You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Man reaches out to resists five gloved boxing hands coming at him

Nuthawut Somsuk/Istock/Getty Images Plus

Graduate school is an experience shared by a rather small group of people—14.4 percent according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Without doubt, pursuing a graduate degree involves a lot of work, and that may lead to graduate students feeling like they are, at times, barely surviving the demands placed upon them.

Graduate students face balancing the expectations associated with classwork, projects, research and writing along with the stressors of personal life. Family members and friends who are a part of a graduate student’s life, and who have chosen not to pursue higher education, often fail to comprehend the distinct demands that scholars engaging in higher-level academic pursuits must grapple with.

Yet those challenges and pressures need not inhibit a student’s ability to thrive in graduate school. In reality, the higher education experience at the graduate level provides opportunities for students to realize their potential and develop in both personal and professional ways. To move from just surviving to actually thriving, graduate students need to foster their resilience. Developing resilience skills as graduate students leads to successful transitions to and throughout their future, longer-term careers, and helps them cope effectively with life in general.

Defining Resilience

What does resilience mean? Resilience is an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change, according to Merriam-Webster. Resilience involves a repertoire of skills that can be used to influence thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Those skills build character, provide endurance, allow for reflection and lead to productivity.

Graduate school, and life overall, involves change, unpleasant circumstances, difficulties and situations that may, at times, feel overwhelming. However, these experiences do not have to dictate a graduate student’s feelings and behaviors. Instead, having the ability to implement resilience strategies can help those students deal more effectively with the challenges that are an inevitable part of the graduate experience. Resilience provides a positive, psychological capacity that, when developed, will serve graduate students not only during their time in academia but well throughout their lifetime. Resilience is a foundational element within an individual’s behavioral repertoire that creates the ability to cope, to respond, and to live in a thoughtful, intentional and positive manner. Resilience allows graduate students affirmative movement through their experiences so that they feel what they need to feel and find the resources within themselves to learn from challenges and move beyond these in a productive manner.

Developing Resilience

So how, as a grad student, do you develop resilience? It initially takes some focused effort. Part of becoming an educated individual involves examining concepts on a deeper level. To understand resilience, you must look at your thoughts and behaviors within a critical yet nonjudgmental framework.

A first step to take is to identify a person who has overcome adversity. That can be a family member, a personal friend or someone admired from afar. A useful reflective activity to undertake is to write down the qualities associated with that person. Once you create that list, the next step is to identify the same or similar characteristics you have in common with that person and one or two attributes you would like to cultivate more.

Resilient people tend to have similar characteristics. Following are traits and behaviors commonly found in people who know how to be resilient:

  • They abide by an internal locus of control. Their mindset is: “I can control my own destiny” rather than “I have no control over what happens to me.”
  • Their self-esteem tends to be strong, and they also recognize the need to be self-sufficient.
  • Resilient people can adapt to changing circumstances, noting that good can come from change, and they more than likely have something positive to gain from experiencing change.
  • Those who are resilient have an action-oriented approach to life, whereby they set goals with small, achievable action steps and work to accomplish them.
  • Resilient people have a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives, and that drives their passion for their work.
  • They view challenges as a way to grow strong and can appropriately use humor, patience and tolerance to deal with adversity.
  • Resilient people know when to ask for help and experience no shame in doing so, as they believe in the reciprocity of relationships. They realize there are times when they need others as well as when others need them.
  • Knowing how to reframe one’s thoughts from being negative to more positive is an important skill that resilient people possess. Instead of seeing something as Impossible, they can see the situation as I’m possible and move forward in a productive manner.
  • Resilient people recognize their counterproductive behaviors and work to remove those that impair their ability to function in a healthy manner. For example, if they know they are prone to procrastination, they make a concerted effort to make a short list of the action steps they need to take to get a project done. They may also block out time on their calendar to focus on the work which needs their attention. They may also implement a reward system in which, if they work on a paper for two hours, they then go for a 30-minute walk to clear their minds and get some fresh air to rejuvenate themselves.
  • They also believe in something or someone greater than themselves, and they have a spiritual belief that helps them cope with difficult times.

Again, a major component of resilience is the ability to reframe counterproductive thoughts. So if you want to develop resilience, you may want to first recognize your thoughts that automatically pop up when you experience something that is unpleasant or difficult.

For example, let’s look at what occurs when a faculty adviser provides feedback to a graduate student. Does the student perceive this advice as criticism? If so, their thoughts may be, “He hates me” or “She thinks I don’t know anything.” Other thoughts could be, “I don’t belong here … I will never be as smart as these people … I don’t know if I can do this.” In contrast, thinking instead, “This is feedback that can help me improve my research skills” or “I was accepted into this program, so I know I have the ability to learn; what can I learn from my adviser’s comments?” is more beneficial and helps build resilience.

Recognizing your thoughts is the first step because those thoughts have a tremendous impact on your feelings which, in turn, have an impact on your behavior. Behavior then impacts the ability to reach goals and to realize success. Changing these ineffective thoughts to ones that are objective, factual and grounded in reality can help you build resilience.

Maintaining Resilience

Resilience involves practicing behaviors during both challenging situations and effortless times. Behaviors that strengthen and maintain resilience skills involve:

  • Developing productive ways to deal with stress
  • Practicing self-care
  • Accepting one’s imperfections
  • Identifying and building one’s strengths
  • Asking for help in times of need
  • Establishing a strong support system that involves two-way communication and care
  • Engaging in honest self-reflection
  • Recognizing that there are times to listen, times to be supportive and times to give some space
  • Cultivating a strong sense of self-awareness
  • Embracing an attitude of gratitude

Choose two from the above list and focus on what to do to make each skill more of a habit. Self-care can involve exercise, better sleep or eating healthier. Asking for help in times of need can include identifying the family members or friends who listen well, who can look at the brighter side of an issue or who can provide candid guidance. Being aware of when you need to take a break, deal with feelings of exhaustion or bring a more direct focus on getting a project finalized may enhance your self-awareness and self-care.

Keep in mind that failure is not final, growth involves challenges, and resilience can be developed. Graduate school provides a myriad of opportunities to discover a lot about your capabilities. Take advantage of this time to develop resilience skills, as they can significantly enhance your ability to attain goals, overcome obstacles and experience success.

Rhonda Sutton is the assistant dean for professional development in the Graduate School at North Carolina State University. In addition to overseeing the work of the professional development team, she delivers programs on wellness and leadership for graduate students. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

Next Story

Written By

More from Carpe Careers