Wait…Why am I Here?: Maintaining your Authentic Self in Graduate School

Let’s be honest. As a third-year doctoral student, I sometimes find myself wondering what business do I have being in a PhD program and how on earth did I get here. According to most statistics out there (and yes, I’ve seen many), I’m not actually supposed to be here. The child of an African American single mother raised in an inner city neighborhood is not supposed to obtain a master’s degree, let alone pursue the highest level of education in her field. Yet, I am doing just that. I am narrowing the topic for my dissertation, writing abstracts to present at national conferences, and preparing manuscripts for publication. I am also learning how to analyze data, develop theoretical conceptual models, and identify dissertation committee members. Let’s just say, I am doing a lot of things that I never thought were possible. But now, as I get closer to the end of the doctoral program, I realize that I sometimes need a reminder of what really brought me here. And no, it was not the hierarchical linear modeling.

At these points of much needed self-reflection, I find it helpful to look back at the statement of purpose I wrote when I first applied to UNC School of Social Work Doctoral Program. When I read my area of interest and the career goals I had for myself before entering the program, I ask myself the following questions: Am I still on track to meet these goals? If not, is it because my goals have changed? When I applied to the doctoral program, I stated that I wanted to my research to be “not only accessible to scholars and social work professionals, but also to community members and families” and “to expand beyond the world of academia and into the spheres of practice.” I also felt that by applying to the program, I was “representing members of my family and other children from single-parent households who did not consider the pursuit of a doctoral degree as part of their destinies.” It’s these words from my statement of purpose that keep me grounded and, what I would consider, still on the path to reaching these goals. However, I must also acknowledge other strategies I have used to maintain my authentic self during my time in the doctoral program.

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Get Involved Across Campus

During this semester, I have taken steps to engage with other students who may have also felt a need to recapture their authenticity by participating in different campus groups and by mentoring undergraduate student organizations. By serving as an advisor for two undergraduate student organizations, attending events for two other student-led groups, giving presentations to staff in other campus departments, and co-facilitating a support group through Student Wellness, I have developed new friendships, found new sources of support, and also identified new ways I could help other students recognize their strength and resilience. Getting involved across campus has truly helped me to regain focus and motivation–two important things needed for completing a doctoral program.

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Identify Support Networks

When I am questioning my ability to stay true to the goals that initially brought me to the doctoral program, there is nothing like having great mentors by your side. The mentors that I have at the School of Social Work and in other departments on campus play a critical role in rekindling my passion, especially during those busy times of the semester when my enthusiasm for research may dwindle. My mentors also remind me about the importance of my research topic and how much it means to me and the groups I hope to impact.

Advocate for Yourself

Because of my participation with student organizations and the mentorship I have received, I have become more comfortable with advocating for myself when my desire to stay authentic is challenged. At times, what I see as the course for my research may not necessarily align with the requirements for completing the doctoral program. I also may struggle to stay grounded when the demands of the program become too much. These are the times when it’s most important for me to remind myself and also inform others of the reasons why I applied to the program. I did not apply to the doctoral program only to get peer-reviewed publications, but to make a difference in the lives of children and families. Many of whom remind me of myself and my family–the very people who brought me to this place called graduate school.

So why am I here? Why not?

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About Charity S. Watkins

After earning my MSW in May 2013 and completing the MSW/PhD Continuum Program, I am now a third-year PhD student. I am originally from Rochester, New York but I have lived in the Durham/Chapel Hill area since graduating from UNC with my bachelor's degree in sociology. My areas of interest include family dynamics, educational resilience, racial and socioeconomic disparities, and school-based interventions. Aside from studying, I enjoy exercising, listening to music, going to Chicago Line Dancing classes, and spending time with my husband and two dogs.
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