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GRAD 101: How to Attain an “I Ain’t Never Scared” Attitude

Conquer your fear, and then conquer your Ph.D.

October 16, 2016

Regina Sierra Carter received her Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She currently works as a Teaching and Learning librarian at the University of Virginia.

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Are you an OG (original gangster) in the grad school game or are you a newbie—just beginning to cut your teeth? Regardless of what stage you are in your doc program, you gotta be fierce. You must attain an “I Ain’t Never Scared” attitude in order to survive and thrive the graduate school hustle.  


I am grateful to God that I completed my doctorate in May 2016. The process was a beast, to say the least. I prayed, developed defense strategies to stay on-track, and battled—I battled boredom, burnout, depression, fatigue, and perfectionism—and I have the scars to prove it. I waged what seemed like a never-ending war and I won.


I did not win because I had inside intelligence, superior weaponry, or a special forces team. I won because I discovered that my “greatest enemy was my inner me.” That’s right…only I could sabotage myself and my success. On top of that, I discovered that I was operating out of fear. I was afraid (like some of my GradHacker colleagues have expressed) that I did not belong in my program…that I was not good enough…simply an imposter. I was afraid of criticism and did not recognize that “constructive” criticism was essential to my growth and formation as a scholar. Airing an unpopular opinion sent shivers down my spine, and I squelched at the prospect of being labeled a statistic (another first-generation college/graduate student who somehow missed being swept down the gutter) or a charity case.  


It was only after I was nearing the finish line that I had an epiphany: I was scared.


It’s almost Halloween, but, no, I am not talking about having nightmares from watching too many horror flicks, ghosts and goblins, or dodging black cats out of superstition. I was afraid of upsetting high-profile people, voicing unconventional views, and of failure. I was so afraid of failing that I kept it hush-hush that I was even pursuing a Ph.D. I only told my immediate family, because I thought that somehow…someway…I might not finish. It might sound foolish, but the fear was real and the stakes were very high—especially for a first-generation Black girl from the rural South where everybody and their mama knows all your business.


I finally faced my fears. Have you? Do you have what it takes to stay sane, keep it 100, slay your diss., and Nae Nae across the stage (if you really want to) when you get your Ph.D.? I bet you do but may not even know it. In order to do any of the above, you simply can’t be scared...ever. So, how can you face your fears and effectively deal with them? I’m so glad you asked...I did so by developing an “I Ain’t Never Scared” attitude.


Top 10 Way to Attain an “I Ain’t Never Scared” Attitude


1.     Ask for the four letter word: H-E-L-P. The moment you don’t understand something, make it your business to find the answer(s) by any (legal and ethical) means necessary. Just because you are in a doctoral program does not mean that you (or your peers) do or are expected to know everything. Remember: You know what you know, and you don’t know what you don’t know.

2.     Apply for teaching, research, or any other type of position even if you do not think you meet ALL of the qualifications. I am not saying that you should blindly apply for anything and everything (although funding feels and looks good). However, I am saying that you will never know if you could have (or should have) gotten that position unless you apply for it. Let the hiring manager tell you “no.” Don’t disqualify yourself. One more thing…who knows…maybe the folks hiring are willing to work with and train you so that you can gain new skills.

3.     Dare to disagree respectfully with whomever (e.g. friend, peer, colleague, supervisor, and, yes, even your advisor), but do your homework. Know the facts, back up what you say with statistics, scholarship, personal experience, etc. In sum, know what you are talking about, why, and then say something even if it will ruffle a few feathers—which probably need plucking anyway.  

4.     Be honest. I struggle with this one daily, because the truth may hurt. Many times I have tried to butter up, sweeten, or soften my approach just to appease and please. I would have avoided plenty of headaches and heartaches by simply speaking the truth in love. It may hurt but people will come to know and respect your candid yet thoughtful commentary.

5.     Vanquish fear. Remember: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” –Marianne Williamson

6.     Develop solid standards and abide by them. Know what you will and will not do, then stick to it.  

7.     You are behind the wheel, so drive! Yes, you have a committee and dissertation chair/advisor. However, ultimately, you determine how quickly or slowly you progress through your program. So drive your degree like your very life depends on it…because it does.

8.     Do you. Do not try to mimic or be like anyone else because that is impossible. I get so sick and tired of hearing people say they want to be the next _____ [insert name of academic superstar of your choice.] You are not and will never be(come) them so do you!

9.     Always believe in yourself, your talents, your abilities, and your dreams. Encourage yourself.

10.  “Go BIG or go home.” Throughout my life, people have always cautioned me to have a Plan B. Since I was young, naïve, and did not like being broke or unemployed, I listened. Seriously, having a Plan B sounds pretty good especially if Plan A does not work out. At least it looks like you landed on your feet. (Appearances are deceiving.) Moreover, when you have a backup plan, you appear SMART. I get it. However, I have also discovered (and I read this somewhere too but I cannot remember where) having a backup plan can backfire. Develop a Plan B but don’t plan on using it because Plan A just…might…workJ


To all my peeps in grad programs, when you have applied all of the above criteria, you will have attained an “I ain’t never scared” attitude. From this moment onward your life will never be the same…


What are ways you have developed (or maintained) an “I ain’t never scared” attitude in grad school and beyond?  

[Image by Flickr user Nana B. Agyei and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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