How can I help my fiance?
January 20, 2009 5:19 AM   Subscribe

My fiance is contemplating quitting her Ph.D. program and refuses to either address her problems with her advisor, seek counseling, seek the help of friends, or discuss the issue with me. She prefers instead to drink wine and watch crime shows. She knows that she does not take criticism or advice well, and she knows she's being immature and needs help, so what can I do?

This will be somewhat long.

My fiance is 31, I am 28. She got accepted into the Ph.D. program of her choice last fall and, after getting engaged over the summer, we both moved to this remote but large university town to begin her program. She already had her masters degree in her field, but very few of her classes transferred. Her thesis did not transfer. She has already taught university classes in her field - when we met she was teaching a full course load at a branch campus of a big university - but now that she's in the program she has to work to get her masters like the other first years, and so there is a bit of a chip on her shoulder in that she thinks she should be treated as being a bit more advanced.

Her biggest problem is that she and her advisor are always bumping heads. She complains that her advisor refuses to read her research ideas and so whenever they have meetings they get into the same argument which goes:

-I don't understand what you're trying to do here.
-I'm trying to do X.
-Well, maybe you should write that out and hand it to me at the next meeting.

It drives my fiance crazy because she claims she HAD written X out, and keeps writing it out, but her advisor simply won't process the material. What's frustrating to me is that my fiance won't simply address her advisor and say, "Actually, I wrote that in my first proposal, see, right here, line 8..." Because even though she despises her advisor she also feels like her advisor is busy, insecure, and would get angry with any hint of criticism. My fiance does not handle conflict or disagreement well, and so has a habit of avoiding uncomfortable discussions if possible. She has consistently felt like her only options are to continue on miserably or to drop out. The other two options, get a new advisor or reasonably discuss her issues with her current advisor, are things she doesn't want to or will not consider.

Part of this is certainly the advisor's fault - she has a reputation for driving nearly all of her students either out of the program or to different advisors. Her retention rate is something like 1 out of the last 5 students.

However, my fiance could also be a bit more proactive, I think, and a bit more mature in how she handles the relationship. For example, today there was a group meeting in which she presented her materials - it got heated, her advisor asked the same X question, and so my fiance started crying and hid in the bathroom for 15 minutes. Eventually the advisor came in and started talking to her, trying to clarify what she meant and trying to smooth over what happened, while my fiance told her to just go away and that she couldn't talk about it anymore. I understand that she is in a lot of stress but obviously there are better ways to handle this situation. To me, it is troubling that a 31 year old pre-professional would act like this in front of a person who is essentially her boss. However, I understand that I don't know what it's like to be in that environment and dealing with the stress that she's going through.

Today was not a one-off either; occasionally she has episodes like this, where she just completely breaks down and disengages with the people she's dealing with - one example is that she simply cannot talk to customer relations people on the phone without getting incredibly angry, crying, and throwing things. Then she'll hang up, look at me, be like, "what the fuck is wrong with me?" and tell me that she knows she needs help. The problem is that she has health insurance through the university and all help she can get will be with people associated with the university and, worse, within her program. We don't have enough money for her to go to a professional outside of her health insurance. She is, I should mention, on anti-depressants and if she goes off them for more than three days she will completely break down because she thinks everyone is judging her all the time.

She also has a drinking problem. On occasion, she acknowledges she has a drinking problem. It's not always an issue, i.e., she doesn't drink every night and in fact she can go a week without drinking, but as soon as a problem flares up she hits the wine and can easily down two bottles in one night. This is how she deals with things. She drinks and watches CSI with the cat, while I got the Y or read or mess around on the computer. When she gets really good and sauced she'll try to pick a fight with me, talk about how awful her childhood was, and tell me that I don't love her enough and that I don't appreciate her. It's hard to discuss this stuff with her at a later time because she doesn't really remember it the next morning, and if she does, she's very apologetic and acknowledges that she needs to get help. I drink but I very rarely get drunk and when I do I'm a very happy drunk. I've never been around angry drunks before and when she drinks I get a lot of anxiety because I'm watching her drink, hoping she doesn't get too drunk and become Angry Fiance.

She has friends who have gone through other Ph.D. programs and she has friends within her Ph.D. program. She doesn't want to talk to them. She doesn't want to talk to me. She doesn't want to talk to anybody. She doesn't talk to her family. There's no valve.

I feel like she needs help but I can't be the one to get her to go. She has to make that decision. I love her and she can be the sweetest, funniest, most charming person in the world. But she has a dark side, and it is seriously jeopardizing her success in her program. I also sort of selfishly want her to continue on here because I quit a comfortable job to move with her, at her insistence, and I feel like she owes me more of a fight than this. I have not verbalized this to her, because I know it's quite selfish and would just add more guilt to the fire that is her sort of eternal self-doubt, but really, I feel like I made a sacrifice to come here and that she can do more to try to make this work. At some point, of course, if all options have been exhausted, I would be willing to move again to make something else work.

Have any of you been in my position or the position of my fiance? Perhaps I am being overly critical and she does not need help, she just needs my support. Fair enough. But it is very frustrating to be in a relationship with someone who won't talk about these issues. I like making plans, talking through problems, trying to set goals, etc. She thinks making plans only leads to disappointment when you don't achieve your goals.

Ultimately, she acknowledges that she needs therapy, and often mentions that therapy helped her in the past - she just will not do anything about it now. She simply wants to ignore the problem and drink wine. I really don't know what to do. Please help.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Fiance? You're going to get married?

