This Ain't Just For Them: The Danger of Getting your Degree for Everyone, But Yourself.
“I’m doing this for them.”
“This degree is for them.”
“I have to finish strong for them.”
Whenever I discuss persevering through graduate school with my peers, statements like these always seem to surface. They are usually made by other students of color, who have had especially difficult situations while growing up, and desire to make family and friends back home proud. And while it is perfectly okay to want loved ones to be proud of our accomplishments, I want to remind everyone of one thing: your degree ain’t for them.
I come from the Deep South. A family where both my parents stopped their education after high school and my grandmother never made it past the 8th grade. I’m first generation in every way possible. And while I absolutely want to make my family proud, it is not the sole motivating force behind my studies. I have learned that it can’t be because it will not sustain me.
Graduate school is challenging. You are often stretched intellectually in ways you never imagined. Graduate school is isolating. You are thrown into a new environment and forced to build community, no matter how socially awkward you may be. And finally, graduate school is humbling. The ways we find time to read, research, write and work 3 side jobs to make ends meet each month is an art within itself.
During all of these experiences your loved ones can offer encouragement and support. However, you are ultimately the one in the trenches. You are the one putting in the work during the late nights and early mornings. You are the one reading 10 articles just to get the one sentence to cite in an essay. You are the one spending hours providing free labor to a social group on campus as your way of giving back. It is you.
And when you insist that the work you are doing is solely for the happiness of someone else, you are denying yourself the pleasure of reaping the benefits of your hard work.
So now if you are unsure whether you are pursuing your degree for yourself or “them,” spend some time reflecting on the next few questions:
1. What is my why?
What motivates you? What encourages you to keep going? What is the image in your head that drives you on your bad days? If you are unsure about your why, if you do not have a why, or if your why is largely rooted in someone else’s response to your work, it is time to check in with yourself.
2. Can I clap for myself?
How will you respond if no one is excited about your graduation? Your publication acceptance? What about you being awarded tenure? While it is one thing (and completely understandable) to feel sad or hurt if your loved ones are not excited about major accomplishments in your life, it is another thing if you are unable to find any joy. When you clap for yourself you are able to still celebrate major accomplishments in your academic career, even when no one else does.
3. Do I ultimately feel fulfilled?
There are inevitable woes that come with graduate school. However, there should still be some kind of fulfillment. Is it the moment you read an article that corresponds perfectly with your research? Is it when a student writes in your yearly reflection how much you have helped them grow over the semester? Or maybe it is the moment you read a piece of your writing back to yourself and you are proud (and surprised) that those ideas are yours? Whatever it is, if you are unable to find a time you have felt fulfilled, if only for a moment, it is time to re-evaluate.
Remember – You can still acknowledge your village without giving them the credit for the work you have put in. This degree ain’t just for them. It’s for you. You earned it.
About the Author
Rae'Jean Spears is a MA student in English Literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where her research focuses on the intersections of Black Southern women writers and storytelling, particularly as it relates to trauma. In her spare time she enjoys journaling, loving on her plants and trying new recipes. She is a native of Meridian, Mississippi.