Being in graduate school is tough. You might be at the top of your class in high school or in your undergraduate program, but here, you pretty much are pooled in with a bunch of people who are equally academically adept, if not more. It’s very easy to fall into the routine of comparing yourself with other people’s achievement.
Third year and beyond is the prime time for a graduate student to walk into this trap. You’ve been in graduate school long enough to have supposedly produced something good enough to publish. The problem is, in some cases, this is also the time when you start to really realize that things do not always go as planned. Failed experiments, changing research direction, sickness, personal issues, whatever it may be, there are many things that might affect how “successful” your graduate career is.
“I think they gave the scholarship to the wrong person.”
“I think I’m a failing Ph.D. and I’m not sure why they gave me the degree.”
“I think I’m kidding myself.”
Those thoughts regularly come through my mind. It’s a habit that carries on to even now. It might sound like a case of low self-esteem, but you’d be surprise to know how many people actually go through the same thing. Raise your hand if you are or once were a graduate student and you have at least once questioned whether or not you’re worthy being in the Ph.D. program.
A few years ago, I went to a talk on campus by Hugh Kearns, in which he gave a name to my condition: the impostor syndrome. It’s basically a prolonging situation where you have it in your head that you are not good enough in what you do, that you are not qualified and you are just going along and fooling everyone. Since you’re fooling everyone, you worry one day people will find out. This happens even for the most successful individual. Kearns, for once, loves to use Emma Watson as an example.
The difference about being an impostor and having an impostor syndrome is that as someone who has impostor syndrome, you have facts to prove otherwise. Sometimes it’s just easy to overlook all of the things you have achieved and instead accentuate the things that you want to achieve and have yet to do so.
I survived six years of what could be called the most expensive, emotionally draining life lesson without having published any single paper as the first author. I don’t know how to explain why I didn’t manage to transform those lab notebooks into 10-12 pages of peer-reviewed articles. It is what it is.
The thing is, in regards to my faculty job, this is an academia’s nightmare. You gotta publish, publish, publish.
I labored in the lab as hard as I could, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, yet things didn’t work out as expected. I’m now trying to build my research and I’ve forgotten how long it takes to get things started. The fact that I’m focusing all of my energy on teaching does not leave much room for research either. It honestly wouldn’t bother me at all if I had the choice to just teach all my life. However, the system in Indonesia demands that you do EVERYTHING. Teaching, research, community service. Everything is on your plate, whether or not you’re hungry.
I hate to admit it, but every time someone I know publishes a paper, a little piece inside of me dies. There are times when I wonder, “Am I not as qualified as everyone else to do this job?”
I wouldn’t say that I didn’t achieve anything throughout my graduate study either. I did co-author two papers and wrote two book chapters. I got a travel grant to present my poster in one of the biggest professional conference in my field. I scored two teaching fellowships, which are in line with my real goals. I was involved in helping international students adjust to the American culture as part of their preparation for graduate school. I learned how to cook a lot of dishes from around the world for a lot of people. I managed to grow chili plants from seeds and not kill them for months. But still, in a world where first journal authorship is golden, those things mean squat for my career development.
It’s difficult to focus on what you have accomplished, especially when you grew up and live in a culture where saying anything good about yourself is generally not favored. The one thing that sustains me is giving myself a tap on the shoulder and reminding this fake impostor that I don’t have to publish a gazillion of papers to be a good teacher.