Assess the Problem

Learning Objectives

There are four aspects to assessing the problem or concern you’re having:

  1. List the FACTS
  2. Understand YOURSELF
  3. Understand the CONTEXT
  4. Collect missing INFORMATION

Step 1A: List the FACTS

Problem solving begins with stating clearly what exactly is going on. Be your own investigative reporter. Separate the facts from your presumptions. You may find that your problem is different than you first thought. For example, you may complain that you’re having trouble getting constructive feedback from your advisor. But what does that mean? What is constructive? Does "having trouble" refer to something you're doing or he is doing? When you analyze it a bit, you realize that your advisor criticizes you in front of others, and you get embarrassed. The more specific your understanding of the problems you are facing is, the better prepared you will be in developing a strategy to address them.

Ask yourself these questions:

What is bothering you?

When does it happen?

Where does it happen?

Walk yourself through this story …

__________________ bothers me because ______________________. It usually happens when ____________________. The place or event where it usually happens is __________________.

Now you have a clear description of your problem. The effectiveness of your eventual solution to a problem depends on your accurate specification of the problem in the first place. You’ll refer back to this substep as you go through the others.

Step 1B: Understand YOURSELF

Knowing yourself

You might be tempted to imagine that other people cause your problems. In some shape or form, you contribute to the problems that you experience, meaning you play a part in either creating them or perpetuating them. Problems need fuel. They can’t exist without your effort. Sometimes you unknowingly bait a dilemma with your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. An essential part of problem solving is identifying how your thinking and feeling styles and your unique preferences influence your situation.

Your thoughts

When a problem comes up, your first thought is:

a. Problem, what problem?

b. Where’s the nearest rock to hide under?

c. Get the fire extinguisher because I am hot under the collar!

What does your response tell you about how you think of a problem? Your reaction may portray a calm and collected attitude. It may also reflect a tendency to think impulsively. Or you may think pessimistically about an only mildly irritating situation. Reflecting on your own patterns, you may notice that thinking optimistically is not your strong point. How you think contributes to (and can alleviate) your anxiety.

How You Think is a module on how your thinking habits affect how you feel and how you respond to different situations.

Keep a Positive Perspective is a module about how to cultivate, apply, and maintain a positive attitude or “lens,” regardless of the circumstances.

Your feelings

Your typical emotional climate is:

a. Hurricane

b. Scattered showers with patches of sunshine

c. Pretty close to paradise

Emotions are not always distinct; sometimes they may actually take all three forms at once. What makes the difference is knowing how to manage the emotions that disrupt your relationships or productivity. It’s often the little issues and the feelings you attach to them that add up to big headaches.

How you feel affects how you act in response to your problem. Thinking and feeling, although closely connected, are two different processes.

Emotional Styles is a module on how your emotional patterns contribute to your successes or setbacks and how to regulate your emotions.

Connecting your thoughts and feelings

Positive thoughts are connected to positive emotions. TRUE or FALSE

Remember that thoughts alone are not “alive.” Rather, they are like a snap shot of your particular problem. You can CHOOSE how you feel about the snap shot. People unknowingly attach a feeling to a certain situation, so they go back to their customary emotional reaction. However, you'll find that if you change how you think about a certain situation, you will also feel differently about it.

Feeling stressed

Stress is:

a. The forces of evil + bad luck = stress

b. You + certain things in your environment = stress

c. Your advisor + anything you say = stress

Your thoughts and emotions are not mysterious. Although you may feel confused about how to handle a certain situation, you do know when you are feeling stressed out. However, when you become accustomed to a high level of stress, you may have trouble identifying what is upsetting you. Feeling stressed becomes normal for you. Sometimes, you may just feel unmotivated, frustrated, or even depressed, but you are unsure why. Stress is the aggregate of many influences and can cause an array of different and uncomfortable emotions.

The good news is that stress is manageable. As discussed earlier, stress is something that comes from your thoughts.

Your Stress Triggers is a module on how to recognize what sets off your stress reactions and how these triggers influence your interactions with your environment.

Different people have different styles

You are aware of your personal style and how it affects your work and your relationship with your advisor. TRUE or FALSE

Why does your labmate always seem so calm? Does her tranquility mean you must be overreacting to situations? Or why is everyone in your cohort so competitive? Do you wonder if you are just not cut out for the rigors of the program?

People handle issues in a variety of ways. We all have different personalities and different manners of responding to similar circumstances.

Your personal style

You have a unique way of managing your problems. Your personal style can help you or hinder you with certain people and situations, but it may also differ considerably from the style of others. There may be times when you don't understand your advisor or labmate's way of doing things, because these people have their own personal style.

You is a communication elements module designed to help you understand yourself and how what you bring to the communication table can affect an exchange. Expressing Yourself is a communication skills module that will help you understand the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of communication, and how you can leverage them to more strongly influence the outcome of your interaction.

Your Personality and Preferences is a module on how your personality may influence the way you interact with people in your academic and professional life.

