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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

10 Tips for the Grad School Journey

Updated: May 26

I've known since I was 6 that I wanted to get a doctorate degree. Initially, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor since that was really the most well-known type of doctorate and the only one with which I was familiar. I barely finished my BA, if I'm honest - I struggled a lot in undergrad. I had to work more than full-time because my boss was exploitative (more on that in another entry). I had personal family concerns, and I had severe migraines and anxiety. But I did it.

Three graduation caps with the sun set at dusk

I did things a little differently; I had one course to finish, which was statistics, so I took it at a community college and fell into a sociology course with Dr. Tanya Kravatz at San Diego Mesa College, and that class changed my life. While at UCLA, I was a history major, and don't get me wrong - I didn't enjoy it. But, I had majored in history because my counselor said, "Just major in history - it has the fewest classes." So, off I went.

By the time I got to my master's, I had excelled in my sociology courses after I'd finished my time at UCLA. From there, I thrived in many ways, but academia was so new to me. Then, starting my PhD, while I will say that my program was one of the more equitable and supportive programs that probably exists, I did become incredibly disillusioned with higher education. With that, it did allow me to grow and learn ways to speak up and support others.

This entry provides 10 tips for the grad school journey for those about to embark on their own, whether it's a master's program or a doctorate, in the fall and can be helpful for those who are interested but not yet committed. Please note that this is from my experience attending an MA and PhD program, and I do not pretend to speak on behalf of all experiences. My insight is, of course, based on my own experiences but also from patterns identified within graduate school experiences and observations over time.

Banchan, or sides in Korean dish traditional style
  1. Find your people. Graduate school can feel isolating. I remember the first day of class, I knew nobody. I looked around, and there were a few people I had met in previous programs, but I felt pretty alone. I tried connecting with people, but I'm pretty socially awkward. It took time, but once I befriended people, my experience drastically changed. Over time, I developed friendships - I explored different restaurants and cuisines, especially along the Convoy District in San Diego, tried new beers, took sailing lessons, found comfort in each other over mom guilt, and supported each other through devastating home lives and questions of faith - I honestly would not have been able to get through my graduate schooling without having found my people. I know some people may not feel the same and believe they can get by without their community or perhaps have solid support outside, and that's great, but finding my people in the program with whom I could not only share elements of my life but who understood the struggle of graduate school truly transformed my experience. Consider reaching out, discussing with folks how to organize small cohort gatherings, or even meeting up for dinner to get the conversations started.

  2. Reject poor treatment. There is an assumption that academia is toxic and should remain that way. When I was in either program, there was some hushed scandal or whispers among the students about that one professor who nobody could get along with because students had been brought to tears by them in the name of rigor. I've heard countless stories of grad students who have been told, at either level, that they were not graduate school material but were not provided proper guidance or mentorship, that students had been dismissed from programs because they were struggling due to abuse and exploitation by professors, or even inappropriate relationships that resulted in breaking them. Yet, somehow, it was almost painted as "normal," and we should accept it as is, or, in other words, I'd been told before, "What else can they do?" [Hint: If you're in a position of power, use that power for good and call out colleagues abusing their positions; that's what you can do.] The disconnect from research on equity or their latest citations of Freire on dehumanization from the actual actions and willingness to speak up was clear and evident and, in some cases, was expected of the students, too. This sometimes resulted in students internalizing the messages that they were not good enough. I want to tell you that poor treatment should not be the standard, nor should it be normalized. Each department has different protocols, and sometimes, your needs won't be met, but in no way should you willingly accept that behavior as the norm. Reject that narrative and the messages attached to it, and do not let yourself internalize them. Know your rights, the protocols you can go through, and what steps you can take, and talk with other colleagues and students to know how you can trust to find support if need be while remaining cautious.

