Coping and Self-Efficacy

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn about how you deal personally with difficulties in graduate school.
  • Learn about how your beliefs about what you can achieve are related to how you cope.


“I have learned to deal with my daily stress with a nice bottle of wine in the evenings when I get home. This seems to be the best way to unwind and take my mind off things.”

“Each time I join a new team or start a new project, I feel extremely unsure of my abilities. I lose a lot of sleep over these transitions.”

What is Coping?

It is easy to feel out of control with the incessant demands of graduate school. Paying attention to the way you tend to cope with these demands is important, as is assessing whether or not these coping strategies are working for you. If the way you deal with obstacles and difficulties doesn’t improve the situations or makes them even worse, then this lesson is for you. You can strengthen your coping strategies so that you have more flexible and appropriate ways to manage graduate school.

Coping is any effort you make to alleviate stress, control your environment, or overcome something you find threatening.1 Doing something to make your situation better is a “behavioral” form of coping. Thinking a different way about a situation in order to feel better about it is a “cognitive” form of coping. Individuals have dispositional traits that predispose them to fall back on certain types of coping strategies as opposed to others.2 Other factors, including culture and gender, have also been known to be associated with different coping styles.1,3

Coping behaviors can be grouped by their functions: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.4,5 When you are encountering stress in your academic or personal life, are there some coping strategies from the following examples that you use more than others?

Consider some of the ways that you can adapt to your environment to cope with stress related to physical safety.

Problem-focused coping behaviors (directed at changing the situation): Do you ...

  • Plan what you will do?
  • Seek tangible assistance?
  • Put other things on hold?
  • Actively approach the problem?

Emotion-focused coping behaviors (directed at regulating your stress-related emotions): Do you ...

  • Assign a different meaning to the problem?
  • Seek out support from others?
  • Hope for a miracle?
  • Avoid thinking about the situation?


Which of the following scenarios represent problem-focused or emotion-focused coping?

Options A and D are problem-focused coping behaviors. They involve specifically addressing a situation with a plan. Options B and C with situations that involve emotional issues, like responding to a circumstance to change or avoiding a certain emotional response.

Coping Behaviors

While you might have the tendency to utilize some coping behaviors more than others, how you deal with a problem also depends on the context. Have you ever wondered why you tend to avoid dealing with some problems, yet always approach other types of problems with tenacity and zeal? Below is an example of a common conversation between two graduate students about these kinds of coping issues.

Lata: Hey, how's the dissertation going?

Christina: It's not. I don't understand. I'm not a procrastinator, but for some reason I have been avoiding my dissertation work like the plague. I'm tired of being the ABD of my cohort. What about you?

Lata: Not bad, it's not my dissertation I'm avoiding, it's my roommate. We'll never be able to get along so I figure, why bother? I try to make sure not to be at the apartment when she's around.

How you choose to cope has to do with whether or not you perceive you have adequate resources (e.g., ability, time, money) for dealing with the task or problem at hand.4For example, some first-year graduate students might be overachievers when it comes to their homework because they know they can be a good student, but avoid starting independent research projects because they are less confident in their ability in this area. As they develop confidence in their ability to do research, they might be less likely to procrastinate.


Your belief about your ability to perform a particular behavior successfully is known as self-efficacy.6,7Think of self-efficacy as a domain-specific type of self-confidence. For example, whereas you may have general confidence in your abilities to be successful, you may nevertheless be convinced that solving a particular mathematical problem is outside of your reach.

Your self-efficacy is related to your beliefs about whether your actions will have positive results. Career self-efficacy, that is your beliefs about your abilities in your prospective career area, is associated with your choosing it, how much you like it, and your persistence in it.8 Women often have lower self-efficacy than men in traditionally male-dominated occupations, and are thus less likely to pursue these career paths.9,10,11

Self-efficacy is subjective; it is not necessarily an accurate appraisal of your actual abilities. Your self-efficacy can originate from a number of sources, such as your past accomplishments, your vicarious experiences, what people tell you, and even your physiological states.6

  • Past accomplishments
  • Getting good grades
  • Becoming a published author
  • What you observe other women experiencing
  • What your parents/family/friends have gone through
  • Messages you get from the media that influence your perceptions
  • What people tell you, such as “You would make a terrific teacher!”or “You should consider going into research.”
  • Physiological states
  • Sweaty palms
  • Racing heart


Which of the following best illustrates Self Efficacy?

The best answer is B. While answers A and C may suggest self-confidence or even self-esteem, they are based on others’ perceptions, and not Liza’s and Danielle’s own appraisals of their abilities within specific domains or areas. Similarly, answer D is more about Shalayna’s mood state after her test. Answer B shows Hiroko’s belief in her own ability to run the analysis—her self-efficacy in that domain.

Coping Efficacy

Coping efficacy is a specific aspect of self-efficacy. It is defined as your belief about your ability to manage or negotiate obstacles or challenges.8How you cope with different challenges actually has more to do with your coping efficacy than the type of challenge itself. Put differently, two people facing the same dilemma will have very different ways of approaching it, according to each individual’s belief about her/his ability to solve that type of problem.

