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Learning to Let Go of Perfectionism in Grad School

I am a perfectionist by nature, but the professors have told us not to be that way in grad school. How do I shut it off? – Anonymous 

Some of the content from this article was first published by Core Programs. It has been revised and updated. 

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for writing in! I applaud your self-awareness to know that perfectionism is part of your nature and something that may keep you from putting your best foot forward in graduate school. Please know that you are not alone in struggling with perfectionism. The culture of academia tends to promote the notion that your work is always under the toughest scrutiny, leaving little room for error or work that may be rough around the edges.

Your professors are likely telling you to let go of perfectionism because that mindset is extremely difficult to sustain in graduate school. Let’s consider why that may be true. For some students, perfectionism may lead to staying up all night to finish a paper, which — especially when done repeatedly — may be detrimental to their emotional and physical health. Other students may set goals that are impossible to reach which may lead to procrastination, avoidance and feeling not good enough.

I encourage you to shift your thinking so you can acknowledge yourself as a whole person. Four thoughts below may give you ideas for how to approach your work differently:

  1. Accept – Perfectionism reduces you to the sum of what you can and can’t accomplish. The reality is you can’t do it all, and you can’t do it all perfectly. Be concrete and intentional in your goal setting each quarter, so you can do work that is manageable and meaningful to you. Adjust your goals as you go so you know what is really possible to accomplish now, this weekend or this week.
  2. Invite – Perfectionistic thinking distorts the way you perceive the quality of your work and can contribute to isolation. Instead of feeling like you have to buckle down and work harder, make time to ask peers, faculty advisors and colleagues to talk through your work with you and help you to clarify your ideas. Framing something as a “work-in-progress” can take some pressure off. Knowledge production is a process, not a product. Nobody just “gets there” from sheer self-determination.
  3. Ground – Perfectionism can perpetuate obsessive thinking on school or work-related projects. Intentionally spend time with friends, family and community who know you are more than just a graduate or professional student. Your community can help remind you that you are a partner, sibling, parent, friend, artist, dancer, gamer, hiker… the list goes on and on.
  4. Enough – Accepting “this is enough” means that you have done the best you could given the time, experience and resources available, and it is time to be done. It also means you are enough, just as you are. Remember that intellectual and professional development are constant processes that require supportive feedback, self-revision and personal growth over time; you won’t get there all at once, and that’s OK!

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to move forward. I also want to leave you with additional resources that some of your fellow grad students have found helpful:

The Battle Between Perfectionism and Productivity: A Ph.D. student gives some well-tested advice for figuring out why you are struggling with perfectionism and how to cope with it.

How to Overcome Perfectionism: This tool from an anxiety-awareness organization in Canada gives steps for recognizing and coping with perfectionism.

This’ll Do: Kelly Edwards, associate dean of Student and Postdoctoral Affairs in the Graduate School, explains her family’s saying “this’ll do” and why she has carried it into the workplace.

As well, if you are still feeling overwhelmed or simply want more specific strategies for coping with perfectionism, I encourage you to consider short-term counseling with the UW Counseling Center. Managing academic stress as well as moods and thoughts are all topics appropriate for short-term counseling, according to the Counseling Center.

All the best,

The Grad School Guide

Ask the Grad School Guide is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guide doesn’t know the answer, the guide will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guide is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →