• Jessica Harris

My Grad School Experience: Part 1

Updated: Aug 14, 2020


This will be the first public writing about my graduate school experience. I am purposefully leaving out names of people and institutions.


I hope you will reflect on the characters within my story. Unfortunately, you may find that you can relate to some of the characters in this story. I feel it's important to add my story to the on-going dialogue about being #BlackintheIvory. I must also give a warning that, for some, this may be triggering. Please always remember to take care of yourself. Please receive this as a gift, it is not my obligation to share my story. Take from my story what you can and leave the rest. Overall, I deeply want to share because I hope that it will help someone else feel seen and not alone.


Before I begin sharing my story, I would like to reflect to you the challenge of finally writing out my story. I think of the Maya Angelou quote, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." My grad school experience is about how I feel a DECADE later. As challenging as it is to finally write, I really feel relieved and know this is a part of my healing journey.

When I graduated from my undergrad institute, I knew that I wasn't quite ready to enter in to a PhD program. As an undergrad, I was a part of a program for underrepresented students in STEM, The program was designed to prepare us for graduate school, with the specific goal of getting us into PhD programs.


This is when it was first ingrained in me the importance of aspiring to attain a PhD. The academia path of attaining a PhD was "the end all, be all" goal to achieve academically. This idea will be important later in my story. I applied to a Master's to PhD program because I felt that I wasn't quite prepared to enter directly into a PhD program in Astronomy.


My grad school experience can be distilled to one moment. But first let me frame the context of this moment . I entered into grad school having never taken any astronomy classes. My first semester I was enrolled in Radiative Processes, one of these hardest astronomy classes in grad school. And I passed with good grade, A-, yay me! I was among a cohort of other grad students who had taken astronomy classes prior to grad school. Some even majored in Astronomy for their Bachelors degrees. So, in some respects I was behind. I fit in well in all my physics classes, but not so well in astronomy. I’ll never forget one astronomy study session where I was essentially told "I was bringing the group down with my lack of background." I left the group so hurt. There were many more moments like this that I start to internalize that I didn’t fit nor belong in astronomy.


I was so proud when I completed my first year of grad school course work. In the fall of my second year I started my thesis project on the extended Orion Nebula with my thesis advisor. For the sake of brevity, I will only share two specific moments leading up to the "big moment" that had a paramount impact on me. The first was during this second year, I was "sat down" by a senior staff, let's name them Staff A, in the program twice. They told me that I needed to at minimum put in 50 hours per week to stay up to speed with my classmates. There was a serious power dynamic in these two meetings. I tried to let Staff A know that I was doing my best but 50 hours a week, physically in the office, was a challenge. When I moved to the city I purposefully rented an apartment downtown to be close to the bus station so that I could have access to my primary mode of transportation. I tried to let Staff A know that my schedule was heavily dependent on when I could catch the bus to and from the campus. If I stayed too late, I would miss the last bus and have to walk home. This happened once. It took me about 45-1 hr to walk home. But you know it didn’t matter. They wanted to stress to me this was the "golden standard" and I was falling short, no matter my justified reasons. They made it clear I had to put in the minimum of 50 hours per week to be successful.


Fast forward a little bit to January 2009 for the second moment. We, my cohort, attended a senior staff members house, let's call them Staff B. We were having a informal discussion about how we were doing and Staff B made a point of saying “some students think they are doing well, but their advisors are saying different.” I spoke up, with a sense of confidence, and said "my thesis advisor and I have a good relationship. He is honest with me and let’s me knew how I’m doing. I’m not doing the greatest but I’m doing good." Staff B said that’s not what he is saying; he is saying that you aren't doing well. I was so hurt. In front of everyone I was put on blast, and this was the first time ever hearing that he was reporting that I wasn’t doing well. (For a little more context my thesis advisor was not an advisor who was part of the graduate school program I was in. So, he had regular weekly check-in’s with the senior staff members about my progress). I went to the bathroom and started crying. Staff B came in to console me. They apologized because they didn’t know that I didn’t know. They tried to say they wish they had known sooner. So maybe I could’ve been on a different project. But it was too late I was so close to finishing my masters degree. Literally, four months away from defending my thesis.


The next big moment (rewind back a bit in time) was around December 2009. Our cohort had just completed a seminar about making sure to ask our thesis advisors and mentors for "good and strong" letters of recommendation. I had already asked my thesis advisor before this seminar for a letter of recommendation for graduate school, so in my next check-in I made sure to ask for a "good and strong" recommendation. Staff C's response was very unexpected and shook me to my core. Staff C said he would not be able to write me a good recommendation to graduate school.

"I did not have the esoteric skills to continue a PhD in astrophysics."