The problems you face take many years of marriage to resolve. I could tell you what will happen, but generally people learn through experience. So here's the abridged version:

1) Whatever happens with her schooling will work itself out.
2) You'll both develop lives of your own that will hopefully intersect.
a) You'll be less involved in her professional life
b) You'll be less controlling of her personal life
c) You'll learn to trust her to work them both out.
3) Your differences (you like to plan, she likes to not plan, etc.) will be your strength as a couple.

In the meantime:

1) There comes a time in many lives where the right thing to do is drink wine and watch CSI with the cat.
2) Try to extricate yourself from her private situations. You can't help, you can only make things more complicated.
3) Get away from angry drunk, but stop predicting what might or might not happen in the future.
4) Learn that you can't control anybody. Try not to try.

If you're really planning on getting married, you have to learn to accept her for who she is. Heck, you're going to have to learn to accept a lot of things.
posted by stubby phillips at 5:49 AM on January 20, 2009

I am a professor, and I have advised dozens of PhD students. It's the focus of my career.

The *single* most common complaint among all PhD students is that their adviser "doesn't read their stuff." But consider that I have, at this very moment, 6 draft dissertation chapters on my desk, two book manuscript reviews due this week, half a dozen publication projects in various stages approaching a deadline, an enormous administrative workload, 10 or more rec letters to write almost every week, and of course dozens of undergraduate students clamoring for my time and attention. Oh, and a personal life. And an inbox that goes over quota almost weekly. If you don't give me "stuff" that makes sense, that does what I asked you to do, that engages me intellectually even if it's on an elementary level, I don't *have* to read it to your standards. As my own adviser said to me many years ago when I acted a little too entitled as a first year grad student, "you're in the army now, so get used to it, private." (He was the greatest adviser I've ever known to work in my field, by the way, and his students have re-defined the field and taken dozens of top positions in the ensuing 20+ years; what he said to me was the right thing to say, and the best thing he could have said at that moment.)

So be sure you consider that there's another side to the story, especially since your GF is a first year student in a program. Yeah, this adviser sounds like a problem, but you're hearing it from your GF. How do you know her retention rate is "1 out of 5?" If that were the case over any period of time, she'd be in real trouble in her career, students would uniformly avoid her and the word would be out, and your GF's complaints would be backed up by other faculty members and fellow students. That's a bloody awful retention rate. Does your GF have a choice of other advisers? Or is she wedded to this professor through the end of the dissertation? Because if so, and it's this bad already, she should get the hell out of there and into another program pronto --it happens all the time, there's no shame in it. (And if a student acted with me the way you describe your GF acting with her adviser, I'd think she was not ready for graduate study and say so. Your adviser *is* your boss when you're a PhD student, and you need to act like it. Acting professionally is as important a part of grad school as writing professionally!)

Some advisers really don't read their students' stuff in a timely or serious way, of course. Others are just normally busy and over-extended and triage accordingly, with a first year student's concerns fairly low on the pile. She's still doing coursework, so she should be getting a lot of feedback from a lot of teachers and not relying on any one adviser at this point anyway.

Your GF sounds depressed. And maybe like there's a drinking problem -- scratch maybe, because addicted or not, she clearly has a problem. And neither one of those conditions is conducive to a good experience in graduate school, or a good career in academia. You're a peach for wanting to help her, and right to be suggesting therapy. Her relationship with her adviser sounds more like a symptom, and an excuse, than a cause of anything.

As for the MA thing, she needs to get over it. Many top PhD programs don't give transfer credit for classes taken elsewhere (in the fields I know well, anyway). And many don't give you credit for a prior MA unless it was the near equivalent of the one done in their program. All MA programs and degrees are most assuredly not considered to be equal in value. My program has a radically different basic approach than our competition in the same field. We almost never accept an MA from another institution for advanced entry because the student's prior training was probably irrelevant to the approach our program promotes and it would leave such students flailing to jump right into the PhD before we train them up through the MA level again. Lots of people in PhD programs have prior MAs upon entry and have to repeat the MA steps again. She's not some snowflake special case being held back unfairly, or if she is, she should have challenged it upon admission. Clearly her adviser doesn't think so either.

I'm coming down hard on your GF not knowing all the facts, and maybe her adviser is a shithead -- it happens. If so, she needs another adviser or another program and she's not going to change the adviser and needs to grasp that. Or maybe she needs to be a little more humble and do what she's being asked to do *better* than she has been. I don't need to read 6 pages of incoherent crap before I get to the sentence that does what I thought should be in the first paragraph, and I don't need to explain that repeatedly after the first couple of failed attempts. She has to figure out what the adviser wants and do it, or get herself into a new and better advising relationship.

Good for you for caring about her. But her issues sound like they run a lot deeper than graduate school problems and you correctly identify the only valuable answer already: she needs competent, caring therapy. There are therapists who specialize in grad student problems -- which are myriad and common and a source of turmoil in every grad program -- especially in cities with major universities. She should ask for a referral from whatever student counseling services her university offers. They will know some good names.

Grad school is not like college. Faculty members don't *owe* you their undivided attention at that level beyond a certain basic level. You have to earn it, repeatedly. Just like in real life. It's part of the training of a professional scholar to learn how to make people interested enough in your ideas that they read past the first paragraph.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:55 AM on January 20, 2009 [48 favorites]

Sounds like she needs a year off.
posted by rokusan at 6:03 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow, I feel sorry for your fiance. I have been there and I know how hard it is. My current PhD supervisor went thourgh a rough patch and my fourth year thesis project was in a lab with a woman who managed to lose 2 grad students, a tech, and a post-doc in the year I worked there. So I really know what your fiance is going through. It's a hard road and there's not a lot of support out there, or at least not at my school, but you get through it and you're all the stronger for it.

