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don't think I'm going to make it


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I'm a month into my program (1st year PhD in the humanities) and I don't think I'm going to make it. I'm terribly underprepared and feel like my advisor made a big mistake admitting me. I know impostor syndrome is common among first year students, but I can't help but feel that I truly am an impostor. I've thought about quitting every week, which is terrifying because I'm older and have a lot of work experience and hated it. I was sure academia was what I wanted but now I wonder if I was attracted to the fantasy. I don't know what else I would do. The program is great, I have tremendous respect for my advisor, but I can't handle the workload. I feel I'm perpetually behind my classmates both in terms of a knowledge base and in classwork. I know that a PhD in more about stamina than anything else and I just don't know if I have it in me. I can barely handle the workload now and it's about to get much harder with deadlines approaching for assignments. I don't know how to fit in reading for papers when I'm not getting through all of the readings for classes. I think I want this, but I don't know if I can handle the lifestyle and I'm not even teaching yet! (that begins next year...)

Sorry to be a downer and thanks for any advice. :(

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Know how you feel. I'm older too, and went back to school after a half decade in industry. Your academic skills definitely deteriorate while working BUT you have working experience which most lunatics in academia have never had in their life. No one really cares about your grades in grad school, just pass the courses you need to and do interesting research. If you're getting A+s in your classes, that means you are spending too much time doing class work and not enough on research. Sometimes I think the undergraduates in some of the classes I take are way smarter than me, but just I realize that they've never had a job in their life and have a hard time sifting out the useless academia trivia from what's really important to know. Grad school isn't about good grades like high school or undergrad college, it's all about the research.

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The first semester is the hardest.

For short-term survival: don't read every page of every assignment. Book reviews (H-Net, JStor, Cambridge etc) are your friend. Read a couple of reviews, read the book's intro (and if it has it, conclusion), read the beginnings and ends of every chapter, skim at least one chapter to see how the author uses the evidence.

You're not supposed to be able to handle 100% of the assigned reading plus 100% of all your papers plus putting 100% into all of your own research. Grad school is the art of learning what you don't actually have to do while still getting what you need to out of the material.

Does the counseling center at your school have a grad student support group? My school runs one each semester, and it definitely saved my academic career and possibly saved my life my first year! I highly, highly recommend you check into that, especially if you are having trouble making connections in your cohort.

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What Sparky said. And, you are NOT alone in feeling like you're behind and what nots. Others are likely to feel the same way- grab a few people or someone you feel close to from your cohort for a cup of coffee and just chat. You'd be quite surprised. Though I came in with a MA and 2 years of "life" experience, talking with BAs helped to put things in perspective. I was doing JUST fine.

Also, remember you actually are at advantage over "straight-out-of-undergrad" students: you know how to manage your time effectively.

Remember, your adviser saw something in you, ways that you probably will never figure out (or it'll come later), that made him/her feel like you will succeed. Also as an "older" student, your adviser is likely to have much higher respect for you than normally so you should really feel free to speak with him/her about your concerns.

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I'm not in the humanities, and even in my field, there is no way to do all the assigned reading. You just have to survive somehow and pass everything (hopefully, with high enough grades to avoid probation, but even that is not the end of the world). Hang in there.

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Thank you all. I appreciate your encouraging words. It looks like there is a grad student support group so I'm going to talk to the counseling center on Mon and ask about joining.

I hope your work is going well too.

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I just wrote a blog post about this yesterday! Check it out:

http://phdconfessional.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/impostorsyndrome/

You are definitely NOT ALONE! I know in my mind that "this too shall pass" but it doesn't make it any easier in the midst. If you are like most PhD students (myself included) this is the first real challenge we have come up against academically. We all performed well in undergrad and masters programs, that's how we got here in the first place. Then we get to the PhD and have a complete mind switch. No one cares about grades, they care about research, the one thing you currently DON'T know how to do. But again, that is why we have to go to school to do this, no one just knows how to do research. So from one impostor to another, good luck, and feel free to contact me to vent :)

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  • 2 weeks later...

If you're getting A+s in your classes, that means you are spending too much time doing class work and not enough on research. Sometimes I think the undergraduates in some of the classes I take are way smarter than me, but just I realize that they've never had a job in their life and have a hard time sifting out the useless academia trivia from what's really important to know. Grad school isn't about good grades like high school or undergrad college, it's all about the research.

That's a mighty large generalization you're making there... I'm guessing you're connected to mathematics in some way, which would explain the research focus, but not all disciplines (or should I say, specific areas within certain disciplines) have a tunnel-vision for research.

American doctorate level work may be largely antithetical to the rest of the world in that data and research are king, but there are still some areas (especially in the humanities and social sciences) where 'research' isn't the end-game. Theory is alive and well in many places.

In any case, I'm also an older student (who currently works full-time, in addition to graduate classes) and can agree with, if nothing else, the sentiment that being in the workforce gives you both and edge and a perceived disadvantage. Experience, depending on your academic field, is useful, but the time away from basic concepts and theory can be daunting depending on how long the hiatus. My advice? Get through it by any means possible this term, and it will get easier.

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Theory is research, though, just a different kind of research. In the vast majority of American doctoral programs, your grades in your class don't mean much. The work you do outside of class is far more often. Whether that's spending 10 hours a day in the lab, analyzing large datasets in your pajamas from home or doing scholarly literary criticism in the library (all of which I would call "research"), that is largely the end goal of your PhD program. A PhD student who got straight As in classes but didn't do any outside scholarly work in graduate school is a graduate who is likely not going to get a job.

I'm in the social sciences and theory is important here, too. We were told to take our coursework seriously, and make sure that we learned the puzzle pieces we needed, especially to pass comprehensives. But the purpose of the theory is a foundation on which to produce scholarly work.

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Theory is research, though, just a different kind of research. In the vast majority of American doctoral programs, your grades in your class don't mean much. The work you do outside of class is far more often. Whether that's spending 10 hours a day in the lab, analyzing large datasets in your pajamas from home or doing scholarly literary criticism in the library (all of which I would call "research"), that is largely the end goal of your PhD program. A PhD student who got straight As in classes but didn't do any outside scholarly work in graduate school is a graduate who is likely not going to get a job.

I'm in the social sciences and theory is important here, too. We were told to take our coursework seriously, and make sure that we learned the puzzle pieces we needed, especially to pass comprehensives. But the purpose of the theory is a foundation on which to produce scholarly work.

I wouldn't disagree with most ideas here.

My point was more in response to the idea that you can't excel in both classes and 'research', however defined. In the case of someone who focuses on theory, not just as a foundation for so-called 'scholarly work' (by which it appears you are assuming journal publication), but for the sake of theory itself, coursework can actually enhance performance in both respects.

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