Coping and Self-Efficacy is a module that helps you examine your patterns of dealing with problems and your confidence in how you manage them.

How others perceive you

You need to be aware of both your own personal style and how others may perceive you. Often, the impression you make is unintentional or can be interpreted in multiple ways. You may get an unexpected reaction or find that someone has made an incorrect assumption about you, if you’re not mindful of your self-presentation.

Gender is a communication elements module that explains how gender dynamics shape how messages are both presented and interpreted.

The Message is a communication elements module that will help you learn to be mindful about what you want to say, how you will say it, and possible external factors that can affect your message.

The Impression You Make is a module on how to recognize the impression you send to others and ways to monitor how you present yourself.

Stereotype Threat is a module that explains how the way you think other people perceive you as a minority can cause anxiety and influence your actual performance.

What you want from others

Learn to know what you want from others, including your advisor, and to reflect on whether or not your needs are being met. You might have to change your expectations and/or seek out additional support.

Other is a communication elements module designed to help you learn to understand the other person in an exchange, predict their behaviors, and plan effective responses that will help you reach your communication objectives.

What You Want in an Advisor is a module that reviews the official and unofficial roles of advisors. This module helps you assess whether you are getting the type of support you need from your advisor.

What You Want in a Mentor is a module that reviews how a mentor can help support you in your personal, academic, and professional development.

Step 1C: Understand the CONTEXT

Articulating the facts of the situation and understanding your role in it are important elements of assessing the problem. You also need to think about the context of the situation. By context, we refer to the environment in which a situation occurs, the types of issues that many women experience, and the people who are part of the environment where difficulties arise.

Each of the subfields of science and engineering has norms of its own. Each academic department has a unique culture and unwritten rules. Universities differ from one another in the environment they create for their students, and the academy itself has a culture vastly different from other work settings.

Graduate school is a type of subculture within the university that carries a set of expectations and norms. Your graduate student experiences are better understood against this backdrop of multiple cultures in which you participate.

The Context is a communication elements module designed to help you recognize how external factors influence how you are perceived and understood by others.

Common concerns

Different demographic groups, such as women, racial and ethnic minorities, and international students may experience another type of subculture. Certain issues come up for many women due to prescribed gender roles and the overlap of the biological clock with the academic timeline. You might find it surprising and comforting to know that many women in science and engineering share the experiences you may be having. CareerWISE materials refer frequently to four types of common concerns: Advisor Issues, Balance, Climate, and Delays.

Advisor Issues is a module that discusses some of the complaints that graduate students frequently have about their interactions with their advisors.

Balance is a module that introduces the unique challenges that graduate student women face balancing career and personal demands.

Chilly Climate is a module that points out some of the unique characteristics of the male-dominated culture of science and engineering academia.

Delays is a module that calls attention to graduate students' setbacks in being productive and making timely progress toward their degree.

The important people around you

In most cases, other people are part of your challenging situation. Your problems usually involve others in some way and your issues may affect them as well. Stakeholders, people who are concerned about you or have influence over your progress, play an important role in how you solve your particular problem. Stakeholders may be affected directly or indirectly by what’s going on with you and can both help and hinder your progress.

Stakeholders is a module that discusses who has an interest or investment in your graduate experience and how these people affect your opportunities and progress through the program.

Help Your Advisor Help You is a module that teaches you what you can do to build a strong and effective relationship with a key stakeholder--your advisor.

Have you been scolded by your advisor recently? Maybe she was having a bad day — she’s allowed to have those, too. You may remember that her mother-in-law has been sick for a while; maybe there are other things going on.

Receiving and Responding to Feedback is a communication skills module that provides instruction in how to be receptive to and evaluate feedback, make it useful to you, and respond in a way that will improve your communication outcomes.

Try to remember that advisors and other stakeholders are people first and professionals second. This means that despite the outcomes of any situation, they have pressures and motivations just like you and often face competing demands. Showing gratitude towards them and connecting with them on a human level will often go a long way. Simply put, advisors and stakeholders are people just like you who seek interpersonal connection and appreciate being recognized for their efforts.

Show Reciprocity is a module that will help you recognize the benefits of gratitude and reciprocity in your relationships with advisors and other stakeholders.

The Relationship is a communication elements module aimed at helping you understand the role of interpersonal styles and power dynamics in communication in order to better tailor your communications for specific relationships.

Seeing it from their side

Have you ever found yourself baffled by the other person’s point of view? Understanding another person’s perspective is a skill. "Perspective taking" is a way to take into consideration other people’s positions and better explain their reactions in a situation. You may be taking something way too personally when it has little or nothing to do with you.

Active Listening is a module that will help you promote mutual understanding and in your interactions with others and set the stage for effective communication.

Consider Other Perspectives is a module to help you enhance your ability to consider situations from many points of view.

Expectations for Graduate Students is a module that will help you understand the new standards you must live up to as a graduate (as opposed to undergraduate) student.

