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Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at microbematters.org, kdshives.com, and on Twitter @KDShives.
Here at GradHacker we’ve written about the struggle with perfectionism in graduate school before, but there is still much left to say about this issue.
From all the hoops that we have to jump through to get into a program, GPAs to GRE test scores, it’s easy to see how graduate school selects for perfectionists. In graduate school, the pressure experienced during your undergraduate studies doesn’t let up, it only intensifies until you finish your degree. Suddenly, your workload is higher and more intense, the demands from professors (and now students if you’re a TA) are more immediate, and there is no room to do everything perfectly all the time. Left unchecked, struggling with perfectionism and falling short of your self-imposed standards can lead to feelings all too common in graduate school: anxiety, depression, frustration, and even anger. These only compound the issues feeding into perfectionism until finally, you may find yourself unable to deal with any of the work relating to your degree.
This moment is when perfectionists start to slip up in graduate school: when outsized expectations collide with real-world limitations. At this point, the perfectionistic habits that got you this far can start to work against you; it might be time to learn some new ways to work. Following are three common productivity-killers of perfectionism, and how to get past them:
Assess what is realistic for your situation. High standards are part of a graduate education—the whole point is to push you to develop professionally. This is not always an easy process; mistakes (and even significant failures) will occur along the way. This is totally normal, but perfectionism can make this normal do-fail-learn cycle particularly, and unnecessarily, painful.
For example, do you feel the need to practice a talk for hours and hours prior to your presentation? I used to be guilty of this (and still am for talks with larger audiences). I must have rewritten my first 10-minute long post-rotation talk over a dozen times, presented it at least 3 times for someone else to get additional feedback, and was constantly going over printouts of my slides leading up to that seminar. In short, I was a stressed, frazzled mess. All of this for a 10-minute talk. I will be the first to admit that it was overkill and that I probably would have done just as well with far less preparation. Obviously, I was taking that small talk too seriously and could have gone into preparing that talk with much more realistic expectations on what constituted “good enough” for a 10-minute rotation talk.
So, if you find yourself being consumed by certain tasks that grow into outsized proportions, then it may be time to take a step back and reassess your situation. What tasks really need to be done? What level of work constitutes your best? Learn to appreciate that your best work, while not always perfect, is an admirable effort to put forth and worth pursuing in its own right.
Perfectionism Breeds Procrastination
Procrastination and perfectionism go hand in hand; I can’t recount how many times I’ve looked at an assignment and thought, “oh, I’ll start that later—once I’ve had more time to think about it and have a better idea on how to start.” Putting off projects until you have a “better idea” is a bad plan, whereas starting projects and developing a “bad” idea into a better idea through focused work is much more productive. The best time to start a project is now, especially if writing is involved. I think Sarah Kay has a wonderful outlook on writing that helps in the face of paralyzing perfectionism:
Sitting down to write is never a waste of time.
It is a process of learning, practicing, and growing
For me and many, many others, writing is extremely difficult. As Julie Platt eloquently wrote a few years ago, struggling with perfectionism while writing leads to moments of wanting to “reach up to the backspace key and delete everything I’ve just written” or wanting desperately to “get up from my desk with a faint resolve to work on this later, when I have better ideas.” This is my internal dialog when writing, and it is for so many other people as well. Learning to relax enough to write without judgment is difficult, especially if you feel that your ideas are not good enough and that you’d be wasting your time. Just start writing a draft—get it all out there, then unleash your inner perfectionist during later editing sessions.
Constant Comparisons to Others
Are you always comparing yourself to the “perfect” student in your department who is getting all the accolades? Stop that right now! (Ever seen Black Swan? It does not end well for the perfectionist!) It is SO important to remember that everyone has a different project and has different skills and abilities that they bring to their project. It’s a lot like the saying:
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
Stop being the fish trying to climb someone else’s tree! Focus on what you are doing and do it to the best of your ability. Know that your best effort, on your project, is the most that anyone could ask for from you.
These are only a small selection of the ways that perfectionism can limit you as a graduate student, and an even more limited discussion of what steps can be taken to help overcome these habits. Perfectionism is not a new problem, so there is a lot of information out there. If you ever find that you are not making satisfying progress in your graduate degree and suspect that perfectionistic tendencies might be the culprit, here are some resources that may be helpful:
On the Web:
Combating Perfectionism at University Affairs
Perfectionist professors have lower research productivity at University Affairs
Break a Perfectionism-Procrastination Connection at Psychology Today
When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism
If you only take one thing away from this article, please remember that even if you aren’t perfect, you can still reach many of your goals if you consistently put forth your best efforts. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back and put graduate school in the proper context. Ask yourself:
“What do you call a person who graduated but got mostly B’s in their classes and really struggled with their dissertation?”
At least, that’s what I remind myself every day before heading into the lab and pursuing my own Ph.D.
[Image courtesy of Flickr user LordEfan, used under Creative Commons license]