Reflections: Rating your ability

On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate your belief in your ability to cope with the following challenges? (1 = Impossible for me; 5 = No doubt in this ability)

1. Your research project loses funding.

2. Your advisor tells you that if you decide to get married or have children during graduate school, he will no longer employ you in his lab.

3. Your advisor is promoted and leaves your department.

4. Your labmates leave you out of major decisions regarding your lab work.

5. One of your labmates is sexually harassing you.

6. Your dissertation proposal was ripped to shreds by your advisor and you are back to the drawing board.

7. Your spouse got a job at another university but you have a year left in your program.

If you rated your ability to overcome these potential roadblocks as high, you are likely to deal with such challenges in a proactive manner if they were to occur.

If your ratings were relatively low, you may lack confidence in your ability to handle the challenges in your life. It is important to embrace the perception that ALL problems are solvable and that you can learn ALL the skills to manage whatever obstacles you encounter. This doesn’t mean fixing each problem; it can mean minimizing its negative effects or coming to a place of acceptance about a negative outcome.

How do self-efficacy and coping styles matter?

  • Self-efficacy has been shown to have important consequences for pursuing and succeeding in careers.
  • Self-efficacy is related to your academic choices and career aspirations.8
  • Self-efficacy predicts how you will cope with a problem. This includes whether you will use helpful coping strategies and how much effort you will put into solving it.
  • The extent to which you resolve difficulties that hinder your progress will influence your academic and career performance, persistence, and achievements.8,12
  • Self-efficacy is related to well-being. 12 How you cope in situations impacts your stress level, which in turn affects your psychological and physical well-being.13,14

CareerWISE Point on Coping and Self-efficacy

There are many ways of coping with a given challenge. Bolstering your repertoire of coping skills is beneficial for overcoming the challenges of graduate school. Your subjective beliefs about whether or not you can overcome different challenges will play a part in which coping strategies you employ.

CareerWISE Tip on Coping and Self-efficacy

If you find that you tend to avoid difficult situations and certain types of problems, ask yourself why. Maybe you think that the solution to the problem will be awkward or uncomfortable to carry out. Perhaps the solution is in conflict with your values. Maybe you have too many other more important problems to deal with at this time. However, a lot of your avoidance-style coping behavior is likely due to your beliefs about whether or not you are in control of a desired outcome. Unfortunately, avoiding the problem probably won’t make it go away. In fact, it could make the situation worse, which might make your tendency to avoid this type of problem even stronger. Stop the cycle. Ask yourself what needs to change so that the solution is in your hands. Perhaps it may be helpful to approach the problem in a different way than you did before, like Christina did in the prior example. Christina doesn’t usually ask for help when it comes to school. She prefers to get things done on her own. This time, she asked her cohort for their advice on getting started, looked at online resources about writing a dissertation, and scheduled ongoing meetings with her advisor. She was surprised by how helpful everyone was to her, and by how much her relationship with her advisor grew during this process. Sometimes you do not realize the personal and outside resources that you have to cope effectively with difficult situations.


  1. Tamres, L. K., Janicki, D., & Helgeson, V. S. (2002). Sex differences in coping behavior: A meta-analytic review and an examination of relative coping. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 2-30. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0601_1
  2. Suls, J., David, J. P., & Harvey, J. H. (2006). Personality and coping: Three generations of research. Journal of Personality, 64, 711-735. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1996.tb00942.x
  3. Heppner, P. P., Heppner, M. J., Lee, D., Wang, Y., W. Park, H., & Wang, L. (2006). Development and validation of a collectivist coping styles inventory. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 107-125. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.53.1.107
  4. Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1996). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.
  5. Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267-283. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.56.2.267
  6. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review. 84(2), 191-215. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.84.2.191
  7. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
  8. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 45, 79-122. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1994.1027
  9. Betz, N. E. & Hackett, G. (1983). The relationship of mathematics self-efficacy expectations to the selection of science-based college majors. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 23, 329-345. doi:10.1016/0001-8791(83)90046-5
  10. Matsui, T., Ikeda, H., & Ohnishi, R. (1989). Relations of sex-typed socializations to career self-efficacy expectations of college students. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 35, 1-16. doi:10.1016/0001-8791(89)90044-4
  11. Hackett, G., & Byars, A. M. (1996). Social cognitive theory and the career development of African American women. Career Development Quarterly, 44, 322-340.
  12. Lent, R. W. (2008). Toward a unifying theoretical and practical perspective on well-being and psychosocial adjustment. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2004, 51(4). 482-509. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.51.4.482
  13. Wiedenfeld, S. A., O'Leary, A., Bandura, A., Brown. S., Levine, S., & Raska, K. (1990). Impact of perceived self-efficacy in coping with stressors on components of the immune system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(5), 1082-1094. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.59.5.1082
  14. Snyder, C. R., & Ford, C. E. (Eds.). (1987). Coping with negative life events: Clinical and social psychological perspectives. New York: Plenum Press.

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