Outgrowing Grades: The Mindset of an Emerging Scholar

PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement at the Schar School

It happens several times a year. A student is struggling in her graduate program. A grade on an assignment or exam has tipped the balance so she comes to my office. She describes difficulty connecting with a professor, failing to engage committee members, or unwelcome feedback on writing projects. Not too far into the conversation, the student discloses what she perceives as the true insult at the heart of the matter.

“But I’m an A student!”

Within this theme, the details vary. “But I write for a living,” She might say. Or, “My professors have always told me before that my work is solid.”

Her transcript confirms that she is indeed an A-student. Or perhaps more accurately, she was. After her admission to the graduate program, the grades she made in her past life shed their symbolic value. This former A-student now has another role that is growing in importance. Whatever passing grades she receives from this point on – even if they are A’s – convey incomplete information about her attainment of graduate-level skills and knowledge.

For students to move successfully through doctoral study and into their scholarly or professional fields, they must experience a series of transitions. The process is known as socialization. In a doctoral program, for example, students become socialized as they learn such things as how to interact effectively with senior colleagues, what is expected during a conference presentation, and when is the right time to apply for fellowships or jobs in the field. Through socialization, students “acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that make them more or less effective members of their society” (Weidman, Twale, and Stein 2001). Subtle discernment is involved in this socialization into the norms of a professional or academic field. To succeed, students must learn how to pick up implicit and unstated cues about values, attitudes, and dynamics among their faculty and peers. The extent of this socialization influences the time it takes to complete a degree and how prepared graduates are for their careers, as well as whether students finish their program at all (Lovitts 2001). 

This process doesn’t just happen from the outside in. A student’s mindset plays an important role in socialization. Carol Dweck’s influential work in the field of educational psychology juxtaposes fixed and growth mindsets. Does a person focus on documenting intelligence and talent, or on developing abilities through hard work? A growth mindset – one in which intelligence is only a starting point, and success is a function of effort – leads to a more effective and resilient process of learning (Dweck 2006).

A student’s mindset can influence how receptive they are to expanding their self-concept and engaging with the expectations of their new role. Graduate students are indeed students, but even while sitting in class, they have another academic identity. They are also junior scholars and professionals-in-training. Those who carry themselves simultaneously as emerging professionals and students may have a more successful doctoral journey.


Measurement or Signal? 

The visitor in my office is, for the moment, operating from a fixed student mindset. Class grades matter to her because they indicate prior learning, and she may confuse this with intelligence. It is certainly true that knowledge and skills learned at earlier academic levels lay a foundation. Nevertheless, they serve as incomplete predictors of performance in a graduate program, particularly in a doctoral program. Much of what matters in a doctoral program takes place outside of coursework, starting from the moment a student receives an acceptance letter. In some cases, it starts even before that. In the pre-admissions exploratory stage, aspiring PhDs may reach out to faculty asking for advice, attend conferences in their potential fields, and put in effort to publish. These applicants signal their disposition as emerging scholars before they even set foot on campus.

Once a student’s program gets underway, opportunities to send those signals become more apparent. Adjusting the relationship to grades is one.

GPA is almost irrelevant in a doctoral program. At the end of the process, all that counts is having an advisor who says that this is a good dissertation. To a student anxious about class grades and grade point averages, we say, “The only letters on your transcript that count are P, H, and D.” As soon as a candidate walks across the graduation stage, the axiom comes true. Until then, things are more complicated.

Grades earned during a graduate program do provide indicators of peaks and pitfalls along the academic journey. At the same time, these assessments of performance inadequately measure capability, intelligence, or even “potential,” because these are not set quantities that can be measured. Further, faculty may assume that graduate students understand the meaning embedded in the grades they give. If a grade serves more as signal than measurement, how does the student interpret that signal? In which direction is it pointing? An unexpectedly low grade usually indicates an area of weakness, which might be the precise location of a student’s blind spots. This can create acute confusion regarding skill areas where students conceive of themselves as already capable (see again: “But I write for a living!”) A student can begin adjusting her relationship to grades by recognizing the fluctuating inferences of these scores.


Adaptation is the Key to Evolutionary Success

Another maxim in my advising repertoire is this: “Our assets are our liabilities.” Take Jasper, for example. If Jasper has been told his whole life that he’s a good listener, he prides himself on listening well. Without realizing it, Jasper conceives of listening as a talent that one either possesses or doesn’t. Because he thinks he has it, Jasper fails to notice cultural differences, contextual shifts, changing relationships, or new dynamics in which he needs to listen differently. His approach to listening can grow rigid, much like the fixed mindset. Jasper fails to ask, “What do I need to do to listen well in this particular situation?” He has not adapted as the landscape has changed. So Jasper, our “good” listener, actually lives as a rather poor listener, while remaining ignorant of what he’s missing. Because the context of his work has changed, Jasper’s previous asset becomes a liability.

Jocelyne, on the other hand, accepts that she may be both a good and a bad listener. Listening, to Jocelyne, is a skill that she’ll always be learning. Because of this, she is more open to shifting how she listens based on a given situation. Unburdened by a “Good Listener” label, Jocelyne responds to what’s needed with curiosity and attentiveness. She listens more carefully because she doesn’t assume she’s mastered the skill.

Students who conceive of themselves as A-students often see their prior academic achievement as an asset. As with Jasper, it may also be a liability. These students have a knack for budgeting time over the course of a semester, taking notes, studying for exams, and cranking out final papers. While these important skills still matter in a PhD program, proficiency in undergraduate or master’s level programs can limit the range of vision.

