Do You Deserve a Ph.D.?

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Many graduate students think they don’t…find out why.

Do You Deserve a Ph.D.?

There is something about the process of advancing in academia that makes some people start to feel more and more stupid. The very brightest people, armed with a combination of brains, motivation, and love for their subject, often feel like blithering idiots. And that’s on their good days.

Have you noticed some of the symptoms of the “I am not worthy” syndrome? If you’re not sure whether this applies to you, take my new assessment by clicking on this link: Do You Deserve a PhD?

You may be wondering how this can happen to such smart people. Here are some factors contributing to this phenomenon.

  1. Until the moment that you are dubbed “ABD,” you have been academically successful. You’ve accomplished this by getting good grades, studying hard and producing the kind of work that your professors demanded.

  2. Suddenly, the definition of success changes. There is rarely any structure, especially in the humanities. Any deadlines are far in the future. It’s not always clear what the next step should be. In this vacuum, the sufferer of the IANW Syndrome rushes in with his or her own impossibly high standards.

  3. All of a sudden, it’s much harder to pin down your advisor to talk to you. She seems busier than she used to be. And when you do get to talk to her, she doesn’t give you clear answers about what you should be working on.

  4. You spend months in isolation, reading the literature. There is not as much regular contact with your peers, and it seems like they all know what they’re doing.

  5. The work that you produce, whether your proposal or your chapters, is met with a deluge of criticism. Although there may be the odd advisor here and there who metes out praise, this is rare. If anyone does compliment you on your work, you pass it off by saying, “Yeah but you’re my mom, you have to say that.”

  6. Often you hand a chapter in to your advisor and you wait. And wait. And wait. It’s very easy to fill that silence in with voices saying, “He hates it, and he can’t figure out how to tell me.”

  7. When your advisor or other professor compliments your work, you think, “he’s just saying that to be nice.”

  8. The nature of scholarly dialogue demands putting your thoughts out and listening to dissenting opinions. When you are in this raw, self-doubting ABD stage, it is hard to express your fledgling ideas out loud. This is unfortunate, since those who take this risk often find that others are glad to hear their opinion. The very ABD’s who need this the most are the ones that are the least likely to enter into informal discussion of their topic, and shudder at the idea of presenting at a conference.

  9. By the time you successfully defend your dissertation, you a wrung-out shell of a human being.

  10. If you’re lucky, you get a post-doc or a junior faculty position, you look around at all the more advanced and accomplished people you are working with, and you start the whole “I am not worthy” process again.

How can you avoid the developing this syndrome? Here are some ideas.

  1. Become aware of your negative thoughts about yourself. Many of my clients report almost constant self-directed insults.

  2. Discuss your feelings with your peers. It helps immensely to know that others are feeling the same as you. If they say they don’t feel insecure, they’re lying.

  3. If you don’t have supportive peers, join one of my telephone coaching groups. A coaching group will help you feel less isolated and more competent.

  4. Schedule regular times to fill your advisor in on your progress. Be prepared with specific questions. Allowing long periods to go by without advisor contact produces the sense that you’re doing something wrong.

  5. Join a dissertation group that reads and critiques each other’s work. This is a good way to start the desensitization process that will allow you to engage in scholarly dialog without feeling unduly wounded by criticism.

  6. Cultivate an understanding that in order to be a successful scholar, you will have to put your ideas out there, and listen to dissenting voices. That is what academia depends on.

  7. Make sure you are not setting standards that are way too high.

  8. Take the assessment. This will help clarify what irrational beliefs are holding you back and lowering your self-confidence.

  9. Believe compliments (even from your mother.)

And finally, believe this statement: You wouldn’t have gotten to this point in your career if you weren’t capable of succeeding.


© Gina Hiatt, PhD.
Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully.

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