How You Think

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to pay attention to your thinking.
  • Learn how your habits of thinking direct how you feel, how you explain successes and setbacks, and how you respond to life events.


“I am getting nowhere fast on my dissertation! Come to think of it, all of grad school has been a struggle for me. I just don’t know if I’m going to make it.”

“The other students are so much better than I am. I’ll never understand how I got accepted here in the first place.”

What's On Your Mind???

If you’re like most graduate students, you may worry about not finishing your program more often than you’d like to admit. Even small annoyances can trigger your thinking about all the bad aspects of your situation. Unless you stop yourself, it’s easy to get caught up in your negativity. Your thinking becomes exaggerated, which impacts how you feel and behave. Thinking refers to your internal dialogue about anything that comes up in your moment-to-moment, day-to-day life. Most people repeat ways of talking to themselves about the situations they encounter. These patterns of internal dialogue are referred to as thinking habits. When habitual patterns of thinking pop up even without your awareness, they are called automatic thoughts.1

As habits, you may not even notice your automatic thinking reactions to even minor situations. Unless you catch yourself in the midst of these thinking habits and actively work at changing them, you are likely to repeat the same patterns of thoughts.

What Do You Tell Yourself?

One aspect of thinking habits has to do with how you explain your successes or failures. Psychological scientists use the term “attribution style” for this category of thinking habits. For example,

  • When something bad happens, do you tend to blame something or someone else, or do you usually blame yourself? (Internal vs. External attribution style)
  • Do you usually view your accomplishments as something you had control over, or something that was outside of your control? (Controllable vs. Uncontrollable attribution style)
  • If something bad happens, do you tell yourself you will do things better next time, or do you expect to have continued bad luck? (Stable vs. Unstable attribution style)

Women more than men may attribute success to luck or external sources and to attribute failure to their own shortcomings.2Similarly, many highly successful people, especially women, believe that they are not actually as deserving or intelligent as their accomplishments would lead people to believe. This is sometimes referred to as the “imposter syndrome,” because these individuals worry that one day people will realize that they are actually not as smart as others perceive them to be.


Which of the following statements is true?

The best answer is D. Answer A is false—what you think can have a significant effect on how you feel. Attribution styles also can effect how you feel about your failures or accomplishments, but answer C asks you do choose between to undesirable choices, neither of which are helpful. Answer B is false. While automatic thoughts do tend to pop up almost without solicitation, they are not impervious to change. As you will see in the following, they can be changed, leading to more positive outcomes.

Thinking --> Feeling --> Behaving

How you explain (think about) events in your life will influence how you feel and how you react. Consider the example below:

Eva, an engineering student, discovers that a few members of her cohort went to a Friday happy hour without her.


Associated feeling


Option 1

“My cohort is starting to form a clique. They purposefully left me out!”

Anger, Hurt

Eva ignores her cohort in class. She doesn't get invited to the next cohort event.

Option 2

“Oh well, they probably think I still do date night with my partner on Fridays.”


Eva makes sure her cohort knows that date night is now on Wednesdays. She is invited to next Friday's happy hour.

Optimistic Thinking Habits

People with positive expectancies for the future are described as having optimistic thinking habits.3They make more effort and use an active style of coping with problems and stress. Others with pessimistic thinking habits tend to notice mostly the down side, exaggerate the negative aspects of situations, assume the worst for the future, and give up more easily.

Pessimistic thinking styles are associated with stress and depression. It is not surprising that optimistic thinking is associated with academic persistence and success as well as physical and psychological well-being.3,4

Optimistic thinking sets you on the course for constructive action. For example, you might view an upcoming dissertation proposal meeting as an opportunity for disaster or as a chance to strut your stuff. The disaster scenario, a thinking habit, accounts for your sweaty palms and heart palpitations. The show-off scenario, an alternative thinking habit, helps you focus on rehearsing your presentation.

Neither an overly pessimistic, nor an overly optimistic thinking pattern is conducive to academic persistence. Instead, students who attribute threats to their career goals to both internal and external factors, and think that the internal factors are controllable, will likely be more creative and engaged in their career development process.5 In other words, if you are willing to stop blaming yourself for setbacks, and at the same time see that you play a role in creating a positive outcome, you are setting yourself up for success.

Reflections: Healthy thinking rules

Rule #1: How you think is connected to how you feel.

Rule #2: Problems are a normal part of life — nothing’s perfect no matter how hard you try.

Rule #3: Everyone makes mistakes, even you.

Rule #4: Each time you focus on negative thoughts, you are ignoring other positive aspects of your life.

Rule #5: Think of problems as challenges that teach you lessons, not as threats to your success.

Using these rules, how would you think about the following problem? Don’t choose what you think is the “right” answer, respond with YOUR answer. This is an exercise in self-reflection, not being “right.”

Yesterday, your lab group learned that the grant that you have been working on for 3 years was not renewed. You're worried that some of the group will not have funding for the upcoming year. You were out for 6 weeks this year on maternity leave so maybe you're the first one on the chopping block. You have worked over 50 hours each week to make up for it and you completed the toughest part of your group's analysis. But what will happen if your group doesn’t have funding for your lab?

Rule #1:

  • If you panic and envision the worst-case scenario, you will be better prepared for what’s to come.
  • If you blame your maternity leave, you’ll feel better about why you lost your job.
  • If you focus on the possible, but not known, negative outcomes, you’ll stress yourself out unnecessarily.

Rule #2:

  • These types of things happen with grants, you’ll have to deal with it.
  • How could you let this happen?
  • This problem is very much your fault because you went on maternity leave.

Rule #3:

  • You should’ve waited to have the baby.
  • The timing of the baby wasn’t perfect, but when is there a “perfect” time?
  • You deserve to be the first one cut because you left the team for 6 weeks.

Rule #4:

  • When you beat yourself up about your maternity leave, you take for granted how much you looked forward to being a mom.
  • You have to think of your choices realistically and the negative impacts of them.
  • If you think of the negative impacts of your maternity leave, you will value your job more.

Rule #5:

  • This situation could leave you and your family without much needed financial resources.
  • If you don’t get alternative funding, you will definitely not graduate on time.
  • You're savvy and smart enough to work through this challenge, regardless of how the situation with the grant turns out.

The “Healthy Thinking Habits” are:

  1. c
  2. a
  3. b
  4. a
  5. c
  6. If you find yourself jumping to negative conclusions, this may reflect a pattern of thought or “negative self-talk.”

    Negative self-talk refers to self-defeating internal dialogue or mottos that you have adopted, like “This always happens” or “Why me?” or “Hope for the best but expect the worst.” These types of self-statements color your perceptions of things and create negative feelings that cause stress and stifle motivation.

Self-Defeating Thinking Habits

Cognitive psychologists propose that distorted or dysfunctional thinking undergirds individual variations in well-being and emotional and behavioral response to stress.1,6,7 One way to start on the road to adapting more constructive thinking habits is to catch yourself using self-defeating ones. Do any of these typical irrational thinking habits describe your internal dialogue?

Type of Irrational Thinking



All-or-nothing thinking

Thinking of things in absolute terms, like "always," "every," or "never."

“If I don’t get this article published, I will never publish.”

Jumping to conclusions

Assuming something negative where there is no evidence to support it.

“I saw that others were laughing while I was giving my presentation. They must think I am stupid.”


Predicting how things will turn out before they happen.

“If my advisor sees this mistake, he will think I am not meant for this field.”


Focusing on the worst possible outcome, or thinking that a situation is impossible when it is really just difficult.

“Having a child while I am in graduate school will ruin my chances of graduating and getting a good job.”


Focusing on negative aspects of something while ignoring the rest.

“The number of hours I put in at the lab are awful. What a terrible use of my time.”


Holding unreasonably high expectations about either one’s own performance or others’ performance.

“I scored higher than most of my classmates on this exam, but I messed up one of the variables in this equation. I will have to study harder next time.”


