This article is a long one, and has been broken into four parts.
Part 1 described the formation of the expectations and the attitude with which I start my graduate and post graduate academic journey. This is important as it sets the tone of expectation management that is necessary later on.
Part 2 described my shock at the mismatch between expectation and reality and its psychological impact.
Part 3 talked about how I react and try to deal with the shock – trying to overcome it or succumb to it.
Part 4 (this blog) suggests various realistic measures that I can take in order to resolve the situation. It may be tempting to go directly to this section, but it is important to understand and identify with the other sections. By doing this, I create detachment, and I see myself as a third person undergoing trauma, and with this detachment the solutions make sense to me.
Part 4: what can I do
I am a smart person and I know that I can fix this problem. What I need is to examine all the options and determine the right one. For this I need to do the following:
1. Understand that I am not alone. Ask for emotional support.
There is no shame in asking for help. I cannot do it alone. Especially when I am in the middle of trauma and my emotions have taken over my brain. There is no way that I an capable of rational decision making.
Many of us have similar problems. If not in one subject, then in another. All of us are traumatised but afraid to ask for help due to shame, ego, guilt and fear.
There are two types of help that I need:
- help me handle my emotions
- help me handle the actual problem in academics
There are a large number of persons who are willing to help. Let me examine who can help.
Parents are the last person I am willing to ask for help. This is because we believe that they do not understand what we are going through. We think that we will bring down their hopes and aspirations if we do not put up a brave and confident front. We also think that they treat us like children and give us the same advice which we have heard so many times and even tried to do. If we tell them what we have done to fix the situation, they will ask us to try harder. Anyway, they do not understand the subject, and therefore they are useless.
Having said that, mothers are better than fathers in terms of understanding and giving emotional support. Fathers tend to give generic solutions, mothers tend to understand the education. However, both tend to fix the problem by offering platitudes. To be fair to them, they have not been trained to be counsellors, and they too are learning to deal with my emotional ups and downs.
Peers will give us emotional support by saying the following things:
- Don’t worry, this is not necessary for placement
- It is not my fault
- The teacher is a horrible one, and he has taken something personally
- Students have cheated, and I was morally correct not to cheat
- Let us distract ourselves by movies / sports / books / internet etc.
All the above help us alleviate our current emotional turmoil but do nothing to help with the future. There are other well-meaning peers who will tell me what to do by describing what they do in such situations. But I am not the same as them and this may not work.
I can form a group of like minded people who are bad in certain subjects and we can help each other. However, the spectre of relative grading comes up and such groups disband pretty quickly, specially if one seems to be doing better than others.
It is better to ask for professional help. Professionals are trained to help me handle my emotions and they are pledged to secrecy, unless I am a danger to myself or others. As I said before, there is no stigma attached to asking for help. Most educational institutes have counselling centres and guarantee anonymity. If they do not have such facilities, I can go to the internet and look for emotional counselling. Much of this counselling is free and it helps me by having someone not connected to me look at my thoughts and challenge them. The fact that I have to respond to these challenges helps in dealing with the emotions.
Such professionals have also dealt with similar situations and therefore can empathise as well as offer me various alternatives that others have taken. Good professionals do not offer alternatives on problems that they do not know much about, but they can help me go through the process of finding alternatives.
In India, people think that if I am going for counselling, I am incapable or mad. That is not correct. I am unable to deal with a situation and am asking a professional (not an amateur) for help. I call a plumber to fix my taps, not a friend who has never done this before. Nor do I try to deal with it myself. I do not put my head under the pillows and hope the problem will go away.
If I am not comfortable with a counsellor, I can always ask for another reference. Most good counsellors understand that if a rapport has not been built, solutions will not be forthcoming. Therefore they will gladly refer me to someone else, without taking umbrage. If they get upset, all the more reason for me to get another person.
2. Run the numbers
When I am doing badly and am emotional, I tend to over-exaggerate my academic failure. When I do badly in one subject, I assume that I will do badly in all subjects. If I do badly in one exam or one assignment of a subject, I assume that I will do bad in all exams and assignments of that subject.
Sometimes I can be overly optimistic in the first term. I may believe that the first term is a hiccup, an aberration and that I can get very good grades in the second term. Maybe so. Sometimes we are late starters, sometimes we take time to adjust to the academic level, the language, the food etc. But if after the second term, I have not got good grades, then it is time to be realistic and realise that maybe the competition is such that I cannot get good grades, specially in relative grading. I need to do risk mitigation.
In order to mitigate risk, I need to look at my subjects and analyse them. I need to know that some subjects have more credit than others and therefore impact grades more. If I make a spreadsheet of all the subjects, expected grades and then look at my CGPA, I may realise that by focussing on improving my grades on some subjects by one point, I can actually get a decent result. If I am in the second semester, and there are 6 more semesters to go, I can deal with each future semester at a time, and focus on those subjects / electives that can bump up my grade.
Within a subject, I need to see the relative weight of assignments, class participation, exams and group assignments. I also need to ask the right seniors (who did well in that subject) what is required to get a good grade in that subject. Armed with that information, I can figure out where I can do better and where I cannot control my result.
A relative grading means I need to to figure out who are worse that me, and ensure that I am better than a certain percentage of people. So instead of focussing on being the best, I have to start with being in the middle and slowly work my way to the top.
