Where was I?
September 20th, 2010

Where was I? I delayed writing this week’s blog until after our annual orientation for graduate students. Last weekend, on a grey Saturday morning, over 200 incoming students assembled for a lively half-day session. Sure, some of the appeal was the chance to win a brand new iPad, but I would like to think most of them sacrificed their sleep time for the opportunity to hear some advice and good will about the study and research paths they have chosen. At least 80% of the students were from places outside Canada, some having landed here only two or so weeks ago. If I had traveled all this way from Nigeria, Brazil, Austria, or Texas, I would be attending orientation, too. Locals probably don’t think they need any advice or guidance for graduate school, but the most common observation I heard after the event from panelists who had graduated, and from others in the third year or so of their programs, was that they wished they had been given the same orientation opportunity.

That’s reassuring, because sometimes I wonder whether orientations are really useful. I figure it’s a little like attending pre-natal sessions—they are comforting in the moment but have nothing to do with the real experience of childbirth, or so I am told. Hearing how valuable the event was from so many fresh masters and doctoral students certainly validates the effort.

Indeed, our office has now examined the orientation evaluations—filled out by a modest ¼ of the attendants—and figured out the results. Overall, about 61% of respondents found the orientation event to be very useful, and 74% found it to be at least useful—with, thankfully, no one saying it wasn’t at all useful. Minor complaints seem to be about food—either not enough of variety or else the breakfast was too sweet. Understandably, food tends to direct a student’s focus.

I hope they will remember other elements of the event, however. For instance, it might be the only time before convocation that students get to meet the university president before graduation, but I believe listening to him and shaking his hand is important. His presence at orientation underlines a university commitment to the graduate studies project, while it humanizes the higher office. Prez Dr Gary Kachanoski wisely reminded the group that he was new, too, and I am sure the warm applause he received after his remarks reflected participants’ appreciation of his comments.

My own view is that the best advice I could offer to a group like that is to assure them they are all in the same boat. Graduate school can often feel very isolating, as if one were the only human being experiencing disconnectedness, or insecurity. The truth is that almost everyone feels that way at some point. It just goes with the territory of acquiring the skills to be an independent thinker.

It follows, then, that almost all of us manifest the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome during our programs, the overwhelming sense that we know less and less about more and more—that we are frauds, that we lack the skills, credentials, and intellectual capacity to say anything meaningful about anything. No one ever mentioned this condition to me when I was a grad student, and so I hope at least 200 or so people will now keep this in mind when they feel the symptoms coming on. I pointed out that the opposite syndrome also exists for a small self-important few:  the Dunning–Kruger effect applies to incompetent people who find it impossible to believe in their own incompetence. Fortunately, except for political leaders, graduate school kicks that effect right out of most of us pretty early on. The sad fact is that Imposter Syndrome is a chronic, largely incurable condition. But one learns how to manage it like an allergy, one outbreak at a time.

After acquiring a sense of isolation and the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, procrastination is probably the most characteristic graduate student condition. Again, it helps to know that almost everyone suffers from it. And procrastination often leads to paranoia, the way donuts lead to guilt. The successful grad student has to learn to do stuff more or less on time to avoid the hell of disappointing the expectant supervisor. Easier said than done, of course.

The panel discussions centred on two abiding and often troubling sources of the grad student experience, the student-advisor relationship and work-life balance.  These topics often generate a mixed bag of reactions, with some students finding the personal testimonies and survival stories more or less relevant than others. What do grad students want to hear more about? We are keen to know for next year.

At least one lucky student will be able to remind herself of these orientation tips on her new iPad. Engineering masters student Chen Dan had the winning ticket, audibly disappointing at least 200 others in the audience. The cookies might have been too sugary but the iPad is some sweet treat. Congratulations, Chen. I am sure you will remember orientation long after the cookies have crumbled.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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