  3. Remember that you are intelligent and capable. Like the tip before, you need to reject those negative messages, as they sometimes seep into our minds. Imposter syndrome is a real phenomenon that can impact anybody but disproportionately impacts minoritized and marginalized people. Grad school can sometimes make us doubt ourselves severely, questioning whether we belong. It's important to remember that these institutions, historically, were not designed for everybody and had intentions embedded within their practice to push people out and reproduce societal organization, but you're here; you made it, and this means that you are intelligent and capable. If you haven't made it to grad school yet, think about this: you are applying for programs in ways you had probably not imagined at a different point in your life, and the fact you are even at the application stage is beyond where others may have found themselves. You need to keep pushing forward and know you are intelligent and capable. When we talk about systemic issues, we mean that the practices are deeply entrenched within the policies and cultures of institutions and our society. For example, it took me a while to realize that I was not incapable, but rather my brain processed various things differently - things that I did not quite grasp 10 years ago I'm incredibly competent in now and can proudly discuss in detail, such as my ability to teach statistics. The systems and structures in place had hindered me, but once I had the necessary tools to navigate that, I realized this is the case for so many others, too. So don't let the institutions designed to uphold the status quo make you feel poor about yourself. Don't give up, and especially not because you feel like you're not making timelines as others do or you don't know the same things - you're there for a reason.

  4. Walk away from things that threaten your well-being. It's okay to leave behind that which is a threat to your mental health, whether it be advisors, colleagues, writing groups, friends, jobs outside of the program, or even the entire program. Unfortunately, during this program, I lost some friends because, while I did my best to juggle my relationships and valued my relationships more than my program overall, there was not a mutual understanding that this was something significant to me but also temporarily time-consuming. I also had left a very important job to me because the culture had become toxic and unsafe for my students. Despite multiple pleas with the administration, nothing was done except threads to my and other colleagues' jobs (and that summer, about 14 educators left that school.) These students were so important to me, and I had initially planned to stay until they graduated, but it was not only a threat to my well-being but also to my students, and I could no longer sit by and watch this happen. There were also advisors I had to change because we were not going to align; though technically we aligned within our theory, it was clear they did not practice their theories of equity. I'm not a fan of the phrase "Walk away from what doesn't serve you" because I do not believe that this endeavor should be self-serving, especially if we are striving for equity (if that's our goal,), but I do understand the sentiment - if it is no longer providing growth, if it is a threat to your person, or it dehumanizes you, walk away. Even if it is an advisor with whom you've worked for a long time but does not provide the necessary support and structure to cross the finish line - it's ok to change the course and walk away. Lastly, it's okay to walk away from the program. Now, this is not what I am encouraging you to do; let me clarify that. Do not leave the program if it's a matter of internalizing negative messages because, again, you are capable. But, if the program doesn't align with who you are, the timing doesn't work, or it's also threatening your well-being, really, truly, it is okay to walk away. You can always attend a different program if you want another time in your life or pursue some other passion or goal of yours that brings you more joy.

  5. Don't forget that this is not a competition amongst your peers. We already live in a society, especially if we are in the United States, that encourages us to be individualistic, focusing solely on ourselves and our goals and gains. While our individual goals are essential, and we are in fact individuals, this should be confused with individualism. However, I noticed in graduate school that there was an emphasis on the individual while throwing around the word "collaboration." Sure, when writing a thesis or dissertation, we need to exemplify our own individual skills and knowledge of how to conduct research or write a report; there was not a lot of facilitation of collaboration. Some of the best work I completed while in my program was done in collaboration with somebody, and honestly, when we stopped writing together and finished our projects, I was frozen for a bit because I found that our energy fed off each other and produced some great work. Within my cohort, I never felt I was competing with my colleagues. Still, it was evident that there was a culture of competition with some instructors, almost as if their goal was to breed competition in us so long as we never "beat" them. But, don't believe that. Sure, you may apply for the same awards or grants, and you might be submitting to the same journals, but don't believe that you are competing with them - this is your journey, and you each have your own journeys - don't let the status quo isolate you further.

