The Balancing Act
The developmental task of shifting your self-image and self-presentation from student to junior colleague, is as important as the intellectual knowledge and the academic skills that you will gain during graduate school.
As an undergraduate, your essential interpersonal task was to please your teacher. As a graduate student, your task is more complex you must prepare and judge your work with less outside guidance, while simultaneously pleasing a greater audience. Your goals are to
- develop the ability to work independently
- prepare your work for the general academic community in your area of specialty, rather than a single judge
- please the limited audience of your dissertation committee
These tasks may conflict with one another. One of the students I worked with called her experience "dissertation schizophrenia". She felt that her advisor was giving her the following message:
"Do it yourself, but do it my way."
To learn to please yourself, meet the requirements of three to five professors with potentially conflicting criteria, and to try to impress a larger academic community is a daunting requirement.
This is one of the fundamental reasons that many graduate students find writing the dissertation so difficult.
Almost all of the graduate students I work with are more comfortable with the process and requirements of course work and comprehensive exams. These task require familiar skills.
The dissertation provides new challenges for a number of reasons: the dissertation is the largest project you have undertaken to date.·
- Your own expectations increase anxiety and tendencies towards perfectionism
- You must develop new work habits to manage the unstructured nature of the dissertation.
More about how to make the dissertation process easier may be found in the article "Dissertation Tips."
A key aspect of succeeding in graduate school is to focus on the process as well as the content of your work. Skills required in doctoral programs are an excellent preparation for the skills needed by a junior professor. Step back from the material you are trying to learn. Think instead about the self-discipline you are trying to develop. Step back from an undergraduate wish to be taken care of and win the approval of your professors. Think instead about relating to your professors as a promising junior colleague. The more you focus on process, the more you will gain from your years as a graduate student, whether or not you eventually chose to remain in academia.