A conception of expertise – the “A-student” archetype – may become a liability when context shifts. When in a PhD program, students may receive fuzzy feedback about improving, find out their theoretical foundations are weak, or have their methodological approaches dismissed. At first, they may defend their positions or feel misunderstood. Imposter syndrome can seed misgivings about whether they are cut out for a PhD. It is normal for students to experience self-doubt when growing out of the student role and into that of a professional and researcher. Doctoral socialization is a transitional, even transformational, period. What matters is how a student manages the change.

In his work on the socialization of kinesiology doctoral students, Jared Russell notes that PhD students experience “multiple recalibrations of their academic expectations.” Their study habits change, as do their perceptions of faculty evaluation techniques and the climate of the academic unit (Russell 2015). The management of these recalibrations influences academic and career performance. Similarly, Sinclair et al, in a study of early doctoral experiences, find that successful researchers are able to acknowledge the importance of their ‘soft skills’, and to have “flexible, responsive and adaptive dispositions” (Sinclair, Cuthbert, and Barnacle 2014).

These adaptive dispositions and recalibrated expectations look a lot like the markers of a growth mindset. Such qualities may contribute to success in both the academic program and in transitioning to a career. In contrast, students who become defensive, perceive a faculty member as unfair, and are preoccupied with grades might take longer to finish the overall degree. Their attention lingers on how they are performing as a student and on what their grades signal to the faculty. The irony here is that a fixation on grades may actually hurt a student’s reputation in a department.

Students who carry themselves as emerging professionals and scholars are more likely to be received as such. These students can take criticism. They incorporate feedback. They focus not on past measures but on current and future mastery. They ask, “How can I improve my performance?” Rather than, “Why didn’t I get an A?” Emerging professionals and scholars aim to do all these things with civility and grace, recognizing their weaknesses and harnessing their strengths as they grow in expertise.


Advice from PhD Student Services

Adopting a growth mindset and embracing your role as an emerging scholar and professional can help you make it through the rough patches during your PhD journey. Here are a few ways to put these concepts into practice.

Consider the Cost of That GPA In the face of troubling grades or feedback, you may decide to double down on coursework. If this is the approach you take, proceed with care. Take time to calculate the opportunity cost associated with improving a grade. The amount of energy it takes to nudge a grade from a B+ to an A- might slow your overall progress and hurt your chances for developing academically and professionally in appropriate ways. Are your efforts better spent on improving your paper in your chosen area? Or perhaps on developing a presentation or paper for a conference where you’ll receive practical, ungraded feedback from peers and scholars? 

Check Your Assumptions If you think you know where you need to improve, you might be wrong. Ask your professor. Instructors likely see you a bit differently than they do the master’s and undergraduate students in their classes. In their eyes, you are a student as well as an emerging scholar and peer. Because of this, professors may carry assumptions about your awareness of the hidden rulebook of doctoral education. For example, they may presuppose that you have a solid grasp of the specific expectations of academic writing as opposed to other forms, while the nuances are still new to you. 

If you receive grades or other indications that something in your work is amiss, go see your instructors. In a diplomatic, receptive manner, ask for detailed feedback. Recognize their expertise and come to them as an apprentice professional who needs coaching, not simple solutions. Request suggestions for authors you could read and examples you might follow. What particular skills sets would they advise you develop? Might they let you revise the work as an exercise, given this more detailed feedback? Let go of your desire for a new grade. Instead, welcome guidance from instructors as a coaching opportunity. Approach them as someone who aims to master these skills and put them into practice in your research.

Recognize the Hand of Privilege Like you, just about every student accepted to an advanced degree program performed well in the past. PhD students have mastered many skills needed to succeed in academic and professional settings. It can be uncomfortable to accept that certain innate abilities are the result of accidental fortune. Nonetheless, some portion of unearned privilege has smoothed the way for almost every student in higher education.

Why is this privilege worth considering? Because these innate or inherited qualities have allowed for functional shortcuts along the road to academic achievement. Be they fluency in writing or a facility with timed tests, these seemingly innate talents were well-suited to earlier academic settings. Not anymore. When it comes to independent doctoral research, a number of tools you’ve relied on in the past may fall short unless you complement them with further skill-building and socialization. It is necessary now to fill the gaps and shore up weaknesses.

It’s worth noting, again, that many students may not even be aware of the specific areas or skills needing improvement. Embrace the confusion. Shed familiar approaches and allow yourself the awkward trial stages of new ways of thinking, writing, and working. 

Train for Growth A wise person once said, “If I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m in the wrong room.” If you are doing things at which you already excel, then you aren’t growing. You have a rare opportunity while in your graduate program to be a rookie in training with veterans of the game. No matter where you are in your doctoral program, you can move more fully into the growth mindset of an emerging professional and scholar. Next time you face a grade or hear feedback that bothers you, take a breath. Set aside discouragement or defensiveness. When you feel like saying, “But I’m an A-student,” ask instead, “What is this challenge telling me about what steps to take next?”

Then take them.


Dweck, Carol S. 2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Updated edition. New York: Random House.

Lovitts, Barbara. 2001. Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Russell, Jared A. 2015. “Rolling With the Punches: Examining the Socialization Experiences of Kinesiology Doctoral Students.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 86(2): 140–151.

Sinclair, Jennifer, Denise Cuthbert, and Robyn Barnacle. 2014. “The Entrepreneurial Subjectivity of Successful Researchers.” Higher Education Research & Development, 33(5): 1007–1019.

Weidman, John C., Darla J. Twale, and Elizabeth Leahy Stein. 2001. “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage?” ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Volume 28, Number 3. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. Jossey-Bass, Publishers, Inc. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED457710