Embarking on a graduate program is a brave choice many make to advance in their careers and better their skills. You’ve already conquered your undergraduate studies, proving your ability to tackle complicated and challenging course material. But the landscape of graduate school presents a whole new set of obstacles, often more formidable than those you encountered before.
The last thing you want to do is fail a course, or even more terrifying — your whole graduate program. Failure, though daunting, is not the end of your journey. As Maya Angelou wisely said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”If you do encounter failure, know you’re not alone; in fact, some grad students say failure is what ultimately led to their success.
Ultimately, recognizing and overcoming challenges is a crucial aspect of thriving in your grad program (and life in general).In this comprehensive guide, we delve into specific warning signs of failure and strategies to help you navigate the path to resilience. Keep reading to gain the tools you need to overcome setbacks and thrive despite — or even because of — failure.
Understanding the Severity of Graduate School Failures
Failure doesn’t look the same across the board. Certain failures you can overcome easily with steady dedication; others require you to change course, potentially even requiring you to start from scratch. No matter the type of failure you’re encountering, there’s always a way to move forward.
Ways You Can Fail During Grad School
While thinking about the myriad ways you can fail while in grad school sounds like a nightmare exercise, coming to terms with the very real reality in front of you can be helpful. Doing so helps you prepare for any eventuality you may face making your way through school. Here are just a few common obstacles that may feel like failure in grad school.
Failing a Test or Assignment
Many students experience a rigorous undergraduate program, but grad school takes it up a notch. Assignments and exams are typically more complex and in-depth. This is no surprise, considering graduate programs are preparing you for a more advanced career. With this in mind, you may not always do as well as you hope — both with and without proper study time and tactics.
Thankfully, failing a test is a reality that doesn’t mean your grad school career is over. It may mean you didn’t fully grasp the material and need some tutoring to get caught up. Or it may mean life got in the way and you just didn’t have enough time to study. Talk with your professor if you fail a test and come up with a plan to help you prepare better for the next one.
Failing a Class
Failing a class is a little more serious than failing a test or two. You’re paying good money to take college courses, so when you fail, you not only don’t get the credit, but you’re out the money, too. Failing a class may mean the course was too challenging for you, and you may want to consider a different one. Or a lack of attendance may have contributed to your failure.
Again, failing a class, while discouraging, doesn’t mean you have no options. If you must retake the class to pass your program, meet the professor in advance to understand how you can avoid failing again. Maybe your studying methods aren’t panning out or you don’t have enough of a background to understand the concepts. Either way, the professor can provide you with materials or guidance on how to move forward.
Failing a Semester
If your personal life gets in the way or an unexpected life event happens, your coursework may get pushed to the side. If this happens, it’s possible you could fail an entire semester of your graduate program. While you’ll receive warnings ahead of time that this is potentially going to happen, you may find that school isn’t always your priority if unexpected challenges arise in other aspects of your life.
If you fail because the subject you’re studying is too difficult or simply not interesting to you, you may want to reconsider your major. While it’s a hard blow to realize you don’t want to pursue a certain path, finding that out the hard way does still help you move forward.
Failing Your Graduate School Program
Failing your entire graduate program is difficult. Typically, professors and administration would intervene if they saw a student continuously failing classes. But if you get through the program only to realize you haven’t made any passing grades, it’s likely because of personal issues that caused you to lose focus on your studies. Or perhaps the program wasn’t at all right for you and your future career goals and posed too difficult a challenge.
While it’s easy to get discouraged, you can often reapply, even if you’ve failed an entire program. You may have to explain why you failed and how you intend to perform better this time around. Or, at the end of the day, this failure may indicate that graduate school isn’t right for you. While this is a hard lesson to learn, it’s still an important one.
The Implications of Failing in Grad School
If you fail a class or even your full graduate program, you’ll undoubtedly experience some consequences. While it won’t be the end of the world, you’ll meet various challenges — some of which are easier to overcome than others.
- Academic Implications
If you fail a class, this is a yellow flag to the administration, but you’re likely to bounce back as long as you can retake and pass the course. The academic implications grow more serious if you fail multiple classes, as this could lead to failing your program. If this happens, you won’t secure your degree, and you’ll have spent years studying with little tangible benefit.
