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Responding to Misconceptions of Being a Graduate Student

Sometimes I get frustrated with myself because I am unable to explain my experiences in higher education to my family and peers. As a first-generation college student, explaining my day-to-day life as a student was challenging. While my family was really supportive and proud that I wanted to pursue a master’s degree, they didn’t really understand the field of higher education or what I could do with that degree. Family members around my age primarily commuted to college and really did not engage with their campus outside of attending class, so to explain student affairs work or the administrative side of a complex university felt impossible at times. When I would hear people in my family try to explain my work or career to others, I heard – “he’s like a principal at a college,” and “he’s a guidance counselor for college students.”

I had such a hard time explaining what I do because I was also figuring out the field as I entered it. I remember feeling like a fraud when I applied to graduate school. All the advice I kept hearing was how “sure” I needed to be before getting a masters. Part of that rationale was to avoid taking on debt for a degree I may end up “not using”. Others offered advice to suggest that a successful applicant to graduate school demonstrates a good understanding of the field and can speak to how the degree will help them achieve their specific goals. Honestly, when I was applying I just felt like I wasn’t ready to be done with school and I was passionate about the field of higher education, so I thought “why not?”

Andrew MartinezAndrew Martinez

Now that I am a graduate student again pursuing a doctorate in education, I frequently encounter assumptions about what it means to be a graduate student. Here are some of the common misconceptions about being a doctoral student that I have experienced:

  • At least you get a summer break. Do I have class during the summer? No. However, I would argue summer is one of the heavier periods of data collection and writing. During the fall and spring semester, I am generally focused on the assignments for class and meeting milestones for the doctoral process (qualifying paper, dissertation proposal, etc.). However, what you quickly learn as a doctoral student is that your classes and assignments are ways to help you work on your own research for publication. So while I am taking classes on research methodologies or about certain topics of interest, the summer is the time to work on papers to send off to journals or conferences. The summer is also a time where many academics have the time to collaborate.
  • If you are “so busy” and “broke,” how come you are always vacationing and posting pictures of having fun? I recognize that I am very fortunate to be able to travel for my research, and often times people mistake my frequent trips across the nation as “only” fun. As part of my research assistantship in my doctoral program, I am involved in the data collection of a longitudinal study that takes place at institutions across the nation. So while I do travel often, it is for work. I plan ahead to try and fit in some time to explore and enjoy the cities I visit, and usually that is what gets posted on social media. However, I am doing more than just exploring. When I do decide to “vacation,” it requires strategic management of my time, and serious budgeting in order to make it happen. I believe my ability to persist in graduate school is tied to having some “me time.”
  • Why are you tired? You don’t work a set 8 hours a day. Some of my family and peers have assumed my tiredness is a result of procrastination, or they simply believe all I do is read and write. While reading and writing takes a significant amount of my time, most of my research requires coordination of groups, planning programs and events, and using my time strategically to fit in time to read and write. I understand that my “job” as a graduate student may not be physically demanding, but spending hours reading and analyzing text full of jargon, developing evaluation mechanisms for programs related to my research and/or brainstorming original research to stand out in the market is mentally exhausting. While I find traveling for research purposes rewarding, and I appreciate all the new cities I am able to explore, I have learned to appreciate the weekends when I can be home to catch up on all the reading and writing I am unable to do during research travel. Beyond that, I struggle dealing with the impostor syndrome and questioning whether I will be successful and that can make me restless at times. I have great mentors and peers, who reassure me often that I am capable to succeed, but I can’t help to succumb to the pressure and feel drained by it.

I acknowledge that these misconceptions do not necessarily threaten my livelihood as an aspiring academic, and I am not trying to compare these misconceptions with other types of careers or lifestyles. However, I think it is important to give voice to these misconceptions as it can be disheartening to not feel understood. I am proud of my decision to return to graduate school and feel incredibly privileged for the opportunity to pursue this terminal degree, but it’s worth noting the disconnect I can sometimes feel when friends and family just don’t get it. Though, this tension I feel motivates me to think about my work in ways that can connect to a broader audience so that not only can my family better understand what I do, but my work will potentially be able to more widely understood.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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