Dr. Stephen Spates

Every fall season, when a new school year begins, I think about my first year of graduate school. I was excited to begin a new journey as a graduate student in communication studies. I also felt honored to be offered a full ride and stipend as a graduate teaching fellow. I expected this to be my opportunity to earn a graduate degree and then move up the ladder in my marketing career. However, I didn’t realize I was about to take a journey that would take me in new directions and change my entire life forever. Allow me to explain what I mean.

words + photographs DR. STEPHEN SPATES

As a new graduate student, you go through several orientation programs. You spend several days being welcomed and given a lot of information that can feel overwhelming. I felt pretty good about navigating my new graduate life. Afterall, I graduated from my undergraduate program with honors and now had work experience. I felt ready for any challenge that was about to come. Then I attended the new teaching assistant (TA) orientation with my department. At this point, I was able to meet the other students whom I would be in the program with. That’s when I started to lose confidence. Many of them were graduates of the department’s undergraduate program. Several of them also graduated with honors and others were talking about their research interests. Although I had extensive applied experience, I had not engaged in research. I started feeling out of place. I remembered hearing the day before, from a couple professors, that the program is designed to challenge me and even make me question everything. Certainly, that couldn’t happen to me. Up until this point I was so successful; what sort of challenges would I be facing? Once the first day of classes began, I quickly found out.

One of the things I noticed about graduate school was the amount of work changes significantly. The reading and writing demands had doubled. I was expected to contribute to class discussion every week, and there were so many concepts to learn. We were discussing research in every class, and it all felt like a foreign language. By October of that first semester, I started to question everything, just like my professors foreshadowed. I felt like giving up and leaving the program. I began spending every weekend at home (I lived about an hour away); I didn’t attend social gatherings with my classmates; and I would check the mail for a letter dismissing me from the program. I was losing hope and confidence in my own success. I was comparing myself to everyone else and never felt like I measured up. I didn’t read as fast as one classmate; I couldn’t write as well as another classmate. I kept trying to be like those I thought were successful, but it wasn’t working.

Although I felt overwhelmed by the challenges, my determination to reach my goals helped me not give up. Every day I would get up and tell myself I needed to give my all. However, I decided to add to that message by encouraging myself to start running this race like me. In other words, I needed to stop trying to do things like others were doing them and start taking advantage of my own talents. It was the best advice I gave myself. More importantly, it worked — really well.

Make sure you’re running your race as yourself. It’s the only way you’ll find your finish line.

By the spring semester, I had completely turned around. I finished the first semester with high marks, started being more social with my classmates, and even attained my first opportunity to conduct research. The reason why I remember this so well is because I’m writing this now as a tenure-track professor. Not only did I receive my master’s, I continued my education and received my doctorate degree, as well. However, none of this would have happened if I kept trying to run my race like others. I needed to run my race in the way I knew best, to reach my goals. Once I did, I reached every finish line. If I could give anyone advice, I would say: Make sure you’re running your race as yourself. It’s the only way you’ll find your finish line. SS


Dr. Stephen Spates is an assistant professor of communication at Missouri State University. He partners with several organizations across the campus and Springfield community.

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