  6. Support each other. Continuing from the last tip, while you should reject the notion that this is a competition, you should also try to support each other. It is not your job to push people, of course, and you have your own goals and papers to write, but you should foster community. What sets this tip apart from number 1 is that finding your people is great, but you want to try to find ways to encourage people to apply for that grant or share grants they may be eligible for. Send an email if you need coverage for a class or want to collaborate on a paper. If you have strengths, use them to help a colleague struggling in another area of the program. For example, in the second year of my program, I had already attended probably seven different conferences. By then, I encouraged cohort members to submit to conferences, including one I had established and founded during my first year. I believed in their abilities to present their research, wanted to see them thrive and grow, and hoped to see their abilities to flesh out important concepts they were exploring. I firmly believe that I could do this because of other colleagues who saw my potential and would say things like, "You rocked it!" when we presented together or because of former professors who were supportive and encouraged their students. You may not have all the answers, and you may be struggling in one area, but if you can lift each other up, then you can help support each other in areas of need, whether it's reading over their grant application, practicing a dissertation defense, or sitting for hours on Zoom fleshing out a literature review. Lastly, this also helps you flesh out ideas since you are exposed to different approaches and goals that may not be exactly like your own. Don't hoard your presentations, proposals, and templates—you are in this together. (Of course, there are exceptions, such as folks who are using or manipulating you—those are not the folks I'm talking about, but definitely the folks who should heed this message.)

  7. Go to conferences. Go to conferences and submit your work to them. Have confidence, and believe in yourself. My first conference was my first year because a colleague asked our cohort if anybody wanted to work together, and we did - I am so fortunate because that gave me the confidence to talk about my work and provided me opportunities to talk with other scholars about the research I was working on. I also learned about different research and literature that I would not have considered if only learning about literature in my classrooms, though that was valuable too. Conferences also provide important networking opportunities. In fact, because of the AERA 2022, I connected with a scholar from Spain who provided me with a contact who would eventually write me my letter of invitation, helping me land my Fulbright award. Not only can you meet other scholars, including some of the "famous" ones, but you can also meet other graduate students, building a larger community and opportunities for collaboration. Lastly, if you submit your work, you can get feedback, receive recommendations, and see how your work fits into the "academic conversation." If you're interested in submitting, here is a little guide I put together you can use: Conference Proposal Tips.

  8. Pursue your passions. This one should seem straightforward, but sometimes, in academia, we get swept up in what's trending in the research world or what our advisors are researching. There were some foundational concepts I knew I wanted to research, but I would be lying if I said there were not moments when something "shiny" popped up regarding research interests that distracted me. When I was teaching high school, my director had been trained in a specific way around action research, and it did not align with my approaches - philosophically or methodologically - and this froze me. I remember the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, struggling to make any progress on any of my qualifying exams or my dissertation proposal because he had decided he would take on the role of my advisor, overstepping his role simply because he had approved me to conduct research at the school. Mind you, there were limited conditions so long as my IRB was approved (which it was,) but he suddenly had a different mindset on the matter. I ended up leaving that job during the summer of 2021, and from there, everything fit into place. I knew I had to pursue my passion and focus, and I did just that. Due to that, I had to shift gears in terms of my demographics and submit an amendment to the IRB, but once everything fell into place. I finished all three of my qualifying exams between November 2021 and May 2022, submitted my proposal in July, and proposed in August 2022. I collected data between October 2022 and January 2023, wrote and finalized my dissertation, and then defended it in March 2023. The months of being frozen were over because I allowed myself to align my research philosophically and methodologically with who I was, rooted in my passion for youth participation, activism, and social change. I remember, actually, with one of my committee members being gentle and firm, saying, "I have a strong critical theory that meets postmodernism perspective for this, and that's non-negotiable." I have a strong theoretical background, so I knew what I wanted - we had a wonderful conversation. She was very supportive, never wavering in that support nor questioning my theoretical lens. This is vital for me because it drove my research along with my teaching experiences. I think what trips up a lot of people is that they are not passionate about the work or that they are being guided in a way that does not align with the intention of their research. (This does not include personal struggles—I am speaking solely from a technical perspective.) Find your passions, stand firmly in them, and let the research and writing flow.

