Overcoming Periods of Self Doubt…or How to Win a Fool’s Game

DISCLAIMER: It has come to my attention that some folk believe that I “have it all together.” Please accept this disclaimer as my way of saying three things: 1) I am figuring this out (and making this up) right alongside you dear reader; 2) I am not immune to feeling completely lost in tasks that are “supposed to be” routine by now; and 3) Sometimes I have to be reminded (by other people) of the things that I write (because most of my advice for you, is actually advice for me).

I’m still in school because I still have so many things to learn about myself and how the academy really works. In sharing my learnings on this journey, I hope that my vulnerability can act as a harbinger for your future concerns. I post so that YOU know, you’re NOT the only one out there feeling this way, and we can get through this together <3.


Confession: I am very afraid. I am a fourth year graduate student in the second year of my Ph.D. and my insides tighten every time someone says, “Wow, you’re almost done. Right??” (cue eyeroll and shoulder shrug)

In so many ways, I stray from the path: I am a first-generation Nigerian-American dark-skinned Black woman poet-activist mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, using ethnographic field research methods to explore challenges in Nigerian factories (ranked as one of the most difficult and dangerous places to work in the world). And I have a family that counts on me to do well but don’t quite understand this whole Ph.D. thing. And to be honest, I don’t quite understand this whole Ph.D. thing either. It’s incredible how the expectations simultaneously get more defined and more amorphous each day.

*Regular Inner Monologue* Maybe I should pursue poetry? Maybe I can start a travel blog and provide tips on where to get good “local” food in each city? Or I can go to cooking school and open a restaurant? uh…is there still time to marry rich? How much do professors even make? How difficult is it to get tenure there? (gasp, change thinking) Am I cut out for this? Why is there so much work to do? Maybe I should apply for jobs this summer? Why am I always so tired? Have I always been this tired? Am I doing enough? Am I enough? I don’t have the answers. PhDing forces me to keep thinking of more questions. Keeps making me realize how much I don’t know.

One of the many lessons that I’ve learned in graduate school is

That there are times when you need to forget yourself to keep going, and there are times when forgetting yourself is what got you stuck in the first place. Graduate school is all about striking a balance, over and over again.

I know that I need to forget myself when I travel home and realize that graduate school is not representative of the real world. Academic problems are maddening while I’m on campus, and nearly meaningless when I’m away. I need to forget myself when I’m doing an act of service for someone, and realize that they couldn’t care less whether or not I’ve memorized my research question–they still think I am valuable.

I know that I’ve forgotten myself when I start down that destructive rabbit-hole line of questioning. When I doubt what I’m capable of because I’ve forgotten what I’ve already done. When I use someone else’s benchmarks and then internalize that I don’t measure up. When I forget that the only person I’m really “competing” with, is myself.

How does this relate to the “Fool’s Game?”

Thanks for asking! Well, the “fool’s game” is a folktale about a person who creates two lists: one list of all the things the person HAD to do and another list of all the things that the person WANTED to do. The thing is, the list of things the person HAD to do, never stopped growing. And the person dies before ever getting a chance to do the things they WANTED, because they convinced themselves that they would get to it after finishing the first list. Sound familiar? After hearing this story, I was deeply moved. I wanted to take immediate action. I wanted to write this blog post. Yet it seemed impossible with hundreds of pages of reading due on Monday, the paper edits my advisor just sent me, the personal statement I promised a friend I would review. How do I beat the fool’s game and break this cycle of always being “too busy” to do anything for myself?

In Wendy Belcher’s 2009 book, Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, she reveals a simple rule to eliminating anxiety about writing projects. She recommends setting a timer and only dedicating 15 minutes a day to writing. As you can imagine, that rule can be applied to anything. We can all find 15 minutes a day to spare on something that we care about! So naturally, I tried it. And I was amazed. I drafted this blog post in 15 minutes (though it takes hours to edit). In 15-minute increments I finished a 500-page book for pleasure during the quarter. In 15-ish minute increments I was reading research articles, writing summaries, tackling a research presentation that normally would have consumed me for days! The time limit made it low-pressure and I felt great after crossing the task off my to-do list. I magically had created more time in my day!

The real beauty about this approach is that I’m not actually creating more time, but learning to allocate it differently. Learning how to make conscious decisions and be intentional about how I spend my time (thanks SC!).  Typically, I would spend an hour+ reading one article, and another hour going back to write up notes. When I didn’t put a limit on how long to take, I found ways to fill up all the time I had. For me, a timer gave me focus and purpose. It was my cue to hurry up, or move on.

Wanna give it a try?

Take a look at your calendar. Make a ratio of the # of things you HAD to do this week vs. things you WANTED to do. What are some ways that you can manage to incorporate more of the things that fulfill and sustain you? Things that give you the fuel to overcome these (inevitable) waves of self-doubt when they threaten to submerge you? Assess how you feel after each day and keep iterating until it feels good for you.

10 kobo coin

My Ten Kobo Revelation: a Ph.D. is not actually that difficult in and of itself. Almost anyone with enough interest, discipline, and energy can be trained on proper methods, keystone literature, and how to present their results to their peers. This does not devalue the work that a Ph.D. does. I mean, we’re creating new knowledge. However, this does reject the notion that you have to be extremely smart to earn this degree. I believe that the Ph.D. and grad school are so mind-numbing and tiring because all of the EXTRA stuff that has nothing to do with the work but takes 80% of your time

What Actually Takes Most of Your Time in Grad School:

  • Defending your research question and direction to others
  • Figuring out how to fund yourself and your project (and what that even means)
  • Finding a good advisor for you. Not. Trivial.
  • Creating a healthy working relationship with your advisor
  • Fighting for your paper after reviewer feedback
  • Searching deep inside of yourself to even care about that paper anymore during the 11th hour of making edits
  • Managing to keep track of the ever-growing to-do list that mysteriously dictates when you graduate
  • Trying to be genuinely happy for your friend who just bought their first house and keeps inviting you over to meet their fiancé 
  • Worrying about your biological clock as you spend your youth hunched over a computer for a paper that 17 people in the world will read–if you’re lucky.
  • Feeling the need to compare yourself to the student that you overheard loudly discussing how they just got published in Nature
  • Thinking it’s so silly that people ascribe so much self-worth to these journals that you’d never even heard of two years ago…until you start doing it too.
  • Making the time to practice self-care while not hating yourself for every moment not spent working…

P.S. For my skinfolk:
I like to keep it real with y’all. You know that EXTRA work I mentioned? As an underrepresented student, you get an additional serving (don’t even get me started on intersectionality, this post is long enough). If you’re underrepresented, you’ll likely have to engage in diversity-related initiatives on top of your studies. All while still performing at the same level or above your peers. You’ll be asked to: mentor students anywhere from Kindergarteners to first year Ph.D., recruit, advocate, talk on panels, read essays, create new programs, lead new efforts, check faculty members, check students, teach people the history lesson that contextualizes why you’re offended, explain your hair, turn down your music, and sometimes (gulp) even attend department potlucks…all without Blacking on someone.

P.P.S. Updated Confession: I’m still very much afraid. Each day is a new battle with my inner critic. Said simply, “Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you.” – Bethany Hamilton


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