Ghosts of Grad School, or, Hey Dude, Where's My Confidence?

Thursday, 09 August 2012 20:12

Earlier this week, I lost all of the confidence I had been carefully encouraging and maintaining for the last year. Up against several deadlines – of my own making no less – I began to crumble. Physically and mentally, I felt terrible. Knowing that it was an avoidable situation just made me feel worse.

The evidence of my “doing okay” is everywhere around me. I run my own business, set my own hours and rates, and am doing exactly what I want to be doing in terms of scholarship. A few weeks ago, at the height of my new found life satisfaction it suddenly hit me: I do not know how to deal with success. When it comes to rejection and failure? No problem. I am expecting rejection and failure. And academia provided me more than ample opportunities to play out that expectation.

As a graduate student who wasn’t ever able to secure external funding (i.e. the kind of funding that counts), I went through the five years of my doctoral studies too often feeling like a poor loser. The majority of my peers managed to land SSHRC or OGS awards for at least one of the years of their programs. I never experienced that day of excitement when the acceptance letter arrived, or had the validation and comfort in knowing that, at least for one year, there would be enough money in the bank to live on. I became used to the idea that I wasn’t at the top of my department/university/field. I was just another graduate student, earning the university two more units of governmental funding. Such a position does not inspire confidence.

When I left academia, I had to do a lot of hard work reorienting my ideas of success and happiness to life outside of the university community. Even though I was already existing on its margins in the last year or so of my doctorate (as I prepared for my departure), it was a difficult transition. I didn’t just have to find a new career path for myself, I had to rebuild my destroyed confidence, a task far more difficult than networking and developing an entrepreneurial plan.

Having finally achieved happiness in my work life, it was startling to see myself falling back into old destructive habits these past weeks. What changed? For one, I prioritized my independent scholarship over paid client work for a bit, which meant my incoming earnings dropped off as a result (an echo of my underpaid grad life). I also received feedback on one of the papers I have out in the peer-review process right now. While the feedback was fair, it was far from glowing, inscrutably listing everything my first draft paper lacked. Suddenly, I was back in grad school and I wasn’t good enough anymore. I had to forcefully remind myself that I don’t need to publish this paper (or any papers for that matter). Nevertheless, already stressed by unrealistic deadlines, the all-to-familiar sounding criticism was the last straw. I crumbled. 

So this week I have needed to repeat my mantra of “independent scholarship means freedom!” I have the freedom to write about whatever I want (and I am). I also have the freedom of not caring about how successful I am within the realm of academic publishing. It would be nice to publish an article in a top-tier journal since I want to share my research, but the success of my current work life, which I love, does not depend on it. I have many options available to me, and it is foolish and unproductive to hang my hopes on the same unrealistic standards of academic performance that I found oppressive just a few years ago.

Being an independent scholar, as I am discovering, is not as easy as I would like it to be. And it isn’t because of any institutional barriers; it has everything to do with the way I approach success and failure. Thankfully, this latest bout of self-doubt has been brief. Surrounded by the positive community I’ve found in SF fandom, the happy clients for whom I work, and an ever increasing list of cool independent scholarly projects, I am already coming back with a renewed sense of confidence and purpose. Now all I really need to do is reschedule those ridiculous deadlines ...

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