How I got through my grad school slump


I waited until my Ph.D. committee had left the room to break down. I sank into a chair, head in hands, as my committee meeting form sat unsigned on the lectern. I had just failed my dissertation proposal defense—a poor start to my fourth year of grad school. My committee members had told me that my experiments were too small-scale, my ideas not deep enough. I realize now that they were pushing me because they believed in me. They told me as much. But in that moment, I could not hear anything positive. All I could hear was the voice in my head telling me that I’d failed.

The setback sapped me of all motivation. For the next 4 months, I lacked focus at work. I no longer double-checked that I was fully prepared before starting a lab protocol, and I had trouble finding the energy to even think about re-writing my proposal.

My colleagues were right about one thing: The outcome of my proposal defense wasn’t the only cause of my slump. After some thought, it dawned on me that I had been putting undue pressure on myself throughout grad school. To believe I was making good progress, I needed external validation—an award, positive results, or praise from professors I respected. When I didn’t get those things at every opportunity, I felt I was not on the right track.

That mindset became a hindrance during my third year, because I didn’t have much new to show for my efforts in the lab. I spent time repeating experiments as I started to mold my findings into a publishable format, and I attempted a few long-shot experiments that failed. I received fewer compliments on my work, and that made me feel as though I was progressing slowly compared with earlier in my Ph.D. program. To make matters worse, I compared myself to my peers, and when awards went to others, I wilted.

In the weeks leading up to my proposal defense, I suffered from anxiety because I feared that my committee would see the shortcomings that I perceived in myself. Lacking confidence in my work, I proposed experiments that were doable but not exactly paradigm-shifting. And when I didn’t pass, the failure confirmed my self-doubts. Eventually, as my loss of confidence became a bigger problem, I knew that I had to do something about it.

My new approach … has given me a resilience that I wish I had earlier in my Ph.D.

I decided that I needed to set healthier standards for myself. I did not have control over how much praise I received or how many new data I generated. The only thing I had control over, I realized, was the effort I put forth. So, I started to regularly check in with myself and ask, “Am I doing my best?” If the answer was yes, then I could be proud. If the answer was no, then it was within my power to turn things around.

I’m pleased to report that my new approach has helped me regain confidence in myself—and my work—and I’m more productive as a result. It has given me a resilience that I wish I had earlier in my Ph.D. I hope that I can help other students realize that external validation is not always guaranteed, and if they are doing their best, that is good enough.

OMG, So Many Science Careers

Recommendation letter writer’s block