Three Strategies to Help You Get Unstuck in Graduate School

 

“I Wish I Never Started Graduate School…”

“How did it go?,” I asked my friend, Jackie, when she came out of her supervisor’s office.

Jackie looked at me without saying a word – but her eyes told the whole story.

Her eyeliner was smeared just slightly, as if she had been trying to hold herself back from crying for the past hour.

It was only a few minutes after 2pm, but she headed straight for the elevator without picking up her backpack from her office.

I waited in silence with her until the elevator came.

“He ripped my paper to shreds.” she finally said. “This has been such a waste of my time. I wish I never started graduate school. See you.”

After the elevator door closed, I remembered that Jackie was not always this way.

As a first year student, she was enthusiastic about her studies, energetic, and captain of our local volleyball team.

How did she turn into a bitter and frustrated student, who had lost her self-confidence?

She was in her fifth year of graduate school, and for the previous six months, Jackie was caught up in a never-ending loop of writing her first publication.

After the first version, her supervisor told her to run additional experiments to collect more data.

He approved of the data in her second draft had, but he asked her to re-do the entire statistical analysis.

Now, she was up to her third version and after seeing the results of her statistical analysis, Jackie’s supervisor asked her to collect more data – again.

According to him, Jackie “should” have noticed the gaps in her arguments, and ran the experiments before their meeting.

No wonder she could barely contain herself from crying.

Jackie felt that no matter how hard she tried, she would never live up to her supervisor’s expectations.

He probably thought she was a slacker, and didn’t work hard enough to finish her manuscript.

Jackie felt stuck in her writing process, and graduate school as well.

When will this manuscript writing ever end, and why was her supervisor being so critical of her?

 

“They Do This To Each Other All the Time”

Jackie did have one academic success that she was proud of.

While her manuscript was not finished, she had submitted an abstract to a conference and was accepted for a poster presentation.

She left for her conference about a month after her supervisor “ripped” the third version of her manuscript to pieces.

When she came back, one of the first things she told me was “they do this to each other all the time.”

“Do what?” I asked.

“You know, just rip apart each other’s work. I couldn’t believe how mean some profs were to the speakers – it was almost like they were looking for problems.”

Jackie described how heated the debates were during some of the oral presentations.

“I felt so bad for the speakers, that they were embarrassed in front of hundreds of people. But the weird thing was that after that they were just chatting with each other at the poster session as if nothing had happened.”

The conference was an eye-opener for Jackie, because she learned critiquing each other’s work in research was just part of the process of doing science. 

The speakers didn’t take it personally if someone questioned their research in front of hundreds of people – in fact, they used that opportunity to strike up a conversation later with the very person who had “embarrassed” them.

Jackie shared this story with me at just the right time in graduate school – a few weeks before my committee meeting.

I had been terrified of this meeting, because all I kept thinking about was how embarrassed I would feel if I couldn’t answer their questions.

I then realized that no matter how much I prepared for the meeting, they would probably ask me questions and look for weaknesses in my arguments. It was just part of the “process.”

In fact, I was not able to answer all the questions and there were uncomfortable moments during my committee meeting.

Thanks to Jackie’s story from the conference, I was prepared for questions and didn’t take their criticism personally.

Jackie had also changed her attitude during the meetings with her supervisor.

After her conference she realized that criticism, even if it was harsh and uncomfortable, was just part of the process, and not a sign that she was a “slacker.”

This little shift in Jackie’s thinking completely changed how she approached writing her manuscript.

It took her two more months to finish it, but she finally felt like she was “capable” of finishing what she had started instead even is she had to endure unpleasant meetings with her supervisor.

 

Three Strategies To Help You Get Unstuck in Graduate School Even When You Feel Like a Slacker

Do you ever want to beat yourself up when your supervisor critiques your work?

Or, do you feel embarrassed when you compare yourself to your peers who seem to be “ahead” of you?

Most graduate school programs are very competitive and these feelings can creep up on you very subtly.

