Memoirs of a Guilty Grad Student: How to Fight off Graduate Student Guilt

Memoirs of a Guilty Grad Student: How to Fight off Graduate Student Guilt

“What are you doing reading this blog post? Isn’t there an experiment you should be running or a paper you should be reading?”

That nagging voice in your head is a little something that we call “graduate student guilt”. What is graduate student guilt, you ask? Grad student guilt is that feeling of shame that we have all felt when we choose to watch another episode on Netflix or leave early for the day to go on a run… or read this blog post. It is a maladaptive behavior that perpetuates itself throughout the academic culture. It is something that each and every one of us has felt at some point in our graduate school training. Good news is that we can beat it. In reflecting upon my own experiences with grad student guilt over the years, I believe there are a couple key sources of grad student guilt and many ways to overcome it. So here they are:

Problem #1: Failure by comparison.Academic research is built upon independence. The same can be said for graduate student progress. In many programs there are critical “milestones” such as comprehensive/preliminary exams, advancing to candidacy, submitting grants, etc. These milestones have been developed to provide structure to an inherently unstructured degree path. Although these milestones occur at different times for each student, it is shockingly easy to compare your progress/success to fellow students. “Classmate A already advanced to candidacy and I haven’t even thought about forming a committee yet”. This process of comparison is deeply engrained in each and every one of us. We have been trained to seek ranking and order. Simplifying the process down to ranking yourself among your colleagues is impossible due to the nature of the system itself. There is no clear cut “recipe for success”. Therefore, comparing yourself to others will inevitably result in feelings that “you’re behind” and “you’re not good enough”.

Solution:So how do we break this vicious cycle of comparison? Stop competing with others and start competing with yourself. Keep an updated CV. Check back frequently and evaluate your progress over the past year. It may shock you just how much you have gotten done even when it feels like you’re standing still. Celebrate your successes. No matter how small. This will help you actively acknowledge the progress you are making, build self-esteem, and help to break the cycle of comparing yourself to others.

Problem #2: Working hard or hardly working. What is your metric for success? Is it the number of hours you work in a day? How about the number of papers you write in a year? Each person has their own definition of “success”. The idea that people who work long hours are “dedicated” and “successful” permeates all career fields- not only academia. However, no one stops to ask the question of “what did you get done?” while working those late nights or weekends.

Solution:One of my mentor’s taglines has always been “Work smart, not hard”. This is an important concept in getting over grad student guilt. Identifying your own work habits (and not comparing them to other students… see “Problem #1”) is the first step in working smart and not hard. What are some other ways that we can work smart? Ironically, one answer is by not working. Crazy, right? What I mean is that carving out time in your life to not work (and I mean really NOT WORK. No checking emails, editing document X, etc) and do something that you truly enjoy. Self-care (aka acknowledging that you are a living, breathing human being with needs, hobbies and interests outside of our research) allows us to reset and avoid burn out. When you get back to work, you’ll have a clear head and be ready to work smart. Shockingly, we require sleep, nutrition, and exercise to achieve our maximum productivity. Put that 3rdcup of coffee down, take yourself to the grocery store,  make a well-balanced meal, go for a walk, call a loved one/friend, take a multi-vitamin, and go to bed at a reasonable hour then let me know how much more productive you feel. I dare you.

Problem #3: Seeking order in an unorderly world.We all seek order. We seek consistency. We all go back to our roots telling us that “if we do X then we will succeed”. However, we must re-define “order” in the academic world. This environment often does not provide us with the order that we so desperately seek. The hard deadlines, the tangible measures of success. Though it seems counter-intuitive that a lack of order may be fueling our grad student guilt, uncertainty in our lives often leaves us feeling like we’re running in mud and getting nowhere (aka “I must not be working hard enough”).

Solution:Establishing order and defining our own successes is a great strategy to start taking back control of our perceptions of progress. We must set our own goals and find what motivates us to complete them. We need to take time to figure out what motivates us and moves our progress along. We must establish order and a feeling of consistency to meet our own needs. Think about your “good days”. The days you go home feeling fulfilled and proud that you checked off everything on your to-do list. What was that day like- the schedule, the environment, etc? What promoted your success? Inevitably not every day can be our best, most productive day ever. Which brings me to my last point. Embrace the chaos. Coming to terms with the idea that there will be productive days and not-so-productive days (e.g- finished that entire season on Netflix kind of days) is essential to helping us be kinder to ourselves and, in turn, rid ourselves of grad student guilt.
As I now get off of my soapbox, I hope that I’ve cast light of my own experience dealing with graduate student guilt and provided some ideas of how to fight it. There is no “cure” but there is hope in treating it. Acknowledge it. Understand it. Let it go. And most importantly- remember to be kind to yourself.


Deborah Luessen


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