The Graduate Experience: Pathologies of Self-Doubt

Whatever else can be said of the PhD endeavor, it is fraught with anxiety and self-doubt. Everyone associated with graduate education knows this, many of us from first-hand experience, but rarely do we discuss it, and rarer still do we consider ways to ameliorate it.

Perhaps it is in the nature of the endeavor itself.

Extended PhD-level research often becomes so intimately bound up with our sense of ourselves that it is difficult to disentangle who we are from the work we do. This incapacity to distance our work from ourselves can turn every rejection into an existential crisis, every critique into a judgment of our value as a person.

Or at least that’s how it can feel.

In her article, The PhD experience: this far, and no further, Holly Else tells the stories of 5 PhD researchers who, faced with such feelings, either struggled to finish or decided to pursue another course of life.

One morning a few weeks ago, John Gill tweeted a link to the article:

I read his tweet and the article as I was preparing for work that morning and responded:

John turned the question back on me …

And that began a wider conversation:

Perspective

It is easy to become so caught up in the life of your discipline and department that a wider perspective is lost. One reason we created the Graduate Internship Program in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State is to provide students with a broader perspective on university life and the institution that sustains their work.

Hannah makes a good suggestion here. I do think peer mentoring can be an effective and practical approach. It might be worth considering creating more opportunities for cross-disciplinary mentoring to disrupt the insularity of discipline specific norms and cultures.

Do we offer graduate students enough opportunities to engage socially and academically with students from other disciplines?

Faculty Anxiety

Faculty in general and junior faculty in particular experience similar feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, but these play themselves out differently in relation to the graduate students over whom they have significant authority.

Supervisor

As Ruth McGinty points out, the role of an understanding, supportive dissertation supervisor can be critical. Take a look at the articles to which Melonie Fullick links on this issue.

Do we do enough professional development for dissertation advisors?

Don’t show weakness

Posturing in academia is endemic. A fear of seeming weak or ignorant or inadequate isolates us from one another. I admire the candor of Helene’s tweet on this:

The pathologies of self-doubt and anxiety felt by so many graduate students is symptomatic of a corrosive culture of graduate education.

What structures can we put in place or initiatives can we undertake to ameliorate the culture of anxiety that surrounds graduate education?

Join the discussion 37 Comments

  • ruthiemacgee says:

    cplong JG_THE qui_oui HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse great summary and contribution towards more + much needed, discussion on this issue

  • qui_oui says:

    cplong thanks very much. I have some thoughts that will be in a blog post tomorrow (2nd part of a post based on a keynote talk)

  • qui_oui says:

    cplong JG_THE ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse I think regular dialogue w/ others can assuage self-doubt about one’s own work

  • cplong says:

    qui_oui Great, I look forward to reading it. Tweet me when it’s out.

  • ruthiemacgee says:

    qui_oui cplong JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse agree altho early in phd such chat can also accelerate Fear and self doubt/loathing!

  • qui_oui says:

    ruthiemacgee cplong JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse true, I was thinking more of how we lack certainty re whether ideas “work”,

  • qui_oui says:

    ruthiemacgee cplong JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse & working in a vacuum only exacerbates that kind of uncertainty

  • qui_oui says:

    ruthiemacgee cplong JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse I think some of this relates to what the “local” culture is like, too.

  • cplong says:

    .qui_oui ruthiemacgee JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse Exactly. Have any concrete suggestions to make the “local” culture better?

  • ruthiemacgee says:

    qui_oui cplong JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse i see, agree too-work is in vacuum but also often isolationist too. 1/2

  • qui_oui says:

    cplong ruthiemacgee JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse I aim for concrete suggestions but I’ve only made it as far as principles!

  • ruthiemacgee says:

    qui_oui cplong JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse How to balance academic freedom with collaborative +supportive culture is imp point

  • qui_oui says:

    cplong ruthiemacgee JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse Those will be in tomorrow’s post. Problem is, there’s so much variation,

  • qui_oui says:

    cplong ruthiemacgee JG_THE HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse Every suggestion is conditional on what’s happening already in a department etc

  • cplong says:

    qui_oui ruthiemacgee JG_THE HanC_PhD HollyElse Yes: All happy departments are alike; each unhappy department is unhappy in its own way.

  • qui_oui says:

    cplong ruthiemacgee JG_THE HanC_PhD HollyElse or the response is sometimes, “well we already do this, so it’s not a problem”…

  • qui_oui says:

    cplong ruthiemacgee JG_THE HanC_PhD HollyElse …when of course it’s clearly a problem elsewhere, so that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.

  • SJTelenko says:

    cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse making my second attempt at my PhD and needed to read this. thank you!

  • cplong says:

    SJTelenko JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse Do we have the right supports here in advising to help you finish?

  • SJTelenko says:

    cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse Absolutely! JamieBrennerPSU mcbrayermelissa & others are amazing.

  • SJTelenko says:

    cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse JamieBrennerPSU mcbrayermelissa feel very supported and encouraged.

  • cplong says:

    SJTelenko JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD superHH HollyElse JamieBrennerPSU mcbrayermelissa Add deancplong to that list!

  • superHH says:

    cplong SJTelenko JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse I think so. I have received a lot of support over the years. But it

  • superHH says:

    cplong SJTelenko JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse has not been the case for all of my colleagues, especially those

  • superHH says:

    cplong SJTelenko JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse suffering from depression. So I wish we would talk more about +

  • superHH says:

    cplong SJTelenko JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse mental illnesses, impostor symdrome, etc. This is not smg shameful.

  • superHH says:

    cplong SJTelenko JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse It happens to so many of us. Let’s be more open about it.

  • SJTelenko says:

    superHH cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse pregnancy, with twins, did me in. along with some complications…

  • SJTelenko says:

    superHH cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse and making motherhood a priority for a few years.

  • SJTelenko says:

    superHH cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse BUT these years away from PhD have made me more confident, at peace.

  • ruthiemacgee says:

    SJTelenko superHH cplong JG_THE qui_oui HanC_PhD HollyElse good to hear, the whole phd/early career often feels like such a rat race

  • SJTelenko says:

    ruthiemacgee superHH cplong JG_THE qui_oui HanC_PhD HollyElse it’s individual but wouldn’t trade my experience or kids for anything.

  • superHH says:

    SJTelenko cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse On that note I would add that we should not shame women in the +

  • qui_oui says:

    superHH cplong SJTelenko JG_THE ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse that’s why I wrote about it, but what I’ve noticed is,

  • qui_oui says:

    superHH cplong SJTelenko JG_THE ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse only certain kinds of posts are “cited”. PhDisabled “gets” this.

  • superHH says:

    SJTelenko cplong JG_THE qui_oui ruthiemacgee HanC_PhD HollyElse academy (at any level) for wanting/having kids.

  • LPerrotti says:

    For me, graduate school
    takes on the form of a roller-coaster more than a continuous free-fall, but
    when the roller-coaster reaches its apex, I find myself second guessing the
    climb and anticipating the fall that may or may not be steep.
    In order to deal with the
    practical and emotional aspects of grad life, our department (Spanish, Italian,
    & Portuguese), has had, for many years, a departmental graduate student
    organization. This year, we’re focusing heavily on creating a supportive community
    among graduate students. We are implementing a mentorship program for first
    year students by pairing them with graduate students further along in their
    programs. Additionally, each monthly meeting we will be highlighting the work
    of current students in mini presentations. This will serve to get to know each
    other better and provide a safe, positive space to discuss our research and
    interests.
    The emotions and
    difficulties vary by person, but we’re trying to take one step toward
    ameliorating negative feelings by creating a stronger support system amongst
    ourselves.

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