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John A. Vasquez is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Administration at Michigan State University where he also works as a career consultant for graduate students and postdocs.You can find him on Twitter @maximsofjuan or at LinkedIn.

I’m a fan of old, really old, sci-fi shows. In particular one called Babylon 5, a science-fiction epic set onboard a space station in the year 2257. The plotline over five seasons concerns the interactions between humans and alien diplomats on a space station at the center of an inter-species war. This series introduced viewers to fascinating, complex alien characters as its stories addressed a range of subject matter, including five fundamental questions that challenged characters throughout the series: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going? Do you have anything worth living for?

While at first these questions seem straightforward, I believe they are fundamental to successfully navigating a doctoral program, especially in times of crisis. Over the course of the next several posts, I hope to dissect these questions in more detail in hopes that you too can find inspiration to talk about, write about, and be okay with where you are in your own doctoral program.

In the words of Kosh, Vorlon Ambassador, “And so it begins.”

The first question, WHO ARE YOU?”, is known in the series as the “Vorlon Question.” The Vorlons (think of them as the Student Affairs Professionals of the galaxy) believe in and encourage reflection, patience and emphasizing one’s understanding of their identity or achieving one’s goals. Answering this question, for me, has been one of the most introspective and fundamental processes I have engaged with throughout my program, especially as a non-traditional, first-generation older graduate student, which also includes imposter syndrome. I’m a grad student who has known grief (my grandmother died and I didn’t go to the funeral because of comps), regret (if you quit your job to go to grad school, you know what I mean), and failure (I got divorced after 20 years...nuff said).

Because of my own experience working with students in crisis, I tried talking with a couple of the faculty in my department and ironically got the “you know what do…of all grad students, we know we don’t have to worry about you” speech. Two things you learn working in student affairs for many years: 1) students in crisis don’t always present as being in crisis (e.g. sobbing and crying) when they are right front of you and 2) saying “we know we don’t have to worry about you” to the student is the equivalent of saying “we don’t think about you...ever.” I know they meant well, but, like many grads before me realized, I needed to find other avenues of support and inspiration. So, I turned to my favorite escapism: sci-fi shows. Now I’m reminded of who I am and am now hoping to share that inspiration with you.

I’m someone who perseveres. I know I am someone who can do this, the “this” being grad school, a dissertation, an eventual job, and life in general. I’m ready to manage whatever is thrown at me, because I already have.  Undergrad was rough, my masters program was rough, heck the past 20 years were rough. But I’ve already made it! And so have YOU!

WHO ARE YOU? is really a fundamental question meant to help you define yourself, as opposed to how you define yourself compared to others. Part of this question, especially for non-traditional and underrepresented graduate students, also means thinking about how much you also accept others’ definitions of who and what you are. If you are struggling with your own sense of self worth and trying to answer the question “Who are you?” you’re not alone.

In Season 3, Episode 21 of Babylon 5, one of the lead characters struggles to find himself after a near-death experience. Recounting this later, Dr. Franklin gives some good advice for grad students:

“I realize that I always defined myself in terms of what I wasn't. I wasn't a good soldier like my father. I wasn't the job. I wasn't a good prospect for marriage or kids. Always what I wasn't, never what I was. And when you do that, you miss the moments. And the moments are all we've got. When I thought I was going to die, even after everything that's happened, I realized I didn't want to let go. I was willing to do it all over again, and this time I could appreciate the moments. I can't go back, but I can appreciate what I have right now. And I can define myself by what I am instead of what I'm not.

“And what are you?” his colleague presses.

“Alive. Everything else is negotiable.”

I know I’m not the only one who has had fears and doubts in grad school. I’m also not the only one to have fear and regret. But I’ve also had some amazing moments in grad school: I toured higher education institutions in Mexico and got to stand on a pyramid at Chichén Itzá and watch the sunrise; my department and my assistantship gave me a week off to take care of my mom when she got sick (with pay!); and I got to spend the past summer with my “new” family, traveling, camping, and just having fun!

Dr. Franklin is right. Define yourself by WHO YOU ARE. Take time to be in the moment, whatever (and for whoever) they are for you.  And if you are like me, during those moments of guilt and inadequacy, you forget who you are and need a reminder, look-up an old sci-fi favorite of mine.  

One last thing...if you are still regretting your decision to go to grad school...

[Image by Flickr user heiliger_Georg and used under a Creative Commons license.]