A Cognitive Behavioral Approach to Surviving Your First Year as a PhD Student

Whisper-in-earI recently gave a talk to a new batch of Ph.D. students about my experiences as a doctoral student. During the discussion, I decided to talk about an issue that is not widely discussed, but is extremely important for doctoral students: how to maintain your self confidence during the first year of doctoral work.

We all have an inner voice determined to derail us when we’re trying to achieve our goals. It is fully committed to shaking your confidence just when you need it most—the first year of doctoral work. That year will test scholarly skills to their breaking point. The sheer amount of reading can be enough to drive you to despair. The level of intellectual sophistication demanded of you is unlike anything you have encountered before.

That inner voice will take advantage of this to sow doubt deep inside you during this critical time. It will say things like, “You’re not smart enough for this program,” or “Your professors don’t think you’re up for this,” or “You’re not as smart as your classmates.” It will take advantage of every seemingly incomprehensible paragraph in a journal article, every writing assignment, every uncomfortable silence in class after a professor’s question, to hiss into your ear, “You’re not up to this.”

I found that the only way to shut it up effectively was through a cognitive behavioral approach. If you’re familiar with the field of psychology, you’ve probably heard of cognitive behavioral therapy, which addresses dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviors, and similar cognitive issues through systematic procedures that fight negative cognitions. Put simply, it’s the practice of fighting negative self-talk with positive, reality-based self-talk. The key to this approach is to constantly challenge the negative inner voice with empirical facts you know about yourself and the world.

For example: if the voice says, “You’re not smart enough for this program,” you’d respond, “Then how was I accepted in the first place?” More likely than not, you already have a pretty decent record of intellectual achievement that helped you gain admission, as well as several people who stuck out their necks by recommending you fulsomely to the admissions committee. How likely is it, then, that you don’t “belong” in this program? Similarly, if the voice says, “Your professors don’t think you’re smart enough,” you might reply that, since you don’t possess mind-reading powers (yet…), you have no way of knowing what they think and must rely on their actual feedback.

Most likely, that feedback is positive; but if it’s not, well, that’s something to work on, isn’t it? Just because you’re smart enough to get into a PhD program doesn’t mean the program itself will be a cakewalk. It’s hard work, but you’re more than up to it. Your negative inner voice is wrong: you just have to prove it, the way good scholars do—with solid, empirical evidence.

Luis Hestres

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