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Crawling back up the ladder.
October 17, 2012 1:21 PM   Subscribe

New to PhD candidacy and tanking fast - academics of MeFi, help me figure out how to get through this mess.

There are a ton of details, but I'll try to keep this as brief as possible.

I'm a 28/m PhD Candidate in a social science area (check my profile for specifics). I'm married to a non-academic, awesomely supportive woman (27/f). I did my Masters at the same place I'm doing my Doctorate.

I did the written parts of my qualifying exams this summer. I was nervous, of course, but I got mostly positive feedback with just a few questions. I set up my oral defense of my quals for this past Monday.

Unfortunately, in the last month, I've had the worst depressive episode of my life. I haven't been able to do anything, I've looked like a complete mess, and I haven't produced anything. I've always had problems with depression, ADHD, anxiety, perfectionism, and other things, but all of a sudden, my world came crashing down.

My advisor thought that my orals would be no problem, even feeling crappy, so I kept them. I got there, they asked me a question, and I froze. I couldn't think, I couldn't speak. Everyone at the table was a professor with which I had a great relationship, and I still couldn't do it. They tried to walk me through the questions, but I was shut down. They let me out, discussed, and said that they'd passed me.

Ok, fine. I felt awful about it, but everyone kept tell me that a win was a win, and that this was just a hurdle I had to get my ass over.

I still feel depressed, but I've been coming out of it. That is, until today. I go to my advisor, and she says that I should consider another advisor for my dissertation, because she doesn't think she can handle my self-efficacy issues. She says she wants whats best for me, and she doesn't think she's equipped to help me, get me through my dissertation, and guide me to what's best in my professional life.

I'm in the social sciences - she's one of the few people in the department that does quantitative work like I do. There are two other people who are working with her (2nd years), and they're happy, bubbly, and productive. And then there's me.

I want this. God, I want this. I want to finish this and work with her and fix everything. I'm trying therapy, I'm trying medication, I'm trying everything I can think of. I have a crazy schedule with a bunch of non-research but field related commitments (teaching music).

Here are my questions - she says she still believes in my talent. She still likes my writing and my work. I just feel like she thinks I'm broken. She didn't tell me to get another advisor; she would have said it flat out if that's what she'd meant.

How do I get back? I was one of the stars of the department, and now I'm getting zoomed past. I need to get back in this race. I have to get back in this race.

What would you do, academics of MeFi? I know this is so specific from situation to situation, but I need guidance. If my ideal outcome is to work with my current advisor through my dissertation (starting this spring) and get back into the good graces of the department, what do I do? How do I start making inroads and fixing what I killed while in my depressive slide?
posted by SNWidget to Education (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
:hugs: I'm in the same place.

Here's what I'm doing.

1. I have a dissertation writing coach for whom I am paying out of pocket. She is helping me break down the task of writing the diss into manageable chunks. She's also older than me and has my explicit permission to use a "real talk" voice if necessary.

2. I've reached out to my imaginary cohort of fellow academics/grad students I know from online and listservs. We sometimes make writing groups.

3. Work on your diss everyday, even when you are depressed and even if it is only for 15 minutes a day. For example: last week a disgruntled employee from my part time job threatened me physically, which gave me a weeklong anxiety attack that excerbated my pre-existing anxiety condition. Like, I'm already twitchy and I've been twitchy times a thousand this week. Today, the only thing I feel like I can do is go through my notes from the beginning of the month and file them. That is still an accomplishment and still progress towards degree, even if it's minute.

4. I was in therapy, and now I am medicated. It helps a lot. I do not see a therapist now (I moved) but will once I am back in the mainland.

5. Present an action plan to your advisor, with MEASURABLE GOALS and a timeline. Treat this like a mini prospectus, and ask her for feedback. Tell her the steps that you're taking (like the ones above) and tell her that you are actively creating a support network of other academics and grad students to help prevent the situation you describe above from occurring again.

If you do these things and begin acting as a good citizen of the department (attending events on time, dressed appropriately, and be a good professional) I think you will earn back that trust. But part of what you need
posted by spunweb at 1:34 PM on October 17, 2012


In my experience, a candidate is generally not allowed to proceed to the exam phase unless he or she is deemed to be ready. The exam itself is the fun part, a chance to perform in front of people who are excited to see you talk about stuff that you know.
Look at the fun, bubbly kids. Love them. They are doing awesome, and you will enjoy watching them perform when the time comes for that.
In the mean time, you passed your exam because your committee has faith in you and your abilities. Sometimes that crossing, that transformation of your self from student to candidate, say, comes with the burden of knowledge that a change is happening. Gloria Anzaldua calls this the Coatlicue State, a prelude to a crossing. It involves the painful disintegration of the person that you used to be, the star pupil. That person has to go away in order for you to become Dr. SNWidget. You have the right to mourn that loss, and to be unnerved by the prospect of building this new person. This is normal. Give yourself a week, and then get started.
posted by pickypicky at 1:34 PM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


You passed your orals? Congratulations! You're almost there!
in the last month, I've had the worst depressive episode of my life. I haven't been able to do anything, I've looked like a complete mess, and I haven't produced anything. I've always had problems with depression, ADHD, anxiety, perfectionism, and other things,
Look, I'll be straight with you: this is going to fuck you over big time. Even once you pass your qualifying exams, writing your thesis is going to be the biggest mountain you've ever climbed in your life. If you were a mountain climber and said, "I haven't been able to walk for a month, and I've always had problems with arthritis and torn ligaments," we'd all say, "holy crap! you're in deep trouble! get treatment immediately or you'll never climb that mountain!"

Finishing a Ph.D. is a test of endurance. Not just that, but it's a test regarding whether you want to finish or whether you want to still be considered "one of the stars of the department" and have your advisor love you. You might never be a "star of the department" again, and you might be that person who just limps out of the program with your Ph.D. Are you willing to be that person? Because if you are, then you'll finish. If you're not, then you'll quit because your ego will be more tied up in being a "star" than being done.

I assume the next step is thesis proposal? Write that and do a good job on it, and don't procrastinate (I know, easier said than done). Consider your thesis and everything related to working with your advisor and your committee to be your #1 priorities, and consider everything else (no matter how much they might seem to be "obligations") to be secondary.
posted by deanc at 1:35 PM on October 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was slowly trying to type a meaningful reply in the midst of trying to finish my own PhD thesis work, but I see that deanc has done a much better job. But I will add this: A PhD is like a practice field for academia. It won't get easier when you'll be on the job market. So now would be a good time to take some time off and assess your objectives. After that, if you still want to be the department star, you'll have plenty of opportunities to get back to it. I've hadthe exact same feeling of being on top of things, with a bright future, and now I'm really proud to just work on my thesis and be done with it. It's a great feeling! But if you keep working on your thesis in a state of mental exhaustion then I don't think it will be helpful in the long run.
posted by ddaavviidd at 1:42 PM on October 17, 2012


You go, immediately, to your student advocate and tell them exactly what has happened: depression is a thing, like being hit by a car, that happens to many people and which is a particular hazard for people in academia.

Then you and your student advocate go to your department head: you may need to take a leave of absence, you may need some kind of support, you may need therapy, you may need the chance to do your orals again. You certainly need an advisor!

You also need someone who can act on your behalf with your advisor. No-one can force her to take you, but maybe she needs someone to explain how and why anxiety and depression issues show up, and how she can help you work through them.

Also: the 'star of the department' thing is a red herring. I know, I was a hot shot once too: I'm now a boringly unexciting pedestrian middle of the road tenured professor. Not everyone can be a rock star: don't make that a central part of your self-image, because no matter how brilliant you are you're going to wind up a greying, gently fattening, perfectly ordinary member of a department or community, even if you're a Foucault-level genius :). And this is *in no way* a bad thing. Don't imagine you have to be anything other than good enough, because expecting genius! of yourself is one really good recipe for a breakdown.
posted by jrochest at 1:44 PM on October 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


PhD candidate at the end of his travails here. Dissertation is 10 pages from being done. Job is lined up.

First, deep breath.

Second, you're okay. You may have been on top before, and taken a slide. That just means you're on the same footing as everyone else. Everybody has a tumble. I switched advisors and weathered a number of unreliable collaborators myself.

Third, congrats on your candidacy, it's a big hurdle. I'm not sure what you mean by "good graces of the department", but if you passed your candidacy and your stipend continues to flow, it's safe to assume that you are in the good graces of your department.

Fourth, you do need help. If your advisor can't help you through it, you need to find someone who will mentor you through the process. Maybe your committee members know someone. I like spunweb's dissertation coach. It'd be worth the money. We can give advice, but you really need someone who will look you in the eye and help you.

Fifth, everyone I've met who's gone through a PhD program is a bit damaged. Good lord, every professor I know is off. It's traumatic in an intensely personal way because it often feels like the burden is completely on you. It's not. And you shouldn't feel ashamed.
posted by Mercaptan at 1:45 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then you and your student advocate go to your department head: you may need to take a leave of absence, you may need some kind of support, you may need therapy, you may need the chance to do your orals again. You certainly need an advisor!

I already did my orals, and I passed them, much to my disbelief. They liked my written stuff enough and knew my past skills.

My department head = my advisor. And she's awesome; she's supported me for so long and worked with me through my depression . I think she's just worried she can't get me my dissertation, especially with how bad I've been lately. And I don't blame her.
posted by SNWidget at 1:47 PM on October 17, 2012


Not just that, but it's a test regarding whether you want to finish or whether you want to still be considered "one of the stars of the department" and have your advisor love you. You might never be a "star of the department" again, and you might be that person who just limps out of the program with your Ph.D. Are you willing to be that person? Because if you are, then you'll finish. If you're not, then you'll quit because your ego will be more tied up in being a "star" than being done.

The shitty part is that I don't know the answer to that. I want to be the rockstar, and when I see one of the other grad students getting the lauds, I feel sick. It's like there's a finite slice of the pie, and I'm losing my share to the bubbly, peppy, non-damaged students.

I assume the next step is thesis proposal? Write that and do a good job on it, and don't procrastinate (I know, easier said than done). Consider your thesis and everything related to working with your advisor and your committee to be your #1 priorities, and consider everything else (no matter how much they might seem to be "obligations") to be secondary.

Yes, next step is proposal. I know this is what I need to do. I'm just so afraid I've fucked my future and career, and I'm going to become an ABD drop out.
posted by SNWidget at 1:51 PM on October 17, 2012


Don't imagine you have to be anything other than good enough, because expecting genius! of yourself is one really good recipe for a breakdown.

Just one last comment, and I'll get out (and try to do some work).

This is me. This is the problem I've always had, and the problem that I've never been able to fix through therapy or medication. From ages 5-18, everyone told me I was brilliant. I went off to college, got my ass kicked, and I lost my self of self worth. I got into grad school, did well, it came back. And now, I'm back down.

I'm tying all of myself self worth to my work and being a rockstar. And that's the exact wrong thing, I know.
posted by SNWidget at 2:01 PM on October 17, 2012


Your statement

"Yes, next step is proposal. I know this is what I need to do. I'm just so afraid I've fucked my future and career, and I'm going to become an ABD drop out."

makes your problem a bit more clear: you are setting yourself up for failure by believing that your PhD is the only thing you can do with your life. You are taking it way too seriously, and it is no surprise that it makes you stressed and depressed. You may have bought into the cult mindset that is common in academia, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Academia has become your value system.

You need to take a step back and think clearly about this. Your academic career is a career - it is not your entire life, and it does not determine your worth as a person. You need to develop a healthy outlook now, because it doesn't get any easier when you have the PhD and are trying to make it as a professor.

Maybe you should take a semester off and decompress.
posted by twblalock at 2:05 PM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm just so afraid I've fucked my future and career, and I'm going to become an ABD drop out.

You have really got to give yourself a break. You haven't failed a single thing yet, you just haven't lived up to your own expectations. This only has material bearing on your future insofar as you're not able to get a handle on your mental and emotional patterns.

Keep up with therapy. Keep up with medications. Massive depressive episodes are not something you just bounce back from. This is going to be a lot harder but: stop comparing yourself with other students. You need to be focused on yourself, not anyone else. You need to find ways to build yourself esteem that don't rely on outperforming others.

Seconding twablalock that ABD is not the end of the world and you have lots of career possibilities. You also said that you came back from one academic asskicking, so you know you can do this -- and maybe this time, you can build stronger coping skills and more solid resilience. Take a deep breath, give yourself permission to be gentle and patient with yourself, and seek out whatever assistance is available to you.
posted by EvaDestruction at 2:16 PM on October 17, 2012


SNWidget: You're not alone. I had the same experiences as you (The childhood of "You're a genius!" then undiagnosed and untreated depression at school and ass handed to me at undergrad, years of beating myself up, success with a MA in a professional field, and now getting my PhD, and guess what I did the entire month of August? Hint: Exactly what you've been doing.

I don't have any real and practical advice; I'll leave that to the more experienced. I just wanted to say that you are not alone. If I'd gone into a PhD program right after undergrad, I would have been in exactly the same place you are now, saying the same things. The difference now is that I am cutting myself some slack (it's taken years to get to that point, to acknowledge that good enough is OK and that I don't have to be a perfectionist.)

You CAN do this. You can get help. You can learn to give yourself some room. Don't focus on the other "bubbly rising stars" in your department. Focus on YOU and what you need.

Good luck.
posted by absquatulate at 2:44 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


You might be crashing in part because of your super high expectations of who you are supposed to be in your dissertation process. Just in case you haven't seen it, this ask.me post captured something very important about expectations regarding dissertations.

When you're depressed it's worthwhile to take a lot of your self-talk with a huge grain of salt. Particularly when you find yourself feeling like a total loser compared to those peppy cheerful colleagues of yours. This is the voice of depression, and it is unsurpassed at engaging in that kind of sabotaging self-assessment.

