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Educated Woman, Chapter 49: The Grad-School Success-O-Meter

As I was talking to one of my friends (or, rather, talking him off of the ceiling), I got to thinking about one of the points I made in the last installment: Your research may work or it may not, and perceived failure can make graduate school insufferable. I say perceived failure because, in reality, that's research: A lot of it won't work anyway. But somehow we enter this dream world called graduate school unaware of how damaging this failure can be to our psyches.

In our former lives, B.G.S. (Before Grad School), we all had moments in which we achieved less than perfection, but no one could have prepared us--precocious students, eager to conquer the world--for what it feels like to hit an intellectual brick wall. Even if someone had tried to warn us about the brick wall, would we have listened?

In grad school, a certain amount of failure is inevitable. There is a delicate balance (hardly ever maintained) which I call the success-failure balance. Some of us are outliers: Grad school offers ample opportunity for catastrophic and utter failure, yet some are blessed with unsurpassed success. (More on that next month--there is a dark side even to success.) Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes, somewhere in the fat part of the distribution (plotting probability on the ordinate, success/failure ratio on the abscissa, or something like that), trying to keep a smile on our face and our face above water. But let's dive into failure for a moment, shall we?

It's easy to see why failure (some small-scale, some catastrophic) is so dejecting: You try very hard to solve your problems and either you don't know enough to solve them and no one can help you, or you figure out that your problem cannot be solved and your adviser won't listen. The first situation is demoralizing because you feel like you should be able to fix it, but you can't, and you might not have enough background information to figure it out. So you spend too much time teaching yourself the back story while all around you colleagues are flying along at breakneck speed-- their code compiling, their experiments working, their lives all seemingly hunky-dory.

And here you sit, sure you must have a second head growing out of your neck, or somewhere, because of the way your adviser is looking at you. Everybody has problems, the look says. Why haven't you solved yours yet? But, although you probably have no way of knowing it, you haven't solved yours because it can't be solved with existing theory and technology. Or maybe the problem isn't all that serious; even then, sometimes we experience so many small scale speed bumps we feel like they've added up to a mountain that we're too demoralized to conquer. Is there any love for the downtrodden?

Having an unsolvable (at least in this century) problem while having your adviser swear it will work is the second type of failure. You've fully convinced yourself that theory stands behind you, and you've gently stated, cajoled, argued, and shouted that THIS WON'T WORK! But your careful analysis and thought falls on deaf ears. He or she tells you, "I know I saw some paper that showed x, y, z, so, this obviously has to work." (Translation: You're an idiot. I wrote the grant so there has to be a solution to this problem somewhere. Find it!).

This is a problem that has a solution: switching approaches and telling him after you've gotten it to work. This approach builds self-esteem and your intellectual capital. But you may have a control freak for an adviser who lives by the motto "My way or the highway" and doesn't believe your results. To add insult to injury, if your adviser may claim--he may even believe--that the new approach was his idea anyway, then why did you waste so much time on that other method? So you begin to go out of your mind.

By the way, if any P.I. is looking for a way to get rid of a graduate student, this approach would work best. Give them something that you know won't work, and when they figure out that it won't work, tell them they're wrong. Most often, they'll break. But I can't be held liable for your safety when they snap.

Part of what mitigates these feelings of failure and general disgruntled disillusionment is whether you feel used by those around you or, contrarily, proud of the work you've done. Yes, in graduate school people use you all the time. You exist to be used. But sometimes we get used in ways that aren't nice. Take, for example, a friend of mine who was working hard collecting good data, thinking it was for a grant application. It turned out to be for a postdoc's job talk.

Or how about the adviser who refuses to let you give talks but always uses your research to showboat? At least as humiliating is when you find yourself doing things for everyone else instead of your own work, and people begin to expect it. Of course sometimes we do this to ourselves because our own research isn't working. It's a means of avoidance, and it's nice to feel needed. To a point.

Maybe if more of us had been athletes when we were younger, we might be able to handle failure and otherwise funky situations a little better. When you are an athlete, there is always a loss, always an off day. You learn to absorb those failures and shake it off, knowing better what to avoid next time. Star athletes have coaches who tell them what's working, when it's not, when they need to work harder, when they need to back off. Maybe we need more Phil Jackson-like Zen masters to get us through graduate school, burning sage in the laboratory, sending good vibes our way. This is, of course, what your adviser/mentor should be doing, but hey, this is not utopia. They have enough to worry about with all the grant applications (you do want to be funded, right?) and department politics (you want an office, right?).

I wonder, are there any intellectual Zen masters out there willing to help us understand that failure is part of the process? Are there mentors out there who, as we sit for hours pursuing scientific excellence, not knowing how much we don't know, will swat us, when our attention wonders and our eyelids droop, with appropriate firmness and kindness, with the bamboo rod of mentorly advice?

If you know any mentors like that, or if you have any advice on how to deal with failure in graduate school, I'd be happy to receive and distribute such advice (anonymously, if you wish). Send all comments to, and may the force be with you.

For the next installment, everyone wants success, right? Right?

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

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