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Every day is full of many decisions. According to research from the past decade, we make at least 200 decisions every day (Wansink and Sobal, 2007). They happen when we wake up, before we take a break at work or school, and when we get home. These decisions are also made with differing urgency: some must be planned ahead, such as for a relaxing evening with family, and some must be quick decisions, perhaps to enjoy a night out with friends. These decisions consume us 3 to 4 times a day (possibly 5 to 6 if you enjoy snacks). Oh, and I forgot to mention that the aforementioned 200 decisions are just those on food alone.
How many decisions do you think you have to make in a day? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? In the normal working lifestyle of today thousands of potential decisions could lead to some serious stress internally. But, when you add being in graduate school on top of that, you are looking at a decrease in the quality of decisions that you make; this is known as decision fatigue.
When decision fatigue takes hold, we often turn to our support team for advice. This could be our friends, family, or even the family pet to derive clarity from the situation as to what decision you should make. During graduate school you may find that decision fatigue is present most of the time. This could lead to looking for advice on everything from difficult decisions that involve organizing and planning research to simple decisions, like what you should have for dinner. What follows are some tips to consider when you’re caught in this situation.
When decision fatigue takes hold, we often turn to our support team for advice.
When to Take Advice
When it comes to those difficult decisions, there are really only two groups of people that you can rely on: those you care about and those with experience or expertise. One of the hardest skills to learn when growing up or as an adult is to perfect the art of listening. When asking someone who is not close to you for advice, they may be chomping at the bit so eagerly waiting for their turn to speak that they may not hear the details of your situation. In contrast, someone that you care about probably also cares about you enough to take the time to listen carefully, allowing them to understand every little detail of your situation.
Expertise isn’t so difficult to find these days with access to online forums and an increasing number of graduate students in various fields. Or, you could be unlucky enough to run into a sufferer of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (see below) who only perceives that they are experts. However, if there is someone that you know to have had one or more experiences similar to the situation you are in, then it is worth considering what they did when they were in your shoes.
The most optimal person that you should take advice from is someone who cares about you, has had a similar experience, is willing to listen, and leads you to find the decision that you believe is best for you. This person’s concerns are not in validating the decisions that they made in the past but assisting you to make sure that you are confident with the decision that you are about to make.
The most optimal person that you should take advice from is someone who cares about you, has had a similar experience, is willing to listen, and leads you to find the decision that you believe is best for you.
When to Not Take Advice
The Dunning-Kruger Effect refers to when a person believes that they are superior to those who surround them in a skill or discipline, but they lack the competence that is needed to be proficient. Research shows that a considerable number of novices in different academic disciplines are overconfident in their abilities to perform. Dunning & Kruger (1999) state that, “consistently, the confidence with which people make their predictions far exceeds their accuracy rates”. This research could make you wary of taking advice from anyone who considers themselves ‘an expert’.
Figure 1: Dunning-Kruger Effect. Graph from Dunning & Kruger, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (1999)
There really is only one ‘you’. While you may be frustrated with one decision, tired from all of the other decisions, or unsatisfied with the uncertainty that comes with thinking over a decision’s outcomes, you are still the person who knows your goals. If someone isn’t asking for more information about your situation or desired goals, then they may be more interested in sharing their opinion or ideas than helping you.
In the end, the decision is up to you and you are the perfect person to make it. In your unique situation, you are the only one who is qualified with enough information on your background, your goals, and all of the other miscellaneous details that go into the thousands of decisions that we have to make everyday. And if all else fails, ask a stranger. Author and Teacher, Kio Stark’ delivered a TED Talk (2013), “Why You Should Talk To Strangers,” where she explains, “researchers have found that people often feel more comfortable being honest and open about their inner selves with strangers than they do with their friends and their families, that they often feel more understood by a stranger” (Stark, 2016). Which every decision you end up making, make sure it’s the one that represents the person you want to be.
Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121.
Stark, K. (2016, February). Kio Stark: Why You Should Talk To Strangers [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/kio_stark_why_you_should_talk_to_strangers
Wansink, B. & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behavior, 39(1), 106-123.
