Just a stirring in my soul?
November 18, 2009 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I can't seem to get unstuck.

Hi MeFites,

I'm stuck.

I'm two years out of college and I'm a pretty lucky gal. I've got a job in publishing, an apartment, friends, a boyfriend, support system. I know all this in my head... but I don't feel it.

Instead, what I *feel* is empty and unsatisfied. The job is kind of an entry-level soul suck (with a boss that's a little Devil Wears Prada-esque), the boyfriend is problematic (haha), and I'm feeling a bit depressed. The things I used to do to help enjoy life, including being involved in a Jewish community, book clubs, and my own writing, aren't really cutting it. In fact, I can't remember last time anything got me truly, unabashedly *happy*.

This is all coming to a head now because it's grad school application crunch time, and it's starting to occur to me that it would be great to be back in school, most likely for an English PhD. It would be *amazing* to be back in an academic context, really carving out a potential career for myself and developing as a writer and researcher.

Yet, when I try to do the productive things to get there, like craft a statement of my purpose or think of professors to recommend me, I freeze. The difficult process and dim career prospects of humanities phds are daunting, and I'm not sure if I'm really ready to cope with the future that I'd be signing myself up for (still potentially unemployed in ten years! not get a chance to choose where i live! not be able to afford a house! etc.)

I was thinking of delaying my applications until the next round, to have time to really talk to professors, put together a stellar application, and really research programs, but the thought of another full year like this seems absolutely unbearable to me. I look around and see my peers, none of whom took more than three years off before returning to some grad degree, traveling and achieving, and I feel like a failure in comparison (however irrational that may seem.) I definitely don't regret the time off until this point, but I don't feel like I'm making progress towards any kind of goal.
Furthermore, if I don't go for the PhD at all, I'm afraid I'll regret it forever.

I'm driving my friends and loved ones crazy with all this angst, which I honestly am working to improve. I know the economy is terrible and that most people are having a tough year. I'm applying for other jobs in the field, joined a gym, found a therapist (whom I like!), am volunteering with underprivileged kids and reading them stories (can't recommend that enough, by the by.) I know I am taking steps in the right direction. I'm even taking the GREs in a few days (and re-learning math! Ahh!).

Yet, I still wake up every day and feel like sobbing. This really isn't like me - I go through ups and downs, but on the whole, I've always been a hopeful person. Now, I feel like I'm going through life in a vague, unhappy fog, not really feeling anything intensely except sadness. In fact, a dear friend pulled me aside yesterday and told me she's never seen me so generally dejected, ever.

(It may be worth mentioning that all this intense sadness took off in June, when I got on the Pill. Not that it makes the other issues less important... but coincidence?)

If I wait another year to apply, have I squashed my chances? Maybe I'm just a self-absorbed, melodramatic whiner, which is how I feel sometimes? What would you do if you were me?

Thanks for the read, y'all.
posted by bookgirl18 to Education (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds to me like the most important part of all that is the parenthetical reference to the Pill. I haven't been on it myself, but I've seen way, way too many AskMe questions and answers that talk about the Pill causing mood swings or depression to write it off.

If your brain chemistry is wonky, fix that first. Go talk to your doctor, try a different form of BC, whatever it takes. The rest of it will be much easier to deal with after you handle the chemical side of it.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:12 AM on November 18, 2009

If I wait another year to apply, have I squashed my chances?

No way. I'm currently applying for history-type PhD programs, and I'm so freaked out about not getting in anywhere that I've been making serious back-up plans for things to do next year that will help my career and get me into a good program later on. Like you, I have a job that often makes me wish I was never born (a job which I'm actually really lucky to have)-- I'm leaving it next summer, without a doubt. My bosses know this. So now it's just a question of what I'll be doing. If you decide to apply this fall, I think it's definitely worth taking some time to consider other options (teaching abroad for a year, related nonprofits, fellowships, etc.).

I don't want to freak you out, but this is a little late in the game to start your applications. I took the GRE in September so that I had time to retake it if necessary, and I started lining up recommenders and getting in touch with professors I'd like to work with as early as this past May-- and I still feel rushed and freaked out. Another year to prepare your applications might be a good option to consider.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:13 AM on November 18, 2009

You sound like you have many pieces in place but you're still unhappy. Have you seen a doctor?

And don't put yourself in competition with your friends. Life is not a race. You're volunteering and keeping busy, that's awesome already!

I would go talk to a doctor about your depression, and if you're ready for it, continue with the grad school process.
posted by Seboshin at 11:21 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Anecdotes aren't what you really need, but here's mine, in a nutshell:

I was in grad school. I had a very smart, optimistic, and supportive grad advisor, I was doing research that was pretty interesting, wasn't bogged down doing TA or grading work, and I was playing in a band, had way more social life than my fellow grad students. I was miserable. The absolute most frustrating part of being miserable was that I knew, logically, that there wasn't anything wrong. What could I possibly be miserable about? In every aspect of my life I could name several very positive things. My conclusion: optmists are a mess when they're depressed because of the war between having messed up brain chemicals making you feel terrible, and an overall outlook that's telling you there's nothing really terrible about life and any minor problems will be getting better soon.

Eventually, I made good use of the grad student mental health plan, got a therapist, and an anti-depressant prescription. I was also (all this time) on the pill. I feel (no data involved) that the pill was a factor in the mental chemical stew that the anti-depressants were dealing with, so when I left grad school, I felt I was done: left the town, left the therapist (though she was fine), and stopped taking both drugs. For me, this worked out fine. I will not be going back on the (contraceptive) pill, and hope to not need the (a-d) pill again, either.

So, my advice (right, like I'm any kind of pills-doctor, and your brain chemicals are anything like mine) would be to either ditch The Pill or get The Other Pill.

(Congratulations on all your burst of activity lately - keeping up with the gym and other physical, mental, and social activity is really great! Good luck with your grad school decisions!)
posted by aimedwander at 11:24 AM on November 18, 2009

I have never been in a phD program, but I'm going to guess that like marriage, having a child, or climbing Mt. Everest, it's not an instant fix that will make everything in your life perfect.

In fact, from what I hear about grad school, it's incredibly intense and stressful. I would say, see a therapist and try to work on figuring out why you're unhappy with what you have now, rather than rushing into any big life changes. School will always be there later.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:26 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Hey! I am also two years out of college. And I'm planning on (eventually) going back to grad school. And I can tell you that almost all of my friends from college are grappling with what to do with their lives, and some of them feel pretty directionless. Anyway, here's my take:

I think that having been in goal-oriented educational institutions for 20 years makes it hard to transition to a different way of being, one where "the next thing" isn't immediately obvious, and forward progress isn't necessarily an intrinsic good. Life isn't like school; not immediately moving on to the next thing isn't like getting held back a grade. And you're not taking time off, you're living your life.

I'm not trying to say that living life is easy; it's not. But it's also not a process with extrinsic goals. You just have to be the sort of person you want to be; you have to learn what you care about and recognize that it's not about what your friends or co-workers are doing or where they are going.

Remember also that life isn't a race. Do you think 45-year-old academics look at their 42-year-old colleagues and regret the three years they "lost" by spending time in the real world? I often find this hard to remember---I am a person who gets great satisfaction out of making progress---but it's really true. You don't need to worry about "wasting" days, weeks, months, or years; the important thing is to be living, which it sounds like you're doing.

As for the grad school, I haven't gone through it yet, so I don't have much specific advice. But I do know Ph.D. students at very prestigious schools who started years and years after finishing college. So don't worry too much!
posted by goingonit at 11:27 AM on November 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

Yet, I still wake up every day and feel like sobbing. This really isn't like me - I go through ups and downs, but on the whole, I've always been a hopeful person. Now, I feel like I'm going through life in a vague, unhappy fog, not really feeling anything intensely except sadness.

I am not a doctor, but this really, really sounds like depression. It surely cannot hurt to check in with a doctor.
posted by bearwife at 11:29 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thomas Benton: So You Want to Go to Grad School?
followup in January of this year: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go

The difficult process and dim career prospects of humanities phds are daunting, and I'm not sure if I'm really ready to cope with the future that I'd be signing myself up for (still potentially unemployed in ten years! not get a chance to choose where i live! not be able to afford a house! etc.)

They should be daunting. It really is that bad. It's very, very, very bad. And extricating yourself if you change your mind partway through is intensely difficult, because there's an aspect of humanities grad school that is about getting you to think like those who've made careers in it, and thinking you're an abject failure if you can't, even though the odds are stacked beyond belief these days. If you're not sure or freezing up I would strongly encourage you to take another year to think about it and research and be aware of what you'd be getting into! And if you haven't researched, talked to professors, and done a stellar application.. well.. the chance of getting into a top program is diminished, and you'd need that, as well as the money they'd offer you, since you shouldn't ever borrow money for this. Also, it's not like undergrad! The fun and free spiritedness and community of undergrad is mostly not there, perhaps there are exceptional programs where it is, but you won't know which ones without.. research. It doesn't hurt your chances one bit to wait to apply.
posted by citron at 11:34 AM on November 18, 2009 [8 favorites]

Wow. You could be me, almost.

