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Why You Need To Avoid Negative PhDs In Graduate School

Negative PhDs

Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I wasn’t the most intelligent person in Graduate School.

I was average.

There were a lot of other intelligent people though.

Some of them were nice. But a lot of them were negative.

Really negative.

Or maybe I just remember the negative ones more because they made me feel bad about myself.

I don’t know.

Here’s the weird part…

I admired the negative people.

Somewhere along the way I came to believe that negativity was a sign of intelligence.

Pessimism meant you were smart.


When my academic advisor called me a moron or a thesis committee member told me I was lazy, I believed them.

I respected their opinions.

Because they were negative.

Over time, I became negative too.

I figured that the fastest way for me to be smarter was to be more pessimistic.

Clearly there was some bridge between negativity and intelligence and I needed to start crossing it.

I failed to distinguish healthy cynicism in relation to my hypotheses and data from unhealthy pessimism in my life and relationships.

Critical Thinker Or Critical Person?

You can think critically without being a critical person.

You can earn respect without being a jerk.

Everyone knows this.

The problem is…

There’s a lot of insecurity in academia these days.

Graduate students, postdocs, and professors are more uncertain than ever in their future.

According to a report by the Atlantic, greater than 60% of PhDs and greater than 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.

Another report by the Royal Society showed that less than 1% of PhDs will go on to be tenured professors.

The math just doesn’t look good.

Consider this…

$42,000 (or ~$19/hour) is the annual starting salary (before taxes) of a postdoc in the U.S.

$55,272 (or ~$26/hour) is the annual salary of a 7th year postdoc.


$56,370 is the annual salary of the average librarian.

Academics are undervalued.

They’re also under a lot of pressure.

As a result, many resort to lashing out at others.

They feel insignificant so they try extra hard to prove their significance.

Instead of channeling their frustrations into their work or into getting a PhD job in industry, they channel their frustrations onto other people.

Negative PhDs Graduate School

Negativity Is Contagious And Harmful

Emotions and behaviors circulate through social networks in patterns similar to what’s seen in epidemiological models of the flu virus.

A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society estimated that every positive person you let into your life increases your chances of being positive by 11%

Wired summarized the report by saying “Just one sad friend was needed to double an individual’s chance of becoming unhappy.”

Negativity is not only contagious, it’s unhealthy. 

A report by the American Psychological Association showed that complaining about your problems with other people increases your risk of developing both clinical depression and anxiety.

A study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships showed that engaging with negative people, rather than ignoring them, prior to performance-based exams significantly decreases exam scores.

A study in Psychological Science showed that people who use negative emotional language have higher rates of mortality.

There’s no value in being negative.

Yes, there’s value in finding problems. But, only if you commit yourself to finding solutions to those problems too.

Yes, there’s value in seeking out errors in logic.

But, again, only if you’re willing to work to correct those errors.

Two Biggest Reasons To Avoid Negative PhDs

Human beings are social animals.

Numerous studies show that interacting with others to build relationships can make you happier, healthier and more successful.

But, these people have to be the right people.

There are over 7 billion individuals on the planet.

Yet, PhD students often let themselves get obsessed with making just one or two of these individuals happy.

They fight for the approval of a select few who will never treat them as equals instead of casting their nets back out to find positive people who will like them just the way they are.

They allow negative people not only to stay in their lives, but to influence their decisions.

This is a mistake for two essential reasons…

1. Positive people will not come into your life until the negative people are gone.

The most important thing you can do to move your career forward is increase the quality and size of your network.

Too many people focus on increasing the size of their network only.

They work hard to build relationships but keep running into dead ends.

They send LinkedIn messages every day without hearing anything back.

They call recruiters and hiring managers without ever getting a call back.

They go to PhD networking events, meet a few new people, and follow-up over and over again without ever getting a referral.


You’re stuck because you’re negative. 

You’ve surrounded yourself with negative people and it shows.

Positive people can see your negativity. They can see your desperation. So…

They stay away.

You are the average of the five people you hang out with the most (see point #2 below).

If you’re only interacting with negative people–guess what?

You’re negative.

The only way to get positive people to come into your life is to start avoiding the negative ones who are making you negative too.

2. You cannot do positive and meaningful work with negative people dragging you down.

You cannot be a positive person with negative people in your life.

Have you ever walked by someone who was yawning and felt the urge to yawn?

Have you ever sat down to lunch outside the lab and overheard people gossiping and felt the urge to jump in and gossip too?

Mirror neurons in your brain cause you to automatically copy your surroundings.

Powerful psychological factors including groupthink, negativity bias, and the chameleon effect drive you to fit in and replicate everything your five senses take in.

There’s no escaping the fact that the people you let into your life will influence how you perceive life.

They will also influence what you achieve in life.

If you feel stuck in graduate school or in your postdoc and want to make a positive change, the single most important thing you can do is start avoiding the negative people around you as much as possible.

Only then can you start surrounding yourself with positive people who will help you advance your career and improve your life.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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Isaiah Hankel


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