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Robert Neubecker

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.

I was surprised at my unraveling. I had passed my qualifying exam without issue; I had thought I was a successful graduate student. Surely, I was more resilient than to let one failure demoralize me. When I shared my struggle with colleagues, they assured me that a loss of motivation was normal at this stage in grad school, even without any major setbacks. One senior grad student called it “the dreaded fourth-year slump.” But normal or not, I wanted to understand why I felt that way.

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 went into my second proposal defense with a much more positive mindset—along with grander experiments in my proposal—and passed 5 months after my first attempt. I’ve also used the approach to change my focus during the day-to-day grind of benchwork. Now, instead of fixating on whether my experiments generate exciting data that others will compliment, I focus on thoroughly planning and meticulously executing my lab protocols. I also avoid comparing my research progress to that of my peers; their journey is theirs alone.

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.

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