You Don’t Need a Fancy Degree to Be Yourself

Photo by Pewara Nicropithak

I grew up really owning the mantra, “Always be yourself”. I was my goofy, happy, loud, chatty self all through high school, where boys would playfully bet me $1 that I couldn’t not laugh for 5 minutes (I never won). I continued to fearlessly own my self all through college, where I met hundreds of amazing people and got involved in as many activities as I could. Being unapologetically me always came naturally.

After college, around the time I began my graduate program, my mentality changed from super confident to … not so super confident. As a university senior in my home state the spring before I started grad school, it felt like I had made it. I was academically successful and I had many people around me who cared about my success. Once I began my graduate program, the script was flipped on me and I felt utterly alone. It was remarkable how quickly my social status changed- I almost felt like a college freshman again. Only this time I was no longer in my home state, rather I was now halfway across the country living in a big city alone for the very first time. I was no longer expected to simply take classes and do extracurriculars. As a graduate student in counseling psychology, I was now expected to see clients, do research, teach, and engage in many other professional duties. I was 22 years old and I felt extremely young.

“Your goofy self doesn’t belong in these professional clothes,” My imposter syndrome told me, “You have to learn to speak intelligently.” In professional spaces, I never acted fake per se, but I didn’t really feel like my true self either. It was more of a watered-down version of myself. Or my identity felt fragmented, where I almost felt like a different version of myself outside of “PhD-Land” (a term I coined when I entered this strange universe), from the person I was trying to be inside of PhD-Land. I didn’t believe that my full authentic self belonged in a doctoral program, and so I didn’t bring her into the room.

When I didn’t fail out during the first semester, or the second semester, or even the third semester, my mentality started to change again. I soon came to have moments where sometimes I thought “Okay, maybe I am capable of doing this.” I began to have many more sessions with clients where I walked away thinking, “Wow, I think I actually helped!” But I still compartmentalized my identity. I still felt like I had to hide all those enthusiastic and goofy parts of myself in professional spaces because I believed that those parts of me would somehow undermine my credibility as a professional.

I began to consider what my life would look like after the program and decided I would finally be able to be my full true self once I gained the professional status that a PhD would grant. I mean, look around at all these quirky professors. I remember being astounded that my acting professor in college once in class said “Fuckity ass c*nt.” Another professor I met responded to emails in all lowercase letters, no punctuation, and sometimes with typos. It reminds me of this meme about how some professors communicate. The juxtaposition between try-hard graduate students giving their entire souls to impress others and people with PhDs who do whatever they want is hilarious. I came to realize that this is because they made it. They did the thing! They earned their PhD. They earned the right to act however they’d like because they have already impressed us all and did the thing that only 2 percent of people in the United States do: earn a doctorate degree. I decided that as soon as I “earn it”, I too, can say “Fuckity ass c*nt” whenever I like! I probably still won’t though.

Let’s stop and think about that logic for a second. I thought that once I’d proven my value by earning a PhD, I would earn the luxury of showing an authentic personality to my peers and colleagues. As if being congruent with my own self was a prize for a job well done. If you can’t tell by my tone, I have finally come to a place where I realize this logic makes no sense. Granted, I have reached certain milestones in my program, have become extremely comfortable with my cohort, and I’m sure there are many other reasons why it now feels easier for me to be me. I still believe the sooner you realize you deserve to show the real you in graduate school, the better.

And so I’ve reflected on some reasons why you don’t need to reach that degree before you can be your true self.

You will be less exhausted. In graduate school, you work extremely long hours. On most weekdays, I get up at 6 or 7 am, and I work through the day until I get home in the evenings usually around 8 or 9 pm. At which time I often still have work to do to prepare for the next day. Graduate school is exhausting enough without needing to code-switch (whatever that looks like for you). I have found that all of the additional energy I give to stifling the natural way I talk or act is taking away from more important things, like critical thinking or generating new ideas.

You will foster more meaningful connections with colleagues. Since I’ve felt more comfortable being myself, I have had the best conversations with peers and mentors alike. Whether it’s crying in the office of a professor I am comfortable being vulnerable with, discussing why dating feels so difficult right now with a friend in my cohort, or venting about a frustrating situation with a colleague, I have felt much more connected to everyone around me in PhD-Land since I quit holding back my full, real personality.

You will feel less resentful of grad school. Part of why I call it PhD-Land is because when I first joined the program, it felt like I was entering a strange new land where everyone is super articulate and put together all the time and is constantly achieving extraordinary things for some reason. At times I felt resentful of this elitist space, which sometimes seems like a microcosm of homogenized privilege. Being able to honestly critique this space we are all trying to survive in feels really relieving. Also, when you are open and honest with people about your vulnerabilities and uncertainties, you will feel less alone because sometimes it is the people who “have it all together” who really crave that authentic conversation about doubts and insecurities, too.

In sum, being true to yourself is one of the best long-term self-care decisions you can make for yourself in graduate school. This is not to say you should run around screaming “Fuck you!” to everyone simply because it’s your heart’s desire. For goodness sake use some discretion. My point is that you shouldn’t stifle your beautiful soul for the purpose of impressing people who might have more social capital in academia than you at the moment. To an extent, you still need to play the professional game… but do it as YOU and do it on your own terms. Things will come together eventually, I promise.