Analyzing Graduate School “Buyer’s Remorse”: Do I Belong Here Series, Part I

Photo:  AdobeStock

Photo: AdobeStock


Have you ever seen the nicest pair of shoes in your favorite store, discover they’re on final sale in your size, imagine all the awesome outfits to come as you try them on and head to checkout…only to take them home, try them on with said outfits, and realize those shoes may not have been the perfect fit for your wardrobe after all? That is a lot like how many new graduate students feel after their first semester or year in their program.


Initially, after committing to a program, you’re probably excited! You feel one step closer to the career you’ve dreamed of and planned for. You’re ready to begin a journey of changes and challenges, and you’re hopeful. Starting your first semester, you’re confident that you’re where you need to be, doing the work you’re passionate about, and open to all the learning to come! 


Once the excitement subsides, though, many of us find ourselves in a rut. Feelings of buyer’s remorse often surface after you realize that, much like those shoes said, “no returns”, there seems to be no turning back after you matriculate. After spending major coins to get into your program, perhaps rejecting other offers in tandem, the idea of revisiting said process to switch programs is far from ideal. Yet, you may feel that the program you chose—once with unparalleled eagerness and anticipation—has become more of a thorn in your side.


Perhaps you’re sitting in another 3-hour lecture, still understanding only tidbits of the jargon-laden information being presented. Maybe you had a meeting with your faculty advisor or committee that’s left you more shook than usual. And, maybe your first-year marks weren’t ideal, or your research projects aren’t proving as fruitful as you anticipated. It’s possible that you’re not even sure if you still belong in your program. Burnout beings creeping up and impostor syndrome is making itself at home. You wonder: “Was this the right choice? Did I come all this way to fail? Why would they accept me? I’m clearly under-qualified. How do I fit in? I’m the only Black person up in here! I’m sinking, I’m tired. What the hell have I gotten myself into?” 


You desperately begin seeking out ways to restore your optimism and drive and become excited about school again. I know that feeling quite well, so let me tell you about my final-sale shoes: a stunning pair of black platform boots, they came in the form of a nice financial package and a relatively minor relocation, with the hopes of working alongside some brilliant people. I anticipated continuing some ongoing projects while taking a risky dive into the very-new-to-me concepts of ecological psychology and dynamical systems—a choice I was nervous about yet intrigued by. Plus, the amount of technology in my lab is wild: complete motion-capture setups and eye-tracking capabilities, wired and wireless VR headsets, a plethora of robots, 3D printers, etc. With massive opportunities, and a promising research fit, I was ready to slay year one. 


HARD PAUSE. Between demanding classes, being a super-slow (and easily-distracted) reader, struggling to learn my first coding language, and not always minding my self-care, ya girl was STRESSED. I scrambled to make deadlines, balance coursework and research, and understand what the heck my advisor meant by “kinematic specification of dynamics”. Slowly, those beautiful, sky-high platforms started to feel like the most impractical purchase I’d made in a LONG time. 


Little did I know, those shoes were about to be broken in. At my wit’s end, I sought out a professor I considered a mentor; he quickly reassured me that I was qualified, and my preliminary understanding of the aforementioned concepts was expected of students in their first-year. With a few second-year courses, he assured me that the then ambiguous concepts would become clearer. Feeling more satisfied with my purchase, I went on to tackle my second semester with a lot more confidence. My research projects started flourishing (thank you statistical significance), the readings and material became digestible, and I was sleeping [somewhat] better; the more I reappraised my new shoes, I realized that they were actually a good fit; they simply required a little patience and openness to see their potential.


Everyone’s experience is different. There’s no way to ensure your grad school investment will be flawless now, in 6-12 months, or several years. You’ll doubt yourself, struggle to understand material, and sometimes fail, and that’s okay. But, never forget: you have a purpose, your goals matter, and many people are invested and wholly confident in you. You know why you were inspired to start this enlightening, roller-coaster of a journey, and I can assure you: YOU’VE GOT THIS! So, wear those new shoes with excitement and pride, because you absolutely belong here.


About the Author

Sierra Corbin is a student in the Experimental Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on the embodied and action-specific properties of visual-spatial perception in real and virtual environments, specifically focusing on the intersection between visual perception and non-visual/cognitive information. She holds a B.S. and M.A. in Psychology from the University of Georgia and the University of Dayton, respectively.

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