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Boundaries have been loosely defined as the rules for how individuals interact in any given relationship, which may be overt or covert (Smith & Fitzpatrick, 1995). Graduate school just happens to be a petri dish for professional boundaries issues to cultivate. As graduate students, many of us have high expectations, we frequently find ourselves pulled in multiple directions with projects and daily tasks, and we tend to be achievement oriented. While this post will focus on the student-professor/advisory relationship, boundaries issues can arise among peers, colleagues, as well as family and friends outside of our programs. Boundaries among professors and advisors are particularly prone to problems due to the inherent power differential, process of mentoring and dependency behaviors (Plaut, 1993). Professional boundaries can be further categorized into several areas of relationship, including: access/availability, breadth of responsibility, and dual relationships (Lord Nelson, Summers, & Turnbull, 2004). The purpose of this article is to discuss forms of boundary violations and ways to prevent and remediate boundaries. It is my hope that readers will be able to relate to these experiences, and find ways to self-advocate and take preventative action.
Boundaries among professors and advisors are particularly prone to problems due to the inherent power differential, process of mentoring and dependency behaviors (Plaut, 1993).
During the first few years of graduate school, I was paired with an advisor that was notorious for maintaining porous boundaries with her students. Combined with my own personality traits of being a “people pleaser” (more realistically, a push-over at times), along with being generally anxious and “Type A,” I was unaware of the habits that were forming early on. When I started realizing I had fallen into the trap of giving over my agency, I made excuses for both myself and my advisor to justify these behaviors for the grander cause (e.g., “Even though I’m at my capacity for hourly requirements, I need to finish cleaning this data set because the grant depends on it.”) and martyred myself (e.g., “I’m unhappy, but I’ll feel better about myself if I make these sacrifices.”). This came at the cost of my own physical and psychosocial well-being. Along the way, I have gathered a toolbox of sorts for determining red flags for boundaries infractions. The following contains both objective and subjective signs that boundaries may need some adjustments:
When I started realizing I had fallen into the trap of giving over my agency, I made excuses for both myself and my advisor to justify these behaviors for the grander cause...
If any of these warning signs apply to a current relationship, there is hope! Although boundaries are ideally set in the beginning stages of the relationship, it is never too late to make healthy changes. The following is a list of suggestions for establishing appropriate boundaries:
Barnett, J. E. (2008). Mentoring, boundaries, and multiple relationships: Opportunities and challenges. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 16, 3-16.
Cokely, Raven. (2017, May 22). Creating healthy boundaries [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://thegradspark.com/blog/creating-boundaries-graduate-school/
Hewitt, A., & Forte, A. (2006). Crossing boundaries: Identity management and student/faculty relationships on the Facebook. Poster presented at CSCW, Banff, Alberta, 1-2.
Lord Nelson, L. G., Summers, J. A., & Turnbull, A. P. (2004). Boundaries in family—professional relationships: Implications for special education. Remedial and Special Education, 25, 153-165.
Neff, Rachel. (2015, March 12). Lines in the sand and boundaries: surviving graduate school [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://phdtalk.blogspot.com/2015/03/lines-in-sand-and-boundaries-surviving.html
Plaut, S. M. (1993). Boundary issues in teacher-student relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 19, 210-219.
Smith, D., & Fitzpatrick, M. (1995). Patient-therapist boundary issues: An integrative review of theory and research. Professional psychology: research and practice, 26, 499.
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I have a little secret: I often wish I was an extrovert. I wish meeting new people filled me with insatiable joy. I wish I spoke my mind with intensity any time the situation warranted it. I wish I was the best networker, the best public speaker, and the best social butterfly.
But I, folks, am an introvert. None of these things come easily to me.
Notice I did not say I can’t do those things. In actuality, I can network with moderate success, I am a decent public speaker, and I am social enough to be satisfied with myself. It’s easy to fall into a black-and-white mentality when thinking about introversion and extroversion, but in reality, we are all somewhere on a spectrum. We tend to portray them as quiet, shy, anti-social, and submissive, but these words won’t describe every introvert (Cain, 2013).
That being said, introverts in graduate school often find themselves encountering difficulties that are somewhat (or completely) foreign to their extroverted colleagues. If you are in a lab full of extroverts, for example, you might quickly feel like the odd one out. Confession: that’s me.
But worry not, introverts! There are ways to embrace your inherent personality traits without sacrificing your ability to succeed in higher education.
How do I know if I'm an Introvert?
