Furthermore, I would argue, being a graduate student in the United States is especially conducive to certain pathologies. Let me explain: Those of you who know me may have heard me complaining about being "bored" during my first term here in Cambridge. I had become so used to the non-stop, structured classwork grind of grad school in the U.S., and the accompanying existential feelings of inadequacy, that a marked absence of both--there is no required coursework for PhD students in my department--left me feeling like I wasn't doing anything.
But of course, it isn't true that I "wasn't doing anything" this term. I kept my plate full with lectures and seminars and undergraduate supervisions. I read around the field and refined my research prospectus. I attended a national conference back in the U.S. and received an award for my work. I have been working on applications for a couple of grants and otherwise laying the foundation for the stuff that is to come.
Yet without much in the way of a formal structure to the PhD program, there is little opportunity to measure the extent of my progress--and my insecure personality means that I find it easy to worry that I'm somehow falling short. My one source of feedback is my supervisor...and though I've no doubt that in the future I will have a gray hair (or thirty) with his name on it, for now he seems pleased as punch. And his pleasure, furthermore, is no small thing. I can't tell you how many times I've seen other grad students in my department laugh nervously when his name comes up in conversation; he has a reputation for being brutally critical. His broad smile during our last meeting is surely a positive sign that I'm doing something right! I can only hope that his personal standards are meaningful in the world beyond Cambridge's hallowed halls.
In short--I'm doing well enough and not killing myself (yet!) in order to get there. I've even gotten the green light to begin writing the first couple of chapters of my thesis. All good, then?
Even so, I do on occasion find myself wishing that my supervisor would push me harder. What if I'm not living up to my full potential here? After all, there's no one who cannot improve somehow, and I have no one to kick me in the proverbial ass because, according to the one person in the position to do so, my work is already "really excellent," and that's plenty for now. From the UK perspective, the U.S. graduate educational system has so warped my sense of accomplishment that I don't feel like I'm achieving unless I'm also contemplating suicide during the process!
At the end of the day, it may well be that I will not emerge with the PhD in hand quite as good a scholar as I would have been had I stayed in the United States...but on the plus side, my psychological health should be way better than the average U.S. PhD! So I can only hope that "good enough" will be sufficient. Guess we'll all find out in three years whether it is or not.