A couple things:

1) A lot of the angst, uncertainty, emptiness - I think this is what it is to be a recent college grad, early 20's, shitty entry-level job, lots of ennui and existential distress - in our current age. There's a lost of bullshit floating around about the 'quarter life crisis' for folks like ourselves, but there is truth to some of it. Take a step back, take a breath and realize how well off you are. I know you know this, but having the option to pursue a PhD, having a job, having a support network - these are not things to take for granted.

2) You need to go see a doctor/psychologist. Talk about your issues with the Pill and talk about options potentially for anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, etc. They are a mixed bag, but they've sort of saved my life.

3) No, you won't hurt your chances by waiting at all. I struggle with the same back and forth about humanities grad school, the PhD professor to be thing. It is a HUGE decision - you're looking at a decade of your life, a commitment to a fledgling job market, forfeit of choosing where to live (for all intents and purposes). I would wait (rather, I am waiting). Then again, I get stuck in this rut of "i don't know if this is what I really want to do, so I'll wait" and another year passes and I'm no closer to knowing. So, I guess, I don't know what to tell you on this one.

Early twenties, me and many of my friends are discovering, suck balls. You are, however, in a very good position. Whatever you decide, best of luck.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:36 AM on November 18, 2009

Heed citron's advice.
posted by dfriedman at 11:44 AM on November 18, 2009

Also I'm sorry to be such a downer, but humanities grad school is what it is. And early to mid twenties is simply a tough time, there's no clear path for you or for anyone, and we've been told higher education opens up so many opportunities, but finding them and choosing among them is an immense challenge, and plenty of people change paths many times. Seems to me it might be a reasonable response from a thoughtful person to worry/have angst/feel sad about this situation, and that's OK, and not necessarily something you have to see as a problem that you jump to solve via therapy and medication. Are you telling your friends and family that you're sad for no reason, or are you telling them what you're worried about & asking if they have the same worries? Maybe they do.
posted by citron at 11:54 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was thinking of delaying my applications until the next round, to have time to really talk to professors, put together a stellar application, and really research programs, but the thought of another full year like this seems absolutely unbearable to me.

You want squash your chances by waiting another year. On the contrary, you'll probably have a much better shot if you take your time to carefully select a program that you really like and put together a solid application.

A PhD takes a damn lot of time and effort. It is most certainly not something to rush into, cause you may find yourself just as stuck, but for different reasons, and probably with a hell of a lot less money.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:58 AM on November 18, 2009

Hello, me last year.

There are a lot of really bad reasons that people apply to grad school. I call it the Lisa Simpson problem. Remember when the teachers went on strike and Lisa went crazy, asking Marge to grade her fake papers? When smart people get out of college and realize no one is around to assess their academic prowess at its purest form (papers, class participation, etc) they get that same kind of crazy. In adulthood, you're judged on more things than just your ability to string together coherent, laser-smart sentences: it matters if you wore the wrong shoes to the office, or if you broke the copying machine. Also, your building is ugly, the neon lighting is demoralizing, you have to pretend you watch American Idol to strike up conversations with your co-workers, and your boss can openly dislike you without getting in trouble.

Moreover, your inability to really start the process of applications bespeaks another really common Lisa Simpson-esque symptom: fear of failure. You were told you were smart all your life, A+ bookgirl18, go to the head of the class. And after a couple years of the real world, where you haven't measured up to your full potential, you're fucking terrified you'll fail again, but this time you'll fail at what you're good at, and what does that mean? Where does that put you?

I'm in your same boat here, so apologies if I just projected my entire litany of psychoses down your throat, but advice is to suck it up and just start trying. Whether that's aiming for grad school or doing a better job at work, you've got to reassess your value in the world and then surprise yourself.

Plenty of people on metafilter and elsewhere will doomsay about the state of the humanities, and they're right. So you might apply and fail, and maybe that's the natural order of things. Maybe you're saving yourself from a lifetime of anxiety and insecurity, which is what grad school and academia tend to breed in people like us (or me). Or maybe you'll apply and get in. Maybe you'll go, maybe you won't, but you need to know why you want this acceptance so badly and yet cannot summon the inner reserve to work for it. If it's because you're rusty, that's okay. But if it's because you miss that "A+" adrenaline rush that the real world can't give you, then grad school won't fix a damn thing.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:35 PM on November 18, 2009 [12 favorites]

Also, I chose to wait a year, and it made a world of difference. Like me (no projecting, promises) you've missed the deadline for the Lit GRE, which is mandatory for many programs, so just breathe a sigh of relief that you don't even have to make that decision! Then email your professors and tell them, "Dear Prof. X, I've decided to apply for grad school in the Fall of 2010, and..." They'll appreciate that you've got your shit together early. If possible, cancel the GRE and take them when you've diligently studied for a month or so, which works better than cramming. Make sure your math is up to speed (600 or above if you're looking at top 10 programs) but don't let it ruin your first priority, verbal.

