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Why Smart Students Struggle in Graduate School and What You Can Do About It
(full story below)

by Dora Farkas, PhD

Graduate School: My Rite of Passage to the World of PhD’s

It was my second year in graduate school.

I couldn’t believe how nervous I was, and no matter how slowly I tried to breathe my hands were shaking and I felt like I lost my voice.

I was sitting (or trying to sit) in my department’s office to be called in for the oral part of my qualifying exam.

I knew that in the previous year they failed 20% of the students, and I had studied for nearly 2 months for this exam.

What will my family think of me if I didn’t pass?

They had made so many sacrifices so that I could go to a PhD program in the US, that I could not imagine telling them that I was kicked out of my program.

The kind administrative assistant in the office sensed my anxiety, and asked if she could help in any way.

“Oh no,” I replied. ” I am just nervous because I am worried that they will ask me questions that I don’t know.”

Her face got very serious and she said:

“I hate to break this to you, but they will definitely ask you questions that you cannot answer.

They will find out your area of weakness and grill you on it.”

Was this supposed to make me feel better?

“But don’t worry. They do it to everyone. It is their rite of passage to toughen you up. Just because you don’t know every answer, it doesn’t mean they will fail you.”

“My advice is that if you don’t know the answer just admit it – don’t make it up,” she continued.

“They will do their best to embarrass you, but you don’t have to take it personally.”

I finally let out a big sigh, feeling a 1000 lbs. lighter than just a few minutes earlier.

I then heard my name and I knew it was my turn.

After an hour of grilling, I came out exhausted.

They really did know how to find my weak spots, and kept asking me questions in those areas.

They didn’t tell me whether I passed I or not, but it didn’t matter.

It was over, and I knew that I did my best.

(The next day they announced that everyone in my cohort had passed.)

The brief conversation I had with the administrative assistant on the day of my qualifying exam had a profound impact on me for the rest of graduate school.

I understood that graduate school was meant to challenge me, and all the frustrations (and embarrassments) were part of the process to becoming a PhD.

You are in Graduate School to Learn, Not to Look Smart

While everyone in my class passed the qualifying exams, the time to graduation varied from 5 to 8 years.

The student who took 8 years to finish graduate school was at the top of our class while we were taking courses

Yet, she struggled in her research and ended up with one dead-end project after another.

Why did one of the smartest students (as measured by our GPA’s) take the longest to finish her PhD?

The main reason that she took so long to finish was that she hesitated to ask for help from her supervisor when she got stuck.

She was so used to getting high grades that she worried about what others would think of her if she admitted that she “failed.”

For years this bright student struggled with the Impostor Syndrome, which led to lower self-esteem and performance.

While she took the longest time to graduate, I believe all of us were guilty to some extent to trying to look smart instead of learning.

Learning and trying to look smart, are practically opposites.

When you focus on learning, you ask questions and in the process you admit that you don’t know something or that you need help.

If you are preoccupied with looking smart because you are worried about what others think of you, you are getting in the way of your learning process.

You will be reluctant to ask questions and reach out for help, and this can cost you an extra 6-12 months in graduate school.

Do You Have a Fixed or a Growth Mindset?

Carol Dweck, a professor in psychology at Stanford University, showed that people’s success depends more on their beliefs about intelligence rather than their innate intelligence.

People with a “fixed” mindset believe that their intelligence and skills are traits that cannot be changed.

On the other hands, those with a “growth” mindset believe that their abilities can improve with training.

If you have a fixed mindset, graduate school will be a struggle no matter how intelligent you are, because you will see your failures as character flaws in yourself rather than opportunities for learning.

A growth mindset, however, will empower you to recover quickly from setbacks, learn from your mistakes, and become more productive.

According to Dweck, your mindset may stem from your upbringing.

Dweck and her colleagues conducted a study with hundreds of children to investigate the effect of praise on performance.

After an easy IQ test, children were praised in one of two ways for their high scores: 1) their intelligence “You must be really smart” or 2) their effort “You must have worked really hard.”

Afterwards, the children were asked to do a second test and were given the option of doing a similar test, or one that was more challenging.

While the difference in the way they were praised was subtle, children who were praised for their effort were three times as likely to choose the harder test in comparison with the children who were praised for their intelligence.

The children were then given a very difficult test that was beyond their skill level.

Those who were praised for their efforts, worked harder on the test and enjoyed the process, while children who were praised for being smart gave up early and became frustrated.

The most interesting part of the study was a fourth test, which was similar to the first easy test.

Children who were praised for being smart scored lower than in the first test, and those who were praised for their efforts scored higher than the first time.

Dweck explained that children who were praised for being smart, assumed that others admired them for their intelligence and they did not want to disprove their evaluation.

You may recognize that you have a fixed mindset.

If your parents and teachers praised you for being smart, they probably had the best intentions in encouraging you.

Can you change your mindset as a graduate student? Absolutely!

You can transition from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset simply by becoming aware of how you react to setbacks.

In order to grow, you must stretch and challenge yourself, and making mistakes is a natural part of the process of learning

The next time you make a mistake you have the choice of interpreting it as 1) a sign that you are not cut our for graduate school, or 2) an opportunity for growth.

The first choice will lead to unnecessary frustration, while the second choice will encourage you to take on more challenges and become successful in the long run.

Why Graduate School is Invaluable to Develop a Growth Mindset

Graduate school may be grueling, and it is a small wonder that about 50% of PhD students drop out.

In addition to the challenges inherent to completing a graduate degree, many students consider leaving because of the uncertainty of their careers after completing their PhD.

Is it worth finishing graduate school if your chances of landing a professorship are about 3%?

You may be disappointed to realize that your best chance of finding employment is outside academia (and perhaps outside your field).

However, graduate school offers numerous opportunities to pick up skills that are marketable in any career path:

Reason #1: Your writing skills will improve tremendously

In order to become a PhD candidate in the first place, you need a good grasp of how to write.

Going all the way and finishing your degree will push your skills to the next level, and put you in an elite category of writers.

Most people will never even attempt to write something as ambitious as a PhD dissertation, let alone finish it.

Compiling years of research—and hundreds of pages of notes—into a cohesive thesis takes organization, talent, and most of all, diligence.

Once you’ve completed your PhD degree you’ll be an expert at one of the hardest parts of the writing process: sitting down and getting started, day after day after day.

I haven’t even mentioned the numerous papers you’ll write, or co-write.

Even if you don’t pursue a career in academia, you’ll still be grateful for your wealth of writing experience.

In fact, in non-academic fields, your writing skills will give you even more of a competitive edge.

If there’s one thing my years of writing have taught me, it’s this: when it comes to writing, your brain is like a muscle.

It gets stronger the more you exercise it; and the more you push yourself to think about a piece and then write it out, the easier it becomes.

Even in highly-skilled professions, basic writing skills are increasingly rare.

According to a study from CollegeBoard, blue-chip businesses spend over $3 billion every year on remedial writing training for their employees.

For an employer who’s searched high and low for good writers to hire, a doctorate signals that you’re a sound investment.

Reason #2: You’ll have better interpersonal skills

As a PhD candidate, you know that the stereotype of the grad student, working alone in a lab or in front of a computer, is only a small part of the story.

The most successful graduate students are those who learn to work effectively as part of a team.

Working alongside professors or peers in grad school requires unique interpersonal skills, which are different from typical cooperation.

Academics tend to be independent-minded and ambitious thinkers.

Plus, collaborations in grad school are often focused on extremely complex and difficult projects.

In addition, completing a PhD degree requires building lasting professional relationships with mentors, including your advisor.

You will also need to learn to navigate bureaucracy in order to access the resources you need.

No matter what your field, these are all skills that will give you a head start in achieving your career goals.

Reason#3: You’ll have the self-confidence that comes with knowing you stuck with your degree, instead of quitting

If your confidence is faltering in grad school, you’re not alone.

According to a 2014 piece in Forbes magazine, as much as 70% of the American population has struggled with “imposter syndrome” at some point in their lives.

This is particularly true with people on the path of higher education, since academia attracts people who do a lot of thinking, and have high expectations for themselves.

For graduate students, the question of how to craft their own self-esteem is essential.

To psychologists, the answer to this question is clear: self-esteem comes from personal and professional achievement.

Researchers have analyzed what gives people a lasting sense of satisfaction with their abilities.

Instead of high self-esteem leading to high achievement, study after study indicates that the opposite is true.

According to an article in Psychology Today, describing thousands of self-esteem studies, nothing gives people self-confidence like setting goals, working towards them, and then achieving them.

As a Wall Street Journal article puts it, “high self-esteem is the result of good performance.”

As anyone who is getting their PhD degree knows, the path to earning a doctorate takes a lot of both labor and time.

However, while it takes effort, it’s all in service of the field you’re most passionate about.

Once you’ve finished your PhD, you will have accomplished something that only a small percent of the population have.

You’ll have earned the respect of your colleagues and peers, and done it while distinguishing yourself academically.

By receiving the title of doctor, you will earn self-confidence in the most meaningful way.
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