24 January 2012

Graduate School Advice: Part 3 – Staying Sane and Happy

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Grad school can be an emotional rollercoaster, and there are a lot of cultural forces at work in academia that don’t have grad students’ happiness and mental health as a high priority. Still, it is possible to get through graduate school while minimizing the low points, and I think things are generally getting better in the academic culture (though there is always room for improvement). This is a huge topic, so I’m going to focus on several particular sub-topics: the impostor syndrome, doubt, and guilt (a.k.a. work-life balance).

First, let’s talk about the impostor syndrome. Quoth Wikipedia:

The impostor syndrome […] is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. […]

Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

The impostor syndrome, in which competent people find it impossible to believe in their own competence, can be viewed as complementary to the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which incompetent people find it impossible to believe in their own incompetence.

Chances are, if you are going into grad school, the above excerpt sounded pretty familiar. The impostor syndrome is pervasive in high-performing people of all stripes, especially academia, where the higher you climb, the more you realize just how much you don’t know. You come in to grad school knowing very little compared to everyone else in your field, and spend a lot of the time struggling just to build the basic knowledge that will let you contribute to your field. It’s daunting and it is very very easy to think that someone must have made a mistake and that if they really knew the extent of your ignorance they never would have accepted you into grad school/let you pass quals/accepted you as a student/etc.

I don’t have any magic cure for the impostor syndrome. I still have it pretty bad. I think the main thing to remember is that everyone started somewhere, and that many of the people in your field have had decades to build their skills and they don’t expect you to have all the same skills immediately. In fact, many of those people would be happy to help if you just ask. I have always been terrible about asking for help, but I found that when I did discuss problems with my adviser or collaborators, they often had helpful suggestions and I ended up feeling much better about things. Regular scheduled meetings with your adviser are a great way to get into the habit of asking when you’re stuck and avoiding feeling down about not making progress.

Also, remember that all of your fellow grad students, and likely the post docs and profs, have the impostor syndrome too. Everyone in academia secretly thinks that everyone else is smarter than them. Some are better at hiding it than others, but it is near-universal.

Another thing that helps, especially as you get farther along in your studies, is reminding yourself that you really are becoming a world expert in your topic. If you ever find yourself in a funk because you feel like you don’t know enough about your research, stop and ask yourself: How many people in the world know more about this than I do? By the end of grad school, the answer will be: “Not Many” and that’s something to be proud of.

Another great way that I have found to boost your self-esteem and combat the impostor syndrome is to do public outreach. If find that it is a great reminder of why I love planetary science, and that I really do know something. Oh, and there’s that whole “promoting science literacy and inspiring new generations of scientists” thing as an added bonus.

“Don’t make fun of grad students, they just made a terrible life choice.”

And that leads me to the next point of discussion: doubt. Also known as “what am I doing with my life?” For me, this goes hand-in-hand with the impostor syndrome, especially when coupled with getting sick of my research (which will happen at times, I promise). You end up on a downward spiral where you begin to doubt the whole path that you have set for your life. You start to think of how magical and wonderful life would be if only you had instead done X instead of going to grad school. For me X was some form of writing, typically science writing or speculative fiction writing.

I struggled with this even more than impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is sort of a constant nagging feeling of inadequacy while, for me, the doubt came in overwhelming waves. I still struggle with this sometimes, but I will tell you what I have found helpful. First, talking about it with someone is very helpful. My wife listened to me complain and question my choices and be a mess of negativity many times, and it really does help. If you don’t have anyone to vent to, then I find that writing my thoughts down works wonders. The process of putting your thoughts in writing can really help organize them and make them more manageable.

Another strategy is to think of the good parts of your job. Because really, grad school is an awesome job. Ok, it doesn’t pay well (or at all in some cases…) but you get to study something that you find extremely fascinating, you set your own hours, you get to hang out with other people who are interested in the same stuff, and you get to travel to lots of interesting places. For me, my experiences on geology field trips early in grad school, were a useful touchstone later on. I would think back and say to myself: “You got to go to Hawaii, and Arizona, and Great Sand Dunes, and Montana. To learn about geology! For work! This job is not all bad!” It also helps to remind yourself not to take for granted how cool your work is. (Pro Tip:  this is especially effective when your work involves robots on other planets.)

And finally, for me one of the best strategies is to just declare mental bankruptcy and either indulge in some escapism or go to sleep. For whatever reason, I usually got really overwhelmed with doubting my career choices in the evening. Diving into a good book or movie is a good way to focus your mind on other things, but the best thing is often to just sleep on it.


And finally we come to work/life balance, or as I like to call it: “Living with guilt”.

Graduate school does something to you. You will always feel like you should be working. Fun will become inextricably tied up in guilt. You will find yourself starting and ending conversations with “I really should get back to work.”

I think a lot of this has to do with having an adviser: one person who oversees everything you do, expects you to be making progress on very challenging research questions, and who seems to have a supernatural ability to be working all the time. My adviser was actually very laid back, and understanding of the need for work-life balance, but that didn’t stop my neurotic grad-student brain from feeling like I was being judged every time I did something other than work.

Now, to some extent, this is a beneficial thing. You want to have a strong work ethic so that you get lots of good research done and become a rockstar in your field. If some guilt comes with this work ethic then so be it. But on the other hand, being guilty for doing things like going out to a movie or spending time with your family is not healthy.

One way to combat this is to just be super-productive during the day. For me this is a rare occurrence. My wife and I have the following conversation almost daily:

Her: How was your day?

Me: It was ok, but I didn’t get enough done.

But, I find that when I do have an especially productive day, I am much happier and the guilt almost goes away. For me the biggest drain on my productivity is the internet. I am thoroughly addicted to the internet. Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and, worst of all, Google reader. I am well aware of this addiction, and I have found two tools to be useful in fighting it. First, a small application called FocusBooster. This little timer can run in the corner of your screen and is pre-set to allow you to follow the Pomodoro technique. If you haven’t heard of it before, in the Pomodoro technique you work for 25 minutes straight, followed by a 5 minute break. After 4 iterations, you take a longer break. Lather, rinse, repeat. The second tool is a browser plugin. I use Chrome, and the plugin is called StayFocusd, but there are equivalents out there for other browsers. StayFocused allows you to create a blacklist of sites, and it will keep track of your time spent on those sites. You can set a time limit for the day so that once you go over the limit, you can’t visit them!

The other good way to deal with guilt is just push through it. Do fun stuff. Have a life. Believe it or not, your adviser is not working all the time, and they shouldn’t expect you to either. Sure, if a major deadline is coming up then you’re expected to buckle down and do what needs to be done, but most of the time, it isn’t the end of the world if you aren’t working for every waking minute of the day. If you do it right, the positive aspects of actually having a life will outweigh the guilt and you will be happier for it.

It also helps to have hobbies. Maybe you like to knit or paint or play music. Maybe you like to write or cook or volunteer. In any case, hobbies are a good way to feel productive, while still taking a break from working. Exercise also qualifies. You will be healthier and happier if you get up and do something active from time to time. But a word of caution, if you are like me and have not done much activity in a long time, don’t just jump up off the couch and go running. I did that and hurt my knee last year, which really put a damper on my decision to be more active. Ease into exercise so you don’t hurt yourself.


Everyone has rough patches in grad school, but overall it should be a positive experience. Despite struggling with the stuff discussed above, I was happy most of the time in graduate school. I suspect that the things that I struggled with are pretty common, and I hope that this rather long post is useful for other graduate students trying to stay happy and sane.