A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Dealing with Failure

I’ve struggled a lot already throughout grad school. My Master’s was no cake walk (see Freedom) and then getting into the PhD program was pretty difficult too (see The Acceptance). Based on these experiences with my Master’s, I have to admit that even though I got into the PhD, I did highly suspect that there would still be a lot of struggles to overcome before a “Dr.” title was handed to me on a silver platter. Still my first term went very well with the two courses I took and I was progressing successfully on preparing for my first written PhD comprehensive exam that I would take in January. Waterloo’s Pure Math PhD has two written comprehensive exams. One of them is in algebra (that takes place annually in January) and the other is in analysis (that takes place annually in May).

I wrote the algebra comp in January. I did study pretty hard for it, having spent several hours per week on it during most of the fall term and then tripling that study time over the Christmas break (of course, I certainly didn’t let it ruin Christmas for me, haha). Then I wrote the exam, thinking I did okay even though I had hoped it had gone better and was hoping for a pass. Then as it turned out I failed it.

Like with my last two struggles, anxiety set in and I started wondering about what I should do. I know that in order to stay in the program I needed to pass the comp on my second attempt (which will be in January 2015). And hearing that it’s a popular opinion that the analysis exam is tougher than the algebra exam wasn’t comforting either. Due to the positive side of my anxiety, I quickly gathered as much information as possible about where I went wrong, how I could improve, and what the chances looked like of actually completing the program.

As it turns out, it wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t the only one who failed and I wasn’t too far away from a pass and I had done enough of the comp to convince everyone that I could pass it the next time. I then worked at finding resources to further help with passing the exam the next time around and to be able to complete the analysis comp in May as successfully as possible.

Given that I studied really hard for the algebra comp, it didn’t look like to me (and still doesn’t) that any problem I had with the algebra comp was because of a lack of studying time. Instead of deciding to study harder, I knew I had to be smart about it. For example, next fall before my next attempt at the algebra comp I plan to sit in on a course that goes through material relevant to the exam, material I tried to study for, but hadn’t seen in any math course I took. I also found course notes online for a former graduate course that was designed to prepare you for the algebra comp (wish I had found those sooner!). I also sought out two people who have gone through the comps themselves and have offered me their help if I deem that I need it at any point.

Finally, I believe performance anxiety played a role as well, especially given my past history with exam anxiety and the fact that it was the first long exam I took that wasn’t related to any course I took and covered material I hadn’t seen in any course. I’ve seen my university counselor about this and he was good enough to find me a psychologist to see for performance coaching. He also shared a really good insight with me that even though the stakes seemed higher (only two attempts to pass an exam to stay in the program) than in any previous educational experience I had, it wasn’t really so. Students in various undergrad university programs can and do get kicked out for failing exams, or at least by failing them several times. It only seemed like the stakes were higher now because I simply wasn’t used to failing on such a level. I’ve never been in an academic program before where the risk of failing out was more than minuscule.

In fact, perhaps the only other time throughout my life as a student where I’ve been this heavily academically challenged would be in the International Baccalaureate program in high school at Sydney Academy and even then being in the IB program was certainly not a prerequisite for completing high school or getting into university and I probably could’ve dropped out of it if need be without heavy consequence. And worrying about failing exams during my undergrad experience at Acadia? No, I was pretty much just worried about getting a 75’s in exams, rather than 95’s, haha.

But in responding to this new challenge of dealing with failure in, for example, the ways mentioned above it certainly looks like I’m on the right track. And if everyone else who saw my first attempt thinks I can pass the comp on the second try, then I believe I will too.

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