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On dealing with setbacks in grad school

Once upon a time there was a grad student named Amanda. Between the time she started her PhD at Queen’s and the time it ended, nothing went wrong. Every experiment worked out exactly as planned, every manuscript she wrote was completed in a timely fashion (and promptly accepted without revisions of course) and every meeting with her Supervisor was successful (no extra chapters or analyses were ever added). Everything went swimmingly well. Perfect in fact!….

And then I woke up. What a wonderful dream!

Grad school, like many things in life has its setbacks. However often because grad school takes anywhere from 2 to 10+ years of your life, learning to deal with setbacks is probably a really great tool to have in your back pocket.

digging holes

Digging holes for the cylinders at Queen’s property in Westport, ON

My disclaimer is that I have by no means mastered dealing with setbacks. In fact, I think I really stink at it! When I was planning out my PhD field experiment some 15 months ago now, one of the biggest tasks I had to do was install 200 aluminum sleeves around my experimental plots. This involved digging (essentially a 2 inch ring) out around the plot and then sliding these cylinders in. We had allotted 2 weeks for this task with the help of one field assistant. In the end, it took 1 month and three field assistants to make this happen. It took away from other parts of my project and it meant lots of long, miserable days. I think a combination of Netflix, chocolate and caffeine interspersed with crying & whining to my family got me through it.

Now that I am reaching the end of my field season I figured I would think about how I could have more actively dealt with this set back. Here are some ideas about dealing with setbacks (all things that I didn’t do, but will in the future!):

1. Expect them. Not everything comes easy, we all know that. There were setbacks in your Undergraduate years, there are setbacks in the workplace, our supervisors have setbacks, marriages have setbacks, and politicians have setbacks (some more than others). Everyone everywhere has setbacks. When planning the course of your graduate school career, your dissertation or your field season, expect setbacks, plan for them, and be flexible when dealing with them.

2. Don’t pretend it’s not there. It is. It will never “unhappen” and although in rare cases it might go away by itself, you need to acknowledge and deal with it.

3. Communicate it. Talk to someone about it. Blog about it. Start a journal and write about it. Call your Mom about it. Importantly, you might also inadvertently use this as a learning tool and be able to help someone else who might be dealing with a similar setback themselves.

4. Don’t blame the setback on anyone. This includes you! Alright, so your research assistant knocks over your experiment, that’s not YOUR fault…but accidents do happen. You can’t hate them forever. Actually, the worst setbacks I have had were those where I did not have someone else to blame because it was my own fault. Don’t be so hard on yourself!

5. Reflect. Why did this happen? What can be changed so that it won’t happen again? If this happened, what else could happen? Take the time to think it through and if possible, try to use this setback to plan for future ones and view the situation as an opportunity.


Here’s to hoping I remember these five things when I face my next big setback! If you have ideas or any tried and tested methods of dealing with setbacks, we’d love to hear them!

Posted in All, General, New Students, Student Perspective, Thesis, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , ,
5 comments on “On dealing with setbacks in grad school
  1. Sharday says:

    Re: 4 and not being so hard on yourself — a TEDx talk on the concept of self-compassion http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Space-Between-Self-Esteem-a

  2. HI Amanda
    As one Australian Prime Minister said “Life was not meant to be easy!”. Setbacks as you mentioned do happen, it is how we deal with them that is important if we want to continue to move forward. To help avoid such situations however, sometimes it is about better planning, looking at potential risks/setbacks (how long it takes to do something is more often than not underestimated). IN the end if it happens, find a solution and act on it. Then a good laugh is always good for the sole. Think how many times you can dine out on that story!

  3. Amanda says:

    Great Ted Talk, Sharday! Thanks for sending it along to everyone!

    Colette- I totally agree! Planning is key and can often help avoid or minimize the number of setbacks you will encounter. I like your point about humour. It’s an excellent one. And you are right, I have dined out on this story many times 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Amanda! Your story will resonate with a lot of grad students. And Sharday – great Ted Talk. For those interested into delving into self-compassion a bit more, check out this website from a leading researcher in the area…

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