Assuming you or others directly caused things when that is not the case.

“The lab funding is being cut because my lab partners and I wasted so many supplies this semester.”

Self-test #2

Arati has been acting strange all week. Vivianna ignored her weird mood for the first couple days but is now starting to wonder why she isn’t speaking with her. Arati usually works with her on their regression model but she chose to work alone today, for the third day in a row. They always go to lunch together, which is a big deal to Vivianna because she is the only other woman in their lab. But this week, Arati has left campus for lunch each day. She is starting to wonder what is going on. Vivianna spends most of the day speculating what she has done and if Arati is angry at her. She thinks, if Arati is no longer my friend, I will be miserable in this lab group because I’m not close with anyone else. How will I get my work done alone?

Which of the following self-defeating thoughts from the above table thoughts is Vivianna having?

Best answer: E. Vivianna has managed to do all of the things in the table above in a short “thought-ramble.” A thought-ramble entails having a string of negative self-talk, including illogical thoughts and unfounded conclusions, strung together. Maybe Arati is having a difficult week — she could be going through many typical stressors, such as family problems, financial difficulties, feeling inadequate in her program, or worrying about the future. Vivianna is not considering Arati’s “true” feelings because she has not even spoken to her. Yet she has created a very negative scenario in a matter of seconds. Unnecessary! This could be avoided by NOT making assumptions and by asking a simple and probably much appreciated set of questions such as, "How are you?" or "Is everything OK?"

CareerWISE Point On Thinking Habits

Thinking habits matter. How you explain your success or failure may actually influence how much effort you invest in the future. So pay attention to your thinking and give yourself credit for your achievements.

Some thinking habits are better than others. Learn and rely on healthy thinking habits — those that challenge untested assumptions, exclude self-blame, and welcome flexibility.

CareerWISE Tip On Managing Thinking Habits

Some people are tougher on themselves than they are on others. Attack your negative, self-blaming thoughts with the same arguments that you would use with a self-critical, self-deprecating friend. Be a friend to yourself!


  1. Beck, A. T., & Alford, B. A. (2009). Depression: Causes and treatment (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  2. Frieze, I. H., Whitley, B. E., Hanusa, B. H., & Mchugh, M. C. (1982). Assessing the theoretical models for sex differences in causal attributions for success and failure. Sex Roles, 8, 333-343. doi:10.1007/BF00287273
  3. Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.
  4. Segerstrom, S.C. (2007). Optimism and resources: Effects on each other and on health over ten years. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 772-786. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2006.09.004
  5. Pizzolato, J. E. (2007). Impossible selves: Investigating students' persistence decisions when their career-possible selves border on impossible. Journal of Career Development, 33, 201-223. doi:10.1177/0894845306296644
  6. Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stuart.
  7. Pretzer, J. L., & Beck, A. T. (2007). Cognitive approaches to stress and stress management. In P. M. Lehrer, R. L. Woolfolk, & W. E. Sime (Eds.), Principles and practices of stress management (3rd ed., pp. 465-496). New York: Guilford.

Promoting Yourself to Your Family
Advises how to keep family informed about research goals and progression from student to faculty member.

I Have Not Figured Out How to Say "No"
Emphasizes the challenge with saying no, but the importance of learning to do so.

Dealing with Assumptions and Accusations (Short Version)
Being accused of cheating and regrets about not being more assertive.

Hearing from Students and Having an Impact
The importance of giving back to students and making an impact in their future education and career choices.

The Role of the Dean in Fostering Progress at the Institutional Level
The importance of a good leader in setting standards for diversity, climate, and tenure policies.

Hidden Differences in Academic Culture (Extended)
Environmental issues faced in academia.

Being Comfortable as a Woman Among Men
Emphasizes positive peer relationships within her cohort.

Experience as an International Grad Student
Challenges of being international and female, particularly with regards to an academic career and the choice to have children.

Fun, Passion, and Collaboration
Emphasizes the joy in working with others and giving back to society.

Being "Queen" of the Team
Playing a variety of roles as the only woman in the department.


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