The Me Generation is a module that will help you increase your perspective-taking abilities by learning about how generational differences can cause common conflicts and misunderstandings.

Understanding the context in which your challenges arise will help you assess the problem more completely. Remember to take into consideration the norms and culture of your environment, issues that are shared by other women in your field, the stakeholders in the picture, and the perspectives of others who play a role in the situation.


Veronica is working on a group project some fellow classmates. As the semester has progressed, she has found herself feeling increasingly frustrated because she feels she has been taking on more and more of the group’s responsibilities, while the other group members haven’t even contributed to the project. Things have progressed to the point that she loathes meeting with the other group members, and feels they are just going to take advantage of her, anyway.

To help her address this problem, what should she do first?

The best answer is “d.” While being direct and assertive (answer “a”) is important in helping to address the problem, there may be other factors playing a role that Veronica hasn’t considered yet, and a premature confrontation may not be the best step at this point. Answer “c” is a passive strategy and holds the potential to exacerbate the problem. Answer “b” is another good step to consider next, but before deciding on a plan of action, Veronica should first seek to gain more information about the problem and more understanding of herself in relation to it.

Step 1D: Collect Missing INFORMATION

The thorough assessment of a problem depends on looking at it from all sides. That includes not only understanding others’ perspectives but also clarifying policies and processes that may pertain. Assembling missing information is as important as collecting data before analyzing it. Filling in the gaps is an essential part of the scientific process applied to interpersonal difficulties.

Equip yourself

Familiarizing yourself early with the resources available in your department and institution is an important part of being a successful graduate student. If you know from the start where to find information, individual assistance, and services, you’ll be able to take advantage of these resources at each point along the way to your PhD. Being able to quickly locate what you need helps you be better prepared to handle whatever comes up.

University resources for graduate students is a module that reviews resources available at most universities.

What you need to know

When something happens that concerns you, you might want to respond quickly. Curtailing the process, however, will limit your ability to gather important information that will be helpful in assessing the problem and beginning to explore strategies. When you make the effort to search for missing information, you might be pleasantly surprised to find resources and policies that you can use to address the problem.

Certain situations require specialized information. Being able to locate specific regulations, policies, and procedures can make the difference between your handling a problem effectively or inadequately.

Family Friendly Policies is a module that teaches you about the different family friendly services and policies that your university may have for graduate students.

Handle Sexual Harassment is a module that will assist you in recognizing and addressing sexual harassment.

Being resourceful

Practicing resourcefulness gets you on the road to locating the information and assistance you need, and is a good habit for tapping into your own personal inner resources and managing your concerns.

Be Resourceful is a module that will assist you in being proactive in finding the opportunities, resources, and advice that will help you succeed during graduate school.

Taking the initiative to explore

CareerWISE offers a variety of resources including references to research that can help you find what you need. There is a wealth of information available for women in science and engineering; sifting through it to find what is most relevant can be challenging.

Some of the information that is missing may require more effort and time on your part. You’ll have to put on your investigator hat.

Online Resources and Supports is a module that will help you find helpful resources online and locate professional networking organizations.


Lindsay just got out of a meeting with her advisor during which her advisor gave Lindsay some criticism, and said some harsh words that Lindsay was not anticipating. Lindsay felt it to be unfair—she has done all that her advisor has asked to this point in a timely and effective manner, and she also felt that the harsh words were uncalled for. She left feeling confused and unsure as to why her advisor spoke to her so, and she doesn’t know how best to proceed.

What should she do to help her assess her problem?

The best answer is answer “c.” Answer “a” does nothing to assess or address the problem, and may leave Lindsay feeling anxious or apprehensive about speaking with her advisor. Answer “d” is proactive, but it is not an assertive action, and it may lead to Lindsay being taken advantage of in the future. While answer “b” may facilitate gathering new information, but the information may not be reliable. Being that Lindsay has fulfilled all of her advisor’s requests appropriately before the latest meeting, it may be that some external factor is affecting her advisor, and causing her advisor to treat Lindsay unnecessarily harsh. Investigating the context and trying to take on her advisor’s perspective (answer “c”) may help Lindsay to assess whether this is a full-fledged problem or just a bad day.

Lack of Women Role Models
The importance of sharing stories of sexual harassment with others and realizing that you are not alone.

It's the Little Things that Annoy You (Part 1)
The importance of picking your battles to avoid unfair labeling.

The Two-Body Problem
Challenges with being married to a fellow academician and finding faculty positions.

Becoming an Independent Voice as a Young Faculty Member
The process of establishing yourself in the same department as your spouse.

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.

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

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

Changing the System vs. Focusing on Cultural Barriers for Women
Suggestions for how to increase women's participation in science with an emphasis on policy change.

Life is More than Research
The importance of evaluating your priorities to create balance and happiness.

The Upside to Children Prior to a Tenure Track Position
Explains the choice to have children in graduate school.


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