If anyone knows a great amount about uncertainty, it’s grad students, more so PhD students. There is one question that you should never ask a doctorate student and that is “when do you think you’ll graduate?” I understand that this is a harmless question, but we really don’t know. Our lives are filled with uncertainty about our research, careers, heck, even about if we can eat later. If you are a grad student that is dealing with a feeling of uncertainty, just know that you are not alone.
I wish I could say that a PhD is a straight forward path, filled with a fun research project and a set schedule. It is not. For the most part, the whole project is up to the student to do, and there will always be setbacks. Funding is a major setback for grad students. You need money to be able to work on the project as well as money just so you can eat. In some cases, you may get neither. In other cases, you may get barely enough money to pay for your rent. You just don’t really know.
Feeling uncertain about your future is completely normal. Having anxiety because of it is a normal response but needs to be managed. Grad school will throw so many curve balls that by the end of it. You will be so desensitized to uncertainty that it doesn’t even bother you. I feel like that is a main goal of graduate studies.
Being able to focus on a project and see it through to the end, regardless of what happens, is something that not many people can do. Most projects will have a set goal, timeline, and tasks that need to be complete. Your project might be a brand new scientific addition to the world where you may get weird results, you may go poor in the process, and you may not have a set path for you. Understand that this can be fun, stressful, but fun.
It’s all about the journey, my friends. See, goals are great, but the journey is the most important part. The end goal in a grad program is graduation. That might be years in the future. So, would you rather get the most out of the ride or be miserable the whole time? I wrote in a blog post about finding the good in things. (link here). Things will go wrong, and a lot in grad school. It is all part of the journey, though. You learn to adapt to changes and uncertain events that may occur.
Here are a few things that you can do to reduce the anxiety that comes from uncertainty in grad school.
- Accept that we cannot control everything. If it out of our control then why worry about it?
- Envision the best scenario that can happen. Also, envision the worst thing that can happen. Now understand that what is likely to happen is something between those two things.
- Keep moving regardless of what happens. You may get pushed back another semester or your experiment failed. These are all things that are out of our control. You must keep moving forward and learn from those experiences.
- Seek support from those you trust. Most people have a support system. Go to them and don’t just take all advice from some stranger on the internet (lol).
- Look for the honey. Every event that occurs can have some form of good that comes from it. Look for what good came from each event that occurred. Focus on just that and it will make the situation much more enjoyable.
- Accept that uncertainty is part of life, and quite an exciting thing too.
Sometimes the best thing to do is just accept that things will not go as planned. There will always be things out of your control that will run the show. If you are truly suffering from dealing with uncertainty, check out this article about the books that can help you with that (link here). I think I might get a few of those books myself.
Before I finish up, I just want to say, it is ok to get anxious every once in a while. These feelings are normal and nothing is wrong with you. However, focusing on these feelings and getting more anxious is not alright. Grad school is a terrifying time in a young scholars life. You may think that you are traveling this path alone, but you aren’t. We are all on this journey. Focus on the good things that come from grad school. Focus on the skills you are obtaining along this journey. And most importantly, be kind to yourself. I wish more people didn’t beat themselves up all of the time, especially for things out of their control.
I hope your week is eventful and full of fun activities. You guys really are the best. Thanks for reading.
Yes, I have an MFA terminal degree; it was a three year program. Ph.D. situations seem to be different often because people might even be working already. Just explain it to people, they will understand. I’m sure they are just interested in you–they aren’t imposing time limits on you, I’m sure. I was actually grad teaching so the program was quite trying. I taught two classes a semester on top of my own classes. Not a walk in the park. Hang in there.
As a doctoral student, I despise it when people inquire about the duration of my program. There are many variables, including how many courses I take each term, how long it takes me to finish my doctorate capstone, which is dependent on research that I am unaware of at this time, and external unforeseeable occurrences. It’s an innocent inquiry, as you said, but it makes me think about how far I still have to go.
Ah, well I understand it, but they don’t understand. 🙂 And they are interested. They think those programs have definite durations, you see. And Ph.D.’s are different. But hang in there. It will all work out.
#1 and #6 are excellent bookends for anxiety points #s 2-5. Thanks Ben.
I follow your blog even though I didn’t go to grad school. I have 2 undergraduate degrees and went to 3 universities (one being online). I understand the feelings of uncertainty. Part of the reason why I didn’t go to grad school was because I couldn’t pinpoint a specific thing that I wanted to do, and wanted to go more broad. I wanted something that would take me from Point A to Point B but didn’t want to go to college (aka. community college). So that’s why it took me 8.5 years to finish university, plus a couple of setbacks along the way. Even now, I still have a lot of uncertainty about my future.
I like the ultimate goal of “getting desensitized to uncertainty” – that is a good description. Excellent blog post.
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