuvenated the flame in me. So appreciative.

  11. Odhiambo September 11, 2012 at 2:31 AM #

    Fantastic! These tips are kinda universal, they encompass every student… Thanks for sharing 🙂

  12. Ana September 11, 2012 at 12:50 PM #

    My sister just shared this with me and I can’t tell you how much this means! I’m in my junior year in college and was set back a little from changing my major, but this is great and honestly everything I need. Thank you so much ❤

  13. anuraarhez September 12, 2012 at 8:18 AM #

    thank you for this. I just started Paralegal studies in Toronto and it’s been brutal so far. My classmates are liberal assholes and my profs think that slavery and colonialism aren’t valid contributions to the conversation of “immigration” law. anyways. these are great reminders to keep in mind that I just need to get through this year, and be patient, confident and kind to myself and with others. lots of love and best of luck to everyone starting/continuing school or always hustlin’ in general.

  14. Shayla Monroe September 12, 2012 at 7:13 PM #

    Thank you so much for this. I start my doctoral program at the end of this month and I was just speaking to my undergrad mentor about “impostor syndrome” (of course I didn’t know what to call it, I just had this irrational fear that I was going to be exposed as unintelligent). My mentor says to me, “If you had a different set of genitals combined with your current accomplishments, you wouldn’t be having problems with your confidence.” I’ve been chewing on that for a couple weeks, and combined with the articles I’ve read and your blog, I’m as ready as I’m gonna be.

    Good lookin’ out.


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