(Great) Expectations

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A good friend of mine, we’ll call him Dr C, has recently been through the ordeal which is the final PhD examination. After preparing an inch-thick volume of technical prose, filled with every conclusion reached in almost four years of research, every PhD student has to face a grilling by an examiner who is an expert in the field and often looks unimpressed. The purpose of the exam is to establish worthiness and, no matter how well-prepared and well-informed, every candidate is pushed to the edge of his or her knowledge. It’s not an experience you look forward to.

Just like every PhD student, Dr C ignored the advice of senior researchers and pulled an all-nighter ahead of the exam. Touching up a slide here, memorising the odd formula there, he was convinced that all the work he had done was not quite good enough and needed a bit more polishing. From the outside, the whole business looked like the pointless agitation that it was, but when things are happening to you, the perspective is often distorted. In fact, so often are PhD students gripped by a sense of the worthlessness and insignificance of their work that there’s a name for it: the impostor syndrome!

This is where two habits, which are best formed early on in a student’s life, can be put to very good use. First, for want of a better expression: “keepin’ it real”. It’s easy to overestimate the obstacles in front of you, but, unless this makes you quit, it’s mostly harmless: you worry, lose a bit of sleep and bite your fingernails. Then, once it’s over, it’s over. It’s a different story if you end up underestimating the challenge and taking a too-laid-back approach. The result can be failure through lack of effort, for which there’s no excuse. As with most things in life, balance and moderation are the way to go. Looking objectively at the challenge certainly helps but it takes practice, so it’s best to start as early as the first term at Uni. Second, keeping an eye on your progress throughout helps spot weak points, creates a realistic image and builds confidence, so when the big day comes, you know exactly where you stand and can easily shed irrational self-doubt.

Dr C looked exhausted but happy at the post-exam pub celebration. Now that it was in the past, the most challenging exam he’d ever taken seemed like a serious but quite manageable task, yet as it stood in front of him the day before, he greatly overestimated its difficulty. “It’s over, man!” he said as I shook his hand, and we agreed that, since being completely realistic and objective is rather tricky, over-preparing always trumps slackness.

This post originally appeared on the University of Surrey’s The Green Room blog.

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