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A Message from the Other Side

Three truths all grad students should remember from someone whose made it through to the other side.

Regardless of where you are in your masters or doctoral program, it seems that everyone (at some point) could benefit from remembering a few basic truths – so here are three truths from someone who has made it through to the other side:

You are smart enough

There will be times during your program that you’ll feel overwhelmed and uncertain. “Was this a mistake?” “Can I do this?” “I don’t think I’m smart enough to be here” “Did they make a mistake (by admitting me)?”

It’s not uncommon for grad students to, at some point, suffer from Impostor's Syndrome. If you’ve never heard this term before, it refers to a fear of being “found out” and a belief that you’ve only gotten to where you are by “tricking” people into thinking you belonged. Most of the time, this is the result of a significant gap between a person’s accomplishments and his/her self-perception.

And the bottom-line is this: Yes, you are smart enough. Yes, you belong here. Yes, you can do it. People with more experience and higher degrees saw something in you and deemed you as worthy and saw potential in you and your work – so who are you to second-guess their opinions? So, when the negative self-talk begins to creep in, beat it back with a reality check and remember that you didn’t come this far just to come this far.

This isn’t a test

Even if you are still doubting if you are smart enough to be here, earning a doctorate is not about intelligence anyway– let that sink in for a moment. There is no one sit-down, scratch your head, wipe-the-sweat-from-your-brow, do-or-die moment that determines whether you leave with a degree in-hand. It is, and is meant to be, a process – and when we remember that, everything shifts.

Earning a doctorate is a test of persistence and resiliency. It is a war of attrition. It is a marathon, not a sprint. And the dissertation is nothing more than a series of related papers that come together to demonstrate your ability to look at the data, analyze it critically, and express your conclusions logically. It is nothing more, and nothing less.

The dissertation is simple – not easy, but simple

Nearly half of all people who start a doctoral program end up ABD (All but Dissertation) – meaning they’ve finished all their coursework, it was just the dissertation that kept them from walking across the stage.

But, in more ways than not, a dissertation is no different than any other research paper you’ve had to write along the way. Gather your information, organize your thoughts, develop a plan, and express your thoughts on what you’ve found/believe. What is harder about the dissertation is that it is on a much grander scale – there is more research, more thoughts to organize, a larger plan to execute, and many more thoughts to express. But it’s doable – even when it feels like it isn’t.

This is why it becomes important to have structure, timelines and deadlines, and a full-length plan of how you hope to get from Point A to Point B. It won’t be easy (and it definitely won’t be quick). But it IS simple enough if you step back to see that it is the same process you’ve been following for the last X number of years of school.

Don’t fool yourself into making the dissertation more than it is (and we all do, at least at the start). Look at it for what it really is and break it down into manageable, bite-size pieces.


Remember, you belong here. You can do this. The moment you start doubting yourself, you set off a tidal wave of negative thoughts, feelings, and find “evidence” to support your self-doubt. Instead, remember what you’ve had to accomplish to get here. Remember the challenges that would have made it easy for you to walk away – and the strength that let you keep going.

In a process this long and difficult, with so many new and unknown elements, doubt will creep in. Motivation will wane. Energy will fade. These are the times you need to reach out for encouragement, recharge your batteries by remembering that you are more than just a grad student, and remember how awesome you really are.

Because you didn’t come this far just to come this far.

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