How to Deal with Insecurity Before and During Grad School

Insecurity is a pervasive part of the grad school experience, and is perfectly natural. However, you don’t want insecurity to cloud your decision-making or hinder your experience of grad school. Here are some tips for dealing with insecurity before and during grad school.

Examples of insecurity

Before you get in, it’s “Is my profile good enough to get me in?”

When you get in, it’s “Wait! There’s been a mistake! They let me in! How did this blessed computer glitch happen! Huzzah!”

After you get in, it’s “I can’t handle how hard this is about to be. I can’t go. I need more work experience. I need more money. I need more prep coursework. I need more time. I’m not ready!”

Once you get there, it’s “I’m nowhere near as smart as these people. I am going to be the class dunce. I will have nothing of value to share. I will fail out. Let the countdown begin.”

Once classes begin, it’s “My professor does not know my name. Oh, she knows my name, but she hates me and thinks I’m stupid. How did I get here?!”

and the wheel of crazy spins on and on…

I entertained some version of all of these insecure thoughts throughout my grad school experience, and I hear these fears expressed by my clients all the time. Thankfully, I was able to get a grip on my insecurity at each point in the process, and to this day, I use the muscles of calm confidence to quell the insecurities that arise occasionally. I teach my clients these same strategies as well as reassure them that everyone gets insecure from time to time. The point is to feel the fear and move forward anyway.

Getting past insecurities

1. Realize that your fears are mostly lying to you.

Perhaps your insecurities are based in facts (i.e. I don’t have much quantitative coursework in my background, I have a low GMAT score, I’ve been out of school for six years, etc.) but your insecurities arise when you start future-tripping about how those neutral facts are going to negatively affect your life. Yes, it is true that you are the oldest person in your class. No, it is not true that this means you will be socially ostracized and unable to keep up in the classroom. That is a lie that your fear is telling you. Recognize it as a lie based on a kernel of harmless truth, and do not continue to feed your anxiety with more lies.

2. Realize that admissions committees do not admit people by mistake.

If you got into the school, the admissions committee believes that you are capable of doing the work and excelling in the academic community you’ve been admitted to. You have not been admitted by mistake. In fact, I think it’s a strange sort of egotism to apply for something and then doubt the positive outcome of you putting forth an application. Admissions committees benefit from the combined experience and perspective of multiple people. There may have in fact been one or two people on the committee who did not think you belonged at the school, but enough of the right people did believe you belong, so stop thinking you know better than people who read 500+ applications every year, and accept the painful truth that you got into the school you applied to—even if you don’t think you deserve to have gotten in.

3. Realize that people lie—a lot.

Whereas you cried, sweated, and bled over your essays, the next guy says that he threw together an application in a few hours the night before the deadline. You think that he must be a genius and you must be a mouth-breathing imbecile. Wrong. He is lying to make himself look effortlessly high-achieving, and you are falling into the trap of believing him. This silliness will continue on in grad school when some of your classmates say that they spent 20 minutes on last night’s finance homework that took you two migraine-inducing hours. Yes, certain subjects will be far easier for some people than they are for you, but the people who are breezing through grad school are few and far between and you better believe that they aren’t sitting around at the pub bragging about it. Bragging often comes out of insecurity, so understand that the people lying to you about their effortless genius are probably struggling just as much as you are—maybe not academically but perhaps in making new friends, keeping their long-distance relationship intact, or securing interviews for summer internships.

4. Give yourself some space and time to be insecure—and then shut that shit down.

Insecurity breeds more insecurity, fear, and anxiety. You have full permission and my encouragement to be as vulnerable as you need to be. By that, I mean share your fears, insecurities, and anxieties with people you know, love, and trust—people who have earned your vulnerability—and then resolve to trust that all is well, all will be well, and you’ll end up exactly where you belong doing what you should be doing. You don’t need to apologize to anyone for existing, for being imperfect, or for getting closer to your dreams even though you are flawed. Insecurity is what happens when we start and then continually doubt our right to exist and thrive.

We can only sit in insecurity for so long before it starts to eat away at our sense of self and clarity of purpose. I find it helpful to put boundaries around my insecurity. I get to cry on the phone with my fiance tonight about whatifmyplansdon’tworkout, but I will not cry about it tomorrow.

Whether it’s a few days, a few hours, or even just a few minutes, go ahead and be insecure. Think all the bad thoughts. Then let them go and be free.

3 Comments How to Deal with Insecurity Before and During Grad School

  1. Tica

    This is exactly what is going on for me. I got admitted into a MS in Human Services and I am terrified, mostly because English is not my first language I feel I don’t have what it takes to perform well in school. I have so many doubts. I like some of the courses but not all. I am terrified when I read “Capstone” or “gran reporting and writing” “Methods of research” I really doubt that I will do good there.

    1. Kaneisha Grayson

      Hi Tica, I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling so terrified! I suggest you take the steps outlined in the post and get help and support in whatever areas you need to once you’re on campus. I’m sending you well wishes!

  2. Sneha Gathani

    I feel very anxious and scared on most of the days. Moments like this, right now, I stop my work and read to get some help. I am admitted to MS in Computer Science Program at University of Maryland, College Park and this is my first semester. I just graduated from a local university from Indian in May, 2018 and am here now taking 2 800-level courses. All the people around me have more than a year’s experience and been in the research field. I on the other hand, struggle with logics in coding too. There are so many deadlines to meet and even though I’m working and trying hard to cope up, I feel helpless at times. I have started doubting my capabilities and whether I am going to do okay in the future. I don’t know how to get past my feelings.


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