Rian Shambaugh
Rian Shambaugh

Mind Over Matter Workshop

Mind Over Matter Workshop

In this workshop, Alysia Birkholz from the Office of Professional Development talked about how to train our brains for optimism and why it’s important for graduate school success.

Tips for Success in Graduate School

  1. Show up. Go to class, meetings, and seminars.
  2. Be inquisitive. Ask good questions, often. Contribute in class, meetings, and seminars. Talk to other students and faculty. Read books and papers.
  3. Get to know other people in the department. Talk to people and be friendly. Meet with faculty and make a good impression.
  4. Be proactive. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do, ask them what you should be doing.
  5. Train yourself for optimism. This is the focus of this particular workshop.


People who are resilient don’t get there by accident. They prepare to be resilient.

Resilient graduate students:

  • build strong relationships
  • develop optimism
  • practice holistic self care
  • do things that bring purpose to their day, week, or month
  • are proactive and use available resources to thrive

Never forget the power of YET. “I am not good at …” represents a fixed mindset. It does not leave room for becoming good at “…”. “I am not good at …, yet.” represents a growth mind set. It acknowledges that you are not good at “…” right now, but you will become good at it.


ANTs are Automatic, Negative Thoughts, or repeated, untrue thoughts that are self-defeating. These thoughts often get in the way, ruin our productivity, and convince us that things are worse than they really are. They are a time suck, because we focus our energy and brain power on them instead of on productive things. The first step to dealing with ANTs is identifying and naming them.

Common ANTs with Advisors and Faculty

  • Mind Reading: This is when you assume what someone else is thinking or feeling with very little evidence. For example if you were to pass your advisor in the hallway and they didn’t smile at you and you assume that it’s because they didn’t like an email you sent earlier in the day. In reality, they are probably thinking about any number of things having nothing to do with you.
  • Personalizing: This is assuming that someone else’s mood or behavior must have something to do with you. For example if your advisor is in a bad mood and you assume it is because they are upset with you. Like us, faculty have many things going on in both their professional and personal lives that have the potential to bother or upset them. More than likely, it has nothing to do with you personally.
  • Filtering: This is when we choose to only absorb negative feedback even when it is accompanied by even more positive feedback. For example if your advisor tells you that the proposal you wrote is mostly very good, but there are a number of things to work on and you choose to focus on the latter part and think that they must be disappointed in you.
  • Should Statements: These are unrealistic expectations you put on yourself. For example, “My presentation has to be perfect at every conference I go to.”
  • Overgeneralization: Coming to a conclusion based on only one data point. i.e. “I didn’t do well on that paper, I’m going to fail out of grad school.” We must keep in mind that one data point is not statistically significant.
  • Catastrophizing: This is when we overestimate the chances of disaster. i.e. “If I present at this conference, I’m going to make a fool of myself and my career will be over.”

These are things that we all do all the time and they are completely normal. However, we have to learn how to deal with them when they come up, so that they do not drag us down or hold us back.

Challenging the ANTs

Notice ANTs in the moment and perhaps even write them down. This will get them out of your head and they will become less intimidating. Provide counter-evidence to disprove the negative thoughts. Question the negative belief in general and ask yourself whether there is actual data to back it up. Look more deeply at what could have caused these thoughts. Think of a way to transform the negative thought into a positive one. For example, instead of saying “I’m not good at …”, say “I’m not good at …, yet, but I will work on it and get better.” However, sometimes we just don’t feel like we belong here.

Impostor Syndrome

In 1978, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term impostor syndrome as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” People who experience impostor syndrome tend to be highly successful. They are “highly motivated to achieve” and “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.” Studies have found that 70% of people experience impostor syndrome in their lifetimes. There are different versions of feeling like an impostor:

  • Diligence: You work hard at preventing people from discovering that you are an impostor, which tends to lead to more praise and success. Thus, leading to a vicious cycle.
  • Feeling of being a phony: Giving people the answer you think that want to hear. This often leads to feeling like a fake.
  • Use of Charm: You feel like you are only reacting to social cues to gain approval. You feel like when you are praised it is because you used your charm to get it, not because of your abilities.
  • Avoiding Display of Confidence: You may feel as though if you believe in your own abilities or intelligence, others will reject or disagree with you. To avoid this, you may convince yourself that you are not intelligent or that you do not deserve the success you have obtained.

Like challenging ANTs, challenging impostor syndrome involves reframing your thoughts and feelings.

Ways To Reframe

  • Most importantly, accept you had some role in your own success
  • Keep a pride file. Keep things that demonstrate that you did well.
  • Stop social media comparisons. No one posts about the average, everyday parts of their lives. They only write about the things that are really good or really bad.
  • Realize that nobody knows what they are doing all of the time
  • Try to help someone else. Similar to a “runner’s high”, helping other people releases dopamine in the brain resulting in a kind of “helper’s high”. You can also retrain your brain by helping people.

Train Brain for Optimism

Train your brain to look for good things around you. Make a point, once a week, to identify at least three good things that happened during that week. Practice expressing gratitude for what you have. Write down both positive and negative experiences that you have. This way you can get the negative things out of your head and it will force you to think about the positive things as well. Turn negative thoughts into goals (using “yet”). Finally, Alysia reminds us that “If you’re sitting here today, you belong here today.”