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Learning to Appreciate the Process: Setting Expectations for a New Graduate Student

Learning to Appreciate the Process: Setting Expectations for a New Graduate Student

An old friend of mine who recently completed her PhD, wrote to me upon learning that I was returning to graduate school.  

Your status update reminded me of a crucial part of grad school: Impostor Syndrome. Basically, at some point all grad students become crippled with fear that they are impostors and that someone will find out that they aren't that smart and they shouldn't even be in grad school. They think all their peers are smarter than they are. The irony is that EVERYONE feels this way. If you can start grad school without feeling like an impostor (which you obviously are not), then you will be way ahead of everyone else! My two cents/unsolicited advice…

I know this friend to be both wise and capable (having survived a humanities PhD program with the humor to talk about it!) I wasn't entirely sure that her advice would apply to me, however. After five years of dragging my feet, deciding where and what and how to study, I was taking the leap into a dual masters degree program in an interesting field feeling remarkably confident. After all, I had ten years of experience as a consultant under my belt. Surely the problem solving and project management techniques I'd honed would be easily transferrable, making me a super student: churning through coursework twice as fast as a speeding bullet.

I wouldn't say I was overconfident, but I did feel prepared and determined. With the month long transition period I was afforded at the University before my program started, I was sure I could immerse myself in the literature and hit the ground running.

It's thirty days later, and I've realized just how wise my friend really is.

My first day on campus, I descended upon the library like a kid in a candy store. I spent hours walking the stacks, greedily stacking an assortment of fascinating texts in my basket. “Finally!” I thought. “Finally, I have the time to explore what is interesting to me. This is my job now! Whoopee!” (I did in fact, utter an audible Whoopee in the library, much to the confusion of my German comrades). I recall finding a desk in a sunny little corner, unpacking my stash and staring at it with a sense of accomplishment.

The problem was, I hadn't actually accomplished anything.

At least, I had not accomplished anything, based on my expectations as a professional.

As a consultant, accomplishment is defined by delivering. For the past ten years, my world consisted of action items and deliverables. My job was often to define success, by deciding how and when a “thing” was “done”. I was a professional tie-er of loose ends. Staring at my treasured stack of literature, I realized my new job would be generating questions, more questions than I could comprehend, and more than I could possibly tackle in pursuit of answering.

Scanning a few tables of contents, I was quickly overwhelmed and dizzy with possibilities. My head spun with ideas, but I was paralyzed by indecision. If I were a robot, steam would have exploded from my robot ears, as my programming entered an infinite loop. I had no idea where to begin, and therefore no idea where I wanted end.  I was terrified, realizing just how much there was to know and just how little I really knew.

It was a frustratingly enlightening thirty days, and I've learned that in order to survive graduate school with any sense of professional self-worth, I need to radically re-define my definition of success. A goals oriented individual, I need a new definition of done, in order to appreciate the outcomes of my exploration and learning that don't involve the production of a tangible product.

One of my classsmates, having just completed a Masters degree in Psychology, shared with me that what he knows now, is just how much he doesn't know.

A secret dear reader: imposters be we all.

  Given the increasingly connected nature of scholarship, how have you tackled the imposter syndrome, and set reasonable expectations for yourself as a graduate student? 




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