The fact is that you're neither as amazing as you hope nor as disgusting as you fear you are. You're just a person, and you've created a pretty nice life filled with a lot of things that are important to you (wife, school, field you love). You've got this *really* big job ahead of you, which you will accomplish the same way you've accomplished every other really big job you've had. A step at a time.
posted by jasper411 at 2:59 PM on October 17, 2012


I think this is all about depression and has nothing in particular to do with being a grad student. One thing did jump out at me though:

I have a crazy schedule with a bunch of non-research but field related commitments (teaching music).

At the dissertation stage the diss has to be your very first priority. You should not have a "bunch" of other commitments.
posted by LarryC at 5:03 PM on October 17, 2012


It's possible that the depression is what's telling you the next bit is impossible and that you are not good enough and that you are going to crash and burn. Catastrophizing is what depression does.

Your program WILL have some mechanism for taking leave of absence for students who are ill. You are ill. You talk as though you are (coming) out of the depression now - maybe you are and maybe you aren't. (I hope you are seeing a psychologist and/or psychiatrist anyway). But even if you are, it's going to take a while to get your head back on properly.

Take a couple of months off (sick leave). Ask your advisor if she will delay making a decision about advising you for the diss until afterwards when you can both reassess where you are at. She will probably find it reassuring that you are able and willing to take care of yourself in this way.

Then see where you are at afterwards.
posted by lollusc at 6:08 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is the problem I've always had, and the problem that I've never been able to fix through therapy or medication.

I'm sorry, I just don't believe this. It sounds like you do, though, and that's the problem.
posted by liketitanic at 7:02 PM on October 17, 2012


I'm sorry, I just don't believe this. It sounds like you do, though, and that's the problem.


Let me cavaet that - as of now, I've never been able to fix it. It's the one that holds on after therapy, it's the one that is still there when everything else is medicated well.
posted by SNWidget at 7:23 PM on October 17, 2012


Well, I'm still panicking. I've sent a few "housekeeping" e-mails to her about various things in progress at the moment. My wife helped me sit down and come up with a game plan to get back into the game while taking care of myself. We'll see what happens.

I'm worried that if I show up next week with stacks of writing and work, it's going to reek of desperation and just a binge that'll eventually crash again. This is the depression talking again, I know, so what's the best bet in that situation? Try to show up with as much done as possible to show that I can and want to work with her?
posted by SNWidget at 8:35 PM on October 17, 2012


I DO NOT think you should take time off. I think you need to push through this. Develop a plan for your dissertation and start working on it. Create a machine for yourself (I like the idea of hiring a dissertation coach) so that you can keep working.Create achievable, step-by-step goals so that you're never wondering what you're supposed to do, you just have to move onto the next thing on your To Do list.

In terms of your advisor, I think you should develop your game plan and present it to her. Ask her if she thinks that with this plan (including again the dissertation coach, I think) she'll be able to work with you. If not, ask her to suggest who else might serve as your advisor. As the department chair, it is her role to help you sort through this.
posted by lalalana at 10:42 PM on October 17, 2012


I'm a third year PhD student. I had a similar sounding depressive episode from November to March of this past year, also compounded by adhd. Two things helped me get past it. The first was reminding myself to chill out. Most of the faculty have spent at most 5 minutes thinking about you over the past month. Their opinion of you probably has not changed much. Similarly, your adviser knows what sustainable progress looks like. You don't need to "binge" to impress her.

The second thing that helped me was changing advisers. Now I also changed areas and wasn't as far along so it was a little different, but I still think you should consider it. Having an adviser who's a bit more hands-on and who clicks more with me in terms of what motivates me and just how we interact has had almost as large an effect on my productivity as getting medicated did. If your adviser didn't think you could finish a PhD she probably would have told you. But if she's more hands off, whether for reasons of personal style or life circumstances, you might be better off with a different adviser.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:36 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


From ages 5-18, everyone told me I was brilliant. I went off to college, got my ass kicked, and I lost my self of self worth.

Consider that you had a classmate from the ages of 5-18 who people thought was a slacker and not a superstar who was considered inferior to you. And nothing came easy to this grammar school and high school classmate, who had to spend every night going over the material 2 or 3 times to get decent grades. By the time he got to college, he had a good set of study habits and the experience of not being a superstar was so familiar to him by the time he got to college that it wasn't a shock to his system or a blow to his ego. Well, you are now that classmate, and the bubbly, peppy people are your childhood and teenage selves.

More than half of Ph.D. students never finish. Who knows how many of the "bubbly, peppy, non-damaged students" are going to drop out? Several of them may well do so.

Whether to stick with a Ph.D. or not is a very personal decision. For me, I felt like I had no other alternative in life (I actually did have alternatives, but I didn't see them at the time). Since there was no "Plan B", I had to finish, and I decided that finishing had to take a back seat to making money, being happy, receiving praise from outsiders, or feeding my ego. Finishing was my job, and I'd have no more quit the program than I would not show up for work in the morning.
posted by deanc at 7:19 AM on October 18, 2012


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