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I've forgotten how to work.
May 7, 2014 3:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm a dissertating graduate student who, due to a whole host of factors over the course of a few years, has basically forgotten how to work. I spend days upon days at home, sometimes doing things and sometimes just hanging out, but the things I do are rarely dissertation-related (or they could be broadly work related, but aren't note-taking or actually writing the thing). As a result I have no dissertation progress to speak of, very limited levels of committee support remaining, and a bleak outlook. I used to be a real go-getter. Please help me get my head and ass wired together.

Since I'm posting this anonymously (just because I don't want this linked to my profile - I'm concerned about posting anything relating to professional problems on the internet), I'll try to give as many details as possible in the hopes that I don't need to follow up. It is entirely possible that you could just skip this entire extended explanation, though, and give me a whack upside the head instead based on my above-the-fold question.

I'm a single female, living alone in an urban area in the United States. I'm years into my social science dissertation and have just run out of funding. Before I started dissertating I had earned a BA and MA in my field and completed three years of very successful coursework, fieldwork, and exams in my program. My department was pleased with me. I, too, was pleased with me. I proposed a dissertation on a topic that really interested me but was a risk - it requires me to bring a new perspective to a very old and dusty topic with entrenched scholars who don't react kindly to outsiders. No one on my faculty is a part of this subfield, nor did I have any direct connections to people within this subfield when I started. My vision was that my committee would help me figure out introductions, guide me in learning how to make useful connections, and generally mentor me as a fledgling scholar. Instead, I got no guidance at all - my supervisor and I didn't even meet about my work for two years. I admit this was not in my own best interest and I should have been more circumspect and assertive at the time, but I was freaking out about this huge project I'd taken on and that I had no clue how to approach, so I avoided dealing with it. In the past year any meeting I've had with my supervisor has been... less than helpful. Her suggestions often aren't very useful, she has limited knowledge of my subject area so she can't help me with specific issues, and she thinks now that because I've been unproductive for so long, the only avenue for her is to be hard on me - the opposite of what I need, but that's not been a fact I've been able to convince her of. I have considered switching supervisor but I don't believe I have another option that would be assuredly positive enough to allow for the politics involved in this kind of change. My other committee members are distant and I don't really understand what I can and cannot use them for, as I've never had the opportunity to learn the politics of a dissertation committee. My second reader, who I've always had a very good relationship with, all of a sudden expressed extreme distress at my lack of progress in a way that makes me think I can no longer go to him. So I feel I am still completely on my own. All in all, though, I feel I should be able to handle this - I am far from the first, last, or only grad student to not have their ideal supervisor, and I'm capable of figuring out most of what I need to as I dissertate, if I could just *do* that and dissertate.

Compounding all of this is that I am dealing with a chronic health condition that predates my dissertation. I am tired all of the time, and I generally cannot focus on the level of detail and analysis that dissertation work requires. I've been to a series of doctors who have come to no conclusions. One specialist wants me to go to a sleep clinic to evaluate if my brain waves do/don't do something during sleep that prevents me from fully recharging, but I don't have much hope that this is the answer when everything else has lead to naught. This same doctor put me on a two-month course of an SSRI earlier this year. I felt a little bit different but overall not much - I felt a little weird (kind of buzzy?) and a bit more productive & proactive, which I attribute to the extra serotonin, but I still didn't have any more energy. If I had to describe it, if my problem is a 6.5 on a scale of 1-10, the SSRI made the problem a 6. While I will cop to feeling depressed, it is because I feel like I've lost control of my life, which is something that postdates the constant fatigue and is a direct result of it, not the other way around. When the fatigue first hit things were great, I felt positive and happy, and I was working hard but not too hard - then one day I felt like I needed a nap all day long and that's been my baseline ever since, regardless of diet, environment, life circumstances, and medication status. I suddenly had 30% of my old energy, and in the succeeding 4 years, everything in my life has suffered because of it.

Even if I am only at 30%, though, I can still do 30% of work, which right now would be an increase from about zero, but with all of the crap that's gone on in the past few years and the fact that my dissertation has never really properly started, I am stuck in ennui and am not sure what to do. When I have a deadline I put off work until it is the very, very, very last minute and then I work to completion, but not efficiently and with a LOT of internal whinging. I think the past few years of not working have basically spoiled me - I'm now used to just hanging out, so of course doing hard work sucks. I cannot tell if I just need motivation or a clear, step-by-step plan to get into the habit of working again, or what, but I am really stuck and hope MeFi can help me figure this out.

