People in graduate programs are accustomed to being the brightest in their undergraduate classes and experiencing academic success with greater ease than many of their peers. Graduate school is different; the formula is not as straightforward as reading the material and taking tests. Instead of learning from a book and repeating what you have learned, you are now tasked with generating original ideas. Doing this requires getting things wrong, a lot. For some, this process can be motivating, but for others, it can be evidence that they aren’t supposed to be here.
Carol Dweck, a brilliant researcher whom I love, has conducted 30 years of research examining what people believe about intelligence and how they respond to academic failures. If you know her work, I’m preaching to the choir, but if you don’t get ready.
We all have implicit theories or mindsets about whether we believe our intelligence is a fixed or malleable entity. People with a fixed mindset perceive their intelligence as a set quality, that of which is immutable. You have a certain amount of smarts and you cannot do much more to change that. In contrast, a growth-minded individual believes that intelligence is malleable and amenable to change. Everyone is born with their own starter pack of smarts but one can develop their intelligence through effort and strategy. Here, a person’s true potential is unknowable.
These theories have a big impact on how we respond to academic failures. Failure can refer to anything – it can be getting negative feedback from your supervisor, getting a poor mark on an assignment, answering a question wrong, or not passing a comprehensive exam.
Let us imagine how people with each of these mindsets responds when academic failure comes along. Well, fixed minded folks believe that their intellectual meddle has been tested and uh oh, too bad, they have come up short; they have reached the upper limit of their intelligence. As a result, when faced with situations with a potential for failure, these people can self-sabotage, make excuses, not exert their full effort, or just completely avoid, because imagine how crushing failure would feel when it means that you weren’t smart enough and you can’t do anything about that. Ouch.
Now when we look at the growth-minded folks, they have a very different response to failure. In fact, they may not even call the things we have discussed, failures. They attribute their failure to using the wrong strategy or lack of effort. It does not speak to their intelligence or what they are capable of. These people jump onboard for challenging situations because failure is valuable information that can be used in one’s next attempt. It also doesn’t mean that failure isn’t painful for these people, but it doesn’t define them and they see it as something to be learned from.
Try on both of these of these failure explanations and see how each of them feels and which one motivates you to try again. You can also imagine how a fixed mindset plays into those imposter syndrome feelings we all experience. If you are thinking right now, “oh no I am a fixed person”, do not fret because mindsets are learned, and therefore you can learn to think a different way. The best thing about mindsets themselves is that they are malleable.
This is only a tiny snapshot of the theory and there is so much more than I can fit within my word limits. If you are interested, I highly recommend you watch her TedTalk or even better, read her book Mindset which the university has many copies of.
My name is Vanessa and I am a former fixed-mindseter. I can say from personal experience that adopting a growth mindset changed my graduate school experience.