The Value of Failure in Graduate School

This is from my Anxious Bench archives. I currently am teaching in London and gathering more material for future posts! You can look forward to a guest blogger (I think you will love his forthcoming book) on July 26, and I will return to my posts about medieval Christianity vs. modern Christianity in August. In the meantime, this post resonated with many last summer, so I thought it could help some more graduate students this summer. 

My husband suggested once that I have lunch with a friend. She was a graduate student, and struggling in the program. “Did you tell her I almost quit?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” my husband said. “That is why I thought you should talk with her.”

Graduate school is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Although I am grateful for the excellent program I attended and my superb adviser (who is still my friend and advocate), I have no desire to return to my graduate years.

I expected the painful work load, the never ending research projects and papers, the complete lack of sleep for days on end, and even the political drama among both faculty and students.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would fail.

Just to name a few  of my early failures: I failed a language exam (quite spectacularly, actually). I received what-I-hoped-would-become-the-beginning-of-my-thesis back with the words, “This wasn’t worth my time,” scrawled across the front. I taught the 1381 English peasant revolt completely wrong during a teaching observation. I never managed to understand the questions in Latin one professor insisted on asking me every time we crossed paths (which was way too often for my stress level!). And, although I know my current students may not believe this, I almost never spoke up in seminar my first year. I was terrified of how much I didn’t know. It really seemed that everyone else had not only read Foucault and memorized all of his writings, but even understood Foucault so well that they could integrate him into every conversation we had. Everyone, except for me.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  I failed a lot.

In fact, I became convinced my first year that I couldn’t do it. When I admitted to my husband that I couldn’t finish the PhD, I really felt like a failure. But, during our conversation, another option began to emerge.  I should finish my MA (the first two years). If I still felt strongly about quitting, then I could exit the program. This cheered me up. I could do it for one more year. There was an end in sight which included an advanced degree. And so that became my plan. I realized that failing wasn’t the end of the world–life would go one, and I would be okay.

It was at this point that everything changed. By giving myself permission to fail, I learned how to succeed.

I no longer worried about Foucault in seminar. I knew other things, and really enjoyed most of the other readings, so I talked about those. I didn’t talk as much as my cohorts, but I began to talk more and with greater comfort. No longer paralyzed by the fear of failure, I engaged with my peers both inside and outside of seminar. Soon I began to talk about Foucault myself (especially after I actually read him!).

I also became more adventurous in my writing. By trying to write the way I thought an academic text should be, I had become a truly awful writer (which maybe says something about the academic texts I was reading…). But when I returned to the way I liked to write and to the topics I enjoyed (women and religion), I got better.

Indeed, my entire performance improved dramatically. I remember so clearly reading my end-of-year evaluation. It stated, “Beth blossomed this year.”

For the first time I knew I could complete the PhD.

So for those of you in graduate school struggling with the stress of the program, with the fear of failure, and with uncertainty about the future, I have some advice.

  1. It really is okay to fail. Failure shows us what we need to change. It showed me that I needed to take my Latin exam in medieval Latin, not classical (and the second time around I scored a 98). It showed me that I needed to write about what I found interesting–not what I thought would interest my cohorts and program faculty. It also showed me that failure wasn’t the end of the world. I survived all my failures, and even if I had chosen to drop out of the program, I know I still would have been okay. Failure no longer meant the end; rather it served as a signpost that I needed to do something different.
  2. It really is okay not to know everything. Talk about the things you do know; the things that interest you (not the things that you think will make you look smart). Instead of worrying about what others would say, I started thinking about what was most useful from the seminar readings for my own research. And then I talked about those points in class. Wow! This dramatically changed my seminar performance.
  3. It really is okay for people to disagree with you. It really is. This doesn’t mean you are wrong; it doesn’t mean you have to capitulate to their point. It just means that you need to rethink or perhaps rephrase your argument. Now I find it quite helpful when people disagree with me, as it often suggests a new perspective I hadn’t considered.
  4.  It really is okay to feel like a failure. Everyone feels like a failure at some point in graduate school. Female academics often talk about “imposture syndrome,” where, even after achieving a PhD, women in academia continue to feel inadequate and even fraudulent. But instead of letting fear paralyze you,  talk to your fellow graduate students about how you can help each other (I guarantee they are struggling with you). If you are struggling with seminar readings, form a study group. If you are struggling with writing, form a writing group (see my post about how to do this). If you are struggling to keep up with current research, then form an article group.
  5. Finally, do something other than graduate school with your time. I recommend church involvement–and I don’t just mean going to church. I mean volunteering your time in church, like serving on worship team, hosting a small group, holding babies in church nursery, or (my favorite!) mentoring teenagers and serving in youth group. By getting out of the graduate school bubble, you will widen your perspective and realize life is much more than about you. This helps so much. It helps put your graduate school failures into proper perspective. Serving others is also fundamental to the Christian life……as  Jesus himself said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve others, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

You will fail in graduate school. I guarantee it. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Failure teaches us that we have to change. It helps us develop problem-solving skills and familiarizes us with confrontation. It also helps us admit that we need help.

I don’t know about you, but these seem like pretty valuable life lessons to me.

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  • Nick Winters

    Could you recommend a good textbook on medieval Latin? Everything that pops up when I search is Classical, as were my classes in grad school, and my interests are definitely medieval.

  • John Turner

    Great post — and “imposture syndrome” afflicts men as well (at least this one)!

  • Beth Allison Barr

    there aren’t great textbooks only for medieval latin, because you do have to have a foundation in classical latin. But I recommend: John Thorley’s Documents in Medieval Latin, Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer, Gooder’s Latin for Local History, and Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources and Latham’s Revised Medieval Latin Word-list from British and Irish Sources.

  • stefanstackhouse

    People need to understand that the pathway to just about any sort of doctorate requires near-total commitment. They need to ask themselves – and really dig deep inside – to determine if they are really so in love with a very narrow specialty that they are willing to eat, drink, breathe, and dream just about nothing but that, not just for the next few years but for the rest of their working lives. They also need to be honest with themselves – and this requires some objective testing – to determine if they actually do have what it takes, if they really are very good (maybe not world-class elite, but close to it) in their chosen subject and all the prerequisites. This isn’t a pathway for everyone, or even for most, although it is for a very few. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but only a bit. It really is a tough road, and people do themselves no favors to set upon it (and this includes selecting an undergraduate major that implies going all the way through to the doctorate to become actually employable) without first counting the cost and being totally honest with themselves.

  • Elliott May

    Thanks so much for posting this! I’m preparing to apply to grad programs in religious studies/divinity right now, and the whole thing seems so daunting, for some of the very reasons you listed. Particularly as one who is hoping to attend one of the “elite” schools for biblical/religious studies, it seems frightening to think of who my peers would be, what is expected on day one, etc. It seems to me that the only articles to be found online are cautionary tales about the level of difficulty (both in the program and in securing a job afterward), so it was a tremendous encouragement to see someone take a moment to at least validate the struggle. It really is a gift.