Tips for Graduate School #2: You Are (Probably Not) Failing

June 28th, 2011

Hi everyone. Don’t think that I forgot about you while I’m on vacation! I wrote the following a week ago while looking out a cruise ship window at Alaska, between Ketchikan and Juneau. Part three has also been written and I know what part 5 will be. No idea about part 4 though. Anyway, here is the second part of this series! Since I’m listing them all, part 1 is here.

My second tip for graduate school is to dispel the feeling that you are a failure. This phenomenon is very common among graduate students. I’ve heard from many people that they feel they are going to fail, or that they are not good enough, that everyone else is doing better than they are, or that they’ve tricked everyone else into thinking they are competent. Even one of my advisors had admitted to me that he felt the same way decades ago when he had just graduated! I’ve personally never felt that I was a failure as a grad student so I figure that I have something important to say about this issue.

I hesitate to say that you are in fact, not a failure. Some programs accept students knowing that some of their students will fail, and they will fail the worse-performing students. And, I have seen students fail. However, it is a different issue entirely if you think you are going to fail when you in fact are succeeding. This type of thinking causes undue stress, and may become self-fulfilling.

In order to see whether you are underestimating your graduate school ability, ask yourself this: “Is there evidence that you are failing?” For example, if you are taking courses, are you getting bad grades? If your grades are good, you are by definition not failing graduate school, so stop worrying! But even if you have a lot of bad grades, is there something you could do differently to improve in the future? (Also consider that you may have “failed” not due to your own lack of aptitude, but due to circumstances outside of your control, like departmental politicking or the flu). Graduate school is a long (possibly very long) process so earlier problems can be corrected in the long run. If you strive to improve on your faults, you will give yourself an advantage.

A little negativity can therefore be advantageous to your education because it makes you want to work harder. The problem is if you’re doing excellently but still think you are underperforming. Try to objectively view your situation, or ask people you trust about their impressions of your progress. For example, one day while I was in my depressed period I noticed that I accomplished graduate school stuff more easily than some of the other students. Considering this observation, I realized that I was “getting it” and everything else aside, at least I was doing OK in anthropology (two of the other students later failed). Hopefully you will also observe evidence of your progress good or bad, and feel appropriately about what you discover.

Here are links for further reading on a related topic, courtesy of “Stinking Thinking: Do These 8 Patterns of Limited Thinking Apply to You?” and “Are You Still Afraid of Failure?

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