My supervisor went through what we in the lab have joking labeled "The Dark Days". I don't know what he was going through or how he got over it but whatever issue(s) he was having really made life for us difficult. So difficult that I seriously contemplated quitting on several occasions. I didn't though, I felt I had invested too much to just give it up. Eventually my supervisor worked through his problems and things are infinitely better than they were. He's approachable and no longer snappy. Unfortunately, due to bad advice I had been given during the DDs I am no longer able to trust his advice completely. I always need a second opinion on issues, this is what your fiance's committee is for. There should be a small group of faculty available to her that she can go to with problems, any problems, and especially those pertaining to her work or her supervisor. Also, the grad studies supervisor should be able to give her advice, especially since there is a history with this particular supervisor. When I was doing my fourth thesis with Evil N* (what we called her) I was continually worried about my mark as she was deducting marks on an almost random basis, I talked with my program supervisor and he said he would insure a decent mark. He did and I have never looked back at that woman. She's still around and tries occasionally to engage me in conversation, I'm polite but never friendly and I make it clear I'm not interested contact with her.

There is a support system in place for your fiance, either in her department, in her faculty, or in the conselling services. She needs to get the academics sorted out with an objective party. Both her and the supervisor are too close to the work to be helpful. As for the drinking....she has to seek help. Perhaps a consellor at school could help with that as well. My completely unqualified internet diagnosis is that she's depressed about her work and is drinking to help her through it. I've seen this in my friends and even done a little (lot) of drinking myself. It's not the answer though. She has to get it under control, I'm watching a friend go through something similar, it's not easy. All you can do is try to be a supportive as possible. Make her tea, take her for her favourite dinner, and maybe start doing some fun activities to give her something to look forward to. I've learned scuba, yoga, and horseback riding since starting grad school, all to keep me distracted from how sucky it is.

Sorry if this is a bit incoherent, I'm writing quickly as I have to go now....mefi mail me if you need/want to talk about it. Good luck, this is a hard road but it's not impossible.
posted by LunaticFringe at 6:07 AM on January 20, 2009

The problem is that she has health insurance through the university and all help she can get will be with people associated with the university and, worse, within her program.

University counselling services are accustomed to dealing with students stressed out about interactions with professors. A therapist in a university setting might be a better choice for her than an external one because they would be likely to have more experience dealing with situations like hers. If what you're implying here is that she's in clinical psych, she can probably do some sleuthing around to find a university health services therapist who isn't associated with her department.
posted by thisjax at 6:39 AM on January 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

The drinking needs to be addressed- not saying she's an alcoholic, but getting drunk when things get tough is, at least, a step in that direction. It's one thing to grab a drink or two after a hard day- that's what it's for. It's a whole 'nother thing to drink *instead* of facing hard days.

But that's just a symptom of some underlying thing(s) that she's got to work through. From your description, it seems like she is overwhelmed by something, or things. Giving her more stuff to do probably won't help. And not for nothing, hangovers (emotional or physical) are the worst way to try to survive overwhelming days.

If she won't seek counsel of some kind, all you can do (as I see it) is try to get her to reprioritize. Why does she want to get the phd? Just because it seemed like a good idea? To escape from some other reality? Or because she has a professional goal of some kind, and the phd is the stepping stone to that goal? If that's the case, she needs to find a way to make it work.

(When she was applying for the program, did she meet with the advisor? What was that like? Has something changed? Different advisor now?)

(Can she find someone in the same program, but a semester or two ahead, to bounce ideas off of and gain some wisdom from? You know "professor X didn't like this- is it just wrong, or is it not in a style that the professor understands, or incoherent? Meaning, try to figure out where the problem is. I don't know jack about the situation, but in my experience, the phd world is much more rigorous in terms of justifying ones work and justify ones thesis and having a topic that fits the "theme" of that school's program.)
posted by gjc at 6:57 AM on January 20, 2009

Sounds like your beloved is suffering from some form of trauma, in all liklihood stemming from childhood. So - what can be done? Find someone who specializes in this area - specifically PTSD. It's part of the package deal. What're you gonna do. She's probably the love of your life, or else you wouldn't have posted. So go find her some help and get educated on how to cope. And PS - you don't just *get over it*.
posted by watercarrier at 6:58 AM on January 20, 2009

If you're really planning on getting married, you have to learn to accept her for who she is. Heck, you're going to have to learn to accept a lot of things.

We're not talking about never putting the cap on the toothpaste. We're talking about a belligerent binge drinker.

Only the poster knows whether they love this person enough to sign up for a lifetime of being the spouse of an alcoholic. But I strongly, strongly recommend that they attend some Al-Anon meetings to get a better understanding of what that entails.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:03 AM on January 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

She's this miserable and she's only in her first year?? Ph.D. programs are usually around 6 years long and in my experience, feelings of frustration and unhappiness increase with every passing year.

(Here's a somewhat related question I asked a while back...although I'm in the sciences and it sounds like she isn't, so there are a lot of differences. I have decided to stick with it, but I'm already in my 6th year.)

