December 20, 2013 | by Kaniel Cassady
I began graduate school at City of Hope with a nearly overwhelming sense of fear. While many worrisome thoughts plagued me during this time, the question I found myself revisiting most frequently was, “Do I belong in graduate school?” The majority of students I encountered during the graduate school interview process seemed to have been preparing to attend from an early age. Many of these students were from renowned academic institutions and either had master’s degrees or extensive laboratory experience. This contrasted starkly with my educational background. My decision to attend graduate school was last-minute, and I had only four months of laboratory experience prior to matriculation at City of Hope. Moreover, having been home-schooled for the entirety of my precollegiate education, I possessed only four years of public education from a junior college and a small state school from which to derive academic confidence. Looking back, my worry of belonging in graduate school seems well-founded.However, as I begin my second year of graduate school, I admit that I worried for naught. In fact, shortly after classes began, my fear of belonging subsided. While students in my class hearkened from well-known institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley and Purdue, and all of them had more research experience than I, we quickly recognized a uniting theme — we came to graduate school to continue learning. One of our first instructors unknowingly imparted a blanket of relief to us when he announced, “Graduate school is one of the last phases of your academic career during which it is okay to admit that you do not know something.” As a few of my test scores may reflect, I quickly adopted this mantra. Instead of worrying about how little my prior education and experience allowed me to “bring to the table”, so to speak, I began to focus on how much I could “take away from the table.” In this light, my fear of being underqualified for graduate school was dispelled, and both classes and lab work became much more enjoyable.
Currently, as a second-year student, I still have worries. These include, but are not limited to, qualifying examinations, additional coursework and balancing long hours spent in the lab with a personal life. However, I have no doubt that I belong in graduate school. I would encourage those who are considering the pursuance of a graduate education, and even those like myself who have just begun, to keep in mind that the most telling qualifications for graduate school are simply curiosity and motivation. Granted, these qualities alone do not ensure one’s acceptance into graduate school. But they do, at least in my case, greatly contribute to one’s happiness and confidence as a graduate student. To misquote the venerable Yogi Berra (if that is possible), “Graduate school is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”