Growing Your Growth Mindset for Scientific Success

By Angela Snyder

This time of year, NIH grant study sections are meeting and R01s, F31s, and other grant applications are being reviewed, discussed, and scored. Scientists at every career stage are receiving some positive feedback and a lot of criticism. While some individuals are able to post well-deserved celebratory Tweets, there are many more who are disappointed and left to reassess and resubmit their work.

Depending on the results of their grant evaluations, some individuals might take the feedback as evidence that they are not good at science and might give up altogether. Others will evaluate the feedback with an open mind and see how they can learn and improve from such comments, viewing the additional challenge as a source of motivation to persist and try again. The way these two hypothetical individuals handle criticism displays the differences between a person with a fixed mindset and one with a growth mindset.

Graphic by Nigel Holmes from: https://medium.com/stanford-magazine/carol-dweck-mindset-research-eb80831095b5
This infographic describes how things are viewed differently with a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset.

Growth mindset is a phenomenon described initially by Dr. Carol Dweck in the 1980s1. Growth mindset and fixed mindset refer to the way a person views their abilities. If a person sees intelligence and skills as inherent and unchangeable, they are said to have a fixed mindset1. If they believe their skills can be developed and improved through practice and proper teaching, then they have a growth mindset1. For example, a person with a fixed mindset would believe that they are either good at science or bad at science with no way to improve; a person with a growth mindset believes that they are able to improve their scientific skills and ability. Further, a person with a fixed mindset avoids challenges and is concerned about looking foolish or unintelligent; however, a person with a growth mindset welcomes challenges, and is more willing to persevere through obstacles1.

The growth and fixed mindsets can impact a person’s ability to achieve and reach their full potential. Studies have shown that if a student feels that their intelligence is of a fixed amount, their academic performance suffers when they realize they might fail. If a student believes that intelligence is malleable and improvable, however, they are better at learning and sustaining efforts to advance to more complicated subject matter2. Even how professors view growth vs fixed mindset can predict how vulnerable their students feel psychologically and how well the students perform in STEM courses. For example, if a professor has a fixed mindset, this can lead to an increase in students’ emotional vulnerability, increased impostor syndrome, and decreased academic success3. This type of thinking, whether it is a fixed mindset or growth mindset, is very powerful and has serious life consequences.

Thinking about your own life experiences, how do you usually react when you receive feedback? Do you shut down and lose confidence, or do you see it as an opportunity to learn? It’s unsurprising that many students fall into the fixed mindset given the fact that we are defined by evaluations and numbers for most of our lives. Our course grades, overall GPAs, and GRE scores not only follow us on our transcripts, but they also determine our ‘worthiness’ of receiving graduate school acceptances and fellowships. Ironically, these numbers are poor predictors of productivity4 and success5 in biomedical science graduate programs. When a student arrives in graduate school, it is beneficial to develop a growth mindset in order to achieve sustained success. Although it might not be our default, the good news is that we can all build our growth mindset. One way to do this is by reflecting on how we view the achievements of others.  

One side effect of a fixed mindset may be to believe that everyone else is reaching their goals without much effort. It is easy to fall into this trap with the way scientists’ work is presented to the world. Seeing a researcher’s Instagram-ready microscope images or beautiful story in a publication hides the fact that their experiments failed for months. In Michael Alley’s book The Craft of Scientific Writing, he mentions that many scientists believe great writers write effortlessly and barely need to revise their work6. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A majority of famous writers struggle and go through many rounds of revisions. Alley says, “For most of us, the key to successful writing lies in working hard on our revisions, not in conjuring magic on our first drafts”. He also explains, “One of the beauties of writing is that you do not stop learning. With each document, you improve your craft”. A fixed mindset can be a big obstacle to writing even a first draft, while a growth mindset is much more conducive to writing and revisions.

The type of goals one sets also determines which mindset they use when approaching tasks. There are two different types of goals: performance goals and learning goals7. With performance goals, individuals strive to keep up others’ positive assessments of their abilities and work hard to avoid criticism. With learning goals, however, individuals strive to improve their abilities or master new skills. Two people can both have the same larger goal to finish writing a paper, for example, but whether they frame the outcome as performance-based or learning-based will affect how they approach the task and how they feel about themselves throughout the process. One way to adjust your mindset is by reframing your end goal. Prioritizing learning goals will more easily steer you to a growth mindset.

It is essential to acknowledge that everyone exhibits both growth and fixed mindsets. Declaring that one has a growth mindset is not the end goal. Successfully implementing a growth mindset requires honest reflection and the ability to identify if strategies one is using are truly effective. Working hard but continuing to use ineffective strategies is not a growth mindset. Growth mindset is about making sure that one is continuously learning from mistakes and taking on the challenges to expand their knowledge and improve. Effort without any results is wasted. Additionally, it is necessary to reasonably assess how much is truly within one’s control, and what might be unchangeable due to the environment8. By being reflective and realistic, we can develop a growth mindset through reevaluation of our goals and redefining success. Developing a growth mindset is a process in and of itself.

Hopefully knowing these facts will help you become more self-aware and move away from a fixed mindset into more of a growth mindset. Fortunately, as graduate students and beyond, we can truly move past the fixed mindset that has been so pervasive throughout grade school and undergraduate schooling. Although grants and publications are evaluated and scored, these values do not stick to you as some type of identity like a GPA or a GRE score. The next time you find yourself saying “I’m not good at this” or “I’ll never get better” take a step back and remind yourself to view the situation from a different perspective. The next time you get reviews, a grant score, or other evaluation, do not internalize the numbers; focus on the constructive feedback and see what you can do to grow. View failure as a challenge you can persevere through as opposed to some impenetrable wall keeping you from reaching your goals. Check in with yourself as you go and be realistic. Choose growth—your future self will thank you! 


References

  1. Dweck CS. 2019. The choice to make a difference. Perspect Psychol Sci. 14(1):21–25.
  2. Mangels JA, Butterfield B, Lamb J, Good C, Dweck CS. 2006. Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 1(2):75–86.
  3. Muenks K, Canning EA, LaCosse J, Green DJ, Zirkel S, Garcia JA, Murphy MC. 2020. Does my professor think my ability can change? Students’ perceptions of their STEM professors’ mindset beliefs predict their psychological vulnerability, engagement, and performance in class. J Exp Psychol Gen. 149(11):2119–2144.
  4. Hall JD, O’Connell AB, Cook JG. 2017. Predictors of student productivity in biomedical graduate school applications. PLoS One. 12(1):e0169121.
  5. Moneta-Koehler L, Brown AM, Petrie KA, Evans BJ, Chalkley R. 2017. The limitations of the GRE in predicting success in biomedical graduate school. PLoS One. 12(1):e0166742.
  6. Alley M. 2014. The craft of scientific writing. New York, NY: Springer.
  7. Elliott ES, Dweck CS. 1988. Goals: an approach to motivation and achievement. J Pers Soc Psychol. 54(1):5–12.
  8. Dweck C. 2015 Sep 22. Carol Dweck revisits the “growth mindset” (opinion). Educ Week. [accessed 2021 Mar 10]. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset/2015/09.

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