People who have the drive to get a PhD tend to be the people who try to pack 10 pounds of apples in a 5-pound bag. It can be tempting to carry that many apples, but sooner or later the bag will burst.
Grad students are super-high achievers. Taking on more research projects, saying “yes” to exciting opportunities, learning new skills, stretching in new directions. And doing everything extremely well. Meeting your own high standards and meeting the expectations of others. Each is an apple. Your bag gets more and more stretched.
Then it bursts!
If you are limited to those that fit into a 5-pound bag, how do you pick the best apples?
Yoda, legendary teacher of Jedi knights, famously said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This might be beneficial for training Jedi, but it is misleading for doctoral students and postdocs. For you, it is all about “Try.”
The binary “Do or Do not” frames the world in stark contrasts. Succeed or fail. Fly or crash. Blow up the Death Star or die. For us mere mortals, failure is not that consequential.
“Do Not.” It’s the decision not to attempt. Choose against testing long odds. Play it safe.
The “Do / Do Not” choice operates for many grad students. When failure seems to be around every corner, when hard work is unlikely to be rewarded, the choice “Do Not” is much easier to make. The high risk of failure acts as a deterrent. Inaction seems prudent.
“Why apply for that Fellowship/job/postdoc? I won’t get it?” “Why offer to run the local Pint of Science festival? I have never done anything like that before. It is sure to be a flop, distract me needlessly from my research, and incur the wrath of my advisor.” “Why apply for a postdoc as a digital humanities specialist? I don’t have all of the skills that they are asking for.”
Creating her own structures was the critical key to success in grad school for ecologist Sasha Wright. Memories—some of difficult episodes —came rushing back when Wright was formulating her advice. “What helped me to handle those struggles?,” she pondered.
Her three pieces of advice for thriving in grad school are:
- Invest in your grad school community
- Develop close academic relationships with at least three advisors
- Set short term goals and achieve meaningful benchmarks
Perfectionist gridlock is being stuck in place for fear of not doing something at the highest level of excellence. It plagues many grad students, perhaps especially those in the humanities. It is bred by the culture of academia, which places a high value on achievement and critique.
Perfectionist gridlock is particularly debilitating in dissertation writing and career decision making.
Traffic gridlock resolves itself slowly, inch by inch. Likewise, students can come unstuck by moving forward in baby steps.