Tag Archives: Graduate School

Guest Post: On Leadership in Graduate School

“Be a great leader” apparently isn’t the appropriate answer to “what do you want to do when you finish your PhD?” Neither is “sleep” or “go to Jamaica.” People seem relieved when the awkward silence that follows such a response is replaced with, “I’m looking to obtain a dual faculty-administrator position.” I think they’re relieved because “faculty” and “administrator” are accepted reasons to pursue a doctoral degree, not be a leader. Google “what is leadership?” and you’ll find these six views packaged in various forms:

  1. Leadership can be learned.
  2. Leaders motivate others to be their best.
  3. The ability to Influence matters, not a position or title.
  4. Leadership is not synonymous with management.
  5. Leaders continually strengthen their emotional intelligence.
  6. Without followers, leaders do not exist

These tenets represent a snapshot of the available information on leadership. It is left up to the leader to evaluate their own effectiveness through self-awareness, performance reviews, or the evaluation of follower output. Herein lies an easily overlooked aspect of leadership that allows many of us, myself included, to thrive within the comfort zone. How often do we deviate from the all-knowing, top-down assessment of leadership to ask our followers one simple question – how am I doing as a leader?

I understand this question isn’t an easy one to ask; however, not asking ignores a critical part of self-improvement. It’s much easier to avoid, ignore, or become defensive when given feedback from subordinates. As I’ve tried to strengthen my leadership skills, I’ve made attempts to incorporate evaluations from those I supervise. The key is creating an environment where supervisees trust me and my intentions. I do this because I’ve experienced the joy of working in environments with the level of trust needed to be open and honest. I’ve also experienced the need to remain gainfully employed (at-will employment is a thing) rather than speak my mind. I’ve tried to actively seek all forms of feedback, and it’s helped me to keep in mind that:

  1. If I ask for feedback, I must at minimum consider it.
  2. The feedback I receive is not a reflection of my worth or capability.
  3. Not all feedback will have equal weight.
  4. A person providing feedback is doing so through their unique perspective and life experiences.
  5. No matter what, don’t take it personally.

I promised myself that I would use this time in graduate school to physically, mentally, and spiritually grow so that I can return to the professional world with fresh eyes. Positive feedback is amazing and yet, I’ve grown so much more from negative feedback. The beauty of embracing imperfection is that it forces me to accept the need to continuously improve. My end is not to do something perfectly, but to do it better than I did before. The process of self-renewal has been long, challenging, and one that I know will continue throughout my career. I challenge you to embrace yours and do the same.


Asia Randolph Office HS.jpgAsia Renée Randolph is relationship-focused and a close friend had this to say: “[Asia is] an incredible friend. Our relationship is one of my favorites because I can count on [her] for honest feedback and the best support. [She is] one of the most authentic, thoughtful, and resilient people I have ever met. [She] is stronger than I think [she realizes] and I know [she is] unstoppable.” -SLQ

Asia is a third year Ph.D. student in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership (Higher Education Administration) program at William & Mary. Originally from San Diego, California, she holds a B.A. in Language Studies – Spanish from the University of California, San Diego and a M.A. in Postsecondary Educational Leadership with a Specialization in Student Affairs from San Diego State University. Connect with her on Instagram (@blackgraduate) where she posts about her life as a (sometimes struggling) doctoral student.

The Finale of Part 1: Graduation

For those of you who have been following along, you know that I am a PhD student at William & Mary. You might also know that I have recently graduated from William & Mary. For clarification, I was accepted into a MA/PhD program in American Studies, and last September I successfully defended my Masters thesis, thus officially moving me into the PhD portion of my program. Because it’s a rolling program, I defended and kept moving forward in my PhD work, moving through coursework and preparing my comprehensive exams lists– I was so busy that I barely got a chance to truly celebrate getting my Masters.

Until this past weekend.

