I wish someone had explained to me that grad school is likely to make you feel more stupid than ever before.
Many undergrads write about the difficult transition between high school and university: grades drop, the “freshman 15” creeps up and confidence often wavers. However, the hit to your confidence is also likely to find its way to you in a graduate program. I initially applied to UBC as a back up school and was shocked and thrilled to be offered a spot in the master’s program I was interested in. I had completed my undergrad at a small university and had never even considered UBC as an option, only deciding to apply on a whim because I had heard from several colleagues that it was a great school. I mailed my application the day before it was due because I was so uncertain about applying. My first graduate experience ended up being excellent and after successfully defending my thesis, my advisor encouraged me to consider applying to a PhD program. So I did and was admitted on my first try, with full funding. I was excited at the time but only now fully understand what an awesome accomplishment that was. Unfortunately that particular program turned out to not be a good fit for various reasons. My confidence tanked, I felt completely unsupported and I found myself wondering why I ever thought doing a PhD was a good idea. It felt like the biggest mistake of my life.
After taking some time to figure out what I wanted to do and switching programs to one that is a much better fit, I’ve realized what I need to be successful in graduate school:
- Supportive family and friends – an amazing husband who cooks dinner with nary a complaint and friends who understand when I have to camp out in the library instead of being social on a Friday night
- An advisor who believes that my work is important and worthwhile
- A committee who provides constructive criticism and advice
- Mentors who can help me learn how to be an effective teacher and researcher
- Courses that are useful for my research
- Classmates who can relate to the experience and provide perspective when needed
- A cat to snuggle with when I’m frustrated and exhausted writing a paper at 2am
Grad school often feels like a race but it is your race. If you don’t believe in what you are doing (and you won’t all the time) you will need people around to encourage and remind you why you wanted to do this in the first place. Your ideas have merit and YOU have merit, regardless of how many publications you have on your cv, what letters are behind your name and how much funding you have. Imagine the day you get to cross the stage in the Chan Centre in ridiculous Harry Potter robes and hear the Dean present you as “Dr. so-and-so” who studied “insert topic of your research in three lines or less” and how amazing that will feel.
That is what keeps me going at 2am. Well that, and cat snuggles!