How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

Last week, Ashley blogged about finding balance as a grad student. She wrote about making the choice to stay in grad school despite the challenges she faced. Her guest post described what most of us grad students experience when we choose this path. Many of us become discouraged when we hit a brick wall or when things seem to fall apart around us. And when we reach that breaking point, many students choose another path.

A friend recently sent me an article that I wanted to share on the blog.

Aru Ray asked this question over at

How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

You can read his full post here. As you know, I’ve asked similar questions on this blog before. Often when I’m feeling discouraged or depressed about grad school, I read as many articles as I can about what to do to get out of the funk. I ask for help, but mostly I seek help from strangers on the Internet.

Most of the advice I read involves the following words and phrases:



It’s not worth it

Move on

Find your calling elsewhere

Don’t torture yourself

Take care of yourself

We aren’t all meant to be specialists

If you don’t feel passion now, you won’t feel passion later

The comments on this other thread were remarkable. They were full of hope and encouragement.

I thought the end game was deciding I was a real mathematician, but it turns out it’s developing the confidence not to worry about this, and I’ve been much happier since that point.

Take breaks, find fulfilling things to do outside of work, and realize that everyone (even seasoned researchers) feel the same frustrations and highs that you do.

Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome. Everyone “actually smart” is hearing exactly the same voice in their head saying “Oh, if only someone who actually knew how to hit walls with their forehead hit this wall, it would come down like a stack of cards” when in fact the wall really is made of brick.

Eventually, you’ll move from hoping that you’ll be able to knock down a wall with your head someday, to being surprised at how often the walls you hit with your head actually fall, to finally believing that you really can knock down walls with your head sometimes.

Part of the problem is that it’s tempting to focus too much on the destination: proving theorems, writing papers. These things happen only occasionally, and thinking about them (or their absence) too much is an easy way to become depressed. Instead, you want to reach the point of enjoying the journey itself. This takes some perspective and confidence, but it will come with time.

Sometimes we look for the answers we want, especially when we’re struggling. It’s easier for me to focus on the answers that tell me to move on because deep down, that is what I want to do. Reading comments like the ones on this thread nudged me in a different direction. They made me feel a little more hopeful for my future as a grad student.

Their comments also reminded me that grad school (at the PhD/JD/MD level) is not easy for anyone. It’s not even easy for those people who claim to love grad school (or for those who truly do love it). It’s not easy for those who are experts at memorizing details from every journal article. It is not easy for those who are the most productive in terms of publishing.

At some point, we all struggle as we pursue this degree. We dedicate 5 or 6 or 8 or, God help us, 10 years of our lives to this. Those are years beyond a Bachelor’s, by the way. Most of break at various points along the journey. Some of us struggle on a personal level (weight/health). Some struggle at home or in their relationships (divorces, breakups) or with their finances (ignoring debt). Others struggle in work, in research, and in classes (taking on too much, not publishing, not getting all As, not making deadlines). In the beginning, many of us struggled in all  of these areas.

But some of us make the choice to stay.

I think the reasons they cited in those comments above are excellent reasons to make that choice.

On the other hand, it is still absolutely essential to ask yourself tough questions in the most discouraging moments. Ask the why questions. Why should I stay? Ask questions like the ones Vivek Haldar asks in his blog post: Advice to Prospective Grad Students.

What it boils down to is that this is one of the most intense questions of self-knowledge you will ever face. The answer is simple: you should do a PhD if you really want to. Look into yourself to figure out if you really want to.

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