“Are you a student?”
This question always makes me pause. As a “part-time” graduate student, I don’t hold my main identity in being a student. I am first and foremost a “full-time” engineer, and school is something to tackle in my free-time.
It leaves me with a major identity crisis of who I am in academia. As I explain my educational status, I’m quick to point out, “Oh, but I’m a non-thesis student!”, lest someone thinks too highly of my academic standing.
“I’m only there for classes.”
“I don’t do research.”
“I only do one or two classes a semester. It’s not like I’m a full-time student.”
I’m always quick to point out to my fellow students how I’m the poser, the faker, the imposter. I ride their coat-tails, and my degree will never be equal to a research-based Master’s. I’m 70% through a combined Master’s degree and certificate, and I fail to even see myself as a “Graduate Student.”
Do you see a trend here? If you’ve been involved with SWE for any amount of time, you may have heard of Imposter Syndrom. Previous GradSWE Blogs have covered the topic, and you can find a course on it in SWE Advance (linked here). I’ll leave it to my SWE colleagues to explain the issue in-depth, but it comes down to believing you are an imposter who will eventually be discovered as a fraud.
Like a Ph.D. student believing her research is not worthy of her peers, my own experience as a part-time Master’s student makes me believe I’m not as deserving of a degree as my fellow students.
I know that isn’t true.
And I hope all students out there understand that graduate school is always something to be proud of doing. These are some techniques I’ve used to fight off my own Imposter Syndrom traits.
Plugging into Campus Life
I’ll admit it: this is the hardest thing for a part-time student to do, and it’s often impossible for online students. However, I’ve found that just by hanging around campus, I feel like more of a “student” again. Many larger schools have recreation centers that can be visited after work, even replacing a part-timer’s usual gym. Schools may offer evening activities, low-cost health clinics, counseling services, or other resources to all students.
My first few years on campus, I rarely strayed from the path between my car and my class. It took me 3.5 years to learn my way around campus; it’s only about a 15-minute walk square! Now I’m much prouder to say I’m a student there.
At least I can finally find my way to the library.
Built a Support Network
John Donne published one of my favorite poems in 1624, “No Man is an Island”:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
My favorite line is not that classic “No man is an island”, but rather “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” On our darkest days, any student can feel like a clod of dirt, insignificant on a continent-worth of much finer ground. No matter who we are in academia, leaving before our time (like dying in the poem) makes the system that much less whole.
Since “No man is an island,” no one can accomplish any goal alone. We all need people in our lives to support us, and we benefit from supporting others. When I connect with my classmates, I feel more like I belong. It can be hard for full-time and part-time students to meet, but we usually figured out a mutual time. Everyone is busy in their own way, so don’t shy away from trying to connect with someone with a different schedule.
Don’t Compare. Contrast.
When I make the negative comments from the opening of this post, it’s because I’m comparing myself to people with different goals than myself. I’m not in a career track that requires a research background.
Research-heavy students often end up in academia or research jobs, or they at least may aspire for that path. While it is generalizing, the average engineer in a fabrication shop, automotive plant, factory, etc. doesn’t necessarily need to have a research background. And that is okay.
Rather than compare, contrast. What can a non-thesis student learn from a thesis student? A non-researcher from someone in love with their lab? Share your story and learn the stories of others.
When I started writing this post, I was writing about what I thought was an “identity crisis.” I felt I was just disconnected in a system that assumes a full-time commitment. I didn’t realize my “identity crisis” was actually hidden imposter syndrome.
If you start hearing your mind tell you the same things, you aren’t alone. No matter where we may be on our journey, from certificate seeker to post-doc, we are all worthy of being “Graduate Students.”
May your learnings be infinite, your research plentiful, and your degrees someday be complete!