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discouraged grad student - how to overcome?

fjb fjb at sos.net
Thu Sep 21 21:26:20 EST 1995

wijsman at max1.u.washington.edu wrote:

>I need some advice on an issue which I am sure has come up for other people
>who read this newsgroup.  What do you do when you have a bright female
>graduate student working for you and that student gets sufficiently
>discouraged about her own abilities to consider quitting grad school even
>when from the faculty perspective there is plenty of evidence that the
>student is really very talented?  I don't know if I am worrying because I
>know most students have some ups & downs and this is just one of those, or
>because in a quantitative field (biostatistics in this case) the cultural
>baggage about females not succeeding in a math area is more extreme than
>in, say, bench biology, and I want to make sure that the student does not
>make a decision because of lack of self confidence which she will later
>regret.  I remember that I, too, was pretty insecure about my abilities at
>the same age (mid-20's) and a lot of that disappeared with the magic age of
>30 for some reason.  I am posting here because there just might be some
>ideas/experience out there which I haven't thought about which could help
>in this situation - either to find a way to quell some of her fears, or to
>give any futher information which would help make her decisions easier.

>The situation is as follows.  I have such a student right now working for
>me as an RA.  She has not yet chosen a thesis topic.  Everything I have
>seen about her in the last couple of years she has worked with me indicates
>that she is a good scientist.  She came out of a biological undergraduate
>program, but has done well in the graduate classes in statistics &
>biostatistics and is good at asking the "right" kinds of questions when
>working on research problems or reading journal articles.  Last year she
>took the very challenging statistics theory class which all our students
>take (and she did reasonably well).  She found the theory class to be very
>discouraging, though, and now, despite having passed all her qualifying
>exams (including the theory exam), seriously questions her own ability in
>the field.  Despite my attempts to reassure her to the contrary, she is
>still not convinced that she can do a Ph.D. in biostatistics. Any advice? 
>Past similar stories with happy/sad endings?

>Ellen Wijsman
>Research Associate Professor
>Div of Medical Genetics, BOX 357720
>and Dept of Biostatistics
>University of Washington
>Seattle, WA   98195-7720
>wijsman at u.washington.edu

This may sound silly, but why don't you ask her if there is anything
that you can do that might help. Ask her if she has any questions or
concerns, sometimes you have to take the first step and initiate a
conversation on the matter. 
Most important, give LOTS of encouragement!
Best Wishes and Good Luck,

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