What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Dr. Susan Ryan

It’s okay if some faculty members—or peers, for that matter—think your intellectual work is mediocre. You don’t need to be universally admired. What you need is a core group of faculty (enough for exam and dissertation committees) who are open to what you’re trying to do and willing to help you get better at it—and a supportive circle of peers willing to trade drafts, respond to your ideas, listen to your feedback on their work, etc.

When I started graduate school (mine was a combined MA/PhD program, where one could get kicked out after the MA, but didn’t have to formally reapply for the PhD), I had a bad case of impostor syndrome. I had not been, as an undergraduate, a particularly committed or passionate student. Like a lot of 18-22 year olds, I had a lot of projects going at once, including some basic personal direction-seeking, with the result that I was often underprepared for class and rarely started papers early enough to allow for a thoughtful revision process. I was an intellectual late bloomer, to put it kindly—a fact that was very much in evidence when I started graduate school. I suspect I was admitted largely on the basis of good GRE scores (I have always had the weird quirk of being a humanities person who was good at math, and the University of North Carolina then looked at composite scores). I had not (yet?) learned to feign sophistication, and I can recall, in excruciating detail, some key moments when my ignorance and naivete were on full display. Perhaps more limiting, I did not yet think of myself as a “real” scholar—whatever that means—but rather as kind of a worker bee. I had a good work ethic, plenty of commitment to the tasks at hand, but who knew what else? I was wounded but not surprised, then, when a professor whose class I took as an MA student let on that she’d been disappointed by the level of discussion in our seminar all semester—we hadn’t offered the kinds of trenchant analysis that she had expected. But at least I had good grammar, she helpfully pointed out. Oh my. Faint praise.

Another professor in the program had registered similarly tepid responses to my work. When I encountered him at a conference a few years after graduation, he was so very, so visibly shocked that I’d published a monograph with a good academic press—the very press that had published his own most recent book. That was a satisfying moment, to say the least. susan-ryan-and-tatjana-soldat-jaffe-pic

I should note that I found incredibly generous faculty mentors and peer interlocutors in my graduate program. Without them, I would never have finished the PhD or been a competitive candidate for an academic position. And it’s worth pointing out that, with regard to those who thought my work was middling at best: it wasn’t personal. They weren’t out to get me. They just didn’t think I sparkled. Fair enough.

Self-doubt has a way of aligning with and amplifying the skepticism that we perceive in others—especially those in positions of authority. So a less-than-encouraging response to my work seemed for a while to confirm what I already suspected—that I didn’t belong there. Happily, I was also stubborn—and was getting enough positive feedback to keep me going. What I wish I’d realized earlier is that opinions—even expert opinions—vary widely. You don’t have to please everyone. In academia, we all need mentors and advocates. But we don’t need an unlimited supply. A few will do nicely, I have found.

These insights hold up pretty well, I think, in academic life generally.  The peer review process is a good example—I’ve gotten the full range of readers’ reports over the years—effusive & glowing; critical but helpful; condescending but moderately useful; and downright mean. One report, which I received as an advanced doctoral student, actually said “what the essay needs—and it’s not clear whether THIS author can provide it….” Obviously the journal rejected my essay—the peer reviewer wasn’t even sure I was worthy of my relatively promising topic—but after a few rounds of revision, the piece found an entirely respectable home in print. The important thing, I have found, is to take what’s useful even from a generally mean-spirited review and move on. It still isn’t easy or comfortable, but I’ve gotten used to the process and have (mostly) stopped letting negative feedback obliterate my confidence. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.

Dr. Susan Ryan is an Associate Professor of English.


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