The Dark Ages of Grad School

We all get into grad school with grand ideas. Ideas to change the way basket weaving is perceived by path-dependent academics… to open minds and horizons, to move knowledge forward. To do ground-breaking research. And for the ambitious ones, to win the Nobel prize (or settle for a conference ‘best-paper award’). These grandiose feelings and visions are cultivated in the months and weeks running up to admission into a doctoral programme. For some they go into the first few months of grad school.

Until one enters the Dark Age of grad school, the era of intellectual darkness. An era spanning the first months or even years of grad school, where you’re literally groping in the dark, lost in the muddle of scholarly perspectives, conflicting theories, misleading articles, new knowledge, nuances, multi-disciplinary ideas, jargon and unintelligible prose, and academic rhetoric. An existential crisis sets in. What is it that I wanted to do, again? I had an idea before this Dark Age. Really. I wrote a whole proposal that got me accepted into a PhD programme. I could articulate it confidently. What was it again? You even pull out that dog-eared proposal or concept note just to confirm that you really did have an idea. Soon after, you begin to question your intelligence. Your ability to pull this thing off. Was the admission committee sure that you met all eligibility criteria for this programme? Do they realise that you may be an imposter?

The imposter syndrome is worsened by watching your colleagues bubbling with ideas, having intelligent conversations, rushing in corridors to print important abstracts and preliminary results. They walk about self-assuredly, and when prompted, can present their grand research idea wrapped in a beautiful red bow. You realise you’re truly an imposter… until you discover that 1) everybody goes through the dark age, 2) the dark age engulfs people at different periods, and 3) some people have mastered the art of masking their dark age; they’re suffering just like you are.

The Dark Age is point where grand ideas go to die. You confidence in shaken. Your intelligence in challenged. Despair is your bedfellow. You examine and re-examine your philosophies. Do your philosophies hold true in your new theoretical and practical context? Do you really subscribe to the stuff you’re reading? Should you settle, or trade in? Conversations about your work during this age make or break your motivation, especially if your half-baked ideas go against the grain. Having an understanding supervisor helps a lot. One that tells you, gently, that this idea you have here may be re-expressed in this or that way to make sense for everyone else outside your brain. One that can patiently handhold you through the Dark Age. Such supervisors are few and far between.

In hindsight, there is some beauty in the Dark Age. Once you acknowledge that you don’t know as much as you thought you did, you open up your mind to learn. You take time to think though each idea, each paper. You listen more and talk less. There’s newfound intellectual freedom to venture into new areas, new disciplines, new thinking. You break some ideological shackles. This is the point when the PhD topic often changes as you come across new fascinating perspectives. You have nothing to lose at this point, as there’s no commitment to a theory, to an approach or even a discipline. Your mind soars.

With time, you emerge from the Dark Age with a bruised self-esteem, cautious and humble about everything you say both in public and on paper. But you also emerge hopeful; excited about research—a Renaissance of sorts. The world is your oyster, the sky the limit. The ideas come flooding back, only this time, they have more substance. Slowly you gain confidence to articulate what you think within your new context. You begin to take criticism gracefully. You lose the need for constant validation from your peers—those other imposters. There’s a big light at the end of the tunnel.

At this point, I can say I’m three quarters-way out of the Dark Age, licking bruises while fanning the Renaissance. I am thankful for the distance travelled thus far, and gearing up for, and hopeful about the next leg. Good luck me.

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