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5 Things I Had to Unlearn in Graduate School

A chalkboard with "New Mindset Loading" written in white chalk.

I always liked school. I liked the routine and predictability. Most of all, I liked that I was in control of my own success. All through high school, it was class, homework, study, extracurriculars for the college applications, get the grade, repeat. The recipe worked, and I kept it up all through undergrad.

Graduate school is nothing like the 16 years of education that led me to it. Rather than helping me succeed in my Ph.D. program, my results-centric approach to education has been a major hindrance. Adapting to my new environment has not only required learning new techniques, molecular pathways and anatomical circuits, but also unlearning the way I thought about my education and success. Here are the five beliefs I’ve had to shed in order to thrive.

1. Learning is about grades.

For 21 years, I received feedback about my progress in the form of grades. But in the pursuit of success, I began to chase a letter instead of what it represented. In graduate school, I finally realized that getting a good grade didn’t mean that I had really learned anything. Could I recall the material past the exam date? Did I not have questions about the material I learned in class because I truly understood it, or because I was memorizing without taking the time to think deeply? Was I able to make connections, synthesize and apply, or simply regurgitate? Ultimately, a Ph.D. is about your ability to think, not do well on a multiple-choice test. I’ve had to regain a pure love for learning, to reignite my curiosity, independent of affirmation in the form of a grade.

2. Effort equals success.

In a classroom, my effort translated to success. If I paid attention, asked for help, studied, and kept up, I could do well. I was shocked to find out that this was not the case in science! Even though I was no stranger to failed experiments in undergrad, my first year of grad school was extremely frustrating. Hours of planning, reading and experimenting on nights, weekends and everywhere in between yielded few results. My instinct was to believe that I simply wasn’t working hard enough, and that mindset took its toll. Experiments fail and hypotheses collapse all the time. As biologists, we are studying things that we do not yet understand and cannot control. When things don’t work, it is not an indictment of your effort or abilities.

In addition, my belief that my success was dependent on my effort led me to believe that I could and should be able to figure out experiments on my own. As a result, I missed out on opportunities to learn from people with far more experience and expertise. My PI and labmates and classmates were ready and waiting to help. All I needed to do was ask.

3. Mistakes are fatal.

School made me into a perfectionist. Mistakes were wrong and could not be undone. Failure was never a good thing. But in the lab, mistakes are unavoidable, and “failure” is informative. The important thing is to be able to distinguish between the errors that require little more than a note in your lab notebook and the ones that invalidate the whole experiment. If I expect to be perfect, I won’t get anywhere. Perfectionism breeds fear and stifles creativity.

4. Productivity yields tangible results.

Being results-oriented means that the natural ebb and flow of productivity in graduate school has been a huge challenge for me. Some weeks I am busy with lab work, and other weeks I’m slammed with meetings and classes or simply waiting for mice to breed. I had to learn that all of this time is valuable, whether I was generating data to present at a lab meeting or not. In my first year of grad school, I may not have produced a lot of data, but I gained technical and soft skills that I will need throughout my Ph.D. Just because I don’t have something tangible to show doesn’t mean that my time wasn’t used effectively.

5. My value is tied to my accomplishments.

I didn’t realize it, but a lot of the way I saw myself had to do with my success in academics. As I’ve said, grad school is full of ups and downs and things beyond my control. That meant on days when I got a lot done or had a successful experiment, I felt good about myself. But when I wasn’t as productive or successful, my self-esteem collapsed. The rollercoaster was exhausting and unsustainable. I had to learn to put my worth and identity in something that does not change. For me, it’s my faith and identity as a child of God. Having an anchor for who I am has made all the difference for me on the bumpy seas of my Ph.D.

These are all lessons I’m still trying to unlearn. But each time I catch myself striving for a grade, a result or a product, I remember that my reason for working toward this degree is so much bigger than a grade or a graph. It’s about the genuine excitement I have for learning through my classes and research, and the people I hope to help as a result.

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1 thought on “5 Things I Had to Unlearn in Graduate School”

  1. To Riley Bannon
    I really enjoyed and learned a lot from your blog Mindset.
    It was well written - clearly stated your old learning methods and explained why and how each one needed to be changed.
    I appreciated your recognition that these new challenges affected your core beliefs of self identity and worth. I was especially pleased with how you shared it is through your faith you were able to stay grounded; sharing this without criticizing those who do not believe.
    I am sure your blog will help many people in their journey to a PHD degree.

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