- Financial Implications
Financing your graduate program is a careful balancing act. Failing a class can throw a wrench into that act, forcing you to pay another few hundred (or thousand) dollars to retake the course. Failing a semester, on the other hand, means the potential to lose financial aid or merit-based scholarships. And of course, failing your entire program means tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars just goes out the window.
- Future Implications
When employers verify your grad school record, they’re likely to look at your grades as well. A failing grade may put you a notch lower than an applicant who passed their courses with flying colors. If the worst happens and you completely fail the graduate program, you have no degree to show for any of your work. This can hamper your job search if you are looking to secure a career using your degree.
- Emotional & Mental Implications
Failing a class, semester, or entire program often leads to negative feelings and can contribute to more serious health consequences, such as depression or anxiety. This can result in a cycle of academic impacts, as it’s common to fall behind on your other coursework if you’re struggling with your mental health.
- Social Implications
Graduate schools are typically set up differently than undergraduate programs. They’re more focused degrees with smaller class sizes, meaning you’re a part of a tighter-knit community. If you fail and your peers don’t experience the same thing, you may feel disconnected from your peers, causing you to lose out on a vital graduate school experience.
Recognizing the Warning Signs of Failure in Grad School
You don’t fail grad school overnight. If you do eventually fail a class, semester, or your whole program, you’ll experience warning signs along the way. The best way to avoid failure is to recognize when it’s coming and take action right away. Below, we discuss the signs and address how to overcome these difficulties.
Declining Academic Performance
If you’re seeing your grades decline and test scores go down, this is a clear indicator that you may wind up failing. This poor performance is often a combination of factors. You may not be comprehending the complex subject matter, you may not possess the necessary time management skills, or there’s a lack of engagement with coursework. In short, grad school is difficult. It’s often more rigorous than undergraduate schooling, and if personal issues arise, coursework can quickly get out of control.
Constant negative feedback from instructors also typically implies that you may receive a non-passing grade. Professors don’t want you to fail, so they’ll often take you aside or request you visit them during office hours to discuss any issues you’re having.
Struggling to Comprehend the Material
Struggling with comprehension in a graduate setting often manifests as failing grades and your inability to learn and apply concepts. For example, if you’re enrolled in an advanced economics course, you might grapple with understanding the intricacies of sophisticated mathematical models, hindering your ability to use these models effectively in real-world scenarios. This would make advancing in this subject very difficult.
This struggle might stem from a limited foundational education or the fast-paced nature of graduate courses. This may leave you overwhelmed and unable to devote enough time to resolve the issues you’re experiencing. If you don’t seek support promptly, this struggle can hinder your overall academic performance.
Tips to Improve Your Comprehension:
- Form study groups, or ask peers, professors, and tutors for help reminding you of the basics, ensuring you have the right foundation in place to take on advanced classes.
- Refine your study skills; one technique is to review the full syllabus of each course ahead of time to make sure you’ve at least heard of the topics listed, and read introductory books for any topics you think you’ll struggle with.
Feeling Overwhelmed or Apathetic
If you’re having a hard time getting out of bed and getting to class, you likely won’t find any success at the end of the course. When you find yourself constantly stressed about your coursework or you’re not engaged at all in class, this could be a warning sign that you’re headed for failure.
Everyone reacts differently to the pressure that grad school places on students. When it becomes too much, students can check out, leading to poor grades and a lack of interaction with fellow classmates.
Missing Classes or Deadlines
You may have skipped out on a few classes during your undergraduate education, and your absence likely wasn’t felt, particularly in classes with hundreds of students. The same rules don’t apply in grad school, where your class sizes are much smaller. If you miss class frequently, your professors will notice and aren’t likely to take kindly to this.
As you miss classes, you’re missing out on vital knowledge and experiences. This makes it easy to disengage with your coursework and other students. As you disengage, more and more small things slip through the cracks, potentially ending in a failing grade.
Difficulty Managing Your Time Wisely
Organizing your schedule so it works for your needs is a vital task in grad school. Without careful planning, you could wind up with a schedule that causes severe burnout. Graduate work often consists of more than just classwork. You typically have to conduct research, do lab work, or teach. You need to balance all the above, also while attending classes.
Additionally, many grad school students have the added challenge of working around an already established career and/or family obligations. If you’re not prepared to create a careful balancing act, graduate programs can quickly become overwhelming.