Some introverts feel like this sometimes. And turtles are awesome. Source: Bansil, S. (2013). The Dueling Duality. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://bucultureshock.com/dueling-duality/
While many people have heard of the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, it’s not always clear what someone means when they say, “Hey, I’m an introvert/extrovert!” Personality is complex, but many psychologists use a rubric called the Five-Factor Approach to categorize individual personalities (but see Block, 1995, for criticism). One of the five factors in this method is “extraversion” (with “introversion” as its opposite) (Digman, 1990; Parks-Leduc, Feldman, & Bardi, 2014). As Parks-Leduc, Feldman, & Bardi (2014) define it, introverts tend to be “shy, reserved, quiet, and unadventurous.” Meanwhile, they define extroverts as “sociable, talkative, optimistic, ambitious, assertive, reward-seeking, outgoing, and energetic.” Ouch. As an introvert, it’s hard for me not to read that without a twinge of judgment. Who wouldn’t rather be described as “ambitious” and “optimistic” rather than “shy” and “unadventurous”? Eysenck & Eysenck (1964), meanwhile, describe the typical introvert as quiet, introspective, reserved, retiring, and serious.
Subsequently, if this personality dichotomy does indeed have such a significant effect on certain skills, it is to our advantage to evaluate how we can make our introversion work. I’m advocating adaptation, not a lobotomy.
There are numerous studies suggesting that introverts and extroverts navigate their worlds in noticeably different ways. For example, there are indications that introverts and extroverts frequently use different language patterns in types of words used, content of speech, and amount of abstraction (Beukeboom, Tanis, & Vermeulen, 2012). Introverts may also be more detrimentally affected by certain types of noise when attempting to perform tasks that require concentration and recall (Cassidy & MacDonald, 2007). For graduate students, both speaking and concentration are skills that have a major impact on academic performance. Subsequently, if this personality dichotomy does indeed have such a significant effect on certain skills, it is to our advantage to evaluate how we can make our introversion work. I’m advocating adaptation, not a lobotomy.
Listening: You're Probably Already Good At It.
Perhaps it’s because we are often quiet, but introverts are frequently pretty great listeners. That’s not to say that extroverts aren’t, just that this is a place where introverts can shine. Anyone who has been in graduate school knows what can happen when a seminar class gets out of hand. So many people are busy thinking about how they want to contribute to the conversation that they end up not listening to their peers. Important points get ignored, things get repeated, and the conversation goes off the rails. Meanwhile, you (dear introvert!) are sitting back, pondering one of those important points that everyone else missed.
Your listening skills are a major contribution to class discussions, whether you are a student or the instructor. So try using it to your advantage. Think about what other people have said, and try synthesizing it. Maybe you’ll see connections that others haven’t, or glaring omissions. My suggestion is so simple you might be tempted to call it totally unnecessary. Fair enough. But it has long amazed me how many people consistently do not seem to listen in conversation, even though they should know better.
There is a caveat to this point: while listening is essential, speaking is also usually required in graduate courses. You have to be able to take your inherent strength of being a good listener and express your thoughts on occasion. It can be intimidating, but it will help you grow. This does take time; my participation in class is much stronger now as a doctoral student than it was years ago when I was working on my master’s degree. Speaking up doesn’t come naturally to me, and it used to make me very nervous. It can also be really difficult to come up with the words (particularly when anxious!), which Jenn Granneman (2018) links to the human tendency toward visual versus verbal thinking, as demonstrated in a recent neurological study (Amit, Hoeflin, Hamzah, & Fedorenko, 2017). This is particularly true if you rely more on long-term memory. Granneman (2018) suggests that this reliance can make finding your words even more difficult because it often takes longer to recall things. But if you challenge yourself to emphasize your listening skills, give yourself some time to formulate a thought, and then start out with just one verbal comment during class, you can work your way up and eventually feel more relaxed about contributing to the conversation.
Conference Networking: A Beacon of Terror (But It Doesn’t Have To Be)
Networking can be very exhausting. Meeting new people and trying to find common ground for conversation, particularly when they are people whose research you admire, takes considerable mental focus for anyone. On top of that, introverts tend to draw their energy from alone time. In contrast, extroverts tend to draw their energy from social situations. As a result, socializing can be a major energy drain for those with introverted tendencies (Cain, 2013). Your networking at conferences or institutional events, then, ought to be fairly pointed so you can get the most out of it without wanting to hide in bed or sleep for the weekend.
