How can I graduate and find a job when I'm struggling?
May 7, 2012 5:40 AM Subscribe
I am in my 7th year of a science Ph.D. at MIT and I need to graduate. I have invested an incredible amount of time and energy in this process, and I definitely have a Ph.D. level of skills and knowledge by now. 7 years is not outside the norm for my department. The problem is that a number of circumstances occurring in a row have lead to a bad/toxic relationship with my advisor and slow performance on my part.
About a month ago, I was surprised with a meeting in which I was told that I would get a Master's degree, not a Ph.D., at the end of the semester. This was egregious as I had never gotten written or verbal feedback prior to that saying that I was in danger of losing my degree, after years of work on my part. I rallied support from the department and dean and I have documentation of positive feedback from my advisor last semester. I managed to turn things around so that the Ph.D. is still on the table, but I'm struggling.
The factors leading to my slow performance were
a) illness (3 major surgeries in 1.5 years and an unrelated autoimmune condition on top of that),
b) working on a large complex project by myself with objectively not enough support, and simply being unable to accomplish it as one person working alone,
c) a coworker starting work on the two "most easily publishable" parts of my dataset (data I collected) while I worked on the harder pieces, and her preparing them for publication with my advisor's support before I was told she was working on them, and the stress and shock of that,
d) mental burnout after not being allowed a vacation and being pressured with the above for about 3 years, to the point of the 3 vacations I actually planned getting cancelled because my advisor said no even after I'd bought plane tickets,
e) the end of both long term relationships I tried to have in the past 3 years, partly due to the stresses of work,
f) lastly, at a time when I was already burnt out, the additional shock of being told mid-semester that I wasn't getting a degree and going through a several week nightmare of trying to put together thesis chapters and find someone/anyone to support me.
I'm at a point where I have set up more reasonable milestones to try to graduate, but I'm so emotionally and mentally tired that it's tough to go to work each day. I know that the practical way to deal with this is to build relationships with outside mentors and advisors this summer in addition to my current ones, and start my nonacademic job search. However, I can hardly dredge up the energy. I am seeing a therapist and doing daily yoga, and trying to get enough sleep. I have a really supportive sister and Dad who support me almost every day. I went to the ombudsperson at the school for the most egregious violations (got co-authorship on one of the works I described in "c" above), but that sort of help can only go so far because students aren't really protected by employment laws and bigwig advisors have a lot of power. I asked the department's education chair to oversee my weekly graduation milestones in addition to my advisor, and he is very supportive.
On my side, I don't have the performance record to protect myself -- my work has indeed been slow and I indeed don't have publications in the past few years except for coauthorship on the publications by the coworker who worked on my research. Looking back, I should have managed the process better. The project simply became unwieldy and didn't produce results. Hindsight is 20/20 and I should have lobbied for more help, guidance, and breaks. That said, in my life I have never been a slacker or had poor performance on anything I've done and have plenty of past awards. Now is the time to try to finish up, not rehash the mistakes of the past few years. There are enough results in my dataset for sufficient thesis chapters to graduate, if I can put them together.
I am looking for any pieces of advice to help me get through the rest of this and finish my degree when I'm struggling so much. I am so tired that missing even the reasonable milestones I've set, and harming more relationships, e.g. with the education chair, is possible. I am also not sure I can dredge up the energy to do the outside tasks to support my career and try to find a job for after, and it's important to do while still in school and networking is 100x easier. Lastly I am just kind of lonely at this point.