In that moment let me tell you what I heard. He had found me out, "I wasn't smart enough." "I didn't have what it took to be a physicist or astrophysicist." All the hard work I had put in as a physics/astrophysics student up to this point didn't matter. My research was subpar and not valuable. Lastly, my very own thesis advisor that I respected and admired wouldn't support me applying to PhD program. My thesis advisor with all his astronomical accolades, power, and influence would not write me a good recommendation to apply to graduate school. And let me explain, in this moment I was embarrassed. In this moment, I didn't know what I knew now: that one person doesn't make or break your graduate school application. I correlated this moment as a failure on my part. What graduate school would seriously consider me when my own thesis advisor wouldn't write me a recommendation? I was devastated. Devastated! I don't remember much after those words were spoken. I can only recall trying to hold back tears. Still when I think about this moment a decade later I get emotional.


In the coming weeks, I had to quickly determine if I would stay in the program through the summer, or to declare I would graduate. Everything felt accelerated. I had to complete "M.A. Requirements for May 2010" paperwork to say I will graduate before the end of December 2009. I had to declare my thesis committee and defend. Oh, and don’t forget, in all of this, I still had to write a thesis.


After all my hard work. After passing all my course work. After learning how to analyze my research data. After learning from ground zero all the things I needed to learn to study in this very "esoteric" field in astronomy. After all the things...I never once thought in my career that I wouldn't get a PhD. Every route leading to this point in my career said get a PhD. Get a PhD!

This was the darkest moment in my grad experience.

I wanted to end the pain and agony of the environment that was hostile to me, didn’t belong in, and a future that more or less looked the same as what I was experiencing - just with three letters at the end of my name. I saw that you had to be "aggressive" in your research and in meetings as a female scientist, let alone a black female in STEM. I knew that I did not want to be a research scientist. I knew I didn't want to base my livelihood on research proposals and grant writing. I knew I did not enjoy, unpopular option, the journal clubs. I never felt like I connected to the "why" behind the science. I knew that I was deeply passionate about communicating our complicated astronomy to the general public. Do you realize, that I talked very little about my research? All of the emotional labor that I had to carry and still complete my thesis. I hope that you haven't missed this important point.


My decisions, though not easy, simply could be summarized into one major question. Could I start doing outreach as part of a PhD program in astronomy? I sought advice from senior staff members. I expressed to them my desire to get into outreach. But the advice was all the same "first get your PhD and then pursue a career in outreach". That was a big factor for me, and made my decision more white and black: If I couldn’t do outreach as part of a PhD program, I couldn’t stay.


I’ll never forget the day I went into Staff A's office to let them know I wouldn’t continue on with my PhD. I was so broken and had a strong "I didn’t care anymore about their opinions" attitude. I knew I was making a decision that was best for me. After a decade, I can recall little of what was said. But I knew I left feeling accomplished, empowered and finally free. My path was clear. I put my head down and did what I needed to complete research and writing. I went into survival mode.


On Monday, April 5th, 2010 I defended my thesis: Spectroscopy of the Extended Orion Nebula. I graduated with my M.A. on May 3rd, 2010! I will share my research in Part 2.


I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue outreach for my professional career. This has not been an "alternative" or "other" path. This was a deliberate and purposeful decision. My mind was BLOWN when I learned there were whole organizations with departments focused on outreach. Informal education, museums, planetariums, non-profits doing the work that I wanted to do. No one told me about these things. The only stories I had heard about non-academic jobs were of people who had started their own companies. I wasn’t represented in these this professional careers. I have to stress the pinnacle cross point I was when I consciously chose not to continue. I know deep in my heart that, if I had continued toward a PhD, I would have 99.999% left astronomy and physics altogether. I would have been one of the students who earned a PhD, and not gone on to use their research in their every day jobs. I would have been another statistic of Black students lost in the "leaky pipeline."


Those in physics and astronomy: we must do better! We have to want what is best for our students. We put so much value on academia as the ONLY path and this is not right. There are many scientists, not in academia, who are living their best lives. After grad school, I wanted to tell every student I meant to keep their options open. Not every job outside of academia requires a PhD. The master's degree is a valuable degree. We have to change the way we put value on others.

I am valuable! What I’ve built over the last 10 years of outreach is valuable. The diversity, inclusion, and equity work I’ve done is valuable!

I know I have left a lasting impact on the organizations I’ve been a part of. But you'll never see my name. I am one of many doing the work. It took me years after grad school to confidently say “I am a physicist”. Because this experience told me that I wasn’t a scientist without the PhD. I now know this is not true.

I am a physicist!

Final remarks, I want to be clear that there is value in the range of STEM degrees from bachelor's to PhD. I am grateful that a multiple of STEM careers are now more widely known to students within STEM. Reach out if you would like to discuss options, especially in education and public outreach. You are needed! And we are out here!


I hope that I was able to inspire you. It was a lot of emotional labor to complete this blog, but it was all worth it. Please give me your thoughts.


Share with others and show me some love on IG, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It is much needed. Thank you for reading to the end and holding space for my story.

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