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6 ways to find your silver linings in grad school

We gain far more by capitalizing on our strengths than by focusing on our weaknesses.


Partway through my PhD, I was in a workshop when the facilitator stopped us and requested: “Turn to the person next to you, and spend the next two minutes telling them about something you’re good at.” This exercise is etched into my brain. Not because I remember what I or my partner shared, but because of what followed. The facilitator asked, “How was that to share?” Sharing felt universally awkward, like bragging, or faking it, or struggling to find something to say. Then she asked, “What was it like to listen?” The responses were the polar opposite; listening was interesting, engaging, and motivating. Why the disconnect?

Graduate school is a time of growth, where development often comes through critique. Ask most graduate students what they need to work on, and they’ll quickly begin to list their perceived flaws, saying “I should get better at… (insert every single graduate activity here – writing, reading papers, giving presentations, scheduling time).” Ask them what they’re good at, and you’ll often hear a nervous chuckle, or a deflection, or a sarcastic quip. They may have an answer prepared, but it may be accompanied by that gnawing little fear that they’re not being quite truthful, and the listener will find them out. The impostor phenomenon is rampant – we often feel we don’t deserve recognition, or we’re somehow faking our success, or that others around us are more successful than ourselves. Add to this that there is a recognized mental health crisis in our graduate student population, with disproportionately high rates of anxiety and depression, and it becomes clear that something must change.

Where can we start? Many suggest that we gain far more by capitalizing on our strengths than by focusing on our weaknesses. Donald Clifton, the father of strengths psychology and the creator of the CliftonStrengths assessment, is credited with saying “What will happen when we think about what is right with people instead of fixating on what is wrong with them?” Training ourselves to identify and communicate our strengths may feel unnatural at first, but, with practice, it’s something we can learn and apply for academic, professional, and personal success.

Six ways to find your silver linings

Be grateful. It may take effort to start shifting your thinking toward the positive about yourself. One way to practice positivity is by keeping a gratitude journal. Every night before bed, write down three things for which you are grateful. Depending on the day, they could be minor details (my sandwich was delicious) or huge successes (my paper finally got accepted!). Research has shown that focusing on gratitude improves participants’ affect and “that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.” Practice this for 21 days, and you’ll find this thinking begins to come more naturally.

Remember the good times. Impostor syndrome preys on your confidence – give it evidence-based information to counteract negative thoughts. Take some time to reflect on times from your past where you overcame challenges or accomplished something you’re proud of. You know your own stories better than anyone else, so take the time to capture the important details of your past experiences so they can serve as a source of inspiration and resilience to help you move forward in the face of future challenges.

Name your strengths. In helping professions, there is a significant correlation between taking a strengths-based approach and client improvement. You can feel empowered by taking control – by naming your own strengths, you are able to share them with others, and use your own experiences as evidence. If you’re looking for language with which to identify positive aspects about yourself, try using an assessment. The CliftonStrengths is a formal assessment designed to identify your unique top five “Talent Themes” from a list of 34. Another (free!) assessment is the VIA character strengths. Don’t ignore the value of addressing weaknesses; even strengths have blind spots.

Ask for feedback. A second way to build awareness of our strengths is to ask others for critical feedback; it doesn’t cost you anything except vulnerability (gulp). How? Frame it in a full-spectrum way: what is something this person appreciates about you, and what is one thing that you could work on? This will allow you to feed your inner critic with some honest feedback to work on, but also to celebrate something about yourself that you potentially weren’t aware that others appreciate.

Work when you’re at your best. Grad school is busy, and work seems to expand to fit the space that it’s given. Unfortunately, time doesn’t necessarily correlate with productivity. One of the most productive PhD students I trained with came in at 9:30 a.m. and left before 5 p.m. every day. He also graduated sooner than most people in the department. How? When he was at work, he was at work. Not going for multiple coffee breaks, or catching up on office gossip (which should be noted is also a positivity killer). You know yourself best; when are you most productive? Can you schedule your most difficult tasks during this time?

Practice self-care. We often feel best when we’re focused, productive, and moving forward on our tasks. It is very hard to do our best work when our bodies and minds are stressed. Stay productive by taking regular breaks, getting some exercise, talking to a friend or loved one, cooking a nutritious meal, doing activities you enjoy, and getting enough sleep. And if possible, take vacations.

Give yourself the time to build these skills

Be patient with yourself – you may need to build these positive practices, bit by bit. I started in graduate school by asking peers about my strengths and continue to work on better self-care practices. Getting comfortable telling your stories is a skill to learn, but maintaining an open mind and being willing to commit to personal growth can allow you to remain focused. The beauty of taking a strengths-based, positive approach is that you might even start to believe it yourself. If I was asked now, my two-minute story would be authentic, accurate, and enthusiastic!

Stephanie Warner
Stephanie Warner is the career development specialist for PhD students in career services at the University of Calgary. She completed her PhD in experimental medicine at the University of British Columbia in 2014.
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  1. Mostafa Amer / January 24, 2019 at 14:33

    Thank you so much for this great article, honestly I saw myself in all what you wrote.