IMG_0052
My Uncle Edwin and I

I participated in Commencement here at William & Mary and it was a truly magnificent occasion. My uncles drove up from Jacksonville for the graduation and spent the entire weekend with me and my family. My uncles, my parents, my grandma, my great-aunt and my aunt all celebrated me by coming to my ceremonies and going out to celebratory dinners and lunches with me for three days straight.

The festivity of the three day Commencement weekend was Donning of the Kente. This tradition was primarily meant for African American graduating students and a chance for the Black community to celebrate its graduates together, though our ceremony is open to anyone who wants to participate. Because it was a Lemon Project event, I spent most of my time before hand checking people in and handing out stoles. However, when it was time for the ceremony to begin, I was able to participate with everyone else. It was fantastic. When it was my turn, I went on stage to applause and my parents donned me with a kente stole. We took a picture and then we returned to our seats and watched as the rest of the students were donned. Though you are only allowed up to two people to don you, some students appeared on stage with their entire families. Grandmothers cried, children of the graduates cheered, many thanked God as they left the stage and others took selfies as they marched across.

IMG_4969
Me after Donning of the Kente

Afterwards, we had a big family dinner at Ruby Tuesdays and then everyone their separate ways for the big ceremony the next day.

Everyone congregated at my apartment around 7 AM Saturday morning in preparation for the outdoors ceremony to be held in Zable Stadium. Thanks to the ceremony being held on the football field, I was able to invite 7 guests instead of 4. However, let me stress that the ceremony was outdoors– in 90 degree weather. While it was a beautiful day (comparatively, my UVA ceremony was held outdoors in light rain) it was still sweltering underneath the mandatory ceremonial garb we had all donned for the occasion.

I marched in with the other Masters and JD students to the William & Mary hymn. Two surprises awaited me as I went to take my seat– first, I was able to spot my family amid the massive crowd. They had managed to find incredible seats near the front. Their seats were perpendicular to my own, which was incredibly, in the front, near the middle and directly in front of the stage, next to two other American Studies masters students. As the rest of the graduating class filed in, I waved at my family wildly, amazed that we could see each other and spent the rest of my time taking in the massive book-like program that had been made in honor of the occasion.

The ceremony was about two hours long and very traditional– the President of the University gave remarks, awards were given out, and senator Mark Warner gave the keynote address, advising students to stay involved in our democracy, not be afraid of failure and to, most of all, call your mother. There were however a few highlights: the President gave honorary doctorates of letters to the first three residential African American students at William & Mary, Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely. An honorary doctorate was also given to Katherine Johnson, one of the first computers for NASA (you know, the one Taraji played in Hidden Figures? Yup, her.)

IMG_0318
Me with my 9th grade IB Coordinator Micah Smith

And after all of that was over, degrees were conferred. The most amazing part was watching people that I knew walk across the stage and receive their doctorates. I actually knew a lot of people graduating: James, who has been like an older brother to me in this program, walked across the stage; my dear friend, Sarah, who worked with my on the Lemon Project; Renee, Nabeel, and Janine, all American Studies graduate students; my friend Patrick from Anthropology; Beth from History; and incredibly, the woman who worked with my 9th grade class of International Baccalaureate students as our Coordinator. She was so beloved that we fought to keep her, only to eventually lose her to a more stable position in Newport News. Though she left, she kept up with my class, meeting up with us for dinner upon occasion and sending love and well wishes whenever she could. Running into her on her graduation day nearly sent me into a bout of tears.

Finally, we were dismissed from the heat and I was able to reunite with my family for pictures. We eventually made it back to my apartment for quick naps before heading out for a late lunch at Red Lobster.

My parents came up one last time on Sunday, which also happened to be Mother’s Day, for my American Studies Departmental ceremony. It was short, sweet and to the point, the highlight of which was receiving flowers from my friend, Kelsey. We ended the day by heading to Wakefield, where my parents grew up, for a barbecue at my grandmother’s and to spend some time with my great Aunt.