Professors don’t tell you that getting your Masters or PhD degree is meant to be hard, and when you think you are not smart enough for graduate school you will feel “stuck”

Before you know it, you may be “hiding” from your supervisor because you feel like you are behind, or shy away from discussing your progress with your peers because they may judge you.

You may even subconsciously think you are a “slacker”, or joke with your friends that you have been “slacking off.”

These thoughts are no joke.

There are few things that will crush your motivation more than feeling like you are not “good enough” or you “should” be farther along.

Eventually these thoughts can lead to a burnout, or feeling like you are “stuck” in graduate school.

If you catch yourself thinking that you are slacker or you are losing hope that you will ever finish, try the following three strategies:

1) Keep working, despite setbacks, mistakes, and conflicts with your supervisor

Getting through graduate school takes a very different set of skills than excelling in college or a job.

It takes a lot of courage to take the plunge into a graduate school program – always appreciate how far you have already come. 

You need to be consistently performing at a high level over a long period of time.

You have to be your own supervisor and set your own schedule, your own milestones, deadlines.

The only way to get unstuck  is to take action.

When you take action, even a very small action such as reaching out to someone for help, you are making progress.

If you are going through a burnout or have not taken any action in a while, start small.

Just 15 minutes a day (write a few paragraphs, talk with an expert, read an article) can help you dissolve the feelings of being “stuck.”

Nobody wrote their thesis in one day, and neither will you.

But, you can take one step every day no matter how many setbacks you had, how many mistakes you made, or how harsh your supervisor’s criticism might be.

2) Turn mistakes and setbacks as learning opportunities

If you are used to getting perfect grades in college, you may be uncomfortable with the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect thesis.

You will make mistakes, experience unexpected setbacks in your work (instruments break down, meetings get cancelled), and have conflicts with your supervisor and coworkers.

There is nothing you can do to change this, it just the nature of research.

But, you can change how you react to events that are outside of your control.

You can either interpret a mistake as proof that “you are not smart enough” or an opportunity to become an even better researcher.

For example, if you view mistakes as learning opportunities, you will become a much better mentor to younger researchers who will probably make similar mistakes.

Think about all the life lessons you would miss if you did everything right the first time.

The fact that you are in graduate school shows that you have the courage to stamina to be comfortable with making mistakes. 

Be proud of yourself that you have been able to withstand the uncertainties in graduate school.

3) Stand up for yourself when your supervisor or someone else tries to put you down

Now you know that being critiqued is part of the process to finishing your PhD.

But, that does not mean that you cannot speak up for yourself if you disagree with someone or they disrespect you.

Students who think that they must agree with others in order to avoid conflict are heading in the direction of a passive attitude, because they put the interests of others before their own.

If there is a disagreement between you and your advisor, listen calmly to what he or she has to say and explain your own reasoning afterwards.

You can become more comfortable during meetings if you have a written agenda and use examples from the literature or your own data to strengthen your arguments.

Remember that at the workplace your primary goal is to build collegial relationships rather than to agree with your coworkers on every issue.

Don’t let criticism stop you from continuing your research and speaking up for yourself – professors usually have respect for students who are confident about their ideas.

Once you recognize the factors that are holding you back, you can shift your perspective and strategy to finish your Dissertation and explore PhD level career opportunities.  

Dora Farkas, PhD

View Comments

  • Thank you so much for these words Dora! I am so happy that you are writing about these things, cause its a lonely process I find. I have been on sick-leave for burnout for a year and am slowly gaining strength again to continue with my writing process. Your words really give me hope, that I am not alone feeling this or that. All the best, from Sweden

    • Hi Vivi, Thank you so much for sharing your story! I feel honored that my article has given you motivation to continue your studies. I am very impressed that you are continuing to write after being on sick-leave - that is fantastic! Sending you lots of positive energy all the way to Sweden:) Keep up the awesome work!

  • It is so helpful. Always your post it gives me more confidence to approach my dissertation work

    • You are most welcome Daniel! Keep up the great work. I look forward to hearing about your progress :)

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