Talk to her about why she wanted to get a Ph.D. in the first place. Is it her lifelong dream to be a faculty member at a university (or some other position that requires a Ph.D.)? Would changing advisors help her situation? Graduare school is a long, frustrating road with little monetary or emotional compensation. I would encourage her to seek counseling and maybe even take a leave of abscence and allow her to decide if she wants to continue. Lots of people drop out of Ph.D programs and for very good reasons. "This isn't for me" is about a good reason as any. If she's discovering this so early on, she's saving herself and others (you, her advisor) a lot of future heartache. Tell her to feel free to memail me if she wants to comisserate.
posted by emd3737 at 7:10 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I like making plans, talking through problems, trying to set goals, etc. She thinks making plans only leads to disappointment when you don't achieve your goals.

This is (self-evidently) a defense mechanism. What's frustrating - and terrifying - when you feel like grad school 'isn't working out' is the sense that your goals have been misplaced, or that they were correctly placed, but that you're not good enough / talented enough / motivated enough to achieve them.

She simply wants to ignore the problem and drink wine.

Which is what you do, when you feel like things are out of control. The best thing you can do for her is to reassure her that you love her, and that you will continue to do so *even if she does* decide to leave her program. Without at least putting that option on the table, I doubt you're going to get very far talking about it.
posted by puckish at 7:16 AM on January 20, 2009

Wine, CSI and probably whaling on you is her appallingly bad coping mechanism at the moment.

Unfortunately I think some of the underlying things MUST be dealt with before improvements are possible with them.

I could be your girlfriend except while doing my Phd I had two small kids and a full time executive level job as opposed to a difficult supervisor. Issues with childhood trauma I hadn't addressed eventually led to a full on break-down. I seriously contemplated suicide and made plans despite being married to the sweetest man in the world and adoring my kids.

Start with the therapy, please, focus on that. The difficult part is getting her from this denial phase to a place where she will attend. Show her this thread. Things could get much worse before they get better unless she seeks professional help. (Oh, and why would she stop taking her antidepressants for three days? Encourage her not to do that and to get a review of her meds. The withdrawal symptoms alone would cause problems.)

Good luck and well done for being such a caring fiance.
posted by Wilder at 7:20 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jesus, I think a lot of other people are being rather gentle on your fiance. She's 31 and she deals with problems like she's three. Nights of getting drunk and picking fights with you? Throwing temper tantrums, complete with tossing things about and screaming "Don't talk to meeeeeee!" to her [i]boss?[/i]

She sounds nutty as a bag of pecans. Whether she's stressed or needs more therapy or adjustments to her medication, I suggest you encourage her to take time off and find some therapy. Look for sliding-scale therapists. If you guys are really in dire straits financially poke around for low-cost mental health care offered by city agencies or non-profits. I mean, this does not sound like the kind of thing where you hug her and it goes away. If you have children do you want her dealing with [i]them[/i] like this? Do they deserve that?
posted by schroedinger at 7:25 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sounds like she needs a year off.

rokusan nails it. This is exactly the advice I would give one of my own students in this situation.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:27 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will also add, from sad experience, that depressed and mentally unstable graduate students frequently -- frequently -- fixate on their relationship with a single adviser as the root of all their problems. Advisers are a bit like therapists -- there is a hell of a lot of transference in the relationship, and it's always emotionally complex, though not so much usually for a first year grad student just getting to know an adviser. I've been blamed for more breakdowns than I can remember, to which I usually respond by pointing out that the vast majority of my students get great jobs and are embarked on important careers and attribute some of that success to my advising.

It's a human relationship. Anything that can happen in any human relationship can happen between and adviser and a student, but it will be conditioned by projection, dependency, attraction, repulsion, anger, fear, respect, adoration, compassion, and more in direct proportion to the importance of the adviser to the student's sense of self-esteem. The best students don't look to their advisers as therapists or parents most of the time (we all do it sometimes, including those of us long out of grad school). We're professional colleagues who do our best to help you write an important piece of original research to start your own career. We're not daddies and mommies or shrinks. And we're human too. We go through divorces and mid-life crises and the deaths of parents and career anxiety and all the rest. We've also all been in grad school, and we know and sympathize with the intensity and anxiety that almost always entails.

But your adviser cannot make your career happen without your help. And s/he can't destroy your career unless you let him/her do that, which is usually quite possible to avoid (or if not, get the hell out of that program stat). There are a few legendary assholes in any field who destroy student after student over decades -- I worked under one for 5 years and saw it in person, and in fact rescued most of his current students and stole his program out from under him earlier in my career by doing the job he was failing to do and caring about the students he was throwing out with the trash to feed his own needy ego. Someone is always gunning for the person at the top, and your fiance should find that person in her department and talk to him or her if the adviser here is really such an impossible piece of work that she loses 4 of every 5 students for real.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:42 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

It may be alarmist of me but I'm going to contribute these comments anyhow.

You need to boil this situation down to brass tacks, real quick like. Everything you've said about her work and school, etc. is really a distraction to the more sinister, insidious problem. I mean academia is a tough track, but this is the same as if she's having trouble restocking the board games at WalMart. Also, you might be dealing with some crying fits and "wake up honey, come to bed" issues now but pretty soon, and this could be as soon as tonight or next week she'll start throwing shit at you. Pretty soon YOU ARE GOING TO BE PART OF THE PROBLEM. I can almost guarantee that.

There are a whole series of things you could do, explore childhood, talk to Mr. Advisor, get parents involved, talk to the Dean, etc. but I'm going to stress that she needs to stop drinking now. I repeat, stop drinking now. Is that clear?

Have any of you been in my position or the position of my fiance?

I don't mean to be harsh but the fact that you're asking this question brings huge concern. The answer is yes, hundreds and thousands, millions throughout history. Do we all have advisors named Mr. Smith? No.

