Encountering Perfectionism in Grad School

Photo:  AdobeStock

Photo: AdobeStock


If you’ve been in graduate school for any amount of time, you’ve probably encountered perfectionism at one point or another. If you’ve given a presentation in front of your classmates (or strangers) or written a paper that you feel could always be better, encountering perfectionism is grad school is more common than you may think.


Even as a third-year doctoral candidate, I haven’t quite figured out how to overcome my feelings of perfectionism. Truthfully, I have been a (recovering) perfectionist for as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I always had to get an A…and not just an A, but a 100. And that academic pressure definitely followed me into graduate school.


Granted, many folks will say that grades don’t matter in graduate school, and to some extent and to some people, that may be true. But that does not mean that our evaluations (as research assistants, student teachers, group project members), don’t hold some sort of value. For me, my evaluations (from peers, faculty, proposal reviewers) is often a reminder that I can do this work.


In academia, finding ways to feel affirmed with the work that we produce can be challenging, particularly for Black students. We know that this space wasn’t built for us, but here we are, anyway. Making a way out of no way. Excelling in ways they never thought we could. So, why the fuss about doing whatever it is that we are doing, perfectly?


While I don’t have all of the answers to perfectionism, I can tell you this—we don’t have to do anything perfectly. Even in our best work, we are allowed to not have it all figured out; we are allowed to not be perfectly polished. Being Black scholars in academia does not mean that we cannot still grow and learn from our challenges; we don’t owe anybody, especially white folks, perfectionism.


In order to help us all to remember the humanity of (im)perfectionism, here are a few suggestions for combating perfectionism in graduate school:

  1. Try to focus on what went well. If there’s even one moment (or several moments) that went really well in that presentation or if there are sections of that proposal that you KNOW were dope, celebrate those things! Whatever you’ve accomplished, as big or small as it may be, deserves to be honored.
  2. Take the meat, leave the bones. Try to remember this when you receive feedback about your work that seems less than favorable. Take the pieces of feedback that resonate with who you are and what you’ve done; leave the pieces that don’t. If it doesn’t reflect who you are, it’s not for you to carry.
  3. Recognize that while your work may be an extension of who you are, feedback about your work does not equate to your worth as a person. This may be the hardest suggestion to incorporate of all. We work REALLY hard to produce work and content that reflects the best of who we are; and, even still, what we’ve shared may not resonate with everyone that encounters our labor. However, that does not mean that our labor and efforts have been in vain. A less than favorable grade or suggestion for correction does not mean that you are not worthy. YOU are deserving, regardless of anything else.
  4. Take care of yourself. Lastly, and I mean this intentionally, take care of you. It can be really challenging to learn that even after all we’ve overcome, there’s still room for improvement. It can be tempting to let doubts of the imposter phenomenon creep in, telling us that we don’t belong here. But that myth IS NOT TRUE. We belong here and we can do this. We are doing IT every day.

About the Author

Raven K. Cokley is currently a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education at the University of Georgia. She earned her Master’s in Professional Community Counseling from UGA as well, and her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology from the University of Central Florida. Raven is also a National Certified Counselor (NCC).

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