You are the only person in your graduate program who doesn’t understand how things work.

That might be what you observe. That might be how you feel. But it isn’t true.

Academic culture is riddled with those who bluff when they don’t know something. Acting confident and competent even when you don’t feel that way can be a useful strategy on some occasions. But not all of the time. It is also important to share your questions and confess your doubts. 

Once you find people who share your feelings and questions, you can normalize your experiences and team up to get the answers you need. What a relief!

Psychologists Have a Term for It

Social psychologists have a label for the phenomenon of staying isolated because you think that you are the only one who doesn’t know something. They call it “pluralistic ignorance.” In the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Deborah Prentice explains this phenomenon.

“Pluralistic ignorance occurs when people erroneously infer that they feel differently from their peers, even though they are behaving similarly.” [p. 673]

A classic scenario is a lecture hall, with a professor giving a complicated and incomprehensible lecture. After a pause, the lecturer asks if there are any questions. No hands go up. You look around and think to yourself: “Everyone else understands this. I must be really stupid.” Your fear of embarrassing yourself prevents you from raising your hand, but you are certain that you are the only one who is acting that way. Everyone else, you presume, keeps their hands down because they understand the material.

This easily translates to many different aspects of your graduate program. You tell yourself: “No one else is asking questions, so they must understand how things work.” I am not sure how to find an advisor, how soon I need to have a dissertation topic, where my funding will come from. (And there are a hundred other things that you probably don’t understand either. This is one of the reasons why Grad School is Hard.)

You are not the only one who doesn’t know how things are supposed to work in grad school. These feelings of bewilderment and uncertainty are very common, but students rarely discuss them.

Why Does this Happen?

The underlying cause of pluralistic ignorance is our human impulse to conform to the norms of the situations that we find ourselves in. Every social situation has unspoken rules about how one should behave. When you walk into a classroom, for example, every student knows to take a seat, pull out their note taking tools, and face forward. Another common social norm, especially in North America, is that people should “appear calm, collected, and in control at all times.” [p. 674] We adhere to these norms, even when they don’t reflect how we feel. We hold back tears, even when people say hurtful things or when we are grieving. We eat the food we are served, even when we dislike it. We don’t ask questions, even when we have them.

Pair of gentoo penguinsThe result is that you feel that you are different from those around you. You conclude that you are less able. In a seminar you feel less knowledgeable. In a work setting you perceive that you are less competent. Over time, it people feel “bad about themselves, and alienated from the group or institution of which they are a part.” [Prentice, p. 674]

That is no way to go through graduate school. You should know that you are part of the community of your department. You should feel connected to your peers. You should recognize that you belong in the academic setting and the community of scholars in your field.

There are insidious consequences of this sense that you are different, that you are the only one who is not in the know, that you are out of step. Graduate school has many stressful moments, and feeling that you are alone can intensify your stress. Too often, students withdraw, and find themselves increasingly isolated. This can start a downward spiral.

Fighting Pluralistic Ignorance and Isolation

The good news is that you can take active steps to combat pluralistic ignorance. Rather than suffering in silence, find like-minded peers and seek to fight those feelings.

Try these four steps:

  1. Observe. Identify situations in which you assume that you feel one way and the others feel another. For example, you are at a departmental event and one person is holding forth about something. Everyone else is nodding and smiling as if they understand and agree. You don’t agree, or you don’t understand. Are you behaving similarly? Could you be misunderstanding what is going on in their minds?
  2. Two gentoo penguinsReach out to one other person. Start small. Confess your feelings of bewilderment to one other person you trust. Ask them, do you feel the same way?
  3. Connect with a peer support group. These can be formal clubs (The Chinese Graduate Student Association) or informal groups (a few members of the cohort in your department). Being part of a group in which you feel comfortable makes it easier to overcome your inhibitions.
  4. Make time to talk about “stupid questions.” By explicitly setting aside time to discuss those things that you think everyone else knows the answers to can reveal pockets of pluralistic ignorance. If none of you know the answer, then there is a group of you to seek out information together.

It takes courage to break the silence and risk embarrassing yourself. Remember that pluralistic ignorance is very common in graduate school, and that you are very likely to find others who share your questions. Instead of shunning you, others will call you brave. Building a community is a crucial tool for success in graduate school.


“Pluralistic Ignorance,” by Deborah A. Prentice, in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, edited by Roy F. Baumeister & Kathleen D. Vohs (eds.) Sage Publications, 2007. Pp. 673-4.

“Pluralistic Ignorance: When similarity is interpreted as dissimilarity,” by Dale T. Miller and Cathy McFarland. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987, v. 53, #2, 298-305.

Published January 26, 2016.

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