Back to Blog
Identity is a rather abstract term that has been defined in numerous ways. Some define it as a “self-structure – an internal, self-constructed, dynamic organization of drives, abilities, beliefs, and individual history” (p. 109, Marcia, 2017). Essentially, our identities are what make us “who we are,”; they define our perceptions of ourselves, and influence how we express ourselves in our interpersonal relationships. When our identities are compromised, we may feel inadequate, be self-critical, and have greater difficulty regulating our self-esteem (Hoyle, Kernis, Leary, & Baldwin, 1999; Tesser, 2000). Much research has been devoted to exploring identity instability and development in adolescence (e.g., Marcia, 2017), but our identities (professionally and non-professionally) are also, to some extent, changing in adulthood as a result of new experiences.
Integral components of identity are self-esteem (how we feel about ourselves in a given moment; Marcia, 2017) and self-efficacy (our beliefs in our ability to succeed in specific situations; Bandura, 1982). When self-esteem and self-efficacy are low, job performance and satisfaction tend to suffer as well (Judge & Bono, 2001). However, people who are more intrinsically academically motivated (learning for the sake of learning) tend to also have higher self-efficacies (Zimmerman, 2000) and are more meaningfully cognitively engaged (Walker, Greene, & Mansell, 2006). Setting proximal (short-term and attainable) goals has been found to increase self-efficacy and intrinsic interest in academic topics (Bandura & Schunk, 1981), which may consequently improve academic performance (Judge & Bono, 2001). Further, intrinsic motivation buffers perceived stress in the context of academic settings (Baker, 2004). In sum, focusing on the intrinsically motivating (rather than performance-oriented) aspects of your work may be more emotionally rewarding and lead to better performance, to boot!
Identity, Confidence, and Performance in Graduate School
Before I applied to graduate school, I had heard from several people (e.g., advisors, fellow colleagues) that a primary purpose of graduate school is to shape our professional growth and identities. What I was not aware of, however, was the large impact that graduate school would have on my personal identity. During my first semester, my self-confidence waxed and waned with my professional accomplishments and struggles. I noticed that my identity as an aspiring researcher and clinician began to increasingly merge with my personal identity, and it became difficult to distinguish between the two. Graduate school was my life, and I devoted nearly every waking moment to improving myself as a researcher and clinician.
I think it’s important for me to state that I applied to a clinical psychology doctoral program because my professional interests filled me with a sense of intrinsic purpose, vigor, and fascination that I had not felt in any other academic contexts. Rather than feeling drained, I felt stimulated when I engaged in critical thinking about this topic at any time of the day. During my first year in graduate school, however, I was somewhat alarmed when I noticed that my extrinsic motivation (i.e., doing well on assignments and meeting program milestones) seemed to supersede my intrinsic passion for my work. Thinking about the topics that had once invigorated me was now exhausting, and my duties in graduate school began to seem more like chores rather than privileges. I began to feel “burnt out” and questioned how stable my passion truly was.
In retrospect, I believe that I placed too much emphasis on valuing others’ evaluations of my performance, and not enough on enjoying the work I was doing in graduate school. I was experiencing a common case of impostor syndrome and temporarily lost sight of what drew me toward graduate school in the first place. This was remedied as I gained confidence in my abilities (over time and with experiences), and I found that I began to approach my work with an air of curiosity, rather than that of intimidation. My confidence waxes and wanes, but I’ve noticed that accepting my experiences and mistakes (essentially mindfulness, which has been used in many therapeutic contexts; Langer, 1989; Baer, 2015) has been particularly helpful. I think it’s also important to remember that many other graduate students (and even post-grads; click on this for an interesting article) have the same experiences. Keep working, especially on tasks that make you feel more confident and happy. Inter-disciplinary work may be a nice outlet for creativity.
Social Identity in Graduate School
As I mentioned earlier, graduate school has not only led me to grow professionally, but also personally; that is, in the context of my social relationships. Specifically, I had to learn how to balance my professional responsibilities with personal values (e.g., spending time with my significant other, friends, family, hobbies). One of my most important responsibilities (to myself and others) has been determining when it is the right time to work, and when it is the right time to play. I have spent many weekends at home catching up on tasks that I deem major priorities, and other weekends that I strictly allocate time to friends, family, and videogames as a reward to myself. During all of these instances, however, keeping in touch with a strong supportive network of people has been vital in reminding me that there is much more to life than working. Building relationships with people within and outside of your department can be very beneficial by adding another dimension to your academic life. It can be easy to neglect your valued social and leisurely aspects of life for the sake of work (or vice versa), but it is essential to devote sufficient time to both. Find and maintain a distinction between home and work; this will prevent burnout and the quality of your work from dropping.
Baker, S. R. (2004). Intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivational orientations: Their role in university adjustment,
stress, well-being, and subsequent academic performance. Current Psychology, 23(3), 189-202.
Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American psychologist, 37(2), 122-147.
Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through
proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), 586-598.
Baer, R. A. (Ed.). (2015). Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician's guide to evidence base and applications. Elsevier.
Hoyle, R. H., Kernis, M. H., Leary, M. R., & Baldwin, M. W. (1999). Social psychology series. Selfhood: Identity, esteem, regulation. Boulder, CO, US: Westview Press.
Judge, T. A., & Bono, J. E. (2001). Relationship of core self-evaluations traits—self-esteem, generalized
self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability—with job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(1), 80-92.
Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Addison-Wesley/Addison Wesley Longman.
Marcia, J. E. (2017). Ego-Identity Status: Relationship to Change in Self-Esteem. Social Encounters:
Contributions to Social Interaction, 109-137.
Tesser, A. (2000). On the confluence of self-esteem maintenance mechanisms. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4(4), 290-299.
Walker, C. O., Greene, B. A., & Mansell, R. A. (2006). Identification with academics, intrinsic/extrinsic
motivation, and self-efficacy as predictors of cognitive engagement. Learning and Individual Differences, 16(1), 1-12.
Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Self-efficacy: An essential motive to learn. Contemporary Educational
Psychology, 25(1), 82-91.