Grad School Stresses: Accomplishment Pressure

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about how the years I spent working as a curator have made me a more confident graduate student. While I may feel more comfortable with my strengths and limitations, that doesn’t mean I don’t experience insecurities altogether. Today then, I’d like to talk about what I consider my most persistent insecurity: accomplishment pressure.

The real pressure is knowing I’ll never be as relaxed as Iris.

In academia, there’s a constant pressure to feel like you’re not only getting things done, but that you’re racking up achievements. Whether it’s publishing articles, presenting at conferences, receiving fellowships, or excelling in the classroom, you feel the constant need to succeed. Good scholarship takes time, but in a society that measures success through visible accomplishments, you can’t help but feel the need to constantly show the results of your work.

I feel the pressure to accomplish things regularly. For starters, I’m several years older than most of my colleagues here. Even though age doesn’t matter so much in graduate school, I always feel my network and accomplishment record should be bigger than it is because I’ve been alive longer. When I see all the wonderful things my colleagues are doing, I feel proud and happy for them, but I inevitably ask myself whether I should be doing more with my own work. As much as I say I don’t compare myself to other students, even in a supportive environment like William and Mary, it’s difficult not to see what everyone else is getting done and thinking you’re a bit inadequate.

Another reason is that I’m no longer a first-year student. During your first semester especially, people expect you to take your time to find your footing. Once you complete that first year, the support is still there, but you’re no longer green.

Ironically, my previous work as a curator, which has done so much for my self-confidence, also feeds into this sense of accomplishment pressure. When you curate exhibits, you see the results of your labor in a very tangible way. Not that academic work doesn’t have its own powerful impact, but in terms of visual gratification, exhibitions and other gallery spaces have a spectacular element that really makes you feel like you’ve made a mark on the world, however transient. When I was at the Roswell Museum, I was putting on six to eight original shows per year, so I was very accustomed to seeing my labor literally inscribed on the walls. Going from that to the more private experience of reading and taking notes for exams or the dissertation can be a jarring experience, even if I was admittedly feeling exhausted from putting on all those shows.

Additionally, it’s tempting to dismiss previous accomplishments as lacking or inadequate. This is one of the insidious effects of Imposter Syndrome: because you don’t believe you deserve your achievements, you internally begin to pick them apart in order to expose your shortcomings. You continue to pursue bigger goals and objectives because you want to prove your worth to yourself and your peers, but as soon as the high of achievement wears off, you experience doubt and begin to focus on all the things that went wrong.

I’ve gone through this cycle with both my curatorial and academic work. At the Roswell Museum, I put together more than thirty original exhibitions in five years, an impressive undertaking for anyone. Yet I’ve written off this achievement in various ways. I did too many one-person shows. I relied too exclusively on the permanent collection. I was too formulaic in my layouts. I should have tried community curation. I should have sought out a greater diversity of artists. I should have taken on more controversial subjects. I should have published more catalog essays. And so on. I’ve similarly written off my academic work, calling my writing too rushed, too staid, not grounded enough in theory, among other things. All the while, you keep looking out for new prizes to win, new ways to affirm your worth as a scholar and researcher, because in a market as competitive as ours, the more merit badges you earn, the better.

So how do you break out of this cycle? The truth is, it never entirely goes away, but for me at least, I’ve learned to recognize and analyze it. I remind myself that every Ph.D. student is on a different journey, and I’ll accomplish things in my own time, in my own way. I remind myself that just because our society is obsessively youth-oriented (at least in popular culture; our federal government is a gerontocracy at this point) doesn’t mean that my achievements should mean less as I get older. I also remind myself that my proudest curatorial achievement at Roswell, Magical and Real, took four years to put together. Major accomplishments represent the culmination of a journey, not an end unto themselves.

This is one of the reasons why Dr. Steele’s keynote at the CDHC Symposium I attended last year resonated with me. In a culture that puts pressure on measurable accomplishments, slow, mindful scholarship is a powerful form of resistance to a system that values quantity over quality. Taking the time to reflect on one’s practice, refine it as needed, and even scale back projects in order to work on something more meaningful for the community it serves, is ultimately more significant than cranking out product with minimal reflection. Indeed, when I look back at my career in Roswell, I would have benefitted from doing fewer shows, because I would have had the time to seek out more a more diverse array of artists, cultivate more meaningful relations within the community, and ultimately create shows that would have better served the needs of its visitors. If I could go back and do that experience again, I would ignore my initial supervisor’s suggestions to change each of the galleries more than once a year, giving myself the time and space to create more thoughtful exhibitions.

I can’t do that, but I can learn from that experience and be a better scholar and curator moving forward. While the need to demonstrate accomplishment will always be there, I can be more mindful about the kinds of things I’d like to achieve. It’s nice to receive accolades, but only if that work has been done in a mindful, ethical manner that acknowledges the labor of everyone involved.

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