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How Entomology Students With ‘Graduphobia’ Can Face Their Fear of the Unknown

Lina Bernaola at Brazil conference

Entomology students, both undergraduate and graduate, face plenty of pressure, from conducting research to getting published to presenting at conferences. And, perhaps most daunting: embarking upon a career after graduation. Lina Bernaola, a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at Louisiana State University (shown here presenting research at a chemical ecology conference in Brazil) calls the stress of the final stages of academic coursework “graduphobia.” (Photo courtesy of Lina Bernaola)

By Lina Bernaola

Are you an entomology student who is soon to graduate—or who just did—and afraid of what comes next? Facing down the prospect of defending your thesis or dissertation, job hunting, and perhaps a move to another city as you transition from student to early career professional can cause you large amounts of stress. If you are one of the lucky ones with a job lined up already—kudos! However, if you fall into the other category, then don’t feel bad, because you are not alone.

Lina Bernaola

Lina Bernaola

For undergraduate and graduate students, common fears and stresses combine into what I like to call “graduphobia.” I can assure you, this anxiety is very much a real thing. Our feelings can be a bit of a rollercoaster, and it’s why I think some of the toughest challenges are not academic or work-related but rather the psychological roadblocks we throw in front of ourselves in the form of self-doubt. Hopefully, the following will help you navigate through specific fears and potential solutions that many students in entomology face. These fears may not be universal, but they come from observations that I’ve made through my own experience.

1. Publish or else… First, writing a dissertation alone can be overwhelming, especially if you are rushed. I have been writing my dissertation a lot recently, and I’ve been drafting manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals at the same time. Generating new, influential research is taxing enough, but getting that information published is even more draining. So many colleagues of mine fear not publishing enough. Some wonder: What if my manuscript gets rejected?

Solution: Just move forward and resubmit it to another journal. We all know this happens all the time to many people, so don’t spend much time thinking about what went wrong or why. An article may not be accepted for many reasons. Do not forget that all research data is valuable, so there is a reasonable chance that your work could profoundly influence another’s work or thinking on a subject. (Darwin, check your inbox—there may be something important from Mendel in there!)

2. The best laid plans. No matter how well you prepare, experiments or projects may not go as expected. You may need to repeat or even try a new approach to solve your scientific problem. I have lost some insects to residual insecticide in the soil that I didn’t know about. I spent five months attempting my experiments before I discovered the issue.

Solution: Delays such as these are inevitable and can happen to anyone, so be patient and take the time to think critically about what went wrong. Talk to your peers to gain another perspective. If someone had told me, or if I had asked, about the history of the field prior to my work, then I would have saved myself a lot of time. Consider all of the factors that can influence the outcome of your work.

3. Is my work valuable? Also underlying these fears for some is whether their work is appreciated. Every doctoral candidate really believes in the research they conduct, putting long hours into work they believe is important. The fear of your greatest work, the culmination of a years-long endeavor, being ignored makes some feel as if they haven’t contributed to science at all.

Solution: Remember, a dissertation or thesis will always test new hypotheses. The results may not be what you wanted, but the information will provide you another aspect of your project to explore and a starting point for other researchers.

4. Competition in academia and beyond. At the highest levels of your profession, it is tough to stand out of the crowd. Relative to your peers, you might feel that you’re not doing well enough or perhaps even worry about “being found out” (or suddenly discovered to be incompetent) in your department or workplace. Impostor syndrome describes this thought pattern and is widely recognized as being a condition that can make you feel overwhelmed. It was recognized in the 1970’s (see the American Psychological Association’s gradPSYCH magazine cover story, “Feel like a Fraud?“) by doctors of psychology Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. It’s not just in graduate school either; it can follow you throughout your career—whether you stay in academia, work in extension, or find a place at a large company.

Solution: Remember that you were accepted into your study program or job for concrete reasons and that you deserve to be there! Some of the best guidance for defeating the impostor syndrome is crediting yourself, having patience with the belief that an opportunity will come soon or later, internalizing your success, and continuing with the same effort in your work as you have always had. Also, make sure you have a support network by surrounding yourself with people that know you well. When a full-blown case of imposter syndrome sets in, recognize it as a reminder that you are doing something good and worthwhile; you’re pushing yourself to do things outside your comfort zone and still challenging yourself.

5. Writing is tough. Writing doesn’t come easy to most, and that is why it takes time. Feeling overwhelmed in your final semester is natural, but do not be discouraged.

Solution: Outline your work to help you tackle each new chapter in your thesis or dissertation. Writing is a skill that everyone has to practice before they can become good at it. You will gain confidence in your ability the more progress you make. Find the best time for you, morning or night, when your concentration is at its peak. Try to write a little bit every day. Give yourself your best hours to write, and then focus on everything else once you’ve exhausted your mental powers.

6. Standing out. Many people fear not matching up to the competition. You always compare yourself with other people; this is normal in any stage of your career. What things are you missing that would help you reach a three-year goal?

Solution: What makes you different in academics, research extension, and industry is what you need to develop to stand out. That quality might not suddenly appear from one day to another, but think about these questions honestly: Are you great with extension talks? Research? Teamwork? Leading or managing projects? Ultimately, you need to understand both what it is you want most and what you’re good at.

7. Leaving your comfort zone. Networking is important to both students and early career professionals. The competition among new Ph.D. graduates is high, because there are few positions available.

Solution: This is a reality, but networking will help you stand out among 10 other people having the same qualifications as you. If you didn’t have time as a student, then now is the time to network. Attend as many conferences as you can—locally, regionally, nationally, and even internationally—so that you can make connections with scientists. The Entomological Society of America provides an excellent platform to connect with many scientists; it has helped me develop my confidence and leadership skills. And don’t discount volunteering either—you will find many likeminded individuals while having fun and committing your time to a greater cause. In addition, social media can be a great way to reach out beyond your inner circle of contacts. Finally, plan to expand on your networking effort at Entomology 2018 in Vancouver this year.

Lina Bernaola is a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the current student representative to the ESA Governing Board and a member of both the ESA Student Affairs Committee and the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @linabernaola. Email:

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