Throughout any educational degree program, its easy to feel suffocated by it's financial pressure. It is after all a lot of money. On the other hand the expectation of a perfect degree is unrealistic. We should allow ourselves one failed experiment and explore the various departments and all the specialization that are offered, for at least a semester. This will give us the time and idea, enough to plan out own degree program of study on our own terms and the reason why most graduate schools gives the students an years time to finish their plan of study forms. The planning of degree program is essential from the early stages on. Unfortunately, exploring is not feasible today as failure is both financially and societally, extremely difficult to recover from.
I only interact with grad students and often they don't get an intern in the middle of their program, which has become a symbolic performance check. Although not getting an internship doesn't mean an end of a career, there are people, both students from our own class and our seniors who would tell us otherwise. Harsha Bhogle used to say that one should play for the challenge and not the reward. In education though, we do neither, we play to avoid failure - trying to be just better enough to get by. Most often when we start a new chapter in our lives, either a new degree or a new job, we are more concerned about not failing than about succeeding that we lower our initial goals drastically and end up only competing to be the best among the average.
I go to open labs, where I see students work on assignments and projects. More than being interested in what goes on in their own computers or circuit boards, I notice that they are interested in looking at their neighbors. The attitude of measuring up to our own peer group is a big part of studying in a GPA guided world. The more we fear being outraced on such small instances and groups, the more we lose focus on our larger goals. Whats the point of winning the race and reaching to someone else's destination first while we didn't go where we wanted to go? Everyone has their own pace of learning, their own method of understanding and their own definition of success. We shouldn't ever be in a race with someone while we are also not simultaneously on a trajectory to our own goals.
We do this, because we fear failure. Most of us, have never failed before. Failure in India, the country I grew up in is a serious disaster. Failure is simply not tolerated in India. Although not really conclusive, this article  says that:
Having a relatively positive attitude towards second chancing across countries is positively related to GDP growth.
India (and increasingly on the rise, the entire world) is the last place where you find opportunities for second chancing with such huge populations and tremendous competition. Ergo, we choose a safer but not so exciting route rather than a treacherous but far more rewarding and exciting route for the definition of success is now re-defined as the opposite of failure. The opposite of failure is not simply a not-failing though as success is a whole other thing form not-failing. This is one reason why Indian startups are difficult to find as compared to the zoo of US startups. The less we compete with others and the more we target our own goals, the easier it is to succeed.
There is a wonderful article written by Augustin Landier, from New York school of business where he deals with the economics behind failure for small startups. The broad conclusion can be paraphrased as:
Due to an endogenously higher cost of failure, entrepreneurs choose more secure projects in a conservative setting rather than aggressive growth strategies. ... relaxing bankruptcy rules can lead to incentivising the entrepreneurs to take more risks and ergo increase the rate of innovation.
Following the strategy, we need to relax our own bankruptcy costs. For an academic, that would imply having a backup plan. Something that would make us feel that its not that bad if we failed and that we could always try again. It is not so difficult for an academic to find one at grad school, but unless you are a bold throw everything away kind of a pioneer, you shouldn't really begin a new chapter in your life without a backup to fall on to. Unfortunately there are no real incentives to bounce back from an academic failure, all the more reason for the increase in stigma of failure in academics. Relaxing our bankruptcy costs so to speak can help us rid ourselves of this stigma.
We live in a world where one small failure can take us back a long way but it requires a larger success to take us forward by a small margin. That be so, I like to work out worst-case strategies, the worst that would happen if I fail in my PhD now is that I will be another graduate with a master's degree seeking a job. The advantage of doing a worst-case analysis is that it doesn't make the failure look all that bad - a failed PhD candidate sounds worse than a successful masters graduate who attempted a PhD for a while before joining so and so corporation.. Bouncing back after failures are always hard, but for academics, at least in their graduate schools, are not as difficult considering that it's usually not a lose-all situation as we force ourselves to think they are.
Throughout academic history we come across great scientists such as Einstein and others who were considered failures (at best ordinary) while at school. While this may be due to various circumstances, we fail to realize that to be a success story in the academic world, one doesn't have to be a prodigy. As was explained in this article the academic standards of standardized tests and curriculum, though are constantly coming down, are often not reachable by some, who might be intelligent but just not interested or are adaptable to such tests. The solution is not to lower the standards and judge people on lower standards, this is akin to pushing the poverty line down and rejoicing that there are less poor in the world. The solution is to change the way we judge and rate students. Referring to the conclusions of , we need to create incentives for those who are willing to bounce back from what we might think are failures and more importantly be able to recognize the attempt rather than judge the failure. Education costs have to go down, but it doesn't appear that its going to happen, although president Obama's ideas on socializing education seems a step in some progressive direction.
Is often the case that for various reasons schools avoid failing students . It is also a good news that such failure requirements set by schools are too low when compared to the free-market standards of failure. While as long as not failing are our goals we strive hard to remain not just a failure. When we rid ourselves of this stigma of failure and look past towards the horizon, we set newer standards, find newer paths, have unique goals and strive towards them in a more active manner. We won't just be not a failure, but be successes.