fbpx

What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Graduate School: Tips for Writing and for Combating Impostor Syndrome

Whatever your raw intelligence, whatever your background, what you have control over, and therefore what you should focus on, is your actions. The cure for impostor syndrome is to do what intellectuals do, and you’ll become an intellectual.

As we begin a new year, students and budding intellectuals may be drawn to make resolutions so as to make the most of their time. As a new course of studies begins at universities, I recall the beginning of my own graduate studies.

When I arrived as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, I became afflicted with a severe case of “impostor syndrome.” I was convinced that at any moment a professor or student would reveal my academic weaknesses, and the Grad Director would summarily expel me from the program. Years later, when I mentioned my case of impostor syndrome in front of aspiring intellectuals, ears perked up, and hands were raised. They asked, “What can I do if I suffer from impostor syndrome?”

I suggested to the students that they focus on changing the facts about what they are doing, rather than on changing the emotions they are experiencing. Instead of engaging in a comparison game with others—a game that everyone loses on some level—compare yourself to who you aspire to be, who you were yesterday, who you could be tomorrow. At the end of the day, it does not matter whether your IQ is greater, less than, or equal to someone else’s. Whatever your raw intelligence, whatever your background, what you have control over, and therefore what you should focus on, is your actions. Do what intellectuals do, and you’ll become an intellectual. I wish I’d known that when I started graduate school.

 

There will almost always be obstacles to doing intellectual work, in part because this work usually does not have to be done on a fixed daily schedule imposed on us by others. We can usually put off whatever intellectual work we could do today until tomorrow. In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis notes:

We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.

We can be tempted to do too little work, but we can also be tempted to do too much work. The intellectual life can take up whatever space that you give it, much like a gas expanding. There will always be more things to write or to read. In graduate school, I learned to set a schedule, normally Mondays through Fridays, 8:30–4:30. Let your work time be devoted to work. Bring the focus of a laser beam and turn off the social media. As A. G. Sertillanges said in his classic work, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, “Let each task take ahold of you as if it were the only one.”

 

During times dedicated to work, every kind of temptation can assault you. Stay firm. Sertillanges was right, “Work requires heroism just as a battle does. One’s study is sometimes a trench where one has to stand firm, like a good martyr.” Perhaps the hardest battle for most students is not the required reading, but the required writing.

Daily Writing

While I was a graduate student, I went to a talk by professors who studied scholarly productivity. They did the following experiment with academic researchers. To a first group of researchers, they said, “Write down a good idea whenever you have one. In a month, we’ll come back and see how many self-reported good ideas you had.” To a second group of researchers, they said, “We want you to write Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for at least an hour. Then, in a month, we’ll check back to see how many self-reported good ideas you had.” To the last group, they said, “We want you to write for an hour five days a week, Monday through Friday. Then, let us know how many self-reported good ideas you had.” What were the results of this study? The first group reported the least number of good ideas. The second group, which wrote three times of week, reported more good ideas. And the last group who wrote every day of the working week reported the highest number of self-reported good ideas. Writing and running are similar. The best long-term results are not found by the weekend warrior who vows to run for eight hours straight on Saturday, but by the jogger who runs three miles each day.

If you want scholarly productivity, write every working day. I write first thing when I get to the office in the morning to make sure to get it done when I’m fresh. I don’t return calls at this time. I don’t have office hours at this time. I don’t teach class at this time. By “writing,” I don’t mean replying to e-mail. Indeed, I push off replying to e-mail until the afternoon, lest my entire day be absorbed with the quicksand time sink of reading and replying. By writing, I mean producing something that aims at publication—whether that be a first draft or the final edits casting out typos.

 

You can begin with writing, “I’m not sure what I’m going to write today. I’ve got a paper due at the end of the semester, but I really have no clue what to write it about. Well, I could write about this, I could write about that. . . .”  The next day you can return to what you’ve written, add to it, edit it, and continue to return to it each day. How much time should you spend writing each day? My experience corresponds with Sertillanges who wrote, “the two hours I postulate suffice for an intellectual career.”

In the nineteenth century, Anthony Trollope wrote forty-seven novels and eighteen works of non-fiction, all while having a full-time job in the post office. His books remain in print today. How did he do it? He got up at 5:30 a.m. and devoted fifteen-minute intervals adding up to three hours to writing. (I personally find sessions of fifty-seven minutes of intense work with a timer followed by a seventeen-minute walk most helpful.) When Trollope’s writing was done, he went off to his day job at the post office. He said, and his life showed, that, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.” The prolific Stanley Hauerwas noted, “I write like I learned to lay brick. You do it because you have to get it done before it rains.” Using this method of daily writing, my dissertation director Ralph McInerny wrote and edited 150 books.

Write as clearly as you can. Robert Sokolowski noted that there are a lot of uncharitable and lazy readers, so make it hard for them to misunderstand you. Avoid abbreviations, unless they are extremely common and well known, like NBA or USA. As Steven Pinker points out in A Sense of Style, most abbreviations needlessly tax the memories of readers.

Avoid perfectionism in writing. Jean Porter taught her students the motto, “when in doubt, send it out.” If your work is accepted, great, you’ve got a publication. If your work is not accepted, then you’ve got some feedback that perhaps can spur you to polish your piece. John Haldane compared writing an essay to sketching a portrait. You can always make another and maybe better sketch later, so there is no need to be excessively fussy about the current work. If you think you are writing the next Summa Theologiae that scholars will still analyze 700 years after your death, think again. Do the best work you can at that time, given the circumstances. “Done is better than perfect,” as Sheryl Sandberg noted.

An easy way to write is to read something that you totally disagree with, and then try to refute it. We live in a target-rich environment. To contradict someone you disagree with is easy; to delete something you’ve written is hard. If an essay must be limited to 5,000 words and you’ve already written 8,000 words, what can you do? The words you’ve written you first conceived in your mind and then gave birth to through your fingers. To delete what you’ve written is to kill the children of your mind.

When I write, I seldom delete a single sentence. If I’m over my word limit, if I know that something needs to go, I create another document called, “Extra Whatever My Original Document Was Called” and cut the excess from my original document and paste it into the “Extra” document. Then, I tell myself a lie. “You are just compiling material for some later project. So, what you’ve written will be used later.” I almost never look at my “Extra” again. The practice of creating an “Extra” document both facilitates merciless cutting and spares the work of my mind from complete oblivion.

A “commonplace book” also aids writing immensely. The commonplace book is a location to write down great quotations, important insights, facts and figures, aphorisms of the wise, follies of the foolish, and various pensées of friends, enemies, and whatever strikes you as interesting or funny. Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo da Vince, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Milton, Ludwig von Beethoven, Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Ernest Hemmingway kept these journals to fire their creativity. You can make up an electronic document and label it “my commonplace book” and off you go. In mine, you’ll find:

I confess then, that I attempt to be one of those who write because they have made some progress, and who, by means of writing, make further progress.
Augustine of Hippo

Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.
Aristotle

The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Oscar Wilde

I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.
Malcolm X

Basically my wife was immature. I’d be at home in my bath and she’d come in and sink my boats.
Woody Allen

I realized long ago that time is more valuable than money, for while you can always get money back again, time, once it’s gone, is lost forever.
William Lane Craig

Graduate school was a trying time in my life, made more trying by feelings of inferiority. I wish I had known what I now know about writing and intellectual work. Perhaps, this essay will help some others who feel like impostors, to move more effectively and efficiently into the intellectual life.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!