I studied over Christmas and New Years, took the regular GRE in January. Then I studied hardcore for the Lit GRE, which is a bear of a test, and took that in April. I spent the summer working slowly on my writing sample and SoP.

Please, don't rush into this; not only because you need to Really Think about the motives behind the goal, but you'll cobble a really shoddy application if you rush yourself and your professors and your scores to be at the finish line in less than a month. Commit a year to the process, see how everything shakes out, and then dive in.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:47 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

This happens with all first jobs and initial experiences out of college. You're young and changing. Let yourself explore new avenues.
posted by anniecat at 1:00 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know it doesn't quite make sense, but maybe give yourself permission to lower expectations of yourself for awhile? And give yourself permission, at least for awhile to just do the things that make you feel good as much as want. (Even if it's just drinking your favorite kind of coffee, taking a bath, having a couple sick days). It's never to early in life for women to learn to set boundaries and start asking for what they really need. It sounds like you are already under a lot of pressure with the job, and are putting even more pressure on yourself to hurry up and apply to grad school. And having to put on a front to your friends that you're "ok". A therapist can really help this, especially a good one.

Trust your instincts with the pill, too. Try going off it for a couple months and see if it makes a difference. I know for some people (including myself) who are very sensitive to hormonal changes, and the pill hasn't helped.

It does get easier... I'm in my late twenties and still struggling with the career stuff, but I've sort to surrendered to the process. No one really knows the "right" way to go about it, and you don't have to know either.
posted by Rocket26 at 1:14 PM on November 18, 2009

(It may be worth mentioning that all this intense sadness took off in June, when I got on the Pill. Not that it makes the other issues less important... but coincidence?)

Probably not. I can't shut up about this lately on metafilter, or in general: recently went off the pill after 7 years on it because of high blood pressure. Didn't think I was particularly depressed on it, but I felt an immediate, and palpable, lift in mood (okay, except for like, once a month now, the day before my period). Anecdata from friends suggests the same. It's worth it to explore non-hormonal options, and I'd try to get off the pill before you consider antidepressants. Not to be all modern-medicine-sucks-ish, but some doctors really do like prescribing medication on top of medication, a practice which strikes me as both expensive and unhealthy (in my case, they wanted to put me on blood pressure medications but not take me off the pill, where stopping the birth control alone got my blood pressure in the normal range).

Anyway, I've been you before. I took the GRE and applied for graduate school (MFA programs in my case) and today am much, much happier and more focused than I once was--but I'd ascribe just as much of that transformation on a change of location and an improvement of my creative work ethic as I would graduate school itself. I honestly don't think it would be an unmitigated disaster to apply to graduate school right now if it's what you really want, and only you can decide that. However, I'd also come up with some alternatives in the event that you don't get in, or don't get in to any schools you're really psyched about--such as moving to a new city, or changing jobs, et cetera. It sounds like you do need a change, and I wouldn't depend on graduate school to create that change for you.

Oh, and applying to graduate school is scary, and hard, so go easy on yourself about the angst. To a certain extent, it's a normal part of the process.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:51 PM on November 18, 2009

Going to grad school in the humanities is awesome, as long as you have a plan for what you will do if (as is likely) you don't get a teaching job. Because statistically, you're unlikely to get a teaching job.

Now if, after addressing that issue, you still want to go to graduate school, you have plenty of time.

Get everything else fixed first, because graduate school is at least as stressful as a job in publishing (I know this, having done both).
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:38 PM on November 18, 2009

Another pill-blamer here: I got seriously depressed (with sobbing) while on one kind, switched to a different one and all went back to normal. That was many years ago, though.
posted by meijusa at 12:05 AM on November 19, 2009

Response by poster: Apologies for the extremely belated follow-up.

Many many thanks to all of you for your thoughtful responses. I can't express how impressed I am with the insights and support of this community, and how grateful I am to hear from you all.
I've decided to follow zoomorphic's lead and invest another full year in the application process, which will give me time to really think through my motives, research programs, and get professors in my corner to put together the best applications possible. In the meantime, I'll keep doing things like volunteering, seeing the therapist, and, er, practicing GRE math (moved the test to January).
And I'm seeing my gyn about getting on a different pill/getting off this one as well.

Thanks again, and happy holidays. (I'm sure you'll all be hearing from me again about this over the next year, never fear.)
posted by bookgirl18 at 8:16 AM on December 11, 2009

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