Tips to Manage Your Time Better:
- Time-block your classes for times of the day when you’re less busy, and consider only taking courses a few days a week to keep your schedule balanced.
- Keep the lines of communication open with your professors, academic advisors, and family so you can get ahead of any potential time-management roadblocks.
8 Steps to Overcome Failure in Graduate School
Although failing feels like something you’ll never get over, it’s not the end of the road. Even if you fail an entire program, there’s no one saying you can’t try again. In certain situations, you can improve your grades or switch programs if you’ve found that yours no longer aligns with what you’re looking to accomplish.
Here are eight steps to take to overcome the fear of failure in grad school:
Step One: Don't Beat Yourself Up
Being hard on yourself in the face of failure certainly doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it’ll likely cause you to avoid taking any action — and there are plenty of steps you can take, even if you’re met with failure. Talking with other students can help you find a group of people who sympathize with your issues and who have even been there before, too. Having a support system goes a long way in ensuring that you don’t feel alone and provides you with a light at the end of the tunnel.
Step Two: Meet Yourself Where You're At
Failure happens for a reason, and that reason is different for everyone. When facing failure, know that the place you’re in is temporary. Understand that this is where you’re at right now, but you have all the power to change it. Practice self-compassion and speak to yourself without judgment.
Step Three: Speak with Your Professors or Advisors
If you’ve realized you’re failing or about to fail a course or graduate program, some of the first people you should speak with include your professors and academic advisors. They’re not just there to provide knowledge, but also to support you in your professional and academic growth. Your academic advisor in particular can help you start creating a plan to better your academic performance and can offer up resources if you’re struggling.
Step Four: Understand How Your Grade Will Be Impacted
Failing can look slightly different across different academic institutions. If you fail a course, this may not be the end of the world in the grand scheme of your degree. Some institutions give you a free course drop, which can come in handy if you find yourself with a poor grade at the end of one of your classes.
Step Five: Reflect on What You Could Have Done Better
Failure always has a lesson attached to it. There’s a reason it happened: Perhaps you were dealing with personal issues, you just couldn’t grasp the subject matter, or you couldn’t properly balance work, family, and school. No matter the reason, look at the situation objectively and think through what you would change. How could you improve your performance this next time around? Thinking through this can help you avoid making the same mistakes down the road.
Step Six: Create a Gameplan
Now to the hard part: creating a plan to do better next time. Once you know what the issue is and have a better idea of what you’d change, think through how to make those changes. It’s helpful to document your plan. Create a list of campus resources you can turn to (more on that in a second), plan out courses so they’re easier to manage, and take the time to decide if that graduate path you’re on is the right one. If not, now is the time to switch it up.
Step Seven: Utilize Your Resources
Graduate programs often come with built-in resources dedicated to helping you succeed. Even online-only universities provide a full suite of helpful services. Many graduate programs provide mental health resources and tutoring programs for students struggling emotionally or academically. Your professors are also valuable resources, so take advantage of office hours and Q&As in class. Professors typically provide all the resources you should need for the class up front, so connect with them if you need additional support.
Step Eight: Learn from Your Mistakes
Don’t let failure hold you back. It’s a scary word, but it’s always a chance to learn from your mistakes and move forward stronger. At the same time, you should try your best to avoid making the same mistake twice. After all, failing in grad school often comes with a serious financial impact. If you retake a course or start over in another program, learn from your mistakes and take advantage of all the opportunities and support around you.
Resources to Overcome Failure in Grad School
Getting through grad school doesn’t have to be a solo journey. There are many organizations and resources available to help you; here’s a list to launch your research.
- Avoiding Burnout in Grad School – The Chicago School provides a list of five tips designed to help you avoid the dreaded burnout that often comes with graduate programs.
- Balancing Grad School and Kids – The Princeton Review offers parents who are also students tips to balance their schooling with their children’s activities and needs.
- Coping With Failure as a Grad Student – This article gives a personal perspective on failing grad school and explains how to not let failure take over your entire life.
- Exploring Careers and Finding Purpose in Your PhD – This Society for Personality and Social Psychology article helps you understand how to find real purpose in your grad program and future career.
- Graduate Student Mental Health Toolkit – Although this toolkit is from a Canadian student resource center, it provides a long list of resources from which all types of students and faculty can benefit.
