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The Lessons I Had to Learn in Order to Survive Grad School

WOOHOO. I did what I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to do and finished graduate school. I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree at such a prestigious university, but ultimately I’m most thankful for how I’ve grown as a person over these past two years.

No matter what you’re studying, graduate school is extremely time-consuming, stressful, and often highly competitive. In my first semester we were required to take a professionalization course in which we learned about conferences, academia, and a lot of things that didn’t pertain to me since I was never interested in becoming a professor or pursuing a PhD. But one concept stuck with me, and that was the dreaded and all-consuming Imposter Syndrome.

My entire graduate school experience was shaped by this syndrome, which Wikipedia characterizes as “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (And yes, I wanted to use Wikipedia as a source since it’s such an academic no-no). I felt like an imposter the entire first year of my program, and continue to off-and-on to this day. But surviving graduate school required that I put the worries of Imposter Syndrome aside and find my inner strength.

As a student I’m more of the quiet type. I like to listen and absorb, and then present my ideas in a paper or presentation, rather than contributing extensively to class discussion. This is a bit of an issue, however, since graduate school is all about class discussions, and a bit of intellectual showing off. I spent so much time feeling stupid for not having the confidence to talk much during class, but then I realized that it wasn’t that I lacked confidence (since I felt comfortable teaching my own weekly class of undergraduates) it was that speaking up wasn’t necessarily my style of learning. I learn best by listening, not talking, but I’m thankful for those in my classes who did speak up often. My first lesson of graduate school is that in order to survive (happily at least) you must be true to yourself.

Graduate school was also the first time in my life I spent surrounded by scholarly folk, who pontificated using big words while referencing philosophers and fellow academics. But my approach to cinema and media studies has always been more accessible – somewhat pop culture driven – so at times I felt out-of-place. My way of thinking and writing was often more “approachable” than my peers, and it took me a long time to realize that my accessibility was my strength, not my weakness.

My second lesson of graduate school is trust in your ability and know your strengths.

I found myself constantly counting the ways in which my peers were better than me, rather than embracing my own strengths. Something finally clicked when I was entering my fourth semester and I suddenly realized, quite literally out of nowhere, that I was in my program for a reason. If I was qualified to get in, I was qualified to stay. While other people were having their work published in journals and presenting at conferences, I was doing other things. And that was okay.

The third and final lesson I learned in graduate school is that being able to think critically is a precious tool. Before entering my program I felt like I was fairly media-literate and questioned the status quo often, but now I engage with everything I come across on a much deeper level. I fine-tuned my critical thinking skills by learning from some of the greatest scholars in the world, but also from my peers outside of academia. My sister, for example, is naturally gifted when it comes to examining and engaging with ideas and images below the surface. Some of my most deeply held opinions come from ideas she’s discussed with me. So the addendum to my third lesson is also that education is everywhere. School is valuable, yet inaccessible (or not the right fit) for many. Whether you attend college or not, make the world your school. I learned so much in the two years I took off between college and graduate school, and those years shaped me almost as much as my time at USC did.

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