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photo of green plant emerging from dead leavesKaitlin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate specializing in Biomechanics in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a permanent author for GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @KtlnG.

Congratulations on becoming a grad student! You feel great about because you were one of a select few accepted into the program. You go to the first lab meeting and hear all the great things others in the lab are doing, and you realize that you’re now at the bottom of the totem pole, wondering how you’ll ever get there. You’re not alone in feeling this way:

“It took one day for [the grad students] to feel like complete imposters. Yesterday they were hotshots; today they’re failures. Here’s what happens. They look at the faculty with our long list of publications. ‘Oh my God, I can’t do that.’ They look at the advanced students who are submitting articles for publication and writing grant proposals. ‘Oh my God, I can’t do that.’ They know how to take tests and get A’s but they don’t know how to do this – yet. They forget the yet.

This quote, from the book “Mindset – The new psychology of success” by Dr. Carol S. Dweck, summarizes my early experiences as a grad student. I wish someone had familiarized me with the fixed versus growth mindset before starting my degreeI entered grad school after a successful undergraduate degree and was surrounded by talented, well-published graduate students, and all I could wonder was, “how am I supposed to get there?” Developed by Dweck (a psychologist), mindsets are beliefs you hold about yourself and your basic qualities such as your intelligence, talents, and personality. People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are set in stone – they have a certain amount of intelligence and nothing will change that. The opposite of this is the growth mindset – people see their qualities as things that they can develop through effort and practice.

As the above quote shows, the fixed mindset shares some relations to envy in grad school. If you find that you have a fixed mindset, addressing it early in your degree is essential because Dweck points out that a fixed mindset breeds urgency to prove yourself. The current culture of grad school and academics can potentially breed a fixed mindset in some people because of the urgency to prove oneself. While it is very good that some experiences are now being passed down to graduate students to provide more training before taking on a full time position, as a student (who technically should be a learner still) this can be a volatile situation. If you don’t publish right away how will that affect your chance at getting a job? And once you publish something, you need to get the next article out, and the next, and so on. You may quit your degree because you don’t feel like you can develop yourself enough to cut it, stay ABD for far too long, or much worse do something inexplicable like plagiarize or commit fraud to push yourself ahead.

Even if you have cultivated your growth mindset, it is an important concept to be aware of since you may be supervising students who enter your program with or develop a fixed mindset over time.

Dweck (who admits she used to have a fixed mindset) says that anyone can develop a growth mindset or “learn to learn”.  A summary of the steps are provided below, but more detail can be found in her book and on her website:

1.     Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice” – for example, do you ever say to yourself “I am only as good as my achievements”?

2.     Recognize that you have a choice and that admitting that you are struggling doesn’t mean you are inadequate

3.     Talk back to your fixed mindset with a growth mindset voice, saying things like “With effort I can do something I find difficult and it can get easier”

4.     Take the growth mindset action – for example, putting myself in a new situation that is uncomfortable could also mean I am learning

To cultivate my growth mindset, I chose a really small and meaningless task that I thought I couldn’t do – knitting. At first, just watching people knit made my brain hurt. Learning was frustrating, but I kept at it and one day I stitched an entire row without a mistake, and ten more the next. It was a small accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, but a big one for me. Even though advanced patterns are still intimidating, I know if I practice I’ll be able to complete those projects too!

Now it’s your turn to pay it forward. Tell fellow grad students about the mindset concept and something you wish you knew about before starting your degree that would have made your learning different. Leave your thoughts in the comments below. (Note: lets try to keep this positive to cultivate a growth mindset)

[Image by Flickr user AdamSelwood used under creative commons licensing.]