Burnt out. Too bad. Help me git 'er done.
July 13, 2010 4:00 AM   Subscribe

Trying to do it all (or at least a lot) and failing. Help?

I work full time and go to grad school part time. My grad program includes a thesis requirement. I finally have a topic which I'm pretty excited about but I am having a really hard time with the actually doing it. Specifically, chapter 1 is supposed to include a literature review. I've never written a literature review so I don't really know how. Then I'm supposed to be working on chapter 2 but haven't finished chapter 1. I already missed a deadline for a chapter 2 draft and the chapter 1 professor is asking about my progress when all I've been working on lately is chapter 2. I need to have a good chapter 1 in about two weeks with a good chapter 2 about two weeks later. Basically, it's snowballing.

Meanwhile, this is making me extremely anxious. I simply don't know work full time, go to school part time, and do everything else in life (work out, be a good wife/daughter/niece/sister/friend). I have never been good at time management but I have always tried to do a lot and somehow figured it out. I've been burnt out for months. This is doing a number on my already-low self esteem because I always thought I was a good writer and thought of maybe going for another degree someday but this has been an ordeal. I have a hard time sleeping and wake up sweating and with a racing heart when I do sleep.

My husband has been absolutely wonderful but I want to be good to him, too. He also doesn't really know how to be encouraging. I just can't deal with this and he'll say things like "I think you should stop doing research and just write" (which is probably true but not exactly helpful). I want to go to shows with him and dates but I feel like I should be writing. We got married less than a year ago and he's been great with getting someone to pick up our apartment, making dinner, etc. but I feel like I'm abusing that good will and being a crappy wife and giving him a shitty first year of married life.

Moreover, my work situation is making me unhappy. A colleague who has been working there less time just got promoted over me. He's great and I'm happy for him but going there just makes me sad. I'm trying to apply for more jobs but it just seems like one more thing to do when I can barely keep up as it is.

I finally got myself a real desk and work area so I think that will help but when I sit down to work it takes me a while to really get in the zone. I also feel like I only have so many hours a day where my brain can handle working so I'm always tempted to do school stuff at work but that just means I have to do work later, etc. I feel like I'm always robbing time from something - I feel guilty when I have free time and I don't work on my thesis (but it felt so nice to just wander around the grocery store ...) I'm tempted to take vacation days to just write but I can't know for sure that I would just write and then I would feel really upset with myself. And I feel frustrated because if I read this, I think I would say to the person asking the question, "Suck it up, just get it done, take it one piece at a time, you can do this," and those are great ideas but I. Just. Can't.

So where do I go from here? How do I proceed and get out of this? I'm sure countless people have been in similar situations so maybe I just need to hear from you?

posted by kat518 to Human Relations (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Couple things:

1. Lit reviews are actually super-easy to write, but because there are lots of arbitrary conventions governing their construction, it can be difficult to do one if you've never tried before. Don't be a hero-- if you're stuck, ask your Chapter 1 professor to walk you through the process. It can also be very, very helpful to spend an hour or two reading ~5 already-published lit reviews in your field, to get a feel for the standard "sound" and shape of them.

2. I have so been there with the guilt over misusing your free time and stealing time from your family, the nighttime anxiety, the works. What really helps me is getting something done every day; that way, you know you're moving steadily to a future when you'll have your free time back, when you can spend guilt-free time with your husband, etc. Forward momentum is key.

3. Your schedule may or may not allow this, but I found that what really helped with forward momentum was to change my routine so that I could wake up 1-2 hours earlier than I normally do, then use that solitary morning time to work. That way, by the time everyone else wakes up and the workday rolls around, you've already made some progress, and it's your choice whether you want to continue that progress on your own time later that day, or wait for the next morning work session. Sure, 5AM wakeups suck a lot come December, but for me, at least, it was very freeing to know I had a dedicated "empty" time for writing before all of the other concerns of the day started up. YMMV, obviously, if you're really really not a morning person. But in general, I think schedules and compartmentalization are your friends when you're trying to run multiple parallel lives at once.

You'll get through this. Good luck!
posted by Bardolph at 4:20 AM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

You need to schedule time off when all you're allowed to do is have fun. A weekly date night with your husband, and another block of time for yourself.

