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?”
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:
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