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Responding to uncertainty through a growth mindset

Though graduate students may have had their studies disrupted, this can be a time of opportunity and empowerment. It's all a matter of perspective.


As physical distancing measures have led to universities scaling back on-campus activities, graduate students have faced significant disruptions to their programs of study. With research plans on hold, writing delayed, and completion dates pushed back, it is easy to feel powerless amidst such sweeping alterations to everyday life. With so much that is beyond one’s control during these times, it is important to focus upon the actions or steps you can do. Adopting a “growth” mindset can be a helpful way of doing so, and in the process transforming uncertainty into opportunities for personal and professional development.

What is a growth mindset?

According to the Mindset Theory developed by Dr. Carol Dweck, there exists “fixed” and “growth” mindsets, which have an impact on learning and development. Under a fixed mindset, intelligence and abilities are innate and defined. People either have an aptitude or they do not. Individuals with this mindset tend to stay within their comfort zone and are easily discouraged when moving outside of it. As a result, they do not realize their full potential.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset hold and act upon the belief that they can improve and build upon their skills and competencies. Instead of confirming limitations, challenges and setbacks are viewed as opportunities that inform further learning, paving the way for greater achievement and personal fulfillment.

Though it takes work, establishing a growth mindset can have lasting, lifelong benefits in instilling greater agency in both academic and career pursuits. Yet, how can grad students like you take those initial steps towards adopting this outlook?

Start small

If applying a growth mindset is new to you, it can be easy to be overwhelmed with possibilities and little structure. To avoid this, start by identifying small, manageable areas of development. Think of skills or knowledge you would like to either explore or build upon. Would you like to be a better host of online meetings? Are there useful theories or methodologies that you are not familiar enough with? Would you like to be a more effective writer? Is there software that you tried but did not get very far? Identifying one or two things is a great starting point. As part of these considerations, set some tentative, achievable goals – mastery may not be possible but greater proficiency certainly is. Little victories are still victories, and they do add up over time!

Document the process

As you proceed, keep a regular journal. A hallmark of experiential learning, reflective writing is a great way to keep track of your progress and identify further opportunities. In doing so ask yourself questions such as: What did I do? What surprised me? What setbacks did I encounter? What will I do next time? Be honest with yourself – a growth mindset means acknowledging both your successes and limitations and embracing incremental improvement. From that bad guest lecture, to a failed experiment, to an unexpectedly harsh critique of written work, we have all had moments of discomfort that in retrospect were important opportunities that we emerged from with greater experience and resilience.

Try new things

Rather than a program of study, grad school should be more accurately viewed as a process of learning and exploration. This time is often described as an opportunity to push boundaries of knowledge, but do not limit this push to your thesis subject! For instance, consider your career interests or goals and what steps you will need to meaningfully pursue them. This may include developing greater business, interpersonal, or technical skills. Though it may not be directly related to your research, fostering an expanded skillset can help put you on the path for further success after graduation.

As you become more comfortable in applying a growth mindset, consider actively pursuing tasks or skills that you are unfamiliar with. Volunteering, part-time work, and short online courses or tutorials are just a few ways to do so. Doing something different may be awkward and challenging at first, but isn’t that the norm for most endeavours? Breaking away from a fixed mindset means intentionally moving outside of what is routine and comfortable, and in doing so, challenging previously held perceptions of yourself and your capabilities.

Use on-campus resources

Developing a growth mindset is a highly personal endeavour that takes into account your interests, weaknesses, and goals, but it need not be done in isolation. In recent years service providers at universities such as career services, writing centres, and offices of research have developed an ever-increasing variety of programming catering to graduate student needs. This has only intensified in response to these challenging times, with a wide range of webinars and resources available to help you make the most of the summer and beyond. Be sure to see what is offered at your institution as it may be a convenient way to help jump start your growth mindset.

Acknowledge imposter syndrome

Life in grad school can be challenging. Operating in an environment of continual critique can result in strong scholarship, but it can just as easily contribute to self-doubt and inaction. While the fear of failure is a common barrier to establishing a growth mindset, for many graduate students, feelings of undeserved achievement or “imposter syndrome” can also contribute to difficulty breaking out of a fixed mindset. If this applies to you, it’s important to recognize that such feelings are more common than you may think and that there are proven strategies to address imposter syndrome you can apply today.

Take that first step

Developing and maintaining a growth mindset takes effort and persistence, and by embarking in graduate studies, you have already displayed the very qualities needed to successfully do so. Through a growth mindset, you can take ownership of your circumstances in small yet meaningful ways. While it is a process filled with setbacks and false starts, through determination you can emerge from this time of uncertainty with greater confidence and resilience. But it requires you taking that first step – what will yours be?

Kristopher Gies
Kris Gies is a career advisor at the University of Guelph’s experiential learning hub, focusing on students in Ontario Veterinary College programs. He completed a PhD at the University of Guelph in 2010.
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