I should add that I don't have a great workspace. I no longer feel I can go to my department cubicle without feeling extreme shame. Home is wonderful but full of distractions. There is a nearby library I may start going to, but so far I haven't gotten off my ass to go there.

For what it is worth, I know a lot of my current situation has to do with feeling bad about my life, and I am dealing with that directly. I do a lot of journaling and meditating to assess what is going on in my head and heart, so please know that is an ongoing, and very positive process. I am also reading things along the lines of 99u.com, lifehacker, and Die Empty. Please know my diet is clean, but also that no dietary change has ever lead to any difference in feeling, so please no attributions to gluten, vel. sim. I've also moved twice and lived in different countries since this happened, so it's not mold, allergies, etc etc. There is no indication I have any sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. My doctors and I have ruled out several different types of cancer. Etc etc etc. At this stage I think I am past trying to figure out the physical problem and need to just deal with managing it, but how to do this isn't clear to me.

In sum, please help me figure out how to pull myself back up by my bootstraps. I have to support myself and instead I'm watching my entire career crumble. I do, in fact, love what I do, but I've lost the plot and need to find it again, ASAP.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
You sound depressed. Have you considered talking to a psychiatrist about medication and/or meeting with a therapist?
posted by zug at 3:50 PM on May 7 [3 favorites]


First: This is common, and you are not the only one! So, know that the dissertation just DOES this to a lot of people, and some end up finishing and some don't, but you're not crazy, broken, or a failure just because it is happening to you.

Second: The biggest thing you can do to deal with this problem is to START TALKING ABOUT IT. Not with your non-school friends, but with other grad students. You will probably be surprised to learn that other people feel the same way, and you will not feel so alone! Then you can start working on community-based, group strategies. Part of why the dissertation is so easy to lose years on is because you're doing it alone, with no real accountability to anyone. Start making that accountability part of your day. This could involve things like:

--Making a writing date with a friend at a cafe or the library.
--Checking in via email each day with a fellow grad student to say 'here's what I did today'
--Making a point of working in your department cubicle on a regular schedule (YES, even if it is hard), and asking someone in a nearby cubicle to say hi and bug you if you don't come in for two days in a row
--Making remote writing dates with fellow grad students who are either in your city, or off doing fieldwork, or even at other schools. Make a Google Hangout or some other sort of group chat, and check in at the beginning and end of each work session with your goals/how your goals went

Third: See a counselor, especially if you think clinical depression or something else might be part of the picture. This doesn't have to mean medication, but it is incredible helpful to get an outsider's perspective...someone who is NOT going to judge you for not working, can't possibly have an effect on your future career prospects, and can help you figure out strategies (and sometimes just give you a reality check). If you can find someone who specializes in grad students, all the better.

Good luck. You are not alone, but you absolutely can survive this!
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:55 PM on May 7 [13 favorites]


I will not presume to help you with the mental health issues. But since IAAP, I've got some suggestions in re: the diss.

1) So, first of all, people slow down/stop/come to a crashing halt while dissertating all the time. You're right that it's not optimal, but you also have to let go of thinking about it as a shame. The dissertation is not you. Health stuff happened! Life gets in the way! In other words: now that you want to refocus, take that workspace back.

2) That being said: there's nobody in the department who is actually qualified to work on this dissertation? Hrrrrm. Dissertations do need close supervision, even if you're working on a very new (or very old) topic. Can you:

a) Switch topics? Yes, I know you're attached to this one. But dissertations are there to be finished. (My father had to give up his first dissertation topic several years in and start all over again. After several more decades in the field, he finally went back to the original project and published it as a book.)

b) Get an outside chair? This obviously involves some politics, but a chair who actually knows something about your subject will be more helpful than, well, one who doesn't.

3) If you haven't already, and in addition to what rainbowbrite suggested, you should schedule a long chat with your department's graduate coordinator. S/he should be able to supply concrete advice about changing topics, changing supervisors if necessary, seeking an outside chair, etc.

4) "Extreme distress" doesn't necessarily mean "stay away from me," unless that's what he said. It can just mean...extreme distress. You should talk to your second reader, especially if you have been reasonably close in the past.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:00 PM on May 7 [7 favorites]


To me it sounds like you need a change in direction. Why not stop your dissertation (such as it is) and re-enter the workforce for several years. Work hard, physically hard if possible, save money, get in the habit of being financially independent, pay off debts, and generally start being around productive people who put in a 40-hour workweek.
posted by Houstonian at 4:03 PM on May 7 [4 favorites]


Every journey starts with a single step
Start planning stuff, and doing it, and build
posted by edtut at 4:09 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]


Can you take some time off? If your health is really as poor as you say, then you probably aren't physically equipped to write a dissertation. You can be once you take care of your body. You're sick and should not feel guilty about that. Are the folks in your department even aware of this?

A lot of the other stuff in your post I recognize as graduate thesis/dissertation fatigue, which I can relate to from experience and some of which is relatively normal and to be expected. You need to drop this notion of your thesis as your "vision" and think of it more as a task that needs to be completed in a certain amount of time.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:16 PM on May 7


I am not a doctor, but:
You talked about how an SSRI made you feel "a little bit better" but you still didn't have any energy. When I was in that situation my shrink added Wellbutrin to the SSRI and that helped me. SSRI's have helped my depression by raising the floor on the depths of my moods, but it was Wellbutrin that helped me feel like "I CAN GET THINGS DONE."

Also on the physical side, have you ruled out thyroid issues?

Even if I am only at 30%, though, I can still do 30% of work


I don't know if this should necessarily hold true. I could see how there could be a non-linear relationship between energy and work potential, where if you're only at 30% of your normal self it's hard to do much of anything. I'm just saying that to suggest maybe be less hard on yourself.

Attacking this from the non-medical angle, a talk therapist might help you with getting unstuck. I also think a change in venue such trying to work in the library could help.
posted by Asparagus at 4:22 PM on May 7 [2 favorites]


Hey, I'm also a graduate student and I can empathize with a heck of a lot of what is going on in this question. I don't have much constructive advice to offer except to say - feel free to Memail me if you ever need someone to give you a high-five for getting even one sentence written (or to tell you that it isn't the end of the world if today was zero sentences).
posted by pemberkins at 4:29 PM on May 7 [3 favorites]


IAAP and a former resident of the dissertation hell circle.
Do not imagine the whole day as a writing day.
Pick 60 minutes and work the whole time. Tell yourself at the end of that 60 minutes you are going to do something else entirely.
When you've gotten to the point where you can work for an hour, increase the writing time to 2 hours.
THen write for 2 hours a day. That's it. Two hours a day, every day, until you're done. When you start getting antsy to do the laundry/check email/feed the cat/etc remind yourself that whatever it is can wait for two hours.
People who write for 2 hours a day get a whole lot of writing done. People who write for 8 hours a day don't.
posted by third rail at 4:31 PM on May 7 [31 favorites]


My university had a dissertation support group, which was essentially a bunch of students across campus getting together in a room in the library for a week and working on their dissertations from 9 to 5. You put down a deposit of $100, which you would get back if you showed up by 9 am every day and stayed the whole time. You could technically bring your laptop and troll the internet, but no one wants to be shamed by someone else seeing that. It was great to have that discipline, and to be working next to other people who were in the same boat. Even though it was just a week, it set the momentum for the next few months.

If your university doesn't do this, find a group of graduate students and organize it yourself. It should be easy enough to reserve a library room or classroom.

Coffee shops are often a good motivator for me -- I like being around people when I work. I sit with my laptop screen facing everyone so I'm not tempted to goof off. Having to spend money on coffee is also a financial incentive to make the visit worth the while.

Are you regularly keeping up with the activity in your field? Make it a point to read or skim one new paper a day. Go to department seminars even if they're not directly related to your dissertation. There's nothing like seeing an exciting new paper to kick your butt into working as well, and if you're lucky, you may even get concrete ideas out of them. You can't research by yourself in a vacuum.

All this doesn't help if you truly have no guidance and no place to start. Find an outside advisor. The department would really rather you finish with external help than not finish at all. I say this having graduated from one of the most dysfunctional graduate programs in existence.

And sometimes, you just need a change of scenery. Will your research topic benefit from fieldwork? Can you go as an exchange student somewhere, or get a summer internship? Check if your university participates in the Exchange Scholar or Traveling Scholar programs. This is a great way to find an external advisor.
posted by redlines at 4:43 PM on May 7 [2 favorites]


As masochistic as this might sound, can you get someone in your program (director of graduate studies or dept. chair) to agree on a firm dissertation deadline (far enough ahead in the future that you can do it reasonably well, of course), with consequences if you don't meet it? That's what's gotten me to fix up the chapter drafts I've had lying around for 1-2 years and finally defend at the end of the month.

I also made "work dates" with a friend/colleague at a local café. We don't chat too much, but 1. It's some accountability and 2. it kind of takes away the existential loneliness of academic work, even just being around someone.

If you have a laptop to work on, see if it has a way to disable the wireless function (at least when you are writing/editing things for which you don't need the intertubes). You can always turn it back on, but then you'll have to stop and think -- do I really need this right now, or am I going to look at Youtube videos?

You write "There is no indication I have any sleep disorder such as sleep apnea." Are you sure? I got checked for it, got diagnosed and treated (CPAP), and while it's not a cure-all, I am definitely less tired than I used to be.
posted by dhens at 4:43 PM on May 7


Also, one of the most productive colleagues I know swears by the pomodoro technique. Buy an hourglass or kitchen timer and try it out. Your working increments can be as short as 15 minutes.
posted by redlines at 4:45 PM on May 7 [5 favorites]


It sounds like you are genuinely depressed and maybe also have ADD. Even if you don't have ADD, medications for ADD can help non-ADD people get their shit together. Adderall is basically the steroids of academia, except WAY more prevalent because we don't drug-test academics.

So, nthing adding Wellbutrin to your SSRI. Adderall if you can get it. (Note: With Adderall you need to force yourself to start working BEFORE it kicks in or you'll just end up hyperfocused on the wrong thing.) You can also try ordering Modafinil from an overseas pharmacy.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:03 PM on May 7 [2 favorites]


I know this sounds weird when you're already dealing with fatigue, and if you can't do it, don't sweat it, you just can't. But if you can, get on a bike, stationary or otherwise, or on a treadmill, or put on sneakers and go outside, and whatever counts as hard cardio for you--even if it's just walking--do that. Fatigue, for a lot of reasons, breeds more fatigue. Exercise breeds more energy. It will not necessarily fix things, but it's a little bit of help at a time when you can use all the help you can get. I am not in great shape, I admit this, but I run intervals until I am gasping, these days, because my brain runs everything better when I'm done, even if I'm sore for an hour after getting home. I don't know why this works, it just seems to. Light activity didn't seem to do it, I had to cross through "oh my god I'm going to die" into something bigger, but some people do well with just walking.

That part done, this is basically the way that anxiety compounds everything. It starts as a small problem and it balloons into a big problem. I consider myself reasonably well-controlled these days and I still do it way more than I want to. Getting things back is a matter of baby steps. The tiniest of baby steps. Break everything down that you need to do until you can find something small enough that you can achieve it. Achievement breeds more achievement. You need momentum. Once you have some momentum, you can start tackling the things that make you anxious by spacing them out. It's like taking a running start for a big jump, once you are going, forward motion gets easier.

The point where you have forward motion is the point to start looking at productivity stuff like pomodoros (intervals are great for all kinds of things) and GTD for actually organizing all the overwhelming quantity of stuff that you have to do. But those aren't the best place to start, the best place to start is with the smallest possible stuff. To-do lists and stuff only start working once you have confidence in your ability to do what's on the list, your ability to keep promises to yourself. So that's where you start, by telling yourself you're going to do something and then doing it. You will pick up speed as you go.

If you can get in to see someone, talking to a good therapist on a weekly basis is helpful in keeping going, among other things because it's an appointment you will make and keep every week. But if you can't do that, just do what you can do. I defer to people who've been there on the more grad school specific stuff, that part I haven't done, so I try to stick to what I know. MeMail me if you want, though.
posted by Sequence at 5:06 PM on May 7 [5 favorites]


I'm not a grad student, so of course it's different in multiple ways, however, my string of post-bac success did recently get massively interrupted by life (and then, fatigue). For this one class, I spent months wringing my hands and compromised mind over the final paper, which I think I'd have been able to handle if I weren't exhausted (and a habitual procrastinator with some perfectionist tendencies). Eventually, I cried uncle, and chucked two banker's boxes of convoluted notes. I switched to a simpler idea, and wrote it in my usual (still angsty but not panic-inducing) way. I did well on that paper, and it loosened me up for other ones.