3. Focus on my strengths: academic or social
What are my strengths? That is determined by what my goals are. For certain goals like higher studies, good CGPA is a strength, for other goals it is not. For example, if I plan to go for civil services, or an MBA which is based on an entrance exam, the focus is on getting a good score in that entrance exam, not the CGPA.
The purpose of graduation determines how I look at academic results. If I plan to go abroad for higher studies, I have to know which colleges to target and the basis of getting admissions / scholarships. If the basis is purely academics, I focus accordingly. if it is work experience, then I get as much experience I can, while studying. If the basis is an entrance exam, I focus from day 1 on scoring well in that exam. If the basis is recommendations, I focus on that. I need to be goal centric.
If I plan to get a job, I see that there are 2 types.
One is the cerebral type, which requires brainwork. These are jobs like programming or research. By the way, programming has been made into a factory and therefore may not require brains, as algorithmic creativity may not be important. It depends on the company I join.
The other type of jobs require social interaction. If I want to become a manager, it is not my technical expertise, but my ability to get things done that is important. For such jobs, evidence of leadership and project management are more important.
CGPA is not a goal. CGPA is the means to a goal. There are many paths to a goal.
If I make CGPA as a goal, it achieves nothing except ego satisfaction in the short term.
Note that I talked about strengths. Enhancing strengths take less effort that getting rid of weaknesses. If I know what is my weakness, I can work around it, or surround it with strengths. By getting rid of weaknesses, I may simply be opening the door for other weaknesses. Better to have familiar enemies around us and focus on increasing our friends.
4. Manage expectations of stakeholders
There are many persons who are interested in my success or my failure. They can actively help or prevent us from being successful. Sometimes they may be passive and do not give help when needed. They all want something. When we do not give them what they want, they become angry at us. I myself want a lot of things from myself. When I do not get it, I get angry with myself. Since so many entities are wanting different types of results from me, I need to juggle all these expectations.
It is important to list down all the stakeholders who want something from me and determine if they will help us or stop us. For example, a peer may help or stop us getting the grade I want.
For each stakeholder, I need to list down what they need from me. Parents may want us to study for many reasons. They may want to feel good in front of their peers. They may want you to get a good job. They may want to get a good life partner for me. I have to understand what they want and why they want from me. I also need to determine whether they will help me get what I want, or they can prevent me from getting what I want.
Based on this, I can make a list of the top 3 or 4 stakeholders who are important to me. With each of them, I need to understand and negotiate what they want and what I want from them.
If I know what they want, I can determine if CGPA is the only way to achieve that goal. If not, then evidently there other other ways to achieve the same goal.
I need to also remember that an agreement done today does not mean it is written in stone. All of us are subject to influence and all agreements can be changed, sometime without our knowing it. Therefore confirmation from the stakeholders is needed at various times.
5. Find choices
The goal is the most important thing. Once I know what the goal is, I have choices. For each goal to be achieved, some sub-goals have to be achieved. For each of these sub-goals, other sub-goals are needed. Once I have the list of sub-goals, I can determine many ways to achieve a sub-goal. When I have choices, I am not depressed, because I have action items.
For example, to get a scholarship, I think a good CGPA is important. So a good CGPA is a goal. In order to achieve a good CGPA, what do I need?
I need to determine:
- what defines a good CGPA (now the stakeholder here is no longer my parents, but the college I am applying for. So parents reaction is no longer relevant)
- a list of all of the courses, their credits entered into a spreadsheet
- a list of all the electives, their credits and how easy it is to crack that subject
- the possible minimum target scores that is required to get the target CGPA
- List of those seniors who cracked the course
- List of professors and their grading methodology (are they hard or soft, what weight on assignments, mid term, end term etc, what expectations in terms of answers)
- Past papers by the professors on those subjects
This is only a partial list, but even by doing this, I suddenly have a lot of choices as to how to approach my studies. have a better strategy to focus my studies, rather than randomly reading lots of books and notes). My chances of improving my grades become higher.
The above topic is also a url to the definition of connect the dots. I cannot determine the future as a certainty. Whenever we do an action and it impacts people, they react in unpredictable ways – sometimes to help, sometimes to prevent. Therefore, any action done to reach a goal creates a series of reactions, and we have no idea how that helps or impedes in reaching a goal.
Steve Jobs said in the 2005 Stanford commencement address,
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.”
If I look at my past,I realise that everything that I have done ultimately brought me to this point. Therefore, everything that I do today will impact the future, somehow. The question is, what should I do. And two answers comes to my mind.
a. “Maximum benefit to maximum stakeholders”. This means that if good CGPA leads to something that will give maximum benefit to maximum number of stakeholders, I should focus on CGPA.
b. break down the goals to sub goals and connect the dots. If I want a good CGPA, I need to connect the dots so that whatever I do will lead to a good CGPA. So I need to look at all the actions I did as a reaction to a bad CGPA, and figure out if these actions helped in getting a good CGPA. If not, these dots do not connect.
The benefits of meditation are numerous. Meditation is not connected to religion, but to becoming aware, at all time, of what is going on inside me and outside me. The more I know what is going on, the less will be my knee-jerk reaction. Meditation also improves focus. The benefits of meditation can be found in this article.
I have moved from short term solutions focussing seeking help to long term solutions of meditation to formulate a strategy for dealing with academic angst. I hope this set of articles has been useful. Please give me feedback as to what has been your experience in dealing with academic angst.