I woke up this morning, groggy and still a little tired from all the excitement, only to find one last surprise. I checked my grades and saw that all of them were in, and I had managed a 4.0 this semester. Yup, I got an A in my Comics class, my Histories of Race class and my Black Arts Movement Directed Research. I’m actually really proud of the work I did for all of these classes. For Comics, I wrote a tribute to Lois Lane adaptations in the last 10 years that I’m considering getting published. For my Black Arts Movement class, I wrote “Beneatha Younger’s Afro,” which attempted to modernize a classic character and discuss how she is politically relevant today. And for my Histories of Race class? I still can’t say what I did for that class because this might actually turn into a huge project for me– things are still unfolding, but just know this paper might be the first time you see Ravynn K. Stringfield’s name in print.

Now everything is over. My family has gone back to the regularly scheduled lives, I can stop holding my breath while I wait for grades to come in, and I can lay in bed watching Netflix all day for days at a time if I want to. Knowing myself, however, I know that will only last a few days before I’m back at the grind, working on comps lists and planning my research trip to the Schomburg Center. Side note, I applied for research money for the first time and received about a third of what I applied for, but if I stay with a friend, I should still be able to make the trip. (I will, of course, post about the trip when I make it, not to worry.) I also have a stack of books that I’ve been dying to dig into and art that I need to make, so I have some good, relaxing plans for the summer. I just hope that I can get it together and make it through one last semester of coursework. Then, onto my next adventure: Comps.

Stay tuned, guys, you won’t want to miss what’s next.

 

Guest Post: Black Boi Does Grad School—A Couple of Tips for Navigating the Bullshit

When I started my PhD program last fall, my biggest fear was the academic work. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the other students; imposter syndrome gripped my anxious mind as I rehearsed all of the disastrous moments that were sure to ensue: I would forget a major deadline, fail all of my classes, sound like an idiot whenever I tried to voice my opinions, and ultimately, bring great shame to all of my friends and family who were so confident that I was well on my way to becoming Dr. Smoot. Much to my relief, as I slide into the finish line of my first year of doctoral education, I can confidently say that my initial worries were unfounded. While my work has been by no means easy, it has certainly been manageable. I am brilliant, and slowly beginning to own this as my truth, in spite of copious external forces that try to wrestle this fact from my hands. What has been the most challenging, however, is navigating all of the unspoken politics and quotidian instances of systemic violence that are intrinsic to navigating graduate education as a Black, queer, trans masculine scholar.

From recognizing that my voice has been tokenized in a number of spaces—wherein my actual opinions were completely devalued—to having classmates openly espousing deeply hurtful and problematic rhetoric aimed at multiple of my identities, this past academic year has been fraught with realizations regarding my emotional resilience, as well as the innumerable challenges of graduate education at a PWI. To be clear, I love the work that I am producing—as dorky as it sounds, I can feel myself getting smarter, and sometimes I re-read my papers and think “damn! I wrote this?! I’m lit!” But sometimes I sit in my apartment and cry, wondering if I am right for academia, or if academia is right for me. Thankfully I have managed to make a few, very kind, very supportive friend-peers who regularly reassure me that I am valued, in spite of the moments in which this process makes me feel worthless. That said, below are a couple of things that I’ve learned, all of which I would have liked to know before starting this degree. Hopefully sharing them here will help someone else as they begin their doctoral program journey.

Visit the school/department before you accept admission.

I cannot stress this enough. A PhD program is a marathon, not a sprint. When I did my masters, I was relatively unconcerned about what my long-term future would look like in the city where the school was because I was fairly confident that I would not have a long term future there. However, my PhD was a different story. I figured, having lived in more than a couple of college towns, that I would have a pretty good idea regarding what life would be like here—without taking the time to visit. I was…incorrect. And in transparency, that decision has definitely been one that I’ve thought about often, and wondered if I would make again if given the chance to go back. The answer is, honestly, I don’t know. I am here now, and committed to staying present and enjoying all of the positive things that this experience has to offer me. But, one thing that I know that I would do, if given a do-over, is visit. That way, if I did make the same choice, I would have a very clear understanding of the life that I was signing up for—at least for the next several years.

