Challenges Ahead Sign

By Hasagani Tissera

Research does not follow a linear trend – there are ups and inevitable downs that you will have to learn from in order to succeed. Have you ever heard of a success story with a perfect track record? Likely not, because it probably doesn’t exist. Meaning, at one time or another, we all experience setbacks as graduate students—whether it is relating to journal submissions, funding opportunities, or getting null results in our analyses. Although some of these setbacks might be inevitable, it is often not easy to cope with and overcome these setbacks.

What are some tips for overcoming such obstacles?

For this article, we surveyed fellow graduate students and faculty members to obtain tips on how to deal with setbacks during graduate studies. Here are some tips that might help students overcome these times of distress. However, it is important to keep in mind that these tips might not work for all contexts and for all people.

Some general advice

  • Planning—long-term or short-term, even weekly or monthly —can be helpful to regain perspective after a setback. When life and work are well planned, feelings of uncertainty may be reduced.
  • If the problems persist and you are experiencing a significant amount of negative emotions, don't hesitate to find professional advice. Many institutions offer psychological consultations with psychologists.
  • Social support can be a great buffer of negative emotions, especially support from peers or the cohort group. SPSP also offers a peer-advising program!
  • Setbacks in research happen more often that you might realize. A key thing to keep in mind is that resilience is correlated with success.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed, it is okay to say no. 
  • Reconstrue the setbacks as a learning opportunity for the future.

When working with collaborators

  • It is best to talk about expectations of collaborations at the start of the project.
  • Differences in opinions can arise when working with collaborators. It is best to be respectful and talk things out in person rather than through email (email can often lead to miscommunication). If speaking in person is not an option, consider a video chat or telephone conversation.

In relation to research findings

  • While getting non-significant results can be disappointing, it need not be a setback given the publication options we have today. One silver lining for null results is that the perception that null results are a setback is perhaps changing. More and more journals (and individual editors and reviewers) are open to publishing null results (particularly if the evidence for absence of an effect is strong, rather than inconclusive null results—which is something to think about when planning the sample size and design of your study).
  • One way to overcome non-significant results is to submit your paper as a Registered Report before you run your study. This can provide a guarantee (if your paper is accepted at Stage 1) that the final decision to publish your paper won't depend on the results being significant. 

Overall, it’s important to not take failure personally. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. In the end, the academic journey is long and things have a way of working out as they should. Never give up when you believe in something, including in yourself. 

A special thanks to everyone who contributed to this article:

  • Dr. Simine Vazire (Professor, UC Davis)
  • Dr. Chris Hopwood (Associate Professor, UC Davis)
  • Erika Gentile (Graduate Student, McGill University)
  • Shelby Levine (Graduate Student, McGill University)
  • Diego Guevara Beltran (Graduate Student, Arizona State University)
  • Kitty Miao Qian (Graduate Student, University of Toronto)