Do I belong in grad school?
- Academia is increasingly an engine that runs on the fuel of anxiety. Mostly, the anxiety of the precariat -- undergrads who don't know if they'll pass their courses, grad students who don't know if their Ph.D. thesis will measure up, graduating Ph.D.s and postdocs worried sick about finding their next temporary contract, and tenure-track faculty giving themselves ulcers working to earn tenure. Academia in 2017 is far from a nonviolent place.
- Methods of containing anxiety differ between individuals, but the basic principle is the same: in order to get from where you are now to where you want to go, *the key is to engineer a series of small, feasible, steps* leading up to that goal. A ten metre high vertical wall is a far more dispiriting to face – and requires more training and technical equipment to climb – than a staircase composed of forty steps each a quarter-metre high.
It is part of your PhD advisor's job to help you engineer the right series of feasible small steps, whether that process involves sharing expert technical knowledge with you or providing wise advice about how to manage your daily workflow in detail. The other profs on your PhD committee also have responsibility for your academic well-being, as does the entire department in a general sense. If you are stuck, seek assistance. Don't stay stuck down a black hole of despair because you're too proud to ask for a helping hand when you need it. Later on, when you are able, you will then take your turn extending a helping hand to someone else.
Whatever a person's temperament, research will always be an emotionally risky enterprise. There's a lot of hard slog involved, and we don't know for sure how it's going to turn out – if we did know the answer already, then it wouldn't be research! So a competitive academic researcher needs to have support mechanisms (like colleagues, beer buddies, physical activity, mindfulness meditation, whatever works for you) and pleasant worthy intellectual distractions (like teaching) in place, in order to succeed in their chosen line of work. They also need to be able to cope effectively and efficiently with failure, which is all about how we pick ourselves up again after we fall down.
- PhD students who end up
successful all one thing in common: they aimed to complete milestones early. Procrastination on major goals is a maladaptive strategy in any competitive business. The faster you complete milestones, the more likely you are to have an upward trajectory and be marketable (ugh).
- Impostor Syndrome, and the need to corral stress, has an analog in any field of work that is highly competitive, like law firms. It is not unique to academia. The big question I think is worth focusing on is this:
Can I keep my integrity and health intact while doing what is needed to succeed in this work?. If your answer is yes, then you are in the right place. If you decide however that the price of being in academia is just too high, I deeply respect your choice.
Let me end with a mountaineering metaphor.
Knowing yourself well enough to leave peaks beyond your technical limits unclimbed is not a mark of failure. It is the hallmark of a mountaineer who will live to climb other mountains.