I have written before about failure in grad school. Today, I want to write a little more about my opinions on the term “failure”. Today’s topic is, “is it ok to fail in grad school?” The answer is, it depends, of course. I do think that failure is good in grad school and also encouraged. There are many ways in which you can fail in grad school, some that are helpful, and some that are not so helpful. So let us dive into what I think about failure in grad school and why it is a blessing and a curse.
Why is it ok to fail in grad school?
Grad school is all about failing. In fact, you should fail ever day until you eventually get it right. The thing that many people have a hard time with, especially when they start, is you are supposed to fail. You are supposed to find out what works, try different things, and explore the unknown. Research is failing until you eventually get it write. In undergrad or even the first few years of grad school, you’ll be taking courses and doing work that probably has a correct answer to it.
It’s like math, there may be a few methods to get the answer, but you have to do them correctly or you won’t get to that answer. If you don’t do it right, you’ll fail an exam or paper. In research, no one knows the correct way to do stuff, that’s why you are doing experiments to figure out how to do it. You are bound to get it wrong quite a bit.
When it’s ok to fail in grad school from the start
When you first start you graduate studies, you will be used to the question/answer life that you have learned to love your whole academic career. You’ll have a research question and you want to find the answer. You are programmed to look for a way to get that answer or look for someone who go that answer before. The thing is, your research question is unique and may not have a clear way to et that answer. It is up to you and maybe a select few to find that. This will mean that you are going to fail a ton of experiments trying to get an answer. That is part of the process and it is good for you.
Here’s another reason why failure in grad school is important. I overheard my adviser talking to one of our master’s students the other day. Apparently, the student was getting upset because they were having a problem with the program that was being used for their experiments. They were saying how it was a terrible thing to happen and how they failed. My adviser gave a really good piece of advice to them. He said “it’s good that these things happen because now you know how to fix it. Without having the experience of everything going wrong, how will you know how to handle it later on?” I thought this was perfect. See, if things always go the way you want them to, what happens when everything goes wrong? You won’t know what to do in those situations.
When is it not ok to fail in grad school?
Ok, so all failure is not the same. When you are in grad school, failing experiments, learning from your mistakes, and trying over is a plus. So when is it not ok to fail in grad school? That comes down to your course work and preparing for your qualifying exams. Course work is important. The first two years of grad school will most likely consists of just coursework. Failing these classes is bad and can get you kicked out of the program. The good thing about grad school courses are that they are pretty difficult to fail.
Yes, there are programs out there that are very difficult, and I am speaking on my experience. But, I have had many friends in grad school and they all say the same thing, grad school courses are easier in most cases than undergrad. This has been extremely true, especially with my degree in environmental engineering. I have taken some pretty difficult classes, but they were all in the years as an undergrad.
Don’t fail the coursework
Failing your coursework in grad school can really be hard on you. You need to pass in order to be able to do research later on. This is why it’s imperative to do well in these classes no matter what. The research will be there. If you are in the first two years of a doctorate and you’re prioritizing research over passing classes then you are doing it wrong. Research is important, but wait until you are only doing research. Pass the classes first.
The Qualifying Exam
This is something that is bad to fail, especially if you want to get your PhD. You have to pass the qualifying exam, and man is it tough. It is different for all departments, but if you are curious about it, go read my blog about taking my exam. (link here). It occurs usually after the third semester of your PhD, though it can be later. If you pass this exam, you become a PhD candidate and are welcomed as a researcher.
I know people that have failed this exam. More times than not, people will pass. It’s difficult, but totally doable. If you happen to fail though, you will have another attempt at it before they basically tell you to leave with a master’s. This isn’t all bad because some people start their PhD journey not knowing what they want. If they fail the qualifying exam then they can go on their way and get a job. It’s not bad unless you really want a PhD, then you really need to focus on passing.
You Didn’t Fail, you Just Learned What Not To Do
I often feel like a failure in grad school. It has taken me quite a long time to be ok with failure and accept that it is part of the process. I have learned so much these past 3.5 years in my doctoral program and I have to thank persistence for that. See, without me failing, I wouldn’t have learned anything. If I got everything right, I would have missed out on the whole learning process that comes with grad school. I tell new students all the time that a PhD is an apprenticeship. you are not here because you know everything. If you did, you would have 50 doctorates, a Nobel Prize, and probably be on Jeopardy. you are here to learn how to do research and learn how to fail until things go right.
Everything should be a learning experience. If an experiment goes wrong, write that down. Don’t repeat what made it fail. Brain storm and see how to do it better. This is what advisers want to see. Yes, they would love for you to get publishable data, but they also want someone that can do research and become an expert in their field. As long as you learn something from every failed attempt, you won’t be considered a failure. Remember, “a smooth sea never made a great sailor”-FDR.
It’s finally happening guys, my posts are getting ranked on Google. People from all around the world are reading my posts and I couldn’t be happier. I started this blog to help grad students and I think there are people out there that might be helped because of me. This is exciting. Anyway, I hope you guys are doing well and having a wonderful month. It’s summer so comment with any plans that you have for the next few months. If you have a post that you want me to write about, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Heck, send an email saying hello. Also, if you haven’t checked it out yet, go see my blog about grad school memes. Here is a link to that (link).I will see you all in the next one. Peace!