Every now and then, a grad student is lucky enough to have a mentor that will praise him or her on a regular basis. This is so rare that I have never heard of it happening. Usually, as a grad student, you are only praised once in a blue moon. And I'm not talking about mediocre or plain bad grad students, and I'm not being picky about what I call "praise", or requiring that kudos be lavished for the tiniest or most simple tasks, such as mearly showing (although sometimes this would have been very helpful). No--for the sake of this argument, let's give praise this definition:
When you are doing an exceptional job, or accomplish something impressive, you are bestowed with the following words: "Good job."
Even with this measly definition of praise, it doesn't happen very often. In fact, it wasn't until after my defense that some members of my committee very slid some really quality praise into our conversations. They did it almost sneakily, as if afraid that I would notice that they praised me. And we certainly couldn't have that.
I vividly recall when a particularly no-nonsense, kind of gruff bigwig told me one day, almost off-handedly, that I was a very good grad student, and he thought I would be a great researcher. I was so surprised that I said something like, "Wow, it's nice to hear that. We don't really get positive reinforcement like that."
He looked at me strangely and said, "You shouldn't need it."
I thought about those words for a long time. On one hand, it's true. We should be able to get to a point in our training where we know if we are doing a good job; we shouldn't need to hear it from anyone else. On the other hand--and I think this gets to the core of why grad school is so hard--we are beginners. Students. Just starting out. But they never really treat you like that. No, the way they approach training is to throw you in with both hands, and turn and walk away. A lot of the time they don't even stick around to see if you sink or swim; they might come back a few years later and see if there's a body to fish out of the pool, but that's about it. It's not as though they lavish you with praise early on and wean you off of it over time. No, in most cases, if they run into you later, they'll say, "Hey--way to get out of that pool without drowning."
So, if you are a mentor with access to grad students (they're easy to spot; just look for the most haggard, depressed people in the halls), I implore you: throw a little kindness their way. If they are doing a great job, would it kill you to let them know about it? In my experience, one morsel of praise can sustain a downtrodden student for months.
In the meantime, we will have to develop the ability to evaluate and praise ourselves. This task is almost insurmountably difficult, at least for me. If you're an insecure person (me!), it's tough to be fair with yourself. If you're an overly confident person (I know lots!), it's tough to be fair with yourself. But, with practice, and importantly, some caring, honest friends, you might be able to get to the point where you look yourself in the mirror after a particularly trying day and say to yourself:
Boy, you sure did screw the pooch on that one.