Great Advice Is Closer Than You Know

If you are in graduate school or beyond, you've lived long enough to know how to respond to challenges that life presents you, Victoria McGovern writes. What would your younger self tell you?

Graduate students usually begin their academic lives as people who’ve been good at something. Some were good at seemingly everything back in high school: scholar athlete musicians or actor journalist debaters who enjoyed the challenges of juggling deadlines, pushing for personal bests and exploring their many capabilities. They played well with others, got elected to student council or passionately volunteered in a deep way that made a difference in the lives of countless of those less fortunate.

Training to be a scholar is sometimes a frustrating, mortifying descent into the echoing chambers of your own cranium. Undergraduate experiences involving research help students appreciate what scholarship in their fields means, but they only provide a glimpse at the internal growth that can make the next educational stage so challenging and rewarding. Making yourself into a scholar is easier if you can hold on to the curiosity and dedication to craft, whether it was playing an instrument or flummoxing authority figures, that helped define you as a 16-year-old. Whether you were at the top of the class or demonstrated your mental dexterity through a withering disdain of in-school achievement, your teen years were likely a playground for developing habits of mind that have led you toward a life as a thinker.

On Terrible Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days

In graduate school, the worst intellectual pratfalls tend to happen in front of people you respect and want to be respected by. When everything is going well, you can often feel and see your progress. But when things go badly, whether in the classroom or at the workbench, you can catastrophize and struggle to find a way forward. When a major setback happens, whether it’s getting scooped on the central part of your research or being sidelined by the current coronavirus crisis, it can feel like your work is deteriorating and your progress stripped away. It can feel like you’re failing. On a grim day, you can forget how important failing is for growth. On a day like that, it comes to feel like you’re a flop. A might have been. A washout. A loser.

You’re not. You’re only a student, face-to-face with one of those learning opportunities that can be so character building.

Advisers and friends will tell you it’s just a setback, and while your mind may know that’s true, your heart and your gut may need more convincing. Those who love you will listen, confused, when you talk with them about it. “You’re smart and hardworking!” they’ll say. “We believe in you. You’ll prosper as you always do.” That can just make it worse. You risk disappointing them. Now you’re a failure and a fraud!

You need someone different to talk with. Fortunately, that person is close by. There’s one person who really does know your pain and understand your troubles.


Hello, Old Friend

I envy T. H. White’s Merlyn, King Arthur’s mentor and adviser, who lived life backward in time. The future was his past and the past, his future. Like the rest of us, he could learn from experience, but to him, the past was unknown. This setup has always fascinated me: whenever confronted with something new and alarming, Merlyn would be able to give himself guidance. Rarely would it be “Oh my, this is new!” More of the time, I think he’d be saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll see this pattern again. You will know what to do next. There will be so much more future beyond it.”

You don’t have to live backward, though, to recognize the recurring themes in your life. If you are in graduate school or beyond, you have lived long enough to have plenty of data on how to respond to various kinds of challenges that life presents you. What would your younger self tell you?

Your first response, like mine, may be less than useful. No, your younger self would not likely scream, “What have you done to me?!” You are, after all, smart. Accomplished. Through with college. Exploring the unknown. You’ve done so much. You’re on your way.

So tell your younger self your trouble and see she thinks. What piece of the situation is your focus? Is your frustration about a person, or a time constraint or some available resource that is inaccessible to you? If it’s a constellation of factors working together, keep tugging at your story until you can get the pieces apart. Like detangling Christmas tree lights, it may not be easy, but keep at it until all the strands are separate and themselves again rather than just parts of an unworkable tangle.

If the problem is, for example, that these people -- your dissertation committee -- expect you to finish a set of experiments that currently seem not to work by fall; and that you have come to believe that another approach, which you have not yet learned, is going to be necessary; and that if you do not finish this year, your funding will run out and you will have to make a living as a greeter at Walmart; and that Walmart does not even hire greeters any more, then you will have plenty to chew on in conversation with proto-you.

What will your past self say? Mine would listen, impatiently. She always grasped problems quickly. “Learn the new technique, do the experiment, get the result and the committee won’t have a dang thing to say then. You’re not sexy enough to work at Walmart. Done. Let’s go play soccer.”

“You don’t understand,” I’d wail. “I don’t even know anyone who knows how to do this!”

“Pfft!” she’d say, bouncing the ball off my forehead and back into her arms.

“I don’t!”

Ball. Forehead. Again.

“I’d have to go to Switzerland to learn …”

Ball. Forehead. Again.

“God, you’re annoying,” I’d say, rubbing my forehead.

She’d pop an annoying tiny bubble in her single annoying stick of Doublemint gum. “What about that postdoc downstairs. She’s doing that technique.”

“I don’t even know her!”

At that, my younger self would duck out to go juggle the ball off the live oak tree, which always rebounded things in unexpected ways. I might not be as bright as she was, but I can take it from there. Ask the postdoc to walk me through the technique. Do the experiment. Get the result. Move on. Go outside. Play. It’s not easy, but sometimes, for some problems, it is that simple.


Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.