  9. Talk to your professors. When I say talk to your professors, I don't mean to pour your heart and soul out to them, though I eventually had incredibly supportive advisors and committee members who would become friends later on. But approach them with your goals and interests, and ask them about their research. First, many professors love talking about their research - some from a genuine place of passion and excitement for bettering the world, while others, well, it's much more self-motivating. But whatever the reason, you should reach out to them to find out their research and see if there is a way for you to get involved or if, at minimum, you might even want to get involved. To be honest, I wish I had done more of this myself or, when I did, that I had not taken time and silence as ano. There were a few moments when I proposed a few writing projects only to feel ignored later. While we, as faculty, need to recognize that not all students will have the same assertiveness as others for various social reasons, I should have also been more forward with my goals. I had an undergrad student a year ago reach out to me and ask if there were any research projects she could work on with me after being involved in a small project. Since then, she and another undergrad have received awards for their contributions to our research; we are co-authoring and have a small research team. Sometimes, professors aren't aware that you are interested or that you are deeply curious if you don't speak up. Another element of this is that you will potentially be able to get publications by the end of your graduate program, which will be essential if you want to go into academia. So don't hesitate to ask your professors about their research and see if there is a way you can get involved. (Please note: don't allow yourself to be exploited, where you do most of the work with no credit, though. Have an up-front conversation about your goals and hopes, including publications, if that's one of them. There are moments when the promise of "experience" seems enough, but by this point, you deserve to be credited and supported in your goals.)

  10. Humanize yourself. Sometimes, there is an expectation that your entire existence should be dedicated to your graduate school experience, with little time to rest, relax, or binge your favorite television show. Conversely, if you do not take the time to do fun things, the burnout becomes so heavy that you may go through long periods of doing nothing, which is also no good for your mental health, especially as due dates begin mounting. If you are in the social sciences, you may read a lot about "humanizing" acts, practices, or pedagogy, or if you exist in higher education, you probably will hear a lot about that - but the culture is often not that of humanization. So, do it - humanize yourself. Have your days where you lay around and do absolutely nothing. Go to the doctor's when you're sick. Take the damn vacation. Don't miss your kid's dance recital or game. Celebrate your mom's birthday. Get a massage or listen to music for several hours. I know it's hard to think about doing some of these things when you have a paper to write, but the reality is that the paper will be there, and the proposal will still be needed. Unless you absolutely must graduate by a specific time due to some reason beyond your control, this isn't a race - live life, find joy, slow down! These items will be there, but the people and experiences might not. Your life and worth will not, should not, be valued by the publications you write or how many pages you've cranked out, so while yes, you should try to meet your due dates and goals and finish the projects because you're capable, make sure that you're humanizing yourself and living the life you have. While meeting these goals and receiving this degree is essential, and very much so for different people - it was an important goal for myself, too, as a first-generation college student from beginning to end, and I was so happy that my kids got to see me finish and graduate - the moments with my little humans, with my family, the cuddles with my dog before he passed, and the laughed at birthday gatherings - those were just as important, if not more.

I hope these tips help you as you embark on and navigate your graduate school journey. While this is intended for those just beginning, anybody can take these tips and use them at any point. I do believe, out of all of these tips, though, that the most important is to humanize yourself - it's something I did not do enough of, and I see many colleagues not doing the same - but I hope you remember that to model equity, justice, and humanization, you need to humanize yourself. And please do not hesitate to reach out if you have questions - I love answering questions to help folks make the best out of this exhausting, laborious, yet fulfilling journey.


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