James and the Giant Corn Rotating Header Image

Yes you’re exceptional, but so is everyone else at this level

Another perspective on why people continue to line up for grad school despite the extremely long odds against success:

Graduate students are, almost by definition, atypical students as undergraduates. In most cases, the types of people who enroll in graduate work were exceptionally bright, hardworking undergraduate students. As exceptional undergraduates, the people who eventually go on to graduate studies probably get very good at disregarding warnings. When, as an undergraduate, an instructor issued routine warnings to the class, the grad-school-bound student might have gotten very used to ignoring the sorts of admonitions that pervade the undergraduate experience: “My bibliographies are always perfect, and I turn everything in on time, so this warning to make sure that my APA formatting is correct and to have my paper turned in by Monday is nothing to worry about.”

By the time they arrive at graduate school, and even if they are years removed from their undergraduate education, most grad students have been conditioned to see themselves as an exception, and as exceptional. So, when they begin to hear warnings about the realities of the job market in graduate school, the old conditioning kicks in, and the old thinking, so trustworthy before, also kicks in: “This doesn’t apply to me. My intelligence and hard work will see me through, just as they always have.” The problem, of course, is that not everyone can actually be the exception. People will be disappointed, their studies abandoned, their dreams unfulfilled, their future paths unclear.

What is so impossible for many graduate students to understand is that everybody in their cohort is just as smart and hardworking as they themselves are. At the graduate level, the smarts and diligence that once set students apart from their undergraduate peers will no longer set them apart, but merely allow them to keep up. It is almost impossible for many beginning graduate students to grasp that having above average intelligence and an unimpeachable work ethic will mean only that they are average graduate students. That’s quite a shock to some people.

The whole article is definitely worth a read. I can only speak to myself — and I’ve never been good about getting papers handed in on time — but aside from that I could definitely relate to the mindset described here.

2 Comments

  1. William Nelson says:

    Well being constitutionally incapable of not commenting on a blog post, I’ll venture to say…I’m not sure how many graduate students actually have an unimpeachable work ethic. Many think they’re working a lot harder than they really are (I know I did…) Also many don’t think ahead and realize that they have to make a transition to more creative work, and initiation of collaborations, as opposed to following orders.
    Sounds like someone is having a crisis of confidence but I don’t think you need to worry!

    1. James says:

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about the problem of transitioning from following orders (grad students and many post docs) to planning independent research (professors and the best post docs). It’s like that old saying: “adulthood isn’t a prize you’re awarded for being a good child.” The skills that make one good at grad school don’t guarantee success if you keep trying to climb the academic ladder afterwards.

      And yes, there has been a bit of a crisis of confidence lately. I blame Google Scholar Profiles opening up to the general public, and the resulting chance I had to check out the academic qualifications of my competition. 😉

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: