The Battle Between Perfectionism and Productivity

The authors at GradHacker have written about the struggle with perfectionism in graduate school before, but there is still much left to say about this issue.

From all the hoops that we have to jump through to get into a program, GPAs to GRE test scores, it’s easy to see how graduate school selects for perfectionists. In graduate school, the pressure experienced during your undergraduate studies doesn’t let up, it only intensifies until you finish your degree. Suddenly, your workload is higher and more intense, the demands from professors (and now students if you’re a TA) are more immediate, and there is no room to do everything perfectly all the time. Left unchecked, struggling with perfectionism and falling short of your self-imposed standards can lead to feelings all too common in graduate school: anxiety, depression, frustration, and even anger. These only compound the issues feeding into perfectionism until finally, you may find yourself unable to deal with any of the work relating to your degree.

This moment is when perfectionists start to slip up in graduate school: when outsized expectations collide with real-world limitations. At this point, the perfectionistic habits that got you this far can start to work against you; it might be time to learn some new ways to work. Following are three common productivity-killers of perfectionism, and how to get past them: Continue reading The Battle Between Perfectionism and Productivity

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Failing Forward in Graduate School

In life, failure is inevitable; in graduate school, it is guaranteed.

The very nature of a graduate degree puts you into contact with failure on a regular basis, especially if you work in the lab attempting to do or show something that has never been seen before.

Somehow, in the face of this failure we as students are expected to have that roll effortlessly off our backs and move on to the next task. After a few years in academia I’ve realized that this is a great example of “failing forward,” or learning from failure in a way that makes you a more capable student and scholar. But how do you fail forward? What needs to happen in order to fail forward is a change in your outlook on graduate school from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. What exactly is a fixed vs. growth mindset, and how do you cultivate it?

A fixed mindset is reflective of someone who sees their abilities as predetermined and unchangeable, while someone with a growth mindset would see themselves as developing their abilities over time. Someone with a fixed mindset sees their performance as a fixed issue “I’m smart, so I got it right”; or in the case of failure, “I’m stupid, so it’s no use trying to understand this.” When you approach with a growth mindset, failure looks more like “well, I didn’t get this right, so let’s see how I can work on improving before trying again.” It means that you can be more open to constructive criticism, rather than defensive—a trait that will help you in relating to your graduate adviser and committees and in making consistent progress with your work.

The growth mindset in action: Did you take a ton of your time to apply for a grant, only to have it not funded, or not even scored? In this moment it is all too easy to feel like a failure, especially if looking at the situation with a fixed mindset. However, if you are looking at this kind of event from a growth mindset, then you can see it as an opportunity. As a student, this application was not about securing that one grant, but improving the skills that you need to obtain grants for the rest of your career. Get the comments for the application to find out what the reviewers liked about it and build on those strengths so that your next application has a better chance at scoring well and getting funded. No researcher on the planet has a perfect funding record; they all had to work hard to get the skills necessary to craft a successful grant application.

With many grant section pay lines at or below 10% right now, there is a lot of failure taking place in the academic community. Add to this the rejection of manuscripts submitted to professional journals and it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any progress and none of your efforts are paying off. If you can’t develop a growth mindset in the face of these many continued rejections, it will be extremely difficult to make any progress or even persist in the academic career track. It is easy to get stuck thinking that you are fixed in how much you can understand and accomplish, and if that is the case then each failure and setback will only serve to make you feel unfit for graduate school (impostor syndrome, anyone?). However, if you can learn to see failures and roadblocks as opportunities for personal growth and development, then you can look forward to reaching ever-higher levels of achievement as you keep working toward your goals, both within and outside of graduate school.

[Image from Flickr user Chris Potter of StockMonkeys.com, used under Creative Commons licensing]

This article originally appeared at Gradhacker.org, a part of Inside Higher Ed.