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How do you guys pick yourself up?

Dal PhDer

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We've all experienced situations that have left us feeling unenthusiastic and unsure about your path in academics. How do you guys pick yourself up, and reassure yourself that you're competent enough to continue on? Lately I've been feeling like I'm working to the bone doing my utmost best to provide exceptional quality work to my advisor, and yet I always leave our meetings feeling like I'm a below average student that is just not meeting expectations. These meetings cut my confidence down and leave me wanting to just curl into a ball on the sofa and watch reality tv.


How do you guys shake those feelings and press on?


I know it's not a simple answer, but any kind of positive, warm and fuzzy responses are welcome! :)

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I was super lucky because I got to be really good friends with my MA advisor. He pushed me and was very upfront with me at times but he was also a very good mentor and friend.

I think it's not so much about picking yourself up as it is about growing thick skin. What I mean is, if you change your perspective a little and start viewing your relationship with your advisor as one of mentor-junior faculty as opposed to advisor-student, you might be able to maneuver the rough patches more skillfully.

A great piece of advice I got from my advisor early on was that in order to succeed in academia, I had to be tough and welcome criticism. Now, I know that most people have horror stories about a jerk advisor and can imagine what a horrible experience getting constantly chopped down by your advisor is, but like so many other mentor-protege relationships, I think to some extent, the rough experiences are a part of the deal. At least that's how I've come to view it.

Sorry I couldn't give you any positive or fuzzy responses. Just my two cents.

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This resonates with me in the sense that it's easy to slip into tying your professional self worth with what your advisor thinks of you. This gets even trickier if the advisor doesn't communicate clearly if what you're doing is good or bad, and you end up wondering all the time.


I think the best thing to do is to be confident in your own judgment and ability. I assume your judgment has guided you well in life so far, so if you feel your work has an exceptional quality then pat yourself on the back. You're doing well! It's hard not to get discouraged if you're not getting praise from your advisor, but maybe s/he simply not aware of what signals they're sending.

You should ask them how they think you're progressing and if they feel you're doing enough, meeting expectations, etc. and then you could take the guess work out of it!


I've grown some thick skin over the years. Failing a few times in life can do that and I had to learn to count on what I think of myself to feel good about things, even professionally. I found that doing that, I often do much better since I discovered that I have higher expectations of myself than others do of me.

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To extend upon what TeaGirl has said....it is usually a good idea to develop and rely on a strong internal sense of evaluation or self-appraisal rather than an external one. One way to do this is to realise that opinions on what is good or bad are just that - opinions, and hence subjective. It is important that you value your own subjective perspective and opinion above that of others - else you will always come across someone in whose (subjective) opinion, your work could be better (read 'different'). If you learn to thus trust your own instinct you will always know whether or not you have passed your own internal benchmarks. Not to say you should ignore constructive criticism from others - but use that to reassess and recaliberate your internal benchmarks as you deem fit.


Now for the warm and fuzzy stuff!


Remember - Walt Disney was first told that "he lacked imagination and had no good ideas", Marilyn Monroe was told by by modeling agents that she "should instead consider being a secretary", Van Gogh sold only one painting in his entire life and almost starved (ok - this one is not exactly inspirational!), Einstein was once touted as mentally handicapped, and Elvis was told "You ought to go back to drivin' a truck". Luckily for them, some people since thought otherwise.


Best of Luck!

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Sometimes I'd leave my PI's office feeling "wow I'll never know as much as she does. There's so much to read and remember...", followed by the unenthusiastic feeling you described. Then I started putting together my own weekly list of goals to achieve, and actually getting them done one by one as the week passes -- it becomes my new motivation. I do discuss these goals in a broader sense with my PI, so that I know I'm not missing anything, like missing/wrong controls or wrong experiments. 


I know my PI has Type A personality -- always rushing, always competitive in many things (including alcohol tolerance!), always wanting to win. But if I've crossed out most of the things on my weekly list, I can happily ignore her "just push a little harder" comments.


You can do it Dal! Baby steps, one day at a time.

Edited by Tall Chai Latte
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Thanks guys!


I do agree that as a graduate student you need to develop a tough skin. I think it's something that's not mentioned enough in graduate school- there there's a 'mental' component to all this that can be very overwhelming. I'm on the fence when it comes to accepting that it's just 'part of the experience', I think something in the culture needs to change. I don't see why a learning environment at the graduate level can't be warm, motivating and encouraging. I do think that it depends on the student, supervisor, and student-supervisor relationship- but I think we (graduate students) accept too easily, that it's okay and 'normal' to feel the way we do sometimes. {{I'm speaking more to my environment and experience, as I will often say that feeling the way I do, and experiencing the sometimes overly harsh critiques is just a part of the experience...but I don't think it has to be!}}


I think you all bring up really great points- if I believe in myself, that's really what matters in the long run. I should concentrate on how I feel about my work, and take the constructive criticism to build up my work (and ignore the not so constructive criticism!)…and also focus on the positive feedback that I receive elsewhere in my academics! I shouldn’t let the opinion of one person overshadow the opinion of others!


I wish there was a handbook for : How you should feel during graduate school, and what to expect.  :)

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I wish there's a handbook for grad school too! On how to deal with emotions like this, and how exactly you should look at these emotions. Grad school is a really unique time, you are supposed to treat it like a job (in terms of fulfilling professional obligations), at the same time being very emotionally invested in it... It's a little counterintuitive.

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Hi Dal--I read your post a while ago and thought of it today because I'm feeling a bit down after receiving a less than perfect score on my midterm. I've also had moments where I've been ridiculously happy--even though I'm the poorest I've ever been (in my adult life) and the heaviest I've ever been (I don't own a scale anymore and have accepted the body that I have)--I'm so glad to be in grad school, reading stuff that's interesting to me, interacting with my advisor (who is the best possible advisor for me), and learning how to do what professors do.


So, I guess what might help is knowing that grad school, like life, is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. I may be down now, but that means there's only one way to go--back up! I let myself feel the negative emotions (rather than try to suppress or ignore them), knowing that they will go away soon and that I'll be happy again.


There's that great line from Finding Nemo: "just keeping swimming"! :)

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