The Myth of the Perfect Postgrad

Do you judge everything you do against some imagined ideal? Do you hold yourself to impossibly high standards? Do you experience guilt at every moment of your life? If you answered yes, then you might just be an postgraduate student!

Guilt is such a common part of the higher education experience that Google autocompletes it.


Take something as simple as crashing in front of the TV for an hour. You watch an episode, of, say, My Kitchen Rules. Here is the guilt spiral:

  1. I don’t cook. I should cook. Why don’t I cook?
  2. I shouldn’t compare my life to reality TV.
  3. I shouldn’t be watching TV at all when there is writing to do.
  4. I’m not writing.
  5. I’m wasting time thinking about not writing.
  6. I’m wasting time thinking about thinking about not writing.

And so on, and so on, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. So why does this happen?

I think it’s because we’re comparing ourselves to the mythical Perfect Postgrad.

The Perfect Postgrad never watches television, reads magazines, or leaves the office except sometimes to sleep. They allow their hair to turn white and their skin to sallow with stress, hard work, and little sunlight. Helpfully, the Perfect Postgrad is single with no children. He/she is independently wealthy and doesn’t need to do any paid work. In fact, the PP has no commitments outside of their research whatsoever. Accordingly, he/she is on track to finish the thesis in the minimum time, with multiple published articles and conference presentations in the bag, plus job offers accumulating.

Oh yes, and the Perfect Postgrad is completely fictional.

In real life, postgrad students have jobs and families, messes to clean up, landlords/mortgages to deal with, social events, errands, and all the other non-research commitments that come with being alive. Plus, like anyone, we just need to crash sometimes!

But because we’ve been trained (or trained ourselves) to believe in the myth of the Perfect Postgrad, we assume that any time spent on these non-research matters amounts to slacking off. We’re all guilty of reinforcing this idea by talking about the times we worked too hard, and perhaps hiding the non-research parts of our lives. Well today, I strike a blow for the Normal Postgrad who does other things sometimes.

Confession: last night, I went home planning to format citations on my laptop. Instead, I washed the mountain of dishes that has piled up since my dishwasher broke two weeks ago. Then I felt virtuous for having cleaned up, so I rewarded myself by watching four episodes of Modern Family. I fell asleep on the couch during episode five, having formatted zero citations.

Don’t leave me hanging out here on a limb alone. Add your own confessions in the comments – what have you done lately that’s annoyingly or gloriously non-productive?


About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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