One of the easiest ways to network at a conference (especially large ones) is to use the network you already have. Those people you know from other institutions that you rarely see? Go find them. Introduce yourself to their friends and colleagues and find out what their research interests are. You might find a potential collaborator, learn something up-and-coming about your field, or meet someone with access to research materials you need. The reason I do this at conferences is it’s fairly low-stakes, so my social awkwardness radar isn’t screaming in my brain. If the new person doesn’t seem interested in talking, you can talk to the person you already know, or move on to another new acquaintance.
The reason I do this at conferences is it’s fairly low-stakes, so my social awkwardness radar isn’t screaming in my brain.
My Teacher is an Introvert? No Way!
Let’s get this out of the way right now: just because you are introverted doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective instructor. I love teaching. I have occasionally gotten comments of surprise from students when I mention that I consider myself introverted. A lot of that has to do with being in front of a classroom: in order to be effective, you’ve got to show some energy and enthusiasm. Some teachers consider it a performance.
Seemingly, most graduate students are passionate about their chosen field. That may not be the field of study you are called upon to teach, though. This makes finding a passion for the teaching itself crucial. Think about what your goals are: how do you want to impact your students’ learning environment? What do you want them to achieve? Your supervisor(s) may have their own answers to these questions, but try to think of your own. Even if you are one of several teaching assistants for the same course, you’ll usually have some opportunity for creativity. Expressing your passion for the subject matter or the teaching itself won’t make you less of an introvert, but it will help you to cope with any fear or discomfort that results from being the center of attention in a classroom.
We should remember another thing as instructors: many of our students are just as introverted as we are, if not more so. If you have freedom in establishing the course structure, it is good to keep this in mind. I try to vary activities so that everyone has times of total comfort, and then they have times of being challenged. For introverts, I make sure some of the work is solo, and some of it is in small groups. If these introverts are quiet or shy, small groups (2-3 people) help them feel more comfortable with talking through problems. However, we also do larger group activities that challenge them to come out of their shell and share their answers or ideas in front of the class. The variation keeps things interesting and helps to ensure that different personality types are being placed in a comfortable learning environment while also being challenged.
So What Now?
There has been a great deal of literature espousing the “extrovert ideal,” particularly in the United States (Cain, 2013). It can make any introvert feel uncomfortable with themselves, myself included. And in graduate school, when we are already susceptible to things like imposter syndrome, it’s easy to feel like you just don’t belong because you’re not gregarious, you are not comfortable with public speaking, or you cannot bear to socialize as frequently as others.
But here’s the thing: there are lots of graduate students like you. You do not have to be extroverted to succeed in graduate school. I have tried to view some of my introverted tendencies as strengths, rather than the weaknesses we’re often told they are. You don’t need to change the core of your being to be a successful graduate student; you just need to find out how to work with what you have.
Amit, E., Hoeflin, C., Hamzah, N., Fedorenko, E. (2017). An asymmetrical relationship between verbal and visual thinking: Converging evidence from behavior and fMRI. NeuroImage, 152, 619-627. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.03.029
Beukeboom, C.J., Tanis, M., Vermeulen, I.E. (2012). The Language of Extraversion: Extraverted People Talk More Abstractly, Introverts Are More Concrete. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 32(2), 191-201. doi:10.1177/0261927X12460844
Block, J. (1995). A Contrarian View of the Five-Factor Approach to Personality Description. Psychological Bulletin, 117(2), 187-215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.2.187
Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Random House, Inc.
Cassidy, G., MacDonald, R.A.R. (2007). The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music, 35(3):517-537. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735607076444
Digman, J.M. (1990). Personality Structure: Emergence of the Five-Factor Model. Annual Review of Psychology, 41, 417-440. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ps.41.020190.002221
Eysenck, H.J., & Eysenck, S.B.G. (1964). Manual of the Eysenck Personality Inventory. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Granneman, J. (2018, February 20). Why Are Words So Hard for Introverts? Here’s the Science [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://introvertdear.com/news/introverts-words-hard-science/
Parks-Leduc, L., Feldman, G., Bardi, A. (2014). Personality Traits and Personal Values: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19(1), 3-29. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868314538548
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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.