Graduate school makes me sigh so hard my chest hurts.  It’s crushing to realize I’m starting my third year when academically, socially, financially, medically – basically in all aspects of my life, things haven’t improved or progressed in the slightest.  I feel myself unraveling.

What’s worse is that Korean, which used to be an anchor of sanity for me, is turning into a type of anxiety trigger.  It used to be the thing I could turn to when my day wasn’t going well or when I was feeling stressed out.  In that way, I inextricably linked a cherished passion with my lackluster academic life.  Now my Korean immersion actually induces stress because I’m beginning to associate Korean with all the negative emotions I have for grad school.

I’m finally taking a small vacation, and during the past weeks I’ve mostly avoided studying Korean.  Thankfully, I think it’s so prominent among my interests that it’ll be impossible for me to cut it out of my life entirely.  And of course, I have a lot of pleasant memories of Korean, which are collectively more potent than the grad-school-induced negativity I’ve come to associate with it.  My language partner, for one, is the main reason why I still have a smattering of Korean in my daily life.

A while back, I was talking to my language partner (who is also many years my 선배) about all these worries – basically how my research was falling apart, how I’m doubting my abilities as a scientist, how I’m nearly a year behind my peers, she comforted me with this four-character idiom:  대기만성 [大器晩成].

Looking at the Hanja, we have:

  • [큰 대]:  big
  •  [그릇 기]: ability, capability, caliber
  •  [저물 만]:  night; late
  •  [이룰 성]:  accomplish

큰 그릇을 만드는 데는 시간이 오래 걸린다는 뜻으로, 크게 될 사람은 늦게 이루어짐을 이르는 말.  In English, the meaning amounts to:  Great talents are slow to develop.

Regardless of the encouragements we may get from others, we’re all experts at doubting ourselves and thinking we’re not good enough for something.  But just because something is a struggle doesn’t mean you lack the talent or ability to do it.  It’s difficult, but I’m trying not to feel bad about how slowly my research is going and how many setbacks I’ve had compared to my peers.  It may take considerably more time, but hopefully my efforts will pay off and there will come a day my abilities will shine.


  1. Hi Archana, your language partner is so very right! I recently finished my own PhD dissertation and I think I know how you feel about confronting the challenge and setbacks that come with taking on a big project on your own like that.

    I remember everyone, including the experts, telling me that my dissertation topic was overly ambitious, that greater minds had balked at it and that I was setting myself up to fail if I did not trim it down to something more modest. The ambition that drove me was basically the desire to resolve a mystery that everyone in my field talked around but no one ever wanted to actually address. And while I experienced a lot of “Wow” and “Ah-ha!” moments during the research and analysis phase, there were also countless “OMG, where do I go now” moments when I was afraid I would prove everybody right and end up little more than an incompetent, wannabe fraud. It did not help that as I kept trying to resolve the fundamental problem I had taken on, I also had to watch first my cohort, and then even students in the year behind me, and those in the year behind them, cross the finish line and go on to their research and teaching careers wile I was still trying to find that equation.

    But I also had a version of the saying your language partner shared with you ringing in my ear every time one of my equations failed the consistency test. My greatest frustration was that each equation I came up with could address a very localized area of the problem, yet could not be generally applied to the whole system. It took me a while but I realized that this meant that with each obstacle, I had to develop a greater talent for analysis, discover why the questions I was asking were yielding dead-end answers and learn how to formulate more fruitful questions — in essence, keep my drawing board fresh and active. In essence, I had to develop a talent for properly contextualizing all the data I was getting (desired and undesired) from the equations I was formulating, pay attention to (rather than painfully ignore) inconsistent variables and ABSOLUTELY minimize assumptions. In the end, the most basic question was, how do the minute details of the system fit/work together, where is the data within the system to illustrate my findings and why does understanding the mechanism of these minutiae matter to understanding the structure and function of the whole system? So any equation that made an assumption that could not be demonstrated to be true within the system I was analyzing simply had to go. We’re talking X-treme lex parsimoniae!

    And in order to do all of that, I had to be patient, remembering that, just like “great talents are slow to develop”, “great challenges as slow to overcome,” and that they require an uncommon perseverance and presence of mind, be it of the individual or of the collective. As an individual, I could more readily regulate my patience and perseverance and that gave me the strength to tolerate the external voices and naysayers (notice I did not really have to change their minds or deal with them per se, just tolerate their inevitable pressure), to maintain focus on resolving the problem I had proposed for myself and to remember why the question mattered to me in the first place.

    I’ll just conclude by telling you that I found the solution and it was amazing! I was thus able to write the dissertation I wanted to write (and not just go through the motions of t-crossing and i-dotting for a certificate) and when I got my doctorate, My conscience was clear, my heart elated and my mind razor sharp.

    So, in the words of popular k-Dramas, “Hwighting!”


    1. Archana says:

      Congratulations on finishing your dissertation and thank you for the inspiring story! A lot of my problems are due to the fact that my proposed project was overly ambitious as well. In the months that I worked on it the outcome didn’t look promising enough to my committee, so I made the decision to start something different… seeing as I’ve decided to start from square one in my third year, the end seems no where in sight. It’s quite disheartening. But I’m still trying to push through.


  2. What an excellent saying! As a graduate student myself who has taken longer than the usual time allotted to finish up (I’ll be defending this fall), I think that that quote was rather timely. Also, keep at it, you can do it! Hwaiting!


    1. Archana says:

      Good luck on your defense and thank you!


  3. Jibril says:

    As a former grad student, I can attest to the fact that my years spent studying were also a season for sighing. All I can say is, it gets better.

    Also, taking a break from Korean too can’t be all bad. I had several periods where I felt especially lost and reconsidered my my relationship to grad school and to Korean because stress from one area seeped into the other. After a hiatus, I quickly realized how much Korean had become a part of my life and how removing it entirely or giving up on because of occasional bad encounters would leave such a gaping hole.


    1. Archana says:

      It’s so comforting to hear from former graduate students :)

      You’re right. I’m on a semi-hiatus at the moment and even then I can’t extract Korean entirely from my life. The moments I go back feel like a breath of fresh air.


  4. darkfire382 says:

    I’ve been feeling this same way with a couple of things- mainly with attaining a degree. I’m about to enter my third year of college and I feel like I’m moving so slow. I’ve changed majors, I’m still unsure about how I’m going to earn this degree and where I’ll need to go, and I’m having trouble finding the joy in learning again. I know if I can get through it all that the reward will be great, but sometimes it’s all just stressful and UGH. I’ve learned that sometimes when things are difficult you gotta take a break to reset priorities and gain motivation and then start working with a new plan to get what you want.


    1. Archana says:

      You’re exactly right. It’s better to take time off and think about what you truly want instead of pushing through things that make you unhappy. Good luck to you!


  5. alodia says:

    Another expert on doubting oneself – me, me, me!
    I can’t deal with my academic life anymore – the stress and pressure was just too unbearable for me. The previous semester was like hell. And the coward me ran away – to Korea. Initially planning what darkfire said – take a break, gain motivation and start working on a new plan. It was a good plan – only if it worked out. Instead, I lost my last streak of hope, whatever confidence I have left, and my entire self – not to mention getting hurt in the process. I still don’t know how to start again or if I ever want to start again. :( And heck I am not even in grad school! This is just undergrad and I can’t handle it!


    1. Archana says:

      So sorry to hear that Dia :( I can’t offer many words of comfort because I’m going through something very similar (minus the heartbreak). All I can say is that, instead of thinking about the future and stressing myself out, I just try to make it through one day at a time, and consider that an accomplishment. Take care!


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