Keeping your chin up: My struggle with uncertainty and self-doubt and how I cope

 In career exploration, PhD/Postdoc Blog

This month I want to talk about the mental health struggles that I have faced during graduate school and career exploration. I want to discuss this issue in such a public forum because once I discovered that some of my peers feel inadequate, I felt less isolated. That discovery showed me that I was not the only one experiencing these feelings, suggesting that the causes were not internal to me and my situation. Furthermore, I found a supportive community where I could talk through these feelings and realize they were malleable misperceptions rather than external realities.

If anything I write resonates with you, take heart you are not alone! Recognizing that simple fact has helped me keep my chin up and stave off the anxiety and depression that so many of our peers reportedly experience. Unfortunately, poor mental health is a widespread problem in the graduate student population, so please reach out, talk to someone you feel comfortable confiding in, and ask for help. If you do not struggle with these issues, be compassionate and recognize that many of your peers do. Be a good listener, and offer supportive advice – like my coping strategies below.

The origins of uncertainty, self-doubt, and anxiety

Change is hard because it often involves uncertainty. In my case, I’m planning to transition into a completely different field, with different procedures for operating, a different culture, a different vernacular … the list of differences goes on and on. As I learn more about my future career path, I feel more confident that I’m making the right choice, and that I am prepared to take the next step. However, I can’t know everything, so sometimes I still feel trepidation. The transition from high school to university and from university to graduate school were both transitions within a familiar domain: the academic culture. So, although the instruction medium and method changed, and my objectives and motivation changed, being a graduate student did feel familiar.

Now, as I begin my job search, I worry that I’m either under qualified or overqualified, that I won’t be taken seriously by potential employers because I lack the appropriate experience, or that I simply have skills that are not in demand. The natural worries that arise from uncertainty, are however, exacerbated by the anxiety induced by stressors like finances, deadlines, experiments that are unpredictable, and commitments that must be juggled in my personal life (yes, I admit I have one!). Like many graduate students, I frequently struggle with feelings of self-doubt and anxiety. Unfortunately, as discussed above, these feelings have been exacerbated and renewed by the uncertainty inherent in career exploration.

Coping with uncertainty, self-doubt, and anxiety

The honest answer is that this isn’t a problem that you or I can solve on our own, and it’s not a problem that other people can solve for us. We (graduate students) need to raise awareness of these issues, and advocate for ourselves more effectively. Unfortunately, that is difficult to do when you’re struggling with feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and anxiety about your position, finances, progress, etc.. The good news is that university administrators, faculty, and graduate students are all becoming more vocal and aware of this so-called mental health crisis. If you are fortunate enough to have a good relationship with your faculty advisor, help yourself and your peers by encouraging open and constructive conversations about creating a departmental culture that fosters better mental health. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, don’t despair, there are other small things that you can change in your own life to help you cope.

Luckily, as alluded to above, uncertainty about job prospects has an obvious, although not always easy, solution: get more information. My primary information gathering strategy has been the small volunteer opportunities and part-time jobs that I described in my earlier post about hands-on experience. These side-hustles have provided me with information about different industries and jobs, and have helped reduce my unknowns. As I learn more about other career paths and what it’s like to work in different sectors with different people, I have regained a lot of my former confidence. For example, I now have official evaluations and observational feedback from colleagues on my various projects that confirm 1) I have advanced writing and editing skills, 2) I am relatively intelligent, a quick problem solver, and a clear communicator, 3) I take proactive steps to ensure projects are finished on time, 4) I’m organized and an effective-time manager, and, 5) I hold myself and others accountable for work that needs to be completed. Moreover, all these skills and abilities are indeed highly desirable. Despite all this information, occasionally my irrational anxiety does still get the better of me. However, now I feel like I’m better able to talk myself out of negative thought spirals, because I am armed with the self-affirming knowledge that I have gained from these information-gathering strategies.

One other helpful strategy that I have discovered is reframing. Reframing is the practice of consciously changing the theme or gist of a personal view, feeling, or experience. So, for example, I’m not ‘giving up’ on academia, instead, I’m making an intentional change in my life as a result of learning some valuable lessons about what I want out of my career. I’ve identified certain tasks and aspects of the academic career path that do not fit my personal goals, my values, and my professional aspirations – that’s a win. Knowing what I want and when I should say ‘no’ is important. This has been a huge area of personal growth for me recently. So now, each time I take a new job, start a new project, or work with a new team and something fails, if that leads me in a new direction, I’m not going to call that a failure. I’m going to construct a narrative that frames those experiences as learning opportunities (more on this next month). If I don’t learn something from them then they’re worse than failure, they’re a waste of time and energy.

You might be thinking that just changing the words you use to describe your experiences to yourself won’t actually change the way they shape your self-perception and personal narrative. But of course, this is one thing that can make reframing difficult. You do actually have to believe the words you use to describe experiences and ideas. Reframing requires the cognitive flexibility to see beyond your present experience. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is why talking about your experiences, telling your narrative to your personal and professional networks is so valuable. In talking about my experiences with others, and really listening to how they respond, I learn a lot about how others view me, and in turn I can change the way I view myself. I believe this kind of communication is a two-way street: the more you talk about your experiences and ideas in a positive light, the more others will perceive you in those positive terms. In the long-run that perception as a positive person can help you build rapport with mentors, friends, and colleagues and help foster situations that give rise to opportunities. In turn, these positive opportunities, will help you affirm the positive personal narrative you are constructing.

By putting myself out there, trying new things, having new experiences, and reflecting on those experiences with the help of my colleagues, friends, and family, I have managed to quell most of my fears and reframe my personal narrative into a constructive, confidence-boosting view of myself. Now a major professional goal of mine is to try and advocate for the cultural shifts that need to take place to foster positive, supportive graduate programs, and to help others find the strength in themselves and the support from their community to succeed in graduate school and beyond.

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