Grad school is hard. That’s a fact. This is one of the most difficult challenges you will ever attempt, especially if you are in a PhD program.

Many grad students find themselves assailed by doubt and plagued by feelings of anxiety.

“I am not sure that I can do this.”

“Everyone else knows what is going on, except for me.”

“Everyone is smarter than me.”

These are a few of the thoughts and feelings that many grad students have. And they don’t just live in your head, ideas that you can address rationally. No, these beliefs are lodged deep in your heart, your gut, your soul. They just seem true.  But they are not.

Why are these beliefs so pervasive?

Because grad school is really hard, and because you haven’t yet built up all of the skills that will help you succeed.

Grad school is hard because the amount and level of knowledge you are expected to learn is much great than in undergrad. Presumably that is not a surprise, although it might well pose a considerable challenge.

Grad school is also challenging because doctoral education is qualitatively different from the levels of education that precede it. That does come as a surprise to many students.

A PhD Program is Different than Prior Schooling

These are five ways in which a PhD program is different from what came before.  If you don’t know this, it can be very disorienting.

  1. Time works differently. Grad school takes a long time, and the duration of a graduate program is unspecified. Many PhD program administrators encourage students to complete the degree within five years. But the reality is that six to seven years is pretty common. Many factors play a role in time to degree. Thus, it is unpredictable. By the time you finish, you will have spent a fifth to a sixth of your life in grad school.
  2. Classes are not that important. Many programs have relatively few required courses. Instead, you craft your own curriculum, filling in the pieces that make sense for you. PhD students spend many years doing nothing but their research. As a result, most of the learning happens in other settings – in the lab, and the library, and the field.
  3. Hikers on Torres del Peine

    Line of hikers, Torres del Peine, Chile

    There are few clear milestones. Most students wonder: “How am I doing?” It can be hard to get regular feedback. Qualifying exams (or other candidacy requirements) is one time within the first couple of years that students are clearly told whether or not they are doing acceptable work. And then there may not be any more opportunities to get feedback until the defense of the dissertation. Some programs require annual committee meetings; these can be stressful, but they are far better than programs where students get no feedback on their progress.

  4. The criteria by which you are being judged are unclear. In the early part of your program, success may be largely dependent on how you do in classes. But you are also expected to build relationships with faculty and peers. As you start working on research, your ability to be creative and to be technically proficient are the predominant criteria for success. You are asked to develop your own slant on things, and to ask interesting questions. You are also evaluated on unarticulated norms of professional conduct: Do you think like a scientist, do you talk like an historian, do you act like a philosopher or chemist? (More on those in another posting.)
  5. It is individualized learning. You are no longer part of a group of students going through the identical educational experiences. You are being taught through one-to-one instruction. This often gets called apprenticeship learning.  The word “apprenticeship” carries negative connotations of servitude.  But at its best, apprenticeship teaching is customized to the student. “Apprenticeship teaching” is a way to characterize how students and dissertation advisors interact. The expectation for the next increment of work is customized for you. The feedback is tailored to you. The expectations for what you might accomplish are crafted to your skills and ambitions. As the scaffolding and support are removed, you are learning to learn on your own.

Dealing with the Struggle

Feelings of doubt and inadequacy may be taking root because this is the first time in your life that you have struggled in school. The people who enroll in PhD programs are a select group. You are the smartest kids, the ones who love doing school. You love to learn, you are curious, you are quick to find the answers, you see the patterns, you connect with your professors. And so, struggling with school is unfamiliar terrain. When you can’t solve the problem sets, or when your research questions are deemed “uninteresting”, or when your writing is rejected, it can be devastating. If you don’t have much experience with struggling in school, it is easy to imagine that you don’t have what it takes to succeed.

Hikers on Torres del Peine - closeup

Closeup of hikers on Torres del Peine

You need to know whether what you are experiencing is typical or unusual. We all need people to help us normalize new experiences. Most of us turn to our families and closest friends. But if none of them have been to grad school, they may just be mystified as you are.

Research on college students who are the first in their families to go to college showed that many of them found the first term of college so hard, and so different from high school that they thought about dropping out. They assumed that they were too stupid and didn’t have what it took. It turns out that most freshmen feel that way; but those whose family members had attended college had a way to normalize the feelings of overwhelm and ineptitude.[1]

Like first generation college students, first generation grad students need to seek out other sources of information to normalize their experiences. Who can help? More senior grad students in your program can be excellent informants. Some departments organize “big sibling” programs to match new students with more senior students who can show them the ropes and serve as a sounding board.

The need to normalize experiences doesn’t stop at the end of the first year. Coping with experiments that fail, taking qualifying exams, receiving negative evaluations of proposals, having difficult conversations with faculty members, attending a conference, presenting some research. All of these are experiences that are difficult. Students can benefit from talking to those who have already been through that experience. It can feel scary to make yourself vulnerable and confess to struggling, but the odds are that most other students are have had similar feelings.

Remember: You are not incompetent; grad school is hard.

The doubts and questions that started this blog post feel like they are yours alone because academia is a culture that rewards expressions of accomplishment. We applaud achievement and remain silent in the face of inadequacy or struggle. It is against the norms to express ignorance, doubt, or uncertainty. (I explore this further in the blog post about Pluralistic Ignorance.)

Instead of beating yourself up, give yourself a pat on the back. You are still here. In the face of plaguing self-doubt, and despite the fact that grad school is hard. You are succeeding. You deserve a lot of credit. I applaud your perseverance.

Grad school is hard. It is genuinely hard. That is why you came. To learn, to grow, to test yourself, to stretch, to accomplish things you never did before. It is hard. And you can do it.

[1]Who Gets to Graduate?”, New York Times magazine, May 18, 2014.

Published January 20, 2016.

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