And while I think fourcheesemac had some good points about the work relationship, it was superfluous. S/he summed it up with this: Her relationship with her adviser sounds more like a symptom, and an excuse, than a cause of anything.

Lastly, this just makes me think of a situation where the medics bring in a body and a leg. Rather than getting to work the surgeon only asks repeatedly, "who did this to you?"

Stop drinking now.
posted by uhom at 7:43 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

follow-up from the OP
Thanks to everyone who has responded so far, especially fourcheesemac, whose comment was very helpful. Just to clarify a few things - my fiance has been trying to get into a PhD program for awhile now, and she has stated that the only thing she wants to do is be a professor and teach university students. So the "drop out and find something else to do" would mark a huge mental and emotional shift for her, completely reorienting the goals she's had for at least 10 years. She also feels a little older than all the other students, and so I don't think that "take a year off" is really applicable for her, meaning I don't think it's something she would consider doing, though obviously she is considering quitting so maybe it's something she's thought about. I think this is more of an issue with her adviser, not grad school in general.

As far as her adviser having a bad reputation, this has been confirmed by many of the other students in the program. She is just not viewed as a good adviser and the only student that does well in her lab is a person who my fiance and I both consider a friend, and his secret is that he just does whatever he wants and doesn't really listen to her advice, just plows ahead, and apparently the adviser just loves that.

I agree that my fiance projects all of her frustration on her adviser and is blaming her for everything that is going wrong right now. I feel like she's just not emotionally equipped to deal with this woman in particular and this program in general and so, as others have said, there are underlying issues that need to be resolved before the academic stuff can get better. I will try to talk to her again about seeing someone at the university and looking into the relationship between university health services and her department, see if there's any chance that they are separate.

Thanks again everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 7:52 AM on January 20, 2009

uhom, I agree fully with you. My points are probably superfluous in this particular situation (also, I thought the adviser in question was a 'she', not that it matters, and I'm a 'he,' not that it matters).

But this a much broader subject and I figured my hard-won wisdom, such as it is, might help other people in grad school struggling with depression issues. Academia *is* a particularly tough environment for people struggling with depression, self-esteem problems, addiction issues, and the like. I've long joked that every academic department that trains grad students should have a therapist on the faculty, because it is so entirely predictable that nearly every single grad student will go through emotional crisis of some sort related to the particular challenges of this particular work environment in which you are in a highly dependent relationship but preparing to stand out there on your own merits and be judged very critically for the originality of your ideas and the quality of your work, which in academia, means *you* and not just something you do 8 hours a day.

It sucks to be depressed in any line of work. And there are worse and more dangerous lines of work for depressed people than academia, and lines of work that engender far more serious problems (like being a soldier, an EMT, or being in a physically brutal job that offers no respect, like being a migrant farmworker). But there is something particular about the extent of *self* exposure and investment in academic work that is a total bitch for depressive people to deal with -- and I know this from a deeper well of experience than most. I had to beat it myself, and one never beats it fully.

It's a dangerous career for a depressed person.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:53 AM on January 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

And sorry to keep adding to this, but I can pretty much assure you that if she talks to a counselor or therapist associated with her university's health services, she has nothing to fear. There is a firewall there -- therapists are required to observe confidentiality in any case. I've never been talked to about a student by her/his therapist unless the student authorized the conversation, as it should be. It seems an unreasonable fear to project as a basis for failing to take advantage of mental health services that exist precisely for students in situations like hers.

And please make your fiancé know there is NO SHAME or stigma attached to seeing a therapist when you're a grad student, even *if* every person in her department were to know about it. To the contrary; she will be respected more for seeking help and working on her shit. Academia is fucked up in a lot of ways, but it's relatively progressive in its understanding, collectively, of depression and anxiety and mental illness and the value of professional help. I'd be willing to bet more than half my current colleagues are or have been in therapy over issues related to their working lives. I talk about my own personal ongoing and utterly necessary and valuable therapeutic work with my students all the time when I am trying to convince them to get some help.

I have seen good therapy work miracles with troubled students. Sometimes not, but more often than not it helps at least at the margin, and sometimes dramatically.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:05 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with Schroedinger. It does sound like you love her but her temper, fits, and drunken yell at you bouts need to stop. You gave up a good job to be with her. You moved away to be with her and support her. You have sacrificed a lot already. She is 31. She has an MA and is in Post Grad. Why in the hell is she throw temper tantrums and crying in front of her advisor. Also a number of schools have their way of doing things. Is she doing her research their way or her way? I know you love who you love and there are good times, and you see a side of her that we don't. You might also be just venting. This is understood but from what you described you are engaged to an immature, mildly abusive, drunk. She needs to quit saying she has a problem and do something about it! Again not to sound cruel but with the way she is currently act would you want to spend the rest of your life with her and bring children into the world with her? Seriously, imagine her drunk and yelling for not reason at all with your son or daughter around. I know counseling is the 20th century cure all but having her talk to someone about her problems will help out a lot. If you love her make her go for both of your benefits.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 8:11 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think she's watching crime shows to get some closure on whatever happened to her. She's

1 - trying to figure things out - make sense of whatever happened to her in the past


2 - she can't cope with the memory so she's dulling the pain.

This is really cut and dry - she needs help. Can you do that for her?
posted by watercarrier at 8:13 AM on January 20, 2009

Fourcheesemac's answer should be required reading for all first year grad students. Let me just emphasize one point. If faculty are blowing you off and not taking your work seriously, it's not because they're jerks. Even if they are jerks, their jerkhood is not the primary cause.

Professors are busy and you have to earn your way onto their radar. Advisor disinterest is a strong signal that your work is simply not yet good enough. This is always a hit to the ego, but suck it up. You will get nowhere blaming this on personality conflicts. Instead, look critically at your work product and figure out where it is falling short. One important skill that you must take away from grad school is the ability to look with clear eyes at your own stuff.
posted by shadow vector at 8:26 AM on January 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

You cannot fix her.

You need to make some changes unless you want to spend a lifetime married to an immature, prickly, nasty binge drinker with a sense of entitlement. Give her a choice. Either she gets therapy or you're moving out until she does. Say it. Mean it. Stick to it. I'm not a huge fan of ultimatums, but this is about creating a healthy environment for you. If she won't address her problems, then you have no hope of the situation improving ever.

I'll add this regarding confidentially and using university mental health services. Her professors and peers already know she's unhinged. With her crying jags, bouts of temper and pouting in the ladies room, she is not regarded as entirely in control. Even if someone finds out she's using mental health services, they'll probably see it as her trying to moderate her unproductive, unprofessional and unhealthy behaviors.
posted by 26.2 at 8:34 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree with watercarrier. This really does sound like PTSD to me. This is basically how I've acted since my traumatic event, the crying at my boss/adviser/everyone, staring at a television instead of fixing my problems, snapping at people over nothing... This is not something that a couple of months of counseling fixes. It sounds awful, I know, but I am 99% sure that she is not intending to be a jerk or a burnout or abusive or have kids with you just to screw them up.

You cannot fix her problems; don't let yourself feel guilty. Your job, right now, is to motivate her to get into therapy. You say: "we are going to get you into therapy." Both of you, together, request a list of therapists in your area that are covered by insurance. You sit next to her while she makes the phone call to make her first appointment. She may freak out or say "I can't do this," and you will be as patient as you can and remind her that she will feel better in the future if she makes this one step.

Once she's seeing a therapist, you may need to motivate her to follow the therapist's instructions (e.g.: go for CBT, go to an AA meeting, speak to the department chair). Use the "we are going to X" approach.

It is really going to suck, and she could be like this for a long while. Loving her doesn't mean you have to commit to this kind of thing. I still don't know how my fiance puts up with me when I'm crazy. You have the right to be happy, healthy and safe.
posted by giraffe at 8:59 AM on January 20, 2009

It sounds like you're in a tough situation and your fiance needs help. You seem like a very patient and loving person. I just want to underscore the points Fourcheesemac initially made.

1) Few, if any, top phd programs allow a transferred MA-- she needs to get over that and be thankful she has the leisure to take more coursework. Of my terminal MA students, there is not even one student ready to skip classes upon entering a phd program. Not even one. Moreover, that's the way the system works in the US, if you are in fact located in the US.

2) The number one complaint of grad students is that people "just don't get their work." Those complaints nearly always come from students who do in fact need background reading, or humility and willingness to take critiques to heart. Your fiance's advisor could be difficult but still she needs to get her work up to snuff. Besides as a first year, she needs to focus on her coursework.

3) How have you guys come to the conclusion that the counseling will be reported back to her department? I can't imagine that anywhere campus counselors have permission to blab confidential sessions to departments. Say your fiance is in a mental health-related program, that doesn't mean that counselors in contact with faculty are going to mention anything about her medical care. Your fiance's erratic behavior is another matter, and that could easily become fodder for faculty gossip.

4) One of the most important criteria in choosing a phd program is the reputation/relationship with your prospective advisor. Did your fiance not do "due diligence" and investigate the advisor's reputation beforehand? Did she opt for a program with a big name over one in which she'd have a more compatible advisor? If so, that is the wrong approach to the phd.

Your followup says that your fiance is in a lab. Admission for science-related fields can be contingent upon working with a specific advisor. In those cases, funding comes out of a grant dispensed by the advisor. I don't know if this is the case for your fiance or not, but it may be difficult or impossible to change advisors. It will become impossible if your fiance gets a bad reputation in her department for her behavior.

She is not too old to take time off and to return to this phd program or another one. That's ridiculous. Of course it may feel weird to sit next to 22 year olds in class, but that gap matters only to your fiance, and she needs to get over it. Campus counselors would have experience dealing with insecurities like these.

Judging by what is written here, your fiance needs time off for the sake of your relationship, her mental health and future professional life. Again, going only on what you've written, she does not seem ready or perhaps even suited to the brutal hours and criticisms one must expect as an academic.

At any rate and at any cost, she needs professional help to work through her problems.
posted by vincele at 9:01 AM on January 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Great thread, and thanks for the nice words from several people. If you can't tell, this is a consuming interest of mine, for very personal reasons and because after 6 years in grad school and 15 years of training graduate students, I feel like I can actually help a few people -- a few fellow depressive people, especially -- avoid unnecessary and agonizing pain I've seen far too much of, with just my little cup of experience to share. There is no reason grad school has to be brutal just because it's hard; there are plenty of people who see the hard stuff as a necessary hazing, but the times are changing.

By the way, 31 is *not* that old for a PhD student, though maybe it's a little different in the sciences. I'd guess in my field (social science related) the average age of entry into PhD programs is 26 or 27, but we have plenty enter in their 30s and have solid careers indistinguishable from the ones who entered at 22 except by the greater maturity and balance of the older students. It's completely fungible up to a point (which I usually describe as "around 40" because by the time a 40 year old finishes a PhD program, s/he has less than 20 years to have a career, and is competing with people far younger, more mobile, less encumbered by life obligations, more able to endure major personal changes, and all the rest.) But even so, we train students who enter later in life and many have been very successful.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:42 AM on January 20, 2009

I wonder if your fiancee is in psychology, social work, or a discipline where there are departmental interactions with one of those disciplines. In *those specific cases*, I am sympathetic to her not wanting to see a therapist at school, because they do often use student therapists, and that would be beyond awkward. I had this problem, though as I had chatted with the PsyD students before I was having problems, I knew how to avoid it: essentially, avoid clinic A (staffed entirely by students), and specify that I couldn't work with a grad student as I socialised with them at clinic B (partially staffed by students). All schools have some kind of way to work things out that your therapist isn't in class with you. You didn't mention which discipline, though you did say it was a problem; in any case, the receptionist should be able to get the information about how to see a therapist not associated with her program. Sure, they will know she's seeing someone -- as are, I bet, a large percentage of her classmates. Graduate school is full of crazy people.

How to deal with her adviser etc is something her therapist should help her with.
posted by jeather at 10:17 AM on January 20, 2009

All of this sounds totally normal for a grad student in a competitive PhD program, FWIW.
posted by k8t at 10:41 AM on January 20, 2009

My take is that you are living with a drinking alcoholic. I say this because it gives a framework for you to consider your options in terms of helping her.

Basically, there is very little you can do. Your fiance feels out of control and she's asserting control by shrinking her world to include a wine bottle and a remote. This is the area in which she feels in control. All attempts by you to "get her" to do the things she needs to do will be unwelcome as they'll be seen 1) as efforts to take control from her and 2) will cause her to observe how out of control she really is at this point.

I'd suggest that you remind her that there are resources available that could help her and that you'll help her access those resources. But *don't* engage in a struggle with her. Don't get involved with enabling her by joining her fantasy that she can't get counseling because of whatever. Don't get involved in dissing the advisor with her. You can be sympathetic and caring, but *her* challenge is to figure out how she can reach out to get help with her problems (graduate school, conflict with advisor, career, drinking, depression).

When she complains about how screwed up the school is, etc., you can murmur with short expressions of sympathy, but go immediately on to "What are you going to do?" Whatever she says, direct her back to the need to get help, sooner rather than later, as options are going to be closing on her. That it's painful for you to watch her making such a hash of things. That she'd probably be wise to not make any total life-altering decisions now (e.g., change careers, etc.), given how drunk and depressed and out of control she is (and I would *definitely* use those words), and that it would probably be wise to get some help.

If you are looking for support for yourself, I'd strongly suggest you visit an Al-Anon meeting, which will be filled with people like you - people who are trying to figure out how to be helpful and caring while your loved one is going off the deep end.
posted by jasper411 at 11:09 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

IAAP though this is not professorial advice (suck on that, doctors)

First, I second pretty much everything that fourcheesemac says.

Second, I've been where your fiancee is, on both sides of the desk. Doing my Ph.D. was a traumatic and turmoil-filled part of my life, and also one filled with excitement and fun. It is a commonplace that the Ph.D. process can crush marriages and relationships, so look out. It crushed mine -- the victim of a creeping mental illness that also almost drove me out of the program, alienated me from my family, my fellow students, my supervisor. Coincidentally, I also developed a congenital and incurable eye disease that is basically rotting my corneas from the inside out. It turned out to be the start of a long struggle with mental and physical illnesses that is not yet over and may never be.

Now why do I mention this? First, because at one time prospects for completion looked bleak as they may on occasion do for your fiancee. But second, because, after I finished my Ph.D., I got a job at a pretty decent University, and am having a not-too-bad career. And I now advise graduate students - MA and PhD - some of whom may share the same profile as your fiancee. So, what do I tell them?

If I do not understand what they are trying to tell me I insist they re-write it until I do. Simple. The main mode of lasting professional communication in academia is written, not oral, and if I can't read it I can't respond to it properly in the genre. Having a conversation is one thing, but having an exchange of written views is very different. Your fiancee should make sure her written work is extremely lucid and clear. Have her read it aloud. Show it to many people with knowledge in the area. Poor writing is one of the most difficult things for a person to self-diagnose. It may make sense in her head when she reads it in her voice, but that is no guarantee it makes sense to anyone else.

If a student is having personal difficulties of some kind I do what my supervisor did - I release the pressure a bit, I send them to the University Counselling program, and if necessary I encourage them to take a break from the program. Neither of the above comes with any kind of stigma whatsoever, and I know this is true of my colleagues who don't share my health history as well. But I don't lower the standard of work I expect from them, should they choose to remain in the program. I had one PhD student tell me a year into the program that they were doing the degree in order to raise their self esteem (!!) and their misguided ambition showed in their work and in how they were taking my supervision. But almost every PhD student has at least one crisis - if not work-related, then life catches up with them - and most faculty have seen it all before, and worse. Indeed, most of them will have experienced it first hand and their response may well be structured by their own experience.

It sounds like the supervisor in question may lack some people skills (it's not what we're hired for -- it's a bonus). Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that your fiancee should be encouraged to take advantage of all the support structures she can, make absolutely clear her writing is crystal clear and substantial, and come to terms with, for the time being, her role as a fairly small fish in a somewhat bigger pool (pride swallowing is part of this). All hard to do, I know, believe me, I know.
posted by Rumple at 11:22 AM on January 20, 2009

Thanks to everyone who has responded so far, especially fourcheesemac, whose comment was very helpful. Just to clarify a few things - my fiance has been trying to get into a PhD program for awhile now, and she has stated that the only thing she wants to do is be a professor and teach university students. So the "drop out and find something else to do" would mark a huge mental and emotional shift for her, completely reorienting the goals she's had for at least 10 years. She also feels a little older than all the other students, and so I don't think that "take a year off" is really applicable for her, meaning I don't think it's something she would consider doing, though obviously she is considering quitting so maybe it's something she's thought about. I think this is more of an issue with her adviser, not grad school in general.

She's already been teaching at a university level. This indicates that she wouldn't have to do something else if she dropped out, although it might be tougher to get tenure track jobs. I wonder if a PhD is really right for her since she can do the job she wants without the degree.

I'm actually a little more sympathetic to some of your fiance's complaints about graduate school than some here. My first year of grad. school was incredibly difficult in a myriad of ways--not in the least because I discovered that academia is filled with professors who are very pressed for time and are not always considerate of the needs of their graduate students (and, given the pressures that they're under, I think that's completely understandable). If she came from a more nurturing environment, and is now at an institution that does not believe in holding their grad students' hands, it can be really, really hard. But I think her insistence that this is all the fault of her graduate advisor and not due to the complex interplay of her own shortcomings, the failures of academia as an institution generally, as well as the personal quirks of those she needs to work directly with, is naive. She clearly feels entitled to special treatment. In my experience, everyone at grad school does (because we have prior experience in the field, because we were stars at our former institutions, because we're all used to being the smartest person in the room). I highly doubt that this is going to change with a new advisor. From your tone, I suspect that you doubt it, too.

She's also clearly dealing with other stuff, which other people have more adequately addressed here. But if she really thinks she's going to stay at this school and succeed, she's going to need to grow a tougher skin. It's not going to get any easier from here on out, and it's not necessarily going to be any better once she does get the coveted tenure track job. If she can't deal with the environmental hazards of the workplace--and people not instantly adoring your work is certainly one of them--she needs to consider other options.

(Full disclosure: I came to graduate school thinking I might end up being an academic, and discovered I'm not. I don't think I'm a failure because of that--and she wouldn't be, either.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:53 AM on January 20, 2009

It's a dangerous career for a depressed person.

Amen to that. I didn't have time to read all the comments here but I wanted to come in specifically on the having a Masters before entering a Ph.D program. This isn't necessarily that unusual and when I started my Ph.D I already had two (and I wasn't alone, there were two of us in my year with two Masters upon starting). My department typically wanted people who are a little older but then it was a creative humanities department so that might have something to do with it. Anyway, the truth is that you have to suck it up, you have to play by the rules and the rules say that if you don't have a Ph.D then Masters or no Masters you all start from the same place. No amount of kicking and screaming will change this.

At 31 your fiance should have learned to deal with conflict and, in particular, academic disagreements. Her advisor may be awful, but quite frankly I don't know too many people (myself excluded, I'm one of the few lucky ones) who haven't had advisor issues. It does very much sound like she is depressed and she needs help. As others have suggested, taking a year off sounds like a very good idea, there are mechanisms in place for this at any university.

A Ph.D program, even when you have an amazing advisor like I did, is tough. It's a grind and it takes hard work and persistence. To have persistence you need to be in a good, healthy frame of mind. If you're not in that state to begin with, Grad school will bring you down. She needs help to address her issues, and once she's done that then she will be able to cope with the disappointments and pitfalls that are part and parcel of any academic career.
posted by ob at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2009

I was in grad school once & would get stuck like this, stressed, angry, and though there were no really good options in a given situation, being stubbornly unwilling to pick one despite the fact that I had to. It happens.

I think what it took was a good friend to point out some hard truths, such as: here are each of your options, and here are the likely outcomes, you have to make choices and do something. Here are the rules, requirements, policies, and recommendations from your advisor, and if you stick your head in the sand and ignore them, you won't be successful in this program. None of the remaining options are going to be fun or ideal, but you can't turn back the clock and undo what's already happened.

Also, she made the choice to take this program despite the fact that she'd have to go through the master's coursework over again. There's no good in getting upset about that and how unfair it seems, if she made the choice to enter this program on those terms. And can she try harder to listen to her advisor? Getting upset about it, about seemingly unjust situations and people who are somewhat difficult, can get in the way of really hearing what they're saying. Can she try dealing with the advisor as if s/he has valuable things to teach. Try harder to be a student and to listen. Don't assume s/he is attacking needlessly if what s/he is really trying to do is, be a teacher.

Maybe you could help her, though, by handling some things that are difficult or that she doesn't want to do - not school-wise, but handling customer service calls, paperwork, grocery shopping, household stuff like that. Take away extra stress for a time.

Maybe if worst comes to worst she needs to take a leave of absence. Lots of people do.
posted by citron at 4:08 PM on January 20, 2009

Also, I can't say enough how much I wish fourcheesemac's advice had been given to me when I was a graduate student.

Academia *is* a particularly tough environment for people struggling with depression, self-esteem problems, addiction issues, and the like.

Absolutely. If it seems she can't fight these things and stay on track in academia, then she can't. It's OK. There's nothing to be ashamed of, after all, they weren't her fault. Even if she's invested this much time and hard work, maybe academia just isn't a good place for her. You can only do what you can do.
posted by citron at 4:25 PM on January 20, 2009

« Older What does committment mean to you?   |   Thoughts about my thinking? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.