If switching isn't something you can do (though if you can, maybe it's an idea), could you try to write something else - something short, sweet and simple, maybe for a different audience, to get your head into that space again?

Nth changing scenes for a bit, and definitely nth your own idea of putting some time into finding or creating a good (comfortable, well-lit) workspace that differs from the places you've now strongly associated with diversions and/or avoidance.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:22 PM on May 7


You sound a lot like me this time last year. I withdrew from my PhD and started applying for jobs. I now live in London and work for the British civil service as a social researcher. Getting out of my PhD has improved my mental health significantly.

Remember that it is often possible to withdraw then reenrol once you havr things straightened out.
posted by knapah at 5:22 PM on May 7 [4 favorites]


I have been there! And I finished, and I got out. You can do it, absolutely, and you are not alone.

Everyone else's advice is excellent regarding writing. But I was really struck by the fact that in that huge multi-paragraph block of explanation, you never once raise the possibility of quitting and doing something else. I'm trying to figure out whether you're that rare, almost mythical beast we always hear about - the person who really should be in academia, because that's the only thing they've ever wanted to do - or if you've sunk in such a deep depression/health funk that it's blinded you to the fact that you don't actually have to finish your dissertation, and there is a whole wide world out there.

Here is a thought experiment for you: snap your fingers and the dissertation is done. Hooray! What now? How do you feel? What would you do? Would you be eager to enter the job market and look for a professorship (which would entail lots of the kind of writing and self-motivation that you've been missing for these past several years) or would you face the prospect with dread?

Along those lines, I'm curious as to whether you've been doing any teaching. You paint a very bleak picture of days and days at home alone doing nothing, but all the grad students I know (in the US at least) have to spend a big chunk of their time teaching in order to pay the bills. Are you teaching? Do you like it? Do you feel more energy and motivation when it comes to teaching, or is it the same blah-ness and misery that accompanies your dissertation?

Again, if you love teaching and are energized by it, then yes, strategies to get you writing are the way to go- and they will help. You will get to the finish line if you take it step by step. But please don't lose sight of the fact that you don't have to do this. If the dissertation is main thing standing between you and your future happiness, you should kick it to the curb and see if you can start being happy right now.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:24 PM on May 7 [6 favorites]


IAAP. Possibly encouraging anecdote: I went through a period of struggle while writing the diss and basically fell off the radar for two years and my advisors never once inquired where I'd been. I definitely know the sense of shame one can feel--but I can say that it's also surmountable. For me, it was with the help of some really supportive writing buddies, the discovery of a great local coffee shop that was a productive and comfortable workspace for me (I'm useless in my apartment), and, frankly, the need to pay rent via fellowships which required proof of progress and had firm deadlines. (My advisors never really became more helpful). I managed to finish. If I can do it, anyone can!

I nth a lot of the great advice above looking at the medical side of things, and getting some sort of buddy system. If you don't feel comfortable with people in your program, how about the online community at phinished.org?

Can you also find firm deadlines by, say, applying to present at a conference? To this day if I really need to get a chapter or article going... I go to a conference--it forces me to at least get 10 pages started and be somewhat coherent. It's all easier after that first hurdle.

Good luck!
posted by TwoStride at 5:30 PM on May 7


I have been there, down to the long-undiagnosed chronic condition that caused incapacitating fatigue. Ultimately, the way I finished was that I finally got a diagnosis and started medication that lifted the pain and fatigue that had been crushing me for years. But long before that, I made progress through a very simple process:

1) Make a list of things that need to be done that can be done right now. Break the items into as small pieces as possible.
2) Do one of those things. You got a thing done!
3) If you feel like it, do another thing. If you don't feel like it, plan on doing another thing tomorrow.
4) If you have a shitty day and nothing gets done, forgive yourself! Then do another thing tomorrow.

All of that only works if you can even see a way through to make that list, of course. I agree with others that you need some kind of supervisor/mentor/advisor and if your current committee is not helpful you may need to seek that person elsewhere. I did not always love my advisor and her advice was not always perfect, but I am glad that I had her and ultimately her looming presence was a good motivator.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:31 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]


Let me take a different tack on this. Maybe I'm completely off base (which has been known to happen), in which case please ignore the following and know that I offered it in support and empathy, without any ill intent.

So here goes...

It could be worth some of your time (and maybe a therapist's time as well) to consider what your payoff is if you don't finish the dissertation or, to put it a bit differently, what you get to avoid by leaving it undone. I couldn't even begin the speculate what those payoffs might be, but I expect you'll be surprised when you discover what they are.

When I first read the above-the-fold text, my thought was "she doesn't want to finish her dissertation, for some reason". When I saw the wall of information below the fold, my thought was "she really doesn't want to finish it".

I don't know you or the details of your situation beyond what you've shared here, but I also experienced bouts of paralysis while doing my dissertation. Part of it was, of course, that doing a dissertation is infinitely more complex and weighty than any other project I have ever done. Or have done in the many years since. Every aspect of it is monumental and potentially life-changing.

Most doctoral students, or most doctoral students I knew, experienced crises of faith while working on their dissertations. Sometimes multiple and debilitating crises of faith. Sadly, some doctoral students aren't able to overcome their crises of faith. Those are the people who leave graduate school as ABDs.

Each step of the process is terrifying, because it means that you haven't gained anything except the right to confront the next terrifying step of the process and, even worse, at some point will have to do the scariest thing of all - get a job and put the education to use. Any risk failing.

So the whole situation is tailor-made for self-sabotage. At some point, you have to decide whether you're going to let yourself defeat you or not.Ask me about how I failed my final orals on the first try.
posted by DrGail at 7:21 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]


I think most of us in academe, regardless of our physical and mental health, have been where you are. It can be hard to work on a project whose milestones are vague and whose endpoints are years in the future.

What helped me address that when writing my dissertation was a mix of the following:

- A regular writing group with whom I shared drafts a few times a year (we met every few weeks and rotated). We were all historians, but working on very different times and places, with different methods, and from at least two universities (this was in Chicago).

- Going regularly to colloquia and workshops on things that interested me. That kept me engaged with broader questions, which in turn helped me think about contextualizing my project. Plus, talking to other attendees about our work encouraged me to make some progress. And finally, it reminded me why I was in this game, as a historian (which doesn't necessarily mean an academic career, but it is the norm if you get a Ph.D.): I did really care about the discipline and the debates in it, and going to hear faculty or invited speakers helped remind me of that fact.

- When it came down to finishing, I made myself sit down at 9 am every day and work on the damn thing until noon. This was in the age of dialup Internet, which made it a little harder to distract myself online, but it was in the age of Usenet, with no graphics, so it wasn't that much harder. But I kept myself offline, identified the most important thing to do, and vowed to work on it until I was ready to stop or noon came, whichever came first. Then I would go for a walk or a run, do dishes, cook, read a novel, or whatever; I had fulfilled my contract with myself.

Later, far too late, I learned the most important lesson for productivity that I've learned in my 46 years on this planet: when faced with a project that requires more than one step, figure out the one concrete action you can take toward completing that project, and do it. (This comes from David Allen's Getting Things Done.) Once it's done, identify the next step, and do that. But you have to be granular. "Write Chapter 3" is not a next step. "Take 30 minute to brainstorm the main themes of Chapter 3" is a next step; that might be followed by "Mindmap the main themes of chapter 3 and figure out how they relate to one another," and then "Search the literature/my notes" for the main theme of Chapter 3," or "Freewrite for 45 minutes on how Chapter 3 fits together and its place in the dissertation."

In other words: you can't finish Chapter 3 in a day or a week, but you can make a little progress each day. It's kind of like exercising, though: you have to commit to doing it, and make it a habit.

On preview: all the above presumes that you want to finish the dissertation, and follow the career path that it implies. If you no longer want that, there is nothing wrong with that. In many fields, Ph.D. students are socialized to think that they have failed if they aren't launched into a successful academic career. That's a pernicious attitude, even though it makes sense from an institutional perspective. And from an individual perspective, it's easy to be persuaded by the sunk cost fallacy. The fact that you have spent X years in grad school so far doesn't justify spending Y more years if you no longer value the outcome.

Good luck, and if your discipline is history, especially if you're in early modern Europe or history of science, feel free to memail me if you want any followup. I'll promise confidentiality.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:33 PM on May 7 [8 favorites]


Shame and anxiety can be very crippling. But facing their sources can end that shame quickly. I don't know if that means meeting with your adviser or just showing up at the cubicle, but every time you feel that crippling shame, think of it as an opportunity to pierce the shame bubble. You might ask yourself: "what one thing would most reduce my stress right now?" and usually it means you have to face some super-stressful thing, which will be followed by great relief.

With respect to work, honestly, start small. People talk about the Pomodoro technique -- 50 minutes, ha! Use an online count-up timer and just see how long you can stay on task. Three minutes? Good job! Just make it a contest with yourself and try to see steady improvement.
posted by salvia at 7:48 PM on May 7


Did you try exercise (cardio) for your ailments? After I did a couple years of graduate coursework, I was exhausted and in a very bad place. I was prescribed all kinds of different medications for depression/anxiety and nothing helped. Talking to people and trying different organizational and time management methods didn't help. I was too stressed and I wasn't getting good sleep so I was tired all the time. It was the environment, really. Nothing helped me feel actually rested in the morning except for getting frequent exercise (running, cycling), but after I did that consistently for a couple months, I realized I could sleep like a normal person. And I need my 8 hours or I'm going to be miserable and unproductive the next day. Meditation (even briefly, like 10-15 minutes) has also helped me when I am working from home and need to clear my head and start writing, which is the hardest thing for me to start.

You could take a leave of absence and get a job, to get moving and be more productive and have a routine. Do something different for a while. Or, if you want to finish your dissertation, why not consider changing your topic? Work on something your supervisor can help you with. My experience with academia is that sometimes people who have careers in it express things like "concern" and "extreme distress" for graduate students in ways that come off as cold and unhelpful. It happens. They want you to be successful though, it reflects on the department. I wouldn't add to the challenge by continuing to pursue a topic that is extra hard to get guidance on. Work on something your supervisor has expertise on, and do what she tells you to do.
posted by citron at 8:00 PM on May 7


Some years ago I was in your position—approaching the end of my doctoral registration period with very little to show for it—and posted this question to AskMe. People gave me some really good advice there, but the keyword is structure. You need to structure your days and work somewhere you know is conducive to writing. The good news is, this can be done. In my case, I got a card for the local research library and went there every day I wasn't working at my other job. I kept regular hours, worked to schedule, and tried to write 3 or 4 pages a day. I submitted my thesis just over a year after posting that AskMe question.

So, to summarise:
(1) Space: where can you concentrate and write? Go there.
(2) Time: keep a regular writing schedule.
(3) Outlines: plot the structure of your chapters in advance and keep to those outlines.
(4) Words: how many words can you realistically write in a day without tiring yourself out? (Remember, you don't have to do all your writing in one session: regular bursts of writing interspersed with reading or downtime are better.) Set yourself that number as a goal and once you've neared it to your satisfaction, stop and relax. Job done for today!

Do that several times a week and you'll be surprised at how much you can achieve.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:15 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


Lots of people feel like you.

What helped me plow through my dissertation was setting word count goals per day. It didn't matter how good or how bad what I wrote was, but I set a target and met it come hell or high water. Start with just a few hundred, and work your way up from there.

You'll be surprised how quickly that adds up, to the point where you'll prob have to do some judicious culling of the good bits.
posted by modernnomad at 6:28 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


I give you permission to ditch the dissertation and to request a Masters.

Think about how liberating it would be if you could just get out of there with an advanced degree. Then you could get on with whatever it is you thought you wanted to do with your life. Sure, it's not a Ph.D. But hey, it's something.

The other option is to go to your advisor and say, "You know, I knew it was a challenge when i started, and frankly, I don't see the end in sight for this. Let's you and I work together on something that might let me use what I've got, but on a dissertation that you can invest in with me, and guide me through to completion."

The path you're on now, isn't leading you where you want to go. Figure out where you want to be in the next year or so, and then you'll know what you need to do to get there.

Cowboying up and just writing the thing isn't the answer. You're not invested in the subject and once you've done it, then what?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:14 AM on May 8


Well if you do decide to forge ahead I would be happy to do an email accountability thing with you daily. I struggle with this exact same problem and having an anonymous person with whom to share goals could be incredibly helpful. Memail me if you're interested.
posted by sockermom at 8:27 AM on May 8


Here's what I had to do mentally to get over the hump of writing my dissertation (which is in progress, so I don't have all the answers, just the perspective of someone going through it):

1.) Decide if you really want to commit to getting this PhD. You've put a lot of years of your young adult life into it and it would be great if you can complete it. However, you aren't going to die and the world will not end if you decide you are done with it and want to walk a different life path. You can walk away at any time. That is your right, and there are THOUSANDS of people in this country that would understand and envy you for it. If, however, not getting the PhD is not an option for you, then the only other option is to commit to getting it.

2.) The only way to get the PhD is to write the dissertation. I don't know what other steps your department requires of you (I'm in science, I have to publish two papers, do an oral defense, etc). But it is universally true that getting a PhD requires writing a dissertation.

3.) The only way to write a dissertation is to write a dissertation.

To accomplish #3, I set a timer for 30 minutes every morning. I write for those 30 minutes. I do not look up and read references during the 30 minutes, I don't surf Facebook, I don't have my email account open or my phone on. I just write whatever is in my brain for 30 minutes. I can go back and work out the logic/flow/references/etc later. The most important part is to just get some words into a document. Because that's what a dissertation is in the end: a document full of words. So you gotta start writing the words. I try to do this first thing in the morning, because I find it a generally unpleasant task and I just want to get it out of the way. I stop after 30 minutes because I find if I keep going on a roll I might end up writing for 3 hours, but then I'm too burned out to motivate to do it again the next day, and so begins the inertia again. Writing for 30 minutes is a commitment that I can keep.

What's truly amazing to me about this strategy is that after just a few weeks, I actually created a legit start to a dissertation. After a few more weeks, it grew. I don't even care if it's shitty at this point in time. I can edit it later. The important part is that it EXISTS.

As far as your health issues, can you also commit to 30-60 minutes of good, intense exercise every day? I think that would help you so much. My life truly did change after I took up power yoga. If you just found an exercise you actually liked to do, it would be easier to do it regularly.

Finally, I get that you have years of uncomfortable awkwardness around you now. It feels shitty and makes things like going into work feel humiliating and shameful. TOTALLY get it. Here's my advice to you: get over it. Seriously, just get over it and start showing up at work and letting people in your department see your face. Smile and say hello to people, say goodbye when you leave. It might suck a lot at first, but that will go away. People might judge you at first, but they will become impressed by your renewed commitment to getting this done. This is part of being an adult and surviving in the world. Sometimes you face unpleasant situations and you just grin and bear it and move on. You're strong enough to have gotten yourself this far. Therefore, I know you are strong enough to show up, sit at your desk, and smile and say hello to people.
posted by sickinthehead at 9:59 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


A very similar thing happened to me. I put off my thesis for a little while because I had time to do it later. Then the deadline comes, but it’s technically not “due” so of course I put it off because reasons. I’m sick, I’m injured, I need to see my mother more, I need something else… Whatever I could do to come up with a reason I couldn’t write at the time. Before I knew it a year had passed and the total dread of facing the “shame” of finishing my program so late made it impossible to even contemplate.

Here’s what I did: I started seeing a therapist twice a week. No, not because I was depressed (I was) but because I used him as accountability I couldn't get anywhere else. Friends would just tell me to quit worrying about it and move on, but my therapist would make me explain the exact reasons I wasn’t tackling my problems. He didn’t give any advice, but he still wanted to at least inventory the reasons I was giving that my thesis wasn’t finished. I started dreading the idea of telling this man that I respected my piddling little reasons for not taking care of business. Eventually I started dreading it more than facing my director (who I had avoided for the better part of a year). I worked out a plan to finish, and because I dreaded telling my therapist that I wasn’t taking advantage of my clean slate and writing, actually plowed through and got it done.
posted by Willie0248 at 10:33 AM on May 8


I read some great advice here when I did my dissertation. It boiled down to treating my dissertation as an apprentiship, like proving that I have the skills to practice academic research. To treat your thesis as your magnum opus, your grand idea that you need to express to the world, you will have great difficulty finishing. I would advise aligning your topic with a good advisor and really working with them, learning from them, and reach the frontier of knowledge in a place that someone can help you. Come back to this topic you are fascinated with after your doc.
posted by hannahlambda at 3:57 AM on May 9


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