People are important, but not everyone should be a close friend. Build community, but prioritize good energies; quality is better than quantity. 

This, I believe, is paramount to one’s social success and mental health in grad school. I came into this program assuming that I would quickly make friends, many of whom I would become very close with, based on my assumption that we would have shared interests and/or world views. This was…not the case. My first few months here were lonely as hell. Fortunately for me, I have a large network of good friends and family scattered around the country, so I struggled through that time with copious teary-eyed phone calls to my folx. I did ultimately end up connecting with some people from school, but if I’m being honest, I have yet to develop what I would consider to be a very close friendship. And I’ve come to realize that this is okay. Actually, it’s ideal. The people with whom I get along are great, but I am able to prioritize study/alone time, and see them when I need social time. Plus, having spent almost a full year here, I have come to effectively identify the people that I enjoy, and have identified the people that I enjoy…less. And that might not have happened if we had all latched onto each other from jump, purely motivated by loneliness. Loneliness is okay. It will pass, but surrounding yourself with kind, affirming people takes time. Don’t rush the process!

Advocate for yourself. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. 

This one is hard. Well, harder. Being a graduate student renders one extremely vulnerable. To the powers that reign supreme over your academic/financial fate and trajectory, to your peers, to many sorts of illnesses, and to your own insecurities. There are many instances in which you will be forced to make very difficult decisions: study vs sleep, work outand eat healthy vs eat affordably and take leisure time, stay silent and stew in heartache vs speak up and face the consequences, stay because of all the work you’ve put in to get here vs leave because you are being dehumanized. The choices are endless, and unlike my examples, most of them are not binary in nature—they are nuanced and murky and scary and hurtful. Being vulnerable all of the time is exhausting. But ultimately, I am of the belief that no degree is worth literally destroying yourself for. As long as it remains feasible (and conscionable) carry on, but care for yourself. Sometimes, pick the gym over that hour of Netflix; sometimes pick the Netflix. Make that dentist appointment if you get health insurance through your institution. Maybe decide not to curse out that person in your class that said that heinously racist thing, and instead call a friend from back home to vent. Get some rest—that paper is not going to be A1 if you write it at 4am after staying up for the prior 36 hours. Also, realize that faculty and administrators aren’t gods, they are people just like you. And while you owe them respect, they don’t have the right to bulldoze your emotions or abuse you. Draw that line of distinction for yourself, and if it’s crossed…check them. Again, a degree is not worth your total degradation.

You can’t read everything. It’s literally not possible, unless you don’t enjoy human-ing. 

Get the main ideas, and craft some interesting discussion questions for class. Skimming is not only helpful, but it’s a necessary skill. You have to be able to read something, synthesize information, and make new meanings from it, quickly. That’s literally what this is about. Welcome to Skimming Bootcamp, y’all!

You don’t need to put your life on hold for 4-7 years; this is your life. Here. Now. Enjoy it. 

This past week my niece was born…6 hours away from me. Next week I will be driving those 6 hours to meet her—during finals week. Amidst final papers. Why? Because I value my chosen family, and they are just as (if not more) important to me as finishing this semester with relative ease. I know I can do both, so I will. In the short time that I have been in grad school, I have traveled much, gone to parties, hosted parties, photographed my best friend’s engagement (also 6 hours away), attended 2 funerals, and managed to get my hair done once a month like clockwork. Because I am a whole person, not just a student. And life is still happening around me. I refuse to be that person who denies myself fulfillment and close relationships with the people I love the most in the name of prioritizing school. All of my life is important to me, not just the portion of it that is in front of me on a daily basis. Showing up my best self to this process means showing up whole.

Ultimately, though, you will determine what works best for you. No one’s experience needs to be the blueprint for your graduate school experience. Take what you need and leave the rest.


Kelsey Smoot is a queer, non-binary writer. They consider themselves to be bicoastal but culturally southern, a master at crafting hypothetical questions, and really damn cool. They are currently working on their PhD in the interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities.