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Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 7: Confidence Crisis


Like the stock market after the booming 90s, the bubble of self-confidence in my academic and research abilities has burst. I find it hard to believe that only a few short months ago, I was full of vigor, ready to do battle with any foe, advisor, project, or qualifier. Now I just want to scream, STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF! Older graduate students tell me it is normal to have a period of 6 months when nothing goes right. Once that passes, they say, suddenly you?re golden again. I really hope they?re right because watching my self-esteem go down the toilet is not very entertaining.

I?ve always believed that if I worked harder and kept pushing that I could keep my head above water and would forge ahead. It seems that, for the moment, I have come to an impasse.

I failed my second and third qualifiers. There, I said it. I admit it. I flunked two exams. I am relatively devastated.

I believe I could have passed the second one. I didn?t listen to my intuition while answering the questions. I went as far as beginning to answer the question I should have answered. Rethinking that choice, I tore the page out of the exam book and started on another question. I took the torn page with me after the exam and it lingered in my trashcan--leering at me. It seemed to be saying, "you know you should have finished me!" And boy was it right. When I picked up the exam results from my mailbox the following week and read "the faculty has decide to fail ..." I was not particularly happy with my performance, especially since I had passed the first exam.

At first, I didn?t tell anyone. I faked the funk. I didn?t tell any of my classmates or any of the other upper-class grad students. I didn?t want their pity. I didn?t want them saying, ?well I?m so sorry,? while thinking, "glad it wasn?t me." They didn?t know and it was kind of amusing that they all thought I passed and continue to plan the party we?ll have when we pass them all with only four tries.

Eventually I had to tell someone--before I cracked. Lucille, one of the grad students in another group, had the exact same problem. I trust her. Lucille has been a great help and support for me while I?ve quietly lost my mind and tried to build back my self-esteem.

As we were studying for the next exam, I told one of my fellow classmates, Bruce. He and I get along relatively well and I felt like I could trust him with it. I only told him after I almost lost my cool and screamed at the people in the exam study group, "WILL YOU STOP TALKING ABOUT HOW GOOD IT WILL BE TO BE DONE. I WON?T BE DONE WHEN YOU ARE! SHUT UP!" Breathe ...

And then I flunked the third exam. This one hurt a little more, I had more confidence walking out of the third exam than I did the second so I was a little more than surprised. It was a tough exam. But I didn?t pass and people I knew who didn?t study or seem to not take the exams seriously passed.

Playing the Game: The Battle With Self

So, there?s not much I can say this time, because I haven?t got this one figured out. If you readers have advice on how to keep the motivation up when the results and the tests make you weary, I?d love to hear it. I?ll make sure it goes in next month?s column (anonymously if you wish).

As for what I?ve learned about keeping my head above water:

Keep trying My favorite Be-Attitude is, "Successful people aren?t always successful, they just keep trying until it comes out right." Well, that?s what I?m doing, although I might be changing my approach a bit.

Talk to someone Rant, rave, cry, scream, or talk calmly to somebody, anybody, to keep from feeling completely alone and destitute. Identify the friends and family you can talk to without feeling like you?re whining all the time, and if you can?t, find a neutral party that can offer an objective opinion.

Take a break Get away from the situation. Whether your advisor understands or not, explain that you need a little break. A 4-day weekend to reclaim your sanity is better than trying to force your way into a brick wall that isn?t being cooperative.

Do what makes you happy Listen to music, dance, or read, do something that you enjoy that has nothing to do with work/study. You can?t wait on someone else to pick you up, you have to do it yourself.

Forgive yourself No one's perfect, and once we stop trying to be and accept ourselves faults and all, the better life (and graduate school) will be.

Don?t take it personally Hopefully your professors aren?t out to get you. This is just a task that must be completed, and the less you think it is a testament to your value in life, the better.

Count your blessings and keep it in perspective My parents always said, when I was upset about something, "Will this matter in 20 years?" Most of the time it doesn?t. And then I remind myself of all that I have accomplished and I don?t feel so small anymore.

Know that it will be fine Although I hate it when people tell me this, I have to believe it before I feel it. Things will work out, though not necessarily in the manner expected.

Like I mentioned in Chapter 2, in our program we have 10 chances to get through this hoop so it shouldn?t be that big of a deal right? Well, yes and no. Peer pressure, self-inflicted doubt, and bruised pride all have a role in this drama. These things can wreak havoc in one's life. And when everything else isn?t smooth sailing, glaring errors can haunt you if you don?t have positive things to distract you from them. And maybe I?m taking them too seriously.

After a conversation with Jeff, my advisor, I finally told the people I would be studying with for the fourth exam. I just couldn?t keep it to myself any more, pride be damned. I felt a little better, but my concentration and motivation to study for the next round is kind of shot.

The whirlwind of questions about where, what, when, why I?m supposed to be here haven?t stopped. The hilarious thing is that for the first time I am truly unsure about what the future will hold. I?ve always had a plan (and a plan B) and things generally worked themselves out. I?m perfectly aware that I have a bright future ahead of me and that "everything will be fine," but it?s hard to believe that when nothing feels fine and you feel like you have very little control over what?s happening. I always felt that if I just worked a little harder and pushed a little more that things would work out and I would get the results that I required. Now, not so, it?s been a hellish summer. I?ve worked harder but the results aren?t coming in the lab. I studied harder (though admittedly I was distracted by the scandal of Chapter 6), and I still failed.

The funny thing is, I was never the type of person to get upset about the results of an exam. I got it back, may have been a little ticked that I didn?t do as well as I thought I did, or perfectly aware of how much partial credit I was blessed with when I didn?t know exactly what I was talking about, but I noted where I needed improvement. The problem here is, I don?t know what the failures are and how to correct them and even if I did, it won?t show up on the next qualifier anyway.

So anyway, like I said in Chapter 3, it?s not the end of the world. I have to keep chugging and give myself a little time to move beyond this hurdle.

I keep thinking if I had more of a local support system that things would be better. Granted I?ve formed a small one but not the magnitude of what I was used to as an undergrad. Part of that might be because I live alone, and though it?s great for personal space it?s not so great for my phone bill.

Self-doubt is one of the most debilitating issues that I now face. Instead of fighting a battle with the outside world, as I was last chapter, the battle is now within. Fear of the unknown can paralyze you with thoughts of "what if I can?t, what if it won?t, and what will I do ..." until you rise up and keep marching unwilling to let the inner tyrant have its way all the time.

My parents have been unbelievably wonderful. Although they might not have experienced the same things, it?s great that they?re helping me keep things in perspective, with uplifting e-mails and random phone calls and such. Yes, it will hopefully only be an extra 6 months of agony but it could always be worse.

Send e-mail to Micella at

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