“What is the biggest challenge of graduate school?” an undergrad asked the panel of graduate students at an event I helped organize last summer. “Not letting the support from my community turn into pressure,” one panelist responded. That answer might have surprised some, who probably expected to hear about experiments that didn’t work or trudging through literature reviews. But I understood exactly what she meant. The speaker was an African-American woman. I am a member of an underrepresented minority group myself, pursuing a doctoral degree in chemistry, so her comment resonated with me. With my oral candidacy exam approaching, I needed to find a way to keep well-meaning support from adding to my stress.
Throughout my education, friends and family have expected me to take advantage of every opportunity I come across because I may not get the same chance again. Members of my community expect me to give outstanding performances everywhere I go because I represent them and our culture. Mentors expect that I will never give up. This has been a great source of motivation, but also of pressure. And when I heard the panelist echo my experience, I understood that I needed to educate my community about how their comments made me feel—and how to keep their support from becoming oppressive.
I remembered a conversation with a mentor that illustrated how the right language can make all the difference. At the end of my first year of graduate school, I wrestled with an overwhelming desire to leave the program with a master’s degree. I was accustomed to hearing “Don’t give up” and “You have to finish”—words that were meant to be motivational. Instead, they made me feel I would be a disappointment if I left, and that I owed it to all the people who had helped me get there to stick with it.
After discussing the pros and cons of leaving with my mentor, she offered a response that was completely different from what I expected. “I support any decision you make,” she said. “I will always be proud of you and your achievements.” Hearing this simple, explicit statement of support, I felt every muscle of my body loosen. I hadn’t realized that the prospect of disappointing her was causing me so much stress. Perhaps counterintuitively, knowing that she was behind me no matter what helped me decide to stick with my Ph.D. program.
I needed to educate my community about how their comments made me feel.
My mentor knew the right thing to say, but we can’t expect the same from everyone. Now, when people in my community—always with the best intentions—say something that creates pressure and stress and makes me feel bad, I tell them and we talk about it. This was a bit awkward at first. But they want to support me, so I need to give them the tools to do that.
Sometimes, friends and family ask me, “How long until you get your degree?” As many grad students will agree, this question is a stress trigger. Now, I respond by telling them that I prefer to be asked “How is your progress in your program?” and I explain why. When I tell my supporters about the challenges I’m experiencing in grad school, they frequently say things like “You’ll be OK. Don’t stress out,” thinking that this is what I need to hear. I now explain to them that it has the opposite effect of what they intended. It makes me feel I’m doing something wrong or that my feelings are invalid. Instead, I tell them that I prefer to hear, “Do you need someone to talk to? How can I help you through this rough time?” I’ve started to notice a change. It has required a lot of patience and reminders, but these days, I get fewer stress-inducing questions and comments.
All graduate students, but especially those of us who are members of underrepresented groups, carry a weight of expectations from family, friends, and community. Being explicit about our needs and opening up the lines of communication with supporters is a starting point for making the journey less stressful.