There are a bunch of books on Amazon with step-by-step instructions on how to do a literature review, write your thesis, etc. Also, remember that your thesis doesn't have to be a perfect masterpiece, it just has to be good enough to get your degree. You can always polish it more later when you turn it into a book or articles.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:24 AM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh and if you want to try something for the sleeping problems and/or anxiety, I've found that Ambien and Xanax really help.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:24 AM on July 13, 2010

Response by poster: Bardolph, I'm not a morning person but maybe I should try writing in the morning since I don't have to leave the house to do it. Bonus, it's helpful when I can't sleep. And you're right, I should read lit reviews, I just always feel like I should be doing it instead of writing it, but that's not working out so hot. Thank you!

Jacqueline, thank you - I've always had a hard time with that "the perfect is the enemy of the good" business. I'm also terrible when it comes to really long term things and cutting things off so I'll try to keep your point in mind.
posted by kat518 at 4:30 AM on July 13, 2010

I only have a bachelor's degree, so I don't quite know how it works in grad school, but do you have an advisor or a professor/mentor who is helping you with the thesis? Is one available? S/he might be able to help with your questions about how to write the sections of this work that you're unfamiliar with, and may be able to help you think about ways to approach the writing of all the other chapters.

One thing to remember, though, is that nobody can do everything at once. There's going to be some area of your life that has to receive less attention, and that's probably going to be your family/social/home life for awhile. Explain this to the people in your life who may be feeling slighted, and forgive yourself for only having the same 24 hours in a day that the rest of the world has.
posted by xingcat at 4:31 AM on July 13, 2010

Do you need to work full time? Is it a financial concern that you work all these hours or can you cut back on work to relieve yourself some stress and give time to yourself and your husband? I ask this because I was in your situation many years ago. It was difficult to juggle school, family, and work...all three of which make you who you are and having all three be successful gives you a sense of pride and self-worth. The ironic thing is, juggling all three full plates can cause nothing but anxiety and self-doubt.

What helped me was setting aside 1 night every two weeks with my significant other. I am not sure about your core values on relationships, but I'm a firm believer in marriage/relationship with SO should come first. Scheduling something weekly is too much and with school, it's difficult to not get anxious. So, once every two weeks not only gives you time to do your schoolwork in anticipation of your "date night," but it also gives you enough of a break without infringing on important school time.

As far as school, as someone who has a double masters, I suggest creating a blocked schedule of what you need to do. Sometimes, when school is overwhelming, we tend to saturate ourselves in the working, thinking that working means we are accomplishing something, when, in fact, we are not. Set aside a time, perhaps 3 hours on the weekdays and 4-5 hours on the weekends. That is more than enough time to get quality work done and alleviate yourself from any stress to do other things that will fulfill other parts of your life, like taking a break to go workout or cook dinner, or watch a show with your husband.

Schedule, schedule, schedule. Set what works for you. If you need more hours, add a few. If you need less, take out hours and do something to fill that time with something that makes you happen and isn't work of any kind.

Good luck! You are lucky to have a supportive husband. If he is not encouraging in the right way, communicate to him what you NEED. HOW you need it. Do not take him for granted if he is being supportive, definitely take some time to quality moments with him.
posted by penguingrl at 5:01 AM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've been there and I've done that, and I know just what you are going through.

My advice: triage. You *can't* do everything, so prioritize and just let some things go. If it helps, you can give yourself permission to only do that for a set period of time (like 6 months).

If it were me, I'd prioritize things along the lines of:

Most important: school, marriage, work
Next most important: housework, exercise
Least important: being a *giving* friend, daughter, sister niece

Those social connections are great, are super-important, but now is not the time that you can contribute, nurture them to the degree that you're used to. However, it may be a good time for you to *rely* on them, since they are so strong, so meaningful to you. While you're gutting it out with finishing grad school, how about putting out an APB: Hey everyone, I'm getting in over my head with school, I could really use some support with (yardwork, making meals, pep talk and a walk around the park every Saturday afternoon).

I know it can be so, so, so hard to ask for help when you're used to doing it all, but trust me, people will respond.

About feeling sad, over-anxious: you would not be the first person to need antidepressants to finish grad school. (Raising hand here.) Go get a script, it will help you feel much better. This is situational and it will pass. You are not weak, you are just human.

Lastly: absolutely ask for help/support from your academic advisors to get you back on track for your deadlines. Then make them and force yourself to stick to them, come hell or high water. This is only for a limited amount of time; you gut it out, get it done, get it out of your life.