- How to Practice Safe Failure – Failing is a reality of life, and this article explains how to make the most of the failure you may face in grad school.
- How to Survive Grad School – The University of Kansas offers up six tips to avoid a meltdown in graduate school, and what to do if you find yourself in the midst of one.
- Importance of Mindfulness for Grad Students – Mindfulness is a strong tool that graduate students can use at will. Arizona State University explains how to use mindfulness to make grad school a more balanced experience.
- Managing Your Mood in Graduate School – California State University Long Beach provides a mood-management guide for graduate students.
- Mindfulness Apps Worth Considering – There’s a long list of mindfulness apps you can try, but these 12 are strong first contenders.
- Resilience in Graduate School – The University of Washington’s graduate school provides this guide on resilience, one of the strongest tools for managing stress during your grad program.
- Simple Rules for Aspiring Grad Students – An education paper, this piece offers 10 rules graduate students should live by to help avoid stress and get through their graduate programs.
- The College Student’s Bounce Back Guide – This is an upbeat guide designed to help you bounce back from failure while in college.
- Tips for Grad School Stress – UC Davis provides 5 tips for living a stress-free life while pursuing your graduate degree.
- Ways Grad Students Can Practice Self-Care – USC Graduate School gives a long list of self-care practices every student should implement to ensure their mental health remains in focus.
Interview: How a Former Grad Student Overcame Failure
Sarah Sheehan is a writer, educator, and analyst who focuses on the impact of health, gender, and geography on financial equity. Her ultimate goal? To live beyond the confines of chasing the next dollar — and to teach everyone else how to do the same.
What are some of the challenges you faced during your graduate studies?
My sister passed away during my final semester — and then my student-teaching supervisor passed shortly after. To top it all off, I was a first-year teacher at a very challenging school and had to pass edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment testing) that year.
How did your interpersonal relationships, both academic and personal, contribute to or alleviate the challenges you faced as a graduate student?
Interpersonal relationships saved my rump when I was a MAT student (Master of Arts in Teaching). If it weren’t for the bonds I’d built with my other professors and with the new student teaching supervisor, I probably wouldn’t have finished the program, at least not on time. I felt safe enough with those faculty members to be vulnerable about my struggles, and they knew me well enough (and cared about me enough) to meet me with compassion and understanding.
Did you feel alone or at any point during your graduate studies? If so, how did you cope?
During the asynchronous MBA program I started in 2022, I had the complete opposite experience. I felt so detached from the professors and other students — and really from the school as a whole — that I didn’t even feel comfortable telling them when or why my ADHD symptoms were going haywire. There was so little academic support and so little interaction on any level that I felt like I was wasting my time (and my money, to be honest).
I ended up dropping out of the MBA program and going back to the same university where I did my MAT. They offer synchronous online programs, and being able to be in the classroom, even without being in the classroom, has made all the difference.
As a graduate student who struggled with ADHD, do you think diverse students face unique challenges?
Absolutely. I felt so out of place in my MBA program. Usually, I don’t mind that — it’s an opportunity to represent identities that often aren’t thought about in these spaces. But in this case, it was increasingly uncomfortable. There was a lot of homogeneity in those classes, in many, many ways, and it left me feeling like the program was designed for certain types of students/people, and not for students like me.
I don’t think the implicit exclusion was necessarily intentional, but I often felt like there was a huge lack of awareness/consideration for students who fell outside of an assumed standard. It made me reluctant to ask for help because I felt like I’d first have to ask my professors to see/hear/understand me and my existence, so I just left.
How did your setbacks in graduate school contribute positively to your academic and personal growth?
Personally, I learned to be okay with quitting/changing course. I really felt like a failure when I left the MBA program, but I realized that the only real failure is struggling when you don’t have to. We wouldn’t tell a person to stick it out in a job they hate, and the same is true for grad school. The whole thing was just affirmation that walking away from what isn’t 100% for you leads you right into what is.
Whether I continued my studies or just stopped right there and decided I’d had enough school for one lifetime, I’d still be just as content with who I am, what my life has been, and where it’s headed. All in all, it was a necessary and liberating decoupling from the belief that I need to prove myself within an education system that wasn’t built for me in the first place. No regrets.