“Jonathan, this is wonderfully written. You have a real future as a scholar and thinker!”
Oh, how those 15 words quickly scribbled on my final paper felt. I nearly skipped to my car, feeling on top of the world as I whistled during the drive home. My advisor’s praise was everything to me; his respect in the field, by virtue of his comments, passed to me through his praise. My skin tingled with anticipation of the future.
His words were a sweet drug that shot me through the clouds. I was superman, cape flapping in the wind. I could stop bullets.
My next paper, sent to a very reputable journal, received the following:
“Your argument upon which everything is based is unclear. Further, your methods are questionable, and thus I find your results contrived. To me, it’s just too basic. Nor is it complete enough to be included in this journal.”
My stomach gurgled as I closed my email. I couldn’t check any other messages. My knees buckled as I walked to my car. I cursed their very ground on which I walked. I cursed my future as a scholar and I cursed the ivory tower. I was defeated, having been slain by an anonymous shadow who found my work worthless.
My name is Jonathan, and I’m a recovering praise-junkie (“Hi, Jonathan”).
Praise feels good. It validates our past efforts and inspires us to continue our journey with our chests out and chins up.
But giving any sort of praise the power to define who you are is like injecting heroine into your veins and convincing yourself that you are superman. And as that drunken power begins to fade or is removed by a hefty dose of the opposite, you convince yourself that you are nothing but an addict.
The sickness of Praise-Junkiness is rampant in graduate school. So many of us crave those sweet words from our advisors and professors, mentally begging for that sweet nectar. And when it happens, we convince ourselves of our own magnificence.
And when we the opposite happens, when some other takes it upon themselves to knock us down, we convince ourselves of our worthlessness.
We must guard ourselves against this reality. Here are a few things that have helped me, an ever-recovering praise junky.
Take all praise humbly. You’re a graduate student, right? Which means you have something to contribute, something to give to the knowledge pool. Thus, you will receive praise, whether it be from your advisor, a course professor, your peers, or outside academics from journals and conferences. When that happens, receive the praise while reminding yourself that you are not perfect, that you have failed so many times before, that you will most certainly fail very soon.
Avoid internalizing criticism by pretending you’re a robot. Yep, you read that right. When I read a bad review of my work, I go into robot-mode: I am a machine. All is data. This criticism refers to nothing other than that particular paper. It has nothing to do with me. I receive new data; I analyze said data; I change my approach/behavior/style, etc. I adapt stoically. Robots don’t internalize. Imagine you’re Data from Star Trek.
Find a talent outside of academia. So many of us live and breath the ever-changing atmosphere of the ivory tower. We discuss our “research agendas” with beers in our hands on the weekends. Find something else that has nothing to do with graduate school. Maybe you’ve dabbled in painting; maybe you like to garden; maybe you build things. Regardless of what it is, pour yourself into it on the weekends, on your breaks, any chance you get. What does this accomplish? It gives you an area in which to define yourself that is not connected to your academic world.