The past three years have been good to me as a graduate student. I’ve done everything by the book. I wrote my qualifying papers on time, passed my first round of oral exams “with flying colors”, got good teaching reviews. Because academic work has always come to me naturally, it has never occurred to me that I might not be exactly where I need to be to succeed in this industry. I receive positive feedback from my adviser. I have three conference presentations lined up in May and June. I get to design my own course for the upcoming summer session. Anyone would say that my performance as a budding scholar is satisfactory.
So it’s jarring, in light of the the comfortable speed at which I’ve been cruising, to hit the minor road bump of nearly failing the PhD qualifying exam for my program. I have been studying hard for the past month, and I’ve read over a hundred papers in the different subfields of linguistics in which I want to specialize for my dissertation. Today was the culmination of it all: one three-hour oral exam with four professors to determine whether or not I’m ready to begin the research project that will kick-start my career.
Well, the short version is that I did pass the exam. But the long version is that it was a truly excruciating three hours, during which my mind completely blanked several times, and I found that I could not answer what I knew were simple questions from my examiners. Some of it was a matter of having prepared the wrong thing, like reading up on second language acquisition but failing to refresh my memory on first language acquisition. Other times, I repeatedly gave slightly misguided answers to questions and needed my examiners to lead me down the right track, which was more than embarrassing. But not as embarrassing as just being wrong, which happened, to my chagrin, at least once with each of the four.
“Well, you passed”, the exam chair told me at the end, “but it was a close call.” They said that there are key concepts in all of these subfields (that I’m supposed to have mastered) that I could not adequately explain. Of course, this was under pressure, and who is truly always on top of their game even in their area of expertise? Still… the feeling that I can’t get over right now is a heavy disappointment that sits deep in my gut. Don’t get me wrong: I am relieved that I managed to pass at all. It wasn’t a total shit show. Like my peers have told me and will continue to tell me, I could just as easily have been failed and asked to retake the exam in the fall — this isn’t uncommon. “You wouldn’t have passed if you didn’t deserve it.” I know.
But what’s bugging me is not whether or not I deserved it, I guess. It’s more that I thought that this would be an opportunity to impress foremost scholars in my field with what I have done and what I have the potential to do, but I did absolutely the opposite. I gave them a reason to pity me and to keep an eye on my work over the summer to make sure that my future research meets the baseline of expectations. It’s almost as if I qualified, but with qualifications — meaning here that even though I don’t have to retake the exam, I have to go the extra mile now to prove my worth. I wonder if having done just fine for the past three years has lulled me into a false sense of security, because I know I’m not as prepared for academia as I should be.
The Impostor Syndrome rears its ugly head again. It was just one mistake — and it doesn’t even amount to a mistake because I passed, yes, I did it, I’m a PhD candidate — but nevertheless it is going to linger with me for at least a few weeks, this idea that I did not do my best. Or even worse, that I did do my best and my best was still, in the eyes of those who judge, barely satisfactory.
But I’ll get over it. I’ll probably even joke about it if you ask me in person. I can move on.
You see, at the end of the day, I know that my professors believe in me and that they think I am a worthwhile investment of their time and energy. (I can’t not think that, or else this is all a huge waste of my own time and energy.) So I’m not going to take it for granted. Give me some time to recover, and I’ll get straight back to work. I’m going to take the conference presentations seriously, and I won’t goof off during the summer when I don’t have any other academic plans. My dissertation prospectus (a sort of outline that I have to present to the committee in the fall) is going to make up for my poor exam performance. I am making lots of predictions right now. Ha — one thing I know for sure is that we can never know anything for sure. But for someone like me, losing is great motivation to try harder. And with motivation, a little faith, and a little luck, who’s to say that it can’t be done?
Word of the Day: tenebrous means dark, gloomy, or obscure. It can be used to describe the ominous sky before a storm or a person’s face when they are upset about their exam results. It comes from the Latin word tenebrae (“darkness”), which is also the name of a type of Christian religious service in observance of Good Friday (that’s today!) and the end of Holy Week. As a Christian, I acknowledge Good Friday with reverence and humility. I know that my all my woes and worries are trivial compared to the weight of the world that Jesus bore on his shoulders when he died, and it is a comfort to believe that in a few days we can celebrate the joy of new life and redemption from the darkness.