Unqualified PhD Advice Part 2: Now Even More Unsolicited!

I was pleasantly surprised to receive some really positive feedback on my last post on PhD/grad school advice. So, in the true spirit of Hollywood, I thought I’d follow up my very modest success with an ill-conceived sequel!

I should note that these are all just personal reflections. I have not talked these through with anyone else and if those with more experience completely disagree, I would be none the wiser.

Here goes.

At times you might feel like an intellectually inferior imposter, but that’s better than the alternative

I feel like there’s a new article about imposter syndrome in grad school every other week. It’s a serious issue, and I can totally see how that feeling of inferiority can be psychologically and/or emotionally crippling. But I think feeling intellectually inferior to others is much better and healthier than feeling intellectually superior. I believe one of the most productive ways we can go through life is in a humble mode of learning: always trying to find new ways of learning from our experiences, from those around us, and from their unique experiences and points of view. That cannot happen if we feel smarter than everyone else. I think one of the things that never quite sat right with me about the few articles on imposter syndrome that I’ve read is what feels like a very competitive assumption. It assumes that everyone is trying and hoping to appear and feel better/smarter than everyone else. Unfortunately, there are many institutions and programs in which such a culture is purposely created and maintained. But it’s unhealthy. And unsustainable. Just be comfortable with the fact that 1) You don’t know everything; 2) None of your classmates know everything, no matter how smart the comment they just made about that really tough reading sounded, and 3) Not even your advisors, deans, and professors know everything. Be confident in not only your knowledge but also your knowledge gaps. That’s why you’re in school! To learn things you didn’t know before! Relax. And if all else fails, just “fake it till you make it.” It really works. Act confident and most people will believe you’re confident. And eventually you’ll believe it yourself.

Find an advisor/mentor/committee chair you connect with on a personal level…

I had this interesting experience where before I was even accepted to my doctoral program, I sought out a particular faculty member who appeared to be the only one at the institution with overlapping research interests. Once I began my course of studies, I tried to stay close to this person through coursework, volunteer work, etc thinking that they would probably serve as my committee chair/main advisor/mentor down the line. It became pretty clear to me, however, that as much as I learned from this person – and I learned A LOT – there was something about our personalities that I felt just didn’t quite gel. At the same time, I took some classes with another faculty member with whom I just felt a lot more comfortable on a personal level. Our scholarly work and research interests didn’t necessarily overlap on paper, but they had a willingness to put faith in my somewhat unconventional dissertation project and the confidence to encourage and guide me along the way. In saying this, I mean absolutely nothing negative about the other person. I respect them immensely and my educational journey owes a great debt to their instruction. But at the end of the day, I personally feel that finding an advisor who I connected with on a more personal level was much more important than one who might have had more research/professional overlaps. When it comes down to it, no matter how much we isolate ourselves in front of our dissertation-writing screens and libraries, most of our grad school experiences boil down to human relationships and interactions. So I say why not make it a positive/supportive/productive/mutually respectful one if you can?

…and who replies to your emails within a reasonable time frame most of the time

What I realized as I reached the final stage of writing my dissertation – and what I saw in the situation of others who’d done the same – is that you are completely at the mercy of your advisor/committee chair. If you send them a draft looking for feedback before you move on, you could be waiting on them for days, weeks, or even months. I’ve seen and experienced all of the above. From the sounds of things, I was one of the lucky ones. I was blessed with an incredible advisor who in most instances returned feedback within a few weeks. And it was always very productive and useful feedback. I have absolutely no complaints. But I’ve seen and heard of some pretty rough cases where students are waiting for months before they hear anything back from their advisor. Sometimes forcing delays in their intended graduation date. It’s a tough situation to be in, especially because there isn’t much you can do about it.

There are really only 2 things I can suggest on this issue:

  1. Don’t take it personally and try to be understanding. Faculty have it pretty rough. In addition to all of their departmental duties, they have committee work, classes to prep and teach, assignments to create and grade, students to advise at both the undergrad and graduate level, other students whose dissertation they’re also guiding and providing feedback on, who knows what other university responsibilities, and – believe it or not – their own life to live, with bills to worry about, groceries to buy, people to take care of, places to be, and things to do. To add to their worries, the cultures within institutions and departments vary a great deal in terms of how supportive or even more oppressive they can be toward their faculty and staff. So relax. Hopefully you have an advisor you trust and whose support and belief in you you don’t doubt for one second. They’re probably not withholding feedback on purpose. And if they are, well, then you probably need a new advisor.
  2. Make sure to have something else to work on while you wait for feedback and revisions to come back. Don’t stop. For the first few rounds of prose submission and feedback-waiting, I made the mistake of not doing anything until I got them back. For some reason I felt like I couldn’t move on to other parts of the dissertation until that part was done. But I’m so glad I stopped that habit. Just keep plowing through. Keep moving forward. No matter how messy and unorganized a first draft – or even pre-first-draft – comes out, just get something down on the page.

Don’t give up! But don’t confuse giving up with leaving a program that’s not right for you.

Working on a Phd is hard work. It’s meant to be. Sure, there’s a lot with the whole system that’s messed up and needs major reforming, but either way, it’s a tough ride. At various points in your grad school career, you will probably feel like giving up. In my experience, it tends to happen at those times when we suddenly face a task that seems crazy daunting, but in actuality is just a little bit harder than the challenges we’re used to. It’s ok. You can probably plow right through it. You made it this far. You got accepted into a program that dozens, hundreds, and thousands of others have managed to successfully complete. You have to admit that even with a measure of modesty, there’s a good chance that you are at least average among that group. It’ll be ok. You got this. Having said all that, however, I think it’s also important to have a deep enough understanding of yourself to know if the program you are in is just plain wrong for you. That’s a completely different situation. And, it seems to me, leaving such a program is always the right choice. A good friend of mine started a a doctoral program but left it 1.5-2 years into the program – I can’t quite remember when it was. But based on the little I knew about his personal situation coupled with what I knew about the program, I am absolutely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he made the right choice for him, his health, and his family. I’m also certain that if he really wanted to stay, he’d have been able to successfully complete the whole program. But it would have just been wrong. And I’m so proud of him for having made that choice. Too often, our culture – especially the deeply competitive and adversarial culture of the West – automatically equates the ceasing of an act with the negative connotation of “giving up” or being “a quitter.” Don’t let that stop you from making the best choice for you and yours. But again, don’t just leave a program because things get hard, because that might just mean you’re on the cusp of acquiring a new skill or ability if you just try a little longer. It is by no means an easy decision to make, but when the time comes, if you find yourself facing it, I hope you make the right one for you.

I think that’s really it this time. I’m all out of advice.

Thanks for reading. And good luck!




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