On being ... tainted

By Ingrid Sapona

A friend of mine’s daughter is working on her Master’s degree -- actually, her second Master’s. Last week she was home on a mid-semester break and she spent much of it working. Before she came home my friend mentioned that his daughter had been quite stressed-out by school and he hoped she’d be able to relax and de-stress a bit that week. That didn’t happen. Instead, he reported that her anxiety increased as she worked at home.

Though mindful the details were none of my business, I asked if he knew what was causing the anxiety, as I was hoping there might be some words of comfort I could offer him -- perhaps some story from my own academic trials and tribulations that might convince him that things will turn out alright. My friend said he thought it related to comments from one professor on one required course. I asked about the nature of the comments, but he didn’t know and was afraid to ask. I urged him to find out whether it might be a personality clash rather than something academic, as my friend seemed to assume it was.

Now, a bit of back-story: my friend’s daughter had some learning problems in school. I don’t know the nature of the problems (I didn’t know him back then), but I know the family did all they could to help with tutors, etc. Without belittling whatever academic hurdles she faced, clearly his daughter has done really well, having so far earned a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree.

In one of our first conversations about this a few weeks ago, my friend repeated concerns he mentioned at about this time last year when his daughter was stressed about a statistics course, which she ended up doing well in. In particular, he worried she might be setting herself up for a tremendous disappointment if she doesn’t do well. A normal loving parent’s reaction, it’s true, but I knew there was more to it than that. Sure enough, he then mentioned “the conditional acceptance thing”, as he refers to it.

A bit more back-story: a couple years ago, as she was finishing her Master’s degree, to my friend’s surprise, his daughter decided she wanted to go after a PhD -- likely in pursuit of a career in academics. She applied and was rejected from a couple PhD programs, including from the university she’s attending now. Though they wouldn’t admit her into to their PhD program, they told her she could enroll in their Master’s program and, if she’s successful, they’d let her continue on for a PhD. Though it was an acceptance, the way it was handled left her feeling somewhat rejected. Nonetheless, she enrolled.

My friend said he thinks the conditional acceptance adds to his daughter’s stress because she worries that any sign of struggle proves they were right not to welcome her into the PhD program and, worse still, could be the basis on which they might deny her entry into it when she completes this Master’s. If she’s thinking those thoughts, she’s struggling with something much harder to deal with than a difficult course: she’s struggling with working under a taint. I’ve been in similar situations -- where the taint of what someone’s said has undermined my self-confidence and made me feel that a cloud is hanging over everything I do, preventing the sun from letting me shine.

During the week she was home, I know one of the discussions they had was whether she should quite the program – something she raised, not him. As you can imagine, when this came up, my friend trod very carefully, not wanting to encourage or discourage whatever choice she made, as she would have to be the one to live with it. She ended up returning to school and, personally, I was really glad because if she had quit, I think she might have been misreading a tainted situation with one where the proverbial well was poisoned.

There’s no doubt a tainted situation can be harmful, but it’s not the same as a poisoned well situation where the best thing to do is cut your losses and move on. Living under a taint is not healthy, but it’s not fatal. The danger inherent in a tainted situation comes from a loss of objectivity. What do I mean? Well, in this case, for example, my friend’s ability to objectively assess whether his daughter will succeed in her academic aspirations is tainted by his recollection of her struggling with learning problems in her youth. As well, his daughter’s ability to objectively assess her chances of the university denying her the chance to move on to the PhD program seems impaired, causing her to undervalue the fact she’s done well so far in the program, both academically and as a teaching assistant.

Though my friend hasn’t asked for my advice, he knows I’ve been thinking about the situation and when I asked, he said I could write about it. So, here’s my two cents on it: when you’re in a situation that has somehow become tainted, you have to step back and see it for what it is and then you have to be vigorous in demanding objectivity from all -- including yourself. Once objectivity is restored, the taint will tarnish, the playing field will level, and you can go on about the business of doing and being your best.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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