You can do it, you can do it, you can do it.
posted by Sublimity at 5:01 AM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do your school have a writing centre? They are definitely not only for bad writers and it can be really helpful to discuss you work with someone other than your professor.

When I feel like this I try to remind myself that we (humans that is) are not good at doing multiple things at once. It is not a failure of mine but of the human race. Then I try to schedule so that I can concentrate at one thing at a time. Tuesday from 19 is date night. I will do all my banking on Saturday at 5, write between ... and etc.. And until that time I am not allowed to think about it.

It is really hard to let go of things but it is a good exercise to feel better. And make sure to give some credit to yourself for the things you have achieved.
posted by furisto at 5:16 AM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Getting started on a literature review - go find some theses from past students in your department, hopefully with topics relevant to yours. Read through their literature review chapters, see how they're structured, and this can even give you a head start on what references to look up. Set up an outline and do your best to fill in the subsections as you find tidbits. You don't have to even write it in report format, you can just write in the quotes you want to use, and these can be rearranged later.

Stop yourself from trying to write it out and make it perfect, just keep typing and get the vague ideas on the page - like mental notes of what you're generally thinking, but don't know how to word it yet. You can edit later. Save versions of your work, and often.

You're going to read a LOT of papers, yes it will feel like a waste of time (that's normal). So maybe just use a highlighter to mark them up as you go, or write out summaries to capture the relevant info. Keep hard copies if you can, keep them organized, keep your bibliography list up to date by name. At least you'll have a stack of stuff to show for your efforts :P

You're stuck on Chapter 2? Then put it away for a bit and go start Chapter 1, then come back to it when you've made progress elsewhere. You're absolutely frustrated and confused? Go talk to your supervisor or a more senior grad student to get some direction, they are supposed to help. When you do, please avoid making loads of excuses to them as to why you haven't gotten the work done though, that's not going to win you points. We've all been there, you don't have to tell us what it's like.

Working by a schedule will give you more control in your life - schedule work on this chapter, that chapter, coffee breaks, your half hour of tv, yoga, cooking dinner, a date with the hubby, etc. And don't feel guilty about scheduled breaks. Fill the little spare time slots you have with reading and highlighting, or writing if you can manage it - every little bit helps. Make more grad student friends. Thesis writing is notorious for being a great source misery and anxiety for many people, you're not alone.
posted by lizbunny at 6:29 AM on July 13, 2010

Are you using zotero or something like it? What field are you in?

All of the advice above is good. I'm partial to getting up a couple of hours earlier and working when everyone is asleep. It worked for me.

Don't forget that this is a first draft! No matter how well you write you will have to do some re-writing. This is your chance to be a bit sloppy, you're not getting graded!
posted by mareli at 6:58 AM on July 13, 2010

Wow, this could be me. You've already got some great advice about scheduling, waking up early, just writing - I will even sometimes write for a bit with no style at all just to get the content down, in the voice I might use to describe to someone what I'm writing. So the only thing I'll add that's helped me is, try a short - 15 to 20-minute - session of meditation or yoga every night. Meditation is really hard for me, it's hard to keep my brain still, but yoga is easier because you're focusing on the movement yet it's meditative. And it helps me sleep peacefully, helps me focus, makes my brain sharper. And I'm not talking about some sophisticated thing - real yoga people would probably laugh their asses off at me - I just ordered a Gaiam DVD and I do what they do.

Remember when you're beating yourself up that you posted this at 4am (yes, I noticed that...I do a lot of my postings then too) and by 7am you had ten people saying "oh yeah, me too, that's exactly how it is." The reason it feels this way is not that you're not doing this right or you're dysfunctional or whatever. The reason it feels this way is because that's how it is.

Come back and let us know how it goes. We've all been there...hell, I'm there. You can do it.
posted by Betsy Vane at 8:15 AM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

First of all: if grad school is making you miserable, you're not alone. Please go easy on yourself. You're trying to do something really difficult that you've never done before. I went to grad school as a full-time student and I spent a lot of the time feeling overwhelmed and uncertain that I could accomplish everything I needed to. You're trying to do the same AND work full time as well.

Several parts of your post hint that you may be dealing with anxiety and/or depression--conditions that are endemic among grad students, but that nