Graduate School Through the Eyes of a Student from an Underrepresented Minority

Stephanie Santos-Diaz

I believe that, before becoming graduate students, many of us idealized the graduate experience. We thought of it as the next step in our careers that would empower us to change our communities and an experience that would open oppor­tunities that we would not have otherwise. And, if not, doing something to move forward was better than the alternative. These were arguments I frequently heard from recruiters and professors to convince students to pursue graduate stud­ies. Although I found most of these to be true, I have also found that the people saying them usually left out two critical components of graduate student life. Both play a role in those “promises” becoming a reality: shared experiences and neces­sary resources.

My mentors, thankfully, recognized that I was idealizing the experience. During my last semester as an undergradu­ate student, my mentors and I would have long conversations about transitioning to graduate school. They would tell me about their own struggles as as students from underrepre­sented minority groups in their programs and how they dealt with them, about mistakes they made, the consequences, and how I should avoid doing the same. My mentors did not say these things to discourage me; rather, they did it to prepare me for the reality of graduate school with perspective, so nothing would come as a surprise. As you read along, keep in mind that my goal here is not to discourage anyone; it is to disclose my experiences as a Puerto Rican graduate student over the course of my first year and the important lessons I have learned.

Lesson #1: Make Your Health a Priority

Experienced students have described graduate school as “being under constant pressure.” The pressure comes from different sources: the department, your adviser, your col­leagues, family, friends … yourself. Even though pressure makes diamonds, it might not have the same beautiful effects on us if we do not take control. I experienced my first anxiety attack while in graduate school. As soon as I identified that the source of my anxiety attacks was my self-inflicted pres­sure over my course workload, I changed my mindset. I had to remind myself that no assignment, exam, or publication is worth going through situations that jeopardize my well-being. Our mental, physical, and emotional health is far more valuable than anything else. Take some time for yourself, for something like working out or attending social gatherings, to help you cope with different pressures. You need to stay healthy to continue the journey. Remember your support structure (Lesson #2) is there to help you through the difficult times.

Lesson #2: Build Your Support System for Different Types of Situations

Surrounding yourself with the right people and using your institution-provided resources will make a difference in how you experience graduate school. There are two major support systems: academic and non-academic. An academic sup­port system is made up of colleagues who understand your struggles with a course or with your research. One of my most significant challenges has been learning new scientific con­cepts in a different language. At times, the language barrier felt like an obstacle I would never overcome, as it was one of the reasons I failed exams and assignments. I started reaching out to peers, who would help me by setting up study sessions so I could attain a better understanding of the concepts and receive useful feedback on my writing. The transition from being an undergraduate to a graduate researcher was also difficult. Not because of the knowledge or skills required, as one acquires them along the way. It was tough because, as an undergraduate, I had developed a ‘momentum’ that I was now losing due to factors out of my control. Overall, adapting to a new working environment hurt my research productivity. I did, however, regain that momentum by getting involved in other activities, like attending conferences, volunteering in outreach activities, and more.

A non-academic support system consists of people who understand and have been through similar situations to the ones you could be facing, specifically related to social and cultural aspects of your life. For example, I have encountered individuals who have implied that Puerto Rican culture is all about drug dealing or that Puerto Ricans do not speak real Spanish. Events like this have added the complexity of racial stereotyping and microaggressions to my graduate school ex­perience. Having mentors, friends, and members of a commit­tee for diversity affairs as part of my support system has given me the courage and motivation to keep moving forward. My mentors provided the time and space whenever I needed to vent. My friends let me know that these situations are more common than we expect them to be, but that I would be okay. The diversity affairs committee members served as my bridge to the department, attempting to raise the awareness of the people in power. Both the academic and non-academic sup­port systems (the latter being particularly important to URM) were the key to my success as a first-year graduate student.

Lesson #3: Do Not Compare Yourself to Others

Everyone experiences graduate school differently, uniquely responding to different pressures and receiving support in varying capacities from differing sources. Further, the road to a Ph.D. is a highly individualized degree path, where activities and benchmarks (such as courses, teaching assignments, re­search activities, grants, and publications) are often tailored to your career goals and preferences. Because of this, you should not compare your relative progress to others’. Focus on your journey. Everyone’s story is unique. The road that led them to this moment, their goals, and the path they walked to get here is not the same as yours, nor is the journey you will choose after graduate school.

The graduate school experience can become over­whelming in an instant. It will be easy to feel like you have disappointed those who believe in you, that you are not cut out for graduate school, or that everything you do is never enough. You cannot let those thoughts take over, as doing so would affect your self-confidence, and it would hurt you in the long run. To overcome these thoughts and feelings, I am always on the lookout for small victories such as pass­ing a test, submitting an assignment, attending a networking event, or even writing a draft of an article. Remind yourself that every step you take to move forward in earning your de­gree and pursuing your career is important. Everything you do counts as a victory! Celebrate those moments, and give yourself the credit you deserve. 

One Last Message to Readers Who Identify Themselves as an URM

To those readers who are current, more experienced graduate students and faculty: Get involved and bring your experience to light. In doing so, you will be a role model for the next genera­tions, giving us hope that regardless of how much we idealized the experience, earning a Ph.D. is not an impossible task. To those readers who are about to become graduate students: Do not be discouraged by other people’s stories about their expe­riences. I think it is beautiful that we idealize what graduate school is. It means that world is a possibility. Go, live your own story. Be the change, and make that possibility your reality.

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