How to survive falling into a grad school hole
The people that get into MIT and places like it are used to being the best of the best.
The people who come here are used to success. In particular, they’re used to success being easy.
The easy success you may have experienced in undergrad is not going to continue at MIT. (Okay, it might continue for a few of you. But statistically speaking, it won’t be the case for you, specifically.) Classes here – and yes, graduate students have to take classes again, be prepared for that – are incredibly difficult.
This is what happened to me. I didn’t think things would be easy, exactly, but I was an MIT undergraduate. I thought I was used to the struggle, and that the worst was behind me.
This past semester, things for me seemed to spiral out of control during midterms. In quick succession, we got our first test back and I realized I had done more poorly than I had anticipated. I took the second exam for one class and felt I did even more poorly on it than the first, and a third test got moved to the day after my family was supposed to come, effectively ruining that visit.
Basically, within the span of about 48 hours, it seemed like my semester went from difficult, but on track, to trying to dig myself out of the hole of seemingly failing both my classes. The rug got very suddenly pulled out from under me, and had no idea how it happened, or what I was going to do about it. Fears of flunking out of graduate school suddenly seemed like a real possibility.
I did manage to get out of the hole, in the end. And if I could do it, so can you. Here’s how.
Step 0: Don’t Panic
When you’re upset, though – especially if you’re having a serious break down, like a panic attack – you’re not thinking clearly, and everything seems much worse than it is. If you’re anything like me, that means you’re going to start feeling guilty and angry with yourself for wasting time breaking down instead of doing something about the problem, and perhaps embarrassed that you, as a grad student, are breaking down at all. This, of course, only makes you feel worse, which perpetuates the panic, which makes you feel guiltier, and so on.
So, this is me giving you permission to take a little time to be upset. You’re not wasting time. You’re not making things worse. Panicking can be valuable.
Look, crying feels good (once it’s over). I find that letting your fears and worries out drains me emotionally, and that I can focus and think more rationally in the period of numbness that follows a breakdown. So. It sounds weird, but let yourself be upset, if that’s what it takes for you to start to calm down. Then, you can move on to the actual plan.
Step 1: Reach Out
Reaching out for emotional support is important. If there’s a friend, a family member, or an RA you can reach out to, I highly recommend you do so. If there isn’t check out local resources. At MIT, we have programs like mental health support, Departmental REFS and S3. Talking things out helps. She was the one that reminded me that I was still at a university. All those nice academic and mental health services they had for undergrads? Yeah, those are for us too.
Besides reaching out to talk about it, you should reach out to your department, your professors, your TA’s, and even just older members of your research group, if you’ve joined one.
It may not feel like it sometimes, but what I’m about to say is 100% true: MIT does not want you to fail. I’ll say it again: MIT does not want you to fail. This isn’t optimism trying to put a shine on my feelings of inadequacy either. This is purely cynical rationale.
They’ve gone through an incredible effort to search out the people they think are the best and the brightest in a field. They’ve spent a lot of money finding you, hiring you, paying your tuition, and so on. Students flunking out makes them look bad. Basically, they are very motivated to help you succeed.
For example, my department admin was able to point me towards a tutoring program I didn’t even know existed. Setting up my first tutoring session was immediately comforting, and the program ended up helping me out a lot. The TA for one of my classes was able to share with me some statistics about the class I hadn’t realized, and could give me hard data that things weren’t nearly so hopeless as they seemed. The TA’s for my final class gave me their support, and some very specific, counterintuitive study tips that helped me survive the weekend and the upcoming test.
Step 2: Make a Plan
I found that making a plan is crucial to escaping failure. This is not just because it makes your work more efficient, but also because it helps you escape the feeling of being a failure. Having a concrete plan is proof that things are not hopeless, and becomes evidence that you are accomplishing something.
The plan may change – you’ll do better or worse on things than you expect, you’ll find something is more or less helpful than you anticipated, you’ll find out about new resources and methods to try – and that’s okay too. Because of this, I, personally didn’t specifically write my plan down. I simple kept a tight schedule in my calendar of tutoring sessions and Professor’s office hours. Things felt under control as long as I knew what my plan was, particularly as long knew what step I was taking next.
The most important thing is that at any given point in time, you can say, “This is what I’m doing to make things better.”
Step 3: Iterate this Process as Necessary
Even if you follow steps one and two, you may not see immediate improvement. You may also make improvement in some ways, and backslide in others. It’s important to remember that progress isn’t linear. The mind demons calling you an imposter are lying, even if things don’t turn around like you expect.
So go back to step 0, take a big breath, and remember. You can do this.
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