Got crap grades this semester, need to figure out whether to take a year off
January 1, 2009 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Got crap grades this semester, have to figure out whether to take a year off, and, if I take a year off, how to spend time during it when not in therapy to resolve the problems that got me such bad grades.

So I had problems, and I had therapy before this last semester, and my grades still didn't improve because I hadn't fixed the problems entirely and figured out that I had more problems than I thought.

This question is not really about the problems themselves; it's about what to do.

I was told by my university to take a year off before I can register for classes again. It is possible to appeal this with a well-thought-out and effective plan to resolve my problems and raise my grades.

Should I:

1) Appeal, and do these things: get therapy, talk to an assistant dean once every two weeks for advising (required if the appeal is successful), talk to my advisor in my department every week, get a tutor for my major classes (which I am better in than my other classes since I understand the material and I am GREAT in the lab, and FYI, I'm a science major; there is simply extra pressure for me to do well and the pressure and anxiety wreak havoc on my grades), and talk to a study skills specialist


2) Take a year off, during which I'd get therapy, THEN take a few classes during this one-year period to prove I can get As and Bs (after the one-year period, I have to go before a panel to prove I can get As and Bs). A dean at my university suggested this.

If I take a year off, what the hell do I do with the time that I'm not in therapy, before I take the classes to prove I can get As and Bs? Also, I don't want to go fucking nuts; my university is one of the best in the country, and there is plenty of good mental stimulation there. I don't know how generally emotionally unscathed I'd be if I took a year off.
posted by kldickson to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In the 1-vs.-2 discussion, I'd ask your therapist which option would be best for you. I presume that he or she is a decent advisor and should be able to tailor a path that works best for you, taking all of your issues into account.

If you choose option 1, bear in mind that you will chafe under the pressure of biweekly meetings and tutoring and suchlike. If you think you can't handle that right now, then it's not the option for you.

On the other hand, I well know the pitfalls of "taking time off." I have never been more bored and unhappy in my life than the (luckily brief) time I spent unemployed. I jumped at the first serious job offer that came down the pike, which has worked out well enough, but may well not have. I would suggest that you either audit the classes, if your school will let you, or take classes at a local community college or the like in the things you're not as good at. Or even in things that have nothing whatsoever to do with your major or your general-education requirements. Who knows, you might find out that you love the scientific aspects of cooking and turn into a great chef, or suddenly discover that sports statistics are better than any other kind and launch a lifelong hobby. And it will almost certainly help with your current college to show them, "See, I can survive in an academic environment. I just got a little off-track, but I'm back on now."

But either way, remember two things:
1 -- This too shall pass. Things will be back to normal, and you'll look back on this as a growth experience some day.
2 -- You might not want it to pass. There's plenty of people who didn't go to one of the best universities in the country and fulfill the career plan they laid out for themselves in the 8th grade. Some of them are even happy.
posted by Etrigan at 11:50 AM on January 1, 2009

It's hard to give advice without knowing more about the problems that led to your poor grades.


I took a semester off from my own top liberal arts college. I was burnt out and, in retrospect, probably somewhat depressed. I think it ended up being a good thing for me - I moved in with some friends in my home city and got a job. It was fun because it was my first real time in the "real world" after 18 years at home and then two years in the dorms. It helped me recharge and allowed me to go back to school with enough energy to finish "on time." In the end, it didn't really make much difference in my academic career.

But of course, there are a lot of people who take time off and never go back. If you think this is likely to happen to you, then you should appeal.

As for what to do with the time: get a job and a place to live. Travel if you can. Take a class or two if you're worried about your brain going to mush.
posted by lunasol at 11:58 AM on January 1, 2009

Response by poster: The weekly meetings are sort of an advising thing. I don't understand why there'd be pressure there.

I like my major, and always have, so there's no problems surrounding my major.

My problems consist of things like depression, test anxiety, etc.

I intend, quite strongly, to finish undergrad and get my PhD. I'm a junior in college and have at least a few more semesters since I'm on a five-year curriculum plan , and I like what I do, and I want to get a PhD in it and do research. I'm trying to do what I can to optimize getting into grad school. I've only ever failed one class in college, and that was a class that was hyperaccelerated which nobody ever did well in and which I should not have taken since I was depressed. My crappy grades have been Cs and Ds. I know what I want and for the most part how to get it; I'm trying to figure out the best way to deal with depression.
posted by kldickson at 12:10 PM on January 1, 2009

Take the time off. Get your head straightened out-- sooner rather than later. Take a fun or easy class, just so you don't get completely out of the swing of being a student.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:18 PM on January 1, 2009

I took a year off in college and ended up not returning to my original school. The pressure was too much, the school was too big, the weather was awful and I ended up miserable (there were also family things going on, but those were the major causes of my depression), so my sister offered for me to move in with her. I worked in crappy restaurant jobs for the year and wrote intensively in my journal during that time. I felt like a failure for leaving school (though it was a leave of absence, i could have returned) and all of that made me learn about myself quite a bit. Instead of going back to my old school I now attend a smaller school (not as cool, mind you, but not as stressful either) and my grades this semester were all As.

Basically I'm advocating the time off. The added pressure of the meetings, though it seems you're not concerned about, would probably make me feel even worse. Do some soul searching. Get an apartment, a job, friends, the whole nine yards. I got a bit bored during that time so I ended up studying things on my own and discovered a passion for a field I had never even considered. (I studied Dali intensively during this time and then followed with Picasso, etc etc.)
posted by big open mouth at 12:45 PM on January 1, 2009

If you're dealing with depression and anxiety...

It really can be worthwhile to take time off and get things cleared up without the constant worry about every mistake having Huge Consequences. That's what I did. Sure, I could have petitioned to work through things, but honestly, I was miserable, had awful coping skills with regards to dealing with depression, and all that depression and anxiety made it really hard to ask for help when I fucked up. I waited a term too long before taking time off, honestly: I had a term that resulted in nothing but nasty grades. Despite the fact that I got all As and Bs for three years straight after I returned, that single shitty term dragged my overall GPA low enough that I barely passed the 3.0/4.0 cutoff that many good PhD programs have.

Don't do this. Yes, if you try really hard, and you talk to everyone all the time about what's going on in your life, and you get a tutor, and you put a lot of extra pressure on yourself, and you go to therapy twice weekly, and you dump a bunch of extracurricular things to make up for all the time you're spending dealing with your depression... sure, you might make it. But you're dealing with mental/emotional problems. You are not at the top of the game. Do you really want to bet that you'll be able to make it through a grueling semester like that, while still devoting enough time towards actually addressing your underlying problems?

Seriously, taking time off (and then kicking ass academically after you return) is something that PhD programs will totally understand, and it'll give you enough time to really get your act together.

What do you do during your time off? Well, just because you're not taking classes at your undergraduate university doesn't mean that you have to stop taking classes entirely. In fact, taking a class or two at a local college is a great idea: don't take enough to overwhelm yourself, but take enough to keep yourself intellectually stimulated and to give you an opportunity to work on those study skills. It will also keep you on track to re-enter school, and it'll help your re-entry case: "see, I was able to work on my academic problems during my time off." Similarly, a part-time job can help provide a little more structure to your life as well. Again, don't go crazy and replace the stress you're under at school with new, job-related stress.

Furthermore, if there are any hobbies you've been forced to dump due to your academic struggles, take them up again: leading a balanced life can really help you out, mentally. I know that after my depression resulted in my struggling in my classes, I started to focus on classes to the exclusion of everything else - which paradoxically made me more isolated and depressed and made it harder for me to do well in my classes. Realizing that I really needed to spend a little time every week on art and music made it easier for me to figure out how to balance my life correctly when I returned to college.

Don't worry about dropping out and not returning. If you are really interested in your area of science, and you structure your time off with an eye towards developing the studying and coping skills that will make it possible for you to be successful, you'll do it. It won't always be easy, but it's totally possible.
posted by ubersturm at 12:46 PM on January 1, 2009

If you're planning on doing a PhD after undergrad, then, yes, take the time off. It is really, really helpful to experience life outside of academia for a while.
posted by lunasol at 12:58 PM on January 1, 2009

I'm currently doing something similar - I had to drop out of my degree due to depression and will be starting this year again in September. In my opinion it was the right choice for me to do that - I needed to get into a better headspace. I would have had massive problems if I'd tried to continue my high-pressure science degree (which I love, can't wait to get back to and plan to contine to PhD level, too) and I want to get to the stage where I can actually enjoy studying again. I've found counselling sessions and Depression: The Way Out Of Your Prison to be, despite the silly title, very helpful.

The bottom line is, it's nigh-on impossible to carry on doing a degree when you're suffering from depression, especially if it's related to anxiety about school work. Take some time out, do something different and work hard at therapy. Life's not a race.
posted by teraspawn at 1:00 PM on January 1, 2009

I took 4.5 years off, but kept in contact with my advisor and sat in on classes now and then. I worked two or three crap jobs at a time, supported myself (and a girlfriend) and generally came to realize that I had a very long life of crap jobs and 2-4 hours of sleep at a time if I didn't go back to college.

After I'd figured out what I wanted to do with a degree, I talked with my advisor, who agreed that it was time for me to return. Also talked with friends.

There was some therapy in there, but that was only part of what I needed to do. I also needed reasons to finish school beyond that it was expected. Having to support myself also left less time for drama, drunkenness and drugs.
posted by QIbHom at 1:04 PM on January 1, 2009

Take the time off, and while you're out of school take a low-stress job that you think you'll like. Or get an internship -- also low-stress. Or volunteer.

This coming semester, focus on therapy and something very low-stress. Spend time with friends. Become a groupie. (I am not joking. Go to lots and lots of shows. Listen to tons of music. Make new friends. You can only do this while you're in college, because right now you've probably got friends all over the place who will let you crash on their dorm room floors.) Seriously, do what you enjoy and don't put too much pressure on yourself. But, while in therapy, make sure you are addressing your depression and especially your anxiety. Get medication management, do some exposure work with your therapist -- whatever it takes.

Over the summer, or in the fall semester, take a class or two at a local college. I'm guessing they don't need to be in your major area, or fill distribution requirements. I'd suggest studying something that has always interested you but not enough for you to pursue a career in it. Music, art, literature. Choose something that will challenge you a bit, but not too much. Taking the class or classes may help your therapist to address specific issues that come up while you're in school.

Build up slowly, until you get back to what you consider a normal pace. But seriously? Taking a year off could be really helpful in the long-term. You know what you want, and it's only your illness that is keeping you from getting it. If your illness gets worse, your grades will get worse and you will have less of a chance of getting into a good doctoral program.

Good luck, and feel better.
posted by brina at 1:20 PM on January 1, 2009

If you intend to do a PhD a year off could be a great advantage. If you are great in the lab and enjoy it (i.e., its good for your mental health, not bad), you could spend the year doing lots of great research and maybe even start to get a publication or two. Most doctoral programs I know want to bring in great researchers and this could be a huge help on your application. Great grades are easy for undergrads to get, good research experience is much more rare. If you can use this year to get some research experience and some therapy, you'll be a much better PhD candidate in the future. It's also better to have good grades at the end of college than at the beginning so you should be able to make up some ground in the future.

Also: When I was in college (a few years ago), I knew a bunch of folks who took time off or went into therapy for a while. I don't know anybody who regrets it and they're all plenty successful now.
posted by eisenkr at 1:25 PM on January 1, 2009

Since you're going to need good grades to get into a PhD program, perhaps it would be better to prepare for a killer first semester back, rather than risking another term of poor grades.

Even if you just get a job to support yourself near your university, you can read up on what you will be studying. Self directed and self motivated study is vital to success in graduate school.

Volunteering or working in something related to your field would be even better, since it will make you a more rounded student.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:42 PM on January 1, 2009

While I was reading your answer I didn't see a "well-thought-out and effective plan" to deal with "depression, test anxiety".

Advising and tutoring aren't going to solve depression and anxiety. The new semester starts in a few weeks; I don't think you'll have your problems knocked by then. Why not request a shorter academic suspension. For instance, request to return for a half class load in the summer and a full class load in the Fall. Use the Spring to really focus on getting your mental health in order.
posted by 26.2 at 1:51 PM on January 1, 2009

I say take the time off. There's no reason to rush through this. If you end up somewhere with an open university library, keep reading stuff in your field while you mellow out. You'll reinforce what you already learned & get a leg up on what you'll be coming back to, and can decide if you actually want to keep going into grad school in the field.
posted by devilsbrigade at 2:07 PM on January 1, 2009

eisenkr: how is the OP supposed to get research experience if they're not in school? The undergrads who do get hired as lab assistants while they are in school are the ones with strong academic records. That, and undergrad-level RAs typically don't get hired off the street at a school they don't attend — especially if they're on academic suspension at their home school. Speaking from experience, unless the OP stumbles upon some pie-in-the-sky opportunity at a local university, they will, at best, be doing lots of academic reading without a chance to make anything useful of it until they return to school.
posted by thisjax at 2:39 PM on January 1, 2009

thisjax: research experience isn't necessarily that hard to come by - and it gets a lot easier to find new positions once you've got some experience and a good letter of recommendation or two to back up your application. Like so many things, it's partly a matter of figuring out who to talk to and how to sell your past experience. (Heck, by working hard at that, I managed to work in two labs before college and to work in a lab while taking time off from my undergraduate university.)

Furthermore, it's not always true that "The undergrads who do get hired as lab assistants while they are in school are the ones with strong academic records." Different universities (and professors) may have a wide variety of policies. My undergraduate institution, MIT, has a really strong commitment to undergrad research. Almost every student who is interested in research can find a (funded!) position with a professor through the UROP program. Furthermore, most professors realize that lab performance and grades aren't the same thing. I don't recall any of the PIs I worked for asking for my academic history - they were more interested in my research history, my academic and research interests, and whether or not those fit in with their lab. If the OP is at a school (or in a department) with a strong research focus, they might be in a similar situation.

The OP says they're great in lab, and very interested in their field - if that's true, they have several options:
1) Talk to a professor they already know at their university and ask to work with them (paid or unpaid, depending on how funding works there and whether the OP can afford to spend time on volunteer labwork.) If the professor knows them and agrees with their assessment of their lab skills/etc., they may be willing to let the OP work in their lab during the time off.
2) If funding is not easy to work out or professors they know don't have much labspace right now, those professors can still provide suggestions regarding labs they know that have an open space.
3) Professors can also provide good recommendation letters and references for prospective research tech jobs outside of their university. Some grants and programs are more flexible than others; in at least two of my lab jobs, the decision to hire me was entirely at the discretion of the PI, and my student status (and nationality!) weren't important.

All that said: I'm not entirely sure research - at least not fulltime research - is a great idea for someone struggling with depression and anxiety, at least at first. It's something that's very challenging and at least as exhausting as classes, and it's potentially a big source of stress. It'll suck up as much free time as possible (particularly since many researchers are workaholics), which isn't great for someone who needs to recover, spend a fair amount of time working out problems, etc. Finally, working in a lab fulltime is hard and frequently demoralizing. Experiments doesn't work (or yield incomprehensible results) a depressingly large percentage of the time, and that can really wear you down after a while. (That's one of the many reasons grad students are often so miserable!)

If I were the OP, I'd probably consider working in a lab only during the last semester off (or the summer before I planned to return to school), although I'd try to arrange things now. Figuring out how to deal with depression and anxiety so that they don't constantly threaten to ruin your life is hard, and it's a slow process. Taking on a new challenge - like a research job - isn't the kind of thing you want to be doing until you've got a bit more of a handle on your problems.
posted by ubersturm at 4:58 PM on January 1, 2009

I would stay the course and take on therapy and keep busy with school. If you "take a year off" you will probably have to get a job which will become monotonous (at least the types of jobs you'd get at this point in your life) and bore you. Better to keep things fresh by staying in school and you're also working towards something which is another plus.

Depression and anxiety are hard to deal with and they run in my family but really you can handle both at once with good therapy and possibly medication. "Falling behind" is a big anxiety and depression trigger for a lot of people so reducing the chances you will never hurt. Speak to a school advisor and your therapist for honest opinions.
posted by PetiePal at 12:47 PM on January 2, 2009

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