A Failed Graduate Student


I’m no longer a graduate student. I’ve graduated; I’m out. It’s a somewhat odd feeling, made even odder because I haven’t felt like a graduate for the last year. I was in graduate school for 3 years and got my Masters, but for the final year I was a “lame-duck” graduate student–I knew I was leaving, my department knew I was leaving, but I was still there. This lame-duck year has been odd, but it has also been the year where I have grown most, matured more, learned truly important things, and started to better understand myself. Hopefully, I can capture some glimmer of those insights in the few words that follow.

When I started graduate school, I was coming off the single most successful years of my life. I had set lofty goals as an undergraduate, and I had met all of them plus some. I literally thought I was the smartest student at a university of some 10,000 students, and I had enough evidence to convince myself and maybe even some others. I had reached summits I didn’t even know existed when I first started. To put it simply, I hadn’t really ever failed. Then, I started graduate school. I came down from the mountain and entered the valley, starting a new climb. It was odd1, certainly, to go from being convinced I was the smartest to feeling deep down that I was one of the dumbest. Everyone knew more than me, everyone knew how to talk better than me, everyone looked calmer than me, everyone was ahead of me. I had heard of “Imposter’s Syndrome” before I came to graduate school, and I thought I knew what it was. I was wrong. You think you’ll be able to spot a “syndrome” when you’re inside of it–“I won’t foolishly think I’m dumb if in actuality I’m not”, I thought. The whole crux of Imposter’s Syndrome is that it is a false perception of reality. I’ll know when I’m perceiving reality incorrectly, won’t I? Well, not to fall too deeply into the Matrix metaphor, but how will you know if your perception of reality is true or not if you don’t have any other external guide? In graduate school, I failed to find such a guide. No one ever told me that I was dumb, that I was saying dumb things, that I was mucking things up; but, no one ever told me otherwise either. For me, this was one of the hardest things about graduate school–I got virtually no feedback, and when I did, it was either generic or negative. The negative feedback, however, was apparently institutional. “Don’t worry about your first year translation exams. Everyone fails and everyone gets bad emails.” This is what multiple upper-classmen in the department told me. Well, I took my first year translation exams; I failed; I got a bad email. Apparently, just like everyone else. But how can I know that my email was “just like” everyone else’s. Why would anyone say something that wasn’t at least based in truth? Why would someone say that it didn’t appear that I truly knew Latin if that was false? Maybe everyone got somewhat negative emails, but I got the truth, and the truth was horrific. I failed, and I failed hard; a first, but not the last.

Failure is hard. It’s harder still when you don’t really know how to deal with it. I spent most of graduate school feeling like I had failed in small ways time and time again. Turn in a paper, no response = failure. Turn in a paper late, good response = failure. Bumble a sight-reading in class = failure. Not get through all the assigned reading = failure. Not talk enough in class = failure. Talk too much in class = failure. I’ll let you in on a nasty secret–most of those things I saw as failures, my professors didn’t even notice. One of the most liberating things that came out of me talking to my professors about my desire to leave was learning how surprised they were. They thought I was a good student, added value to the department, did good work, was bright. I never would have thought that. Never. And this is the pernicious trouble with unhandled failure–it blinds you. I couldn’t handle my failures, real or perceived, and so they built up on top of one another. Each increasing the odds that I would see more failures in the future. The more you fail, you more you think of yourself as a failures. What do failures do, they fail, so you expect to fail more, so you see more failures, and the process spirals out of control. To anyone who may read this, don’t be stupid, learn to handle failure. Well, you would ask, how the hell do I do that? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure still, but I think I’ve gotten better, so I’ll talk about those small advancements.

Not all failures are created equal. This may seem obvious, but it took me an unfortunately long time to realize this simple truth. True failures live on a spectrum, some more grievous than others. A typo in this essay is a failure. Missing a bill payment is a failure. Clearly, they are different failures with different weights. Don’t waste your energy lamenting the small ones. If the problem is fixable, fix it and move on. If not, add a mental note to not make that same mistake in the future and move on. Save your energy to lament the big ones.

Lament big failures. Don’t try to bottle away emotion caused by failure.Don’t try to act like a robot who can rationally handle the failure and move on easily. If you failed, it will make you feel bad. Actually feel that. Allow yourself to sit in that emotion for a bit. Acknowledge its existence. I let way too many failures build up because I thought I had dealt with them simply by rationalizing them. “Failed in this way, by doing these things. Don’t do those things in these situations again. Dealt with.” I was dumb.

Don’t wallow. Sit in emotion, but don’t swim in it. You do need to move on. While only rationalizing away a failure will probably cause you more grief further down the road, not actually rationally considering how you failed, what you did to directly cause the failure, and how best to avoid that failure in the future, you will probably just spiral into depression. Failing sucks, but it is a much better learning experience than success.

Talk with someone. This can work on a number of fronts. You should actually talk with people to ensure that your sense of the failure (its existence, weight, repercussions) are close to reality. If only I had sat down and had frank conversations with my professors early and often, I would have learned that I was grossly over-estimating the weight of my perceived failures. But, even if you did actually fail, talking to someone ensures that you don’t try to deal with it all on your own. We’re social animals; don’t fight that.

OK. This little sermonette is over, but I wanted to go down that path because it’s intensely important to me. Learning to deal with failure was the primary benefit of graduate school for me. From what I gather talking to others, it’s an absolutely essential part of any successful individual, whether graduate student or not. More importantly, however, not handling failure well is what sent me into depression. This is a deeper topic for discussion and consideration in another post, but suffice it say that I would wish for no one to become depressed due to perceived failures. I would confidently assert, without knowing anything about you individually, that you almost certainly haven’t failed as badly as you think, the repercussions aren’t as dire as you think, and your worth is still much higher than you think. If you don’t take my word for it, talk to someone else and check; you might be surprised by what they think.

  1. There’s that word again. I will almost certainly return to it, as its monosyllabic gruffness is the closest I can come to capturing reality.