I realised during my own PhD that this was more of a psychological challenge than an intellectual one. Acquiring the necessary knowledge was relatively straightforward, but propelling myself through uncertainty was much harder. It’s easy to think that we have an idea, come up with a plan, then follow it. There’s a simple path from A to B. If we mess up, that’s because we’re too stupid or not working hard enough.
In reality, it’s normal to flounder, to encounter difficulties, and to quietly despair. What matters, though, is how we think about this situation. If we see it as a reflection of ourselves, we get stuck. If instead we see it as challenges to overcome, we grow.
Professor Carol Dweck’s research has shown that how we think of ourselves profoundly affects the way we lead our lives. Our mindset is the view we have of our qualities and characteristics, and whether they can be changed. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that characteristics such as intelligence, personality, and creativity are set: “This is just how I am – there’s nothing I can do about it.” A growth mindset, however, is based on the belief that these qualities can be developed through effort and perseverance.
People with a fixed mindset struggle with setbacks. Problems or unexpected results are evidence of their inadequacy: “See? I told you I’m too stupid to do a PhD.” Someone with a growth mindset still experiences those setbacks, but they’re likely to view them as an opportunity to learn and develop. They’ll also be more receptive to constructive feedback. Rather than attacks, those comments and suggestions are seen as useful input to improve their work.
A PhD is a big experiment. Even if you’re not a scientist, you are still testing out theories, responding to unexpected results, and trying a different approach. We’re never going to get it right first time. By learning from our mistakes, we hone our research skills and build resilience. If we give up at the first obstacle, there’s no scope for development. When we’re lacking in confidence, we seek evidence to prove our lack of ability, rather than new possibilities — we adopt a fixed mindset, rather than a growth mindset.
Although change is stressful, it can also help us find new and often better ways of doing things. By the end of your PhD, you’ll be an expert problem-solver and ready to take on anything. Once you’ve had a rest, of course.
What are you struggling with specifically at the moment? What are you telling yourself? If you’re saying “I can’t do this,” try replacing it with “I can’t do this yet.” How does that feel?
As I’ll explain in the next video, the stories we tell ourselves have an impact on what we do each day. And what we do each day has an impact on whether we reach our goals.