Graduate School, Insecurity and the People Closest to Me

“Getting a degree might even make your family insecure. Keep going.”

This quote got a really big response on the Academic Muscle Instagram a few weeks ago. In a poll, to which 15 people responded, 60% of people shared that they had experienced problems related to family/friends showing insecurity as a result of pursuing higher education. Support, or lack there of, in your personal relationships is an important topic at all levels of education because you can’t always be the one to encourage yourself when things get hard. I was asked to write a blog about this, so here are my thoughts….

For me, this topic starts years before graduate school.  When I was younger, I was criticized for not wanting to miss a day of school to spend extra time with family members.  I was apparently “boujee” or “uppity” in the third third grade or at least how it seemed to some people perceived me. In high school, I had a pretty tight knit group of girlfriends that quickly started to deteriorate when we went off to college.  I was the only one to go out-of state for school, and every time I came back, the distance between us became all the more palpable.  The nail in the coffin was when one of my best friends in the group implied that my, Big 10 research 1 school (I don’t mean to be elitist, but I need to mention it to make my point), was nothing and that nobody knew where it was. I think it hurt the most because going away to school was not easy for me and instead of criticism, it would have been nice to receive some support.  Having now been to my 10-year high school reunion, I can honestly say that it was the right thing for that friendship to end.

In all transparency, I’ve been on both sides of the issue. In college, I stopped talking to one of my very close friends because I felt intimidated by her success.  She has always been charismatic, driven and exceptionally good at networking. This is not me at all. At the time, I couldn’t identify it as such, but being around her made me feel insecure about myself, so I essentially stopped talking to her.  Thankfully, we are actually still really good friends to this day, but I had to do the work to repair that relationship by: 1) admitting to her how I felt; 2) admitting to my self how I felt; and 3) doing the work to have a healthier self-image.  Although hurtful, these early experiences were sort of like a primer to dealing with future issues.

The only person to ever tell me I didn’t know anything had 0 degrees.

Fast forward to graduate school, and in short, people still act crazy despite their age. What’s different is that I ow have the experience to know that how people respond to me actually has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them.  With that realization, it’s become a lot easier to deal when someone tells me that I don’t know anything about the world because I’ve spent all of my life in school, or that I should join the military or that I should ask a “successful” family member for a job in a field that has absolutely nothing to do with my academic interests. I know that these are pretty mild experiences compared to what other students have encountered, but in any instance, it’s hurtful when the people who you would expect to support you actually turn out to be the ones who tear you down. It’s unfortunate, and definitely a part of the academic journey that people don’t talk about enough about.


To the 60% of followers who said they had issues with family members and insecurity, here are a few suggestions I have for not only how to respond when people close to you show signs of insecurity but, more importantly, how to build a nurturing support system. Check out my Instagram Q &A highlight stories for more tips from the Academic Muscle community.

Set Boundaries—There may be some people that you can’t cut out of your life all together, so decide to what extent you want to allow them access to your life.  What will you allow them to know?  How much time will you spend with them?  Figure out your expectations and adjust when necessary.

Have a Conversation—For the people you think are worth it, it wouldn’t be anything lost to address how you are feeling because maybe they aren’t aware of how their actions are affecting you.  Some people will implement change asap, other people might take a while to come around and other people won’t care. 

Put Things in Perspective—Consider their actions in relationship to their life experiences. Did they themselves not have the resources, time, opportunity, etc. to attend school? How do they define success? Contextualizing their response might give clarity on why they are reacting to you that way.

Double Down on Your Work and Your Purpose—I love the idea that the size of the resistance is comparable to the success you will experience on the other side.  Someone’s negative response is just another hurdle, like a difficult exam, an evasive advisor, a reading that makes absolutely no sense…you just have to keep pushing and now that there is something better on the other side.

Build a Framily —Framily =friends like family. This can be a collective of people in your school, community members, therapists, religious leaders, virtual groups or distant mentors.  If you don’t already have these people in place, it is worth the time and the effort to add this to your list of things to do.  It will take time (I took me at least a year), but be patient and know that there are people in the world who will love and support you the way that you deserve.

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts and any other suggestions you have in the comment section below.

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