Giving Gratitude in Graduate School

Graduate school is really, really hard. This is because as a psychology graduate student you are living a life that combines coursework, supervised research, independent research, and typically a part time job which pays you just enough to live around the poverty line. Demands are high and very often the praise and positive feedback graduate students get for all their work is minimal. This is not just because academia is an exercise in managing rejection (journals, grants, etc.), but because faculty themselves (myself included) are often not the greatest at doling out consistent compliments and positive feedback. Maybe we have become so accustomed to using rejection as a motivator we forget that the opposite may be equally, if not more, effective in motivating those we mentor.

The structure of graduate school doesn’t engender a great deal of positive emotions or overall feeling of happiness. It’s ultimately something we have to get through to make it to the other side for a “real job”. And because of the stress and struggle that accompanies anyone devoting on average over 5 years of their life to get a PhD, it’s easy to get jaded, bitter, and just plain sad. When we are in places like this, our ability to be grateful for the positives in our professional life is drastically diminished. We easily wear darkly tinted lenses on how we see the world. The reality is this may line up with our day to day experiences, but reacting like this can represent a real missed opportunity when it comes to building strong professional ties.

Instead, what tends to connect and bond people together is virtuous cycle of gratitude and prosocial behavior. When we give gratitude to others in our life who have actively helped us, they like us more, grow more concerned for our welfare, and in turn are more likely to help us. When people help us more, we are more likely to give gratitude, and the cycle continues. But it is gratitude which is the central cog in the wheel as it’s the one thing we can actively control, even when life is stressful and hard.

As a graduate student, we of course want people to like and help us and probably think that the best way to do this is to work really hard, get noticed, get praised, and get helped. But hoping for this external recognition, approval, and in turn assistance to just occur is likely a fool’s errand. Instead, I suggest a hard lean into giving out as much gratitude as possible to peers, advisors, teachers, mentors, office staff, etc. while in graduate school. Give gratitude all of the time, even to those who may not be the most helpful to you right now but you know are really trying. By doing so you will provide an enormous help to others around you by making them feel valued and important. But if that is not enough incentive, you will also provide an enormous help to yourself, maximizing other people’s positive views of you and demonstrating you are a person who deserves help.

Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 946 –955. doi:10.1037/ a0017935

About the Author

Ryan Duffy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida and has worked there since 2009. He received his B.A. from Boston College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Website: