I spent the bulk of my first two years of grad school wondering how in the world I had been admitted. The feeling caught me off guard. I had excelled in my undergraduate coursework and I enjoyed the work so much that multiple professors had nudged me in the direction of a doctoral program. The truth is, I had approached my new academic journey with a “how bad could it be” mentality and I had no clue what I was getting myself into. That became evident right away. Grad school came with a new vocabulary that I didn’t have a dictionary for, a new grading scale where a B wasn’t really a B, and a numerical alchemy that everyone kept referring to simply as statistics (I still believe that at least on “s” in SPSS stands for sorcery). 

Despite my advisor’s attempts (and I worked with one of the best mentors in the game) to convince me otherwise, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone else was smarter than me, or at least much better prepared. In reality, some of my frustration and confusion would have been mitigated had I used all of the tools available to me. Correction, had I known about all the tools available to me…and used them.

Here are five resources that made my grad school days (and now, my faculty life) more manageable. Think of them as a cheat sheet for working smarter, not harder. No, they won’t silence the voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough (to hell with that voice!), but they will help you negotiate some of the practical puzzles that attend academic life.

Finding my why gave me the audacity to change career paths at what felt like the last possible minute.

I spent the summer before senior year of college having the kind of fun I couldn’t quite tell my parents about, in a city I had always wanted to live in, interning at the magazine I had been relentlessly obsessed with since first encountering it in elementary school. I had coveted a spot on the masthead from the moment I understood that the names and titles represented career paths. And yet, by the end of that summer, most of what I thought I knew about the life I wanted had changed.

It was a course called Contemporary African Feminisms that forced me to confront what I had been trying to suppress. I had landed the internship that would set me up for the career path that led to editor-in-chief, only to realize that wasn’t something I could imagine myself doing for the rest of my life, or even for the rest of my twenties.

The texts I read in class–the works of Barbara Christian, Patricia McFadden, and Angela Davis–stirred me in a way that the assignments I had been given as an intern did not. And it wasn’t that I was over the magazine altogether, but I imagined a world where Black popular culture and Black feminist theory could coexist. My Contemporary African Feminisms professor assured me that grad school would give me access to such a world. 

With application season upon us and deadlines lurking just around the corner, I wrote this piece to offer a nudge to anyone considering graduate work. There’s plenty of places to get advice about what the best programs are and how to make your application standout. But in the midst of that narrative of grad school admission as a competition to be won, it’s easy to lose sight of purpose. That’s a mistake. Purpose is the single most impactful resource I have used to guide my career, including the decision to pursue a PhD.

Find your why

What gave me the audacity to make a senior year career pivot and pull my applications together mere weeks before the deadlines, was knowing that a PhD in Communication aligned with my purpose. When you discover exactly how you want to use your talents in service to others, that knowledge becomes a powerful lens that helps you discern which grad school programs (if any) align with your career goals.

Use your why

I drew on my unique journey of awakening to the possibilities of an academic life in my personal statement. It worked. One of the clearest ways you can distinguish yourself is by emphasizing direct connections between program offerings and your career goals.

Take your time

When it comes to big career decisions, speed can be the enemy of clarity. Take the time you need to get crystal clear about your purpose, even if it means delaying your applications. Giving yourself permission to slow down long enough to ‘find your why’ now will help you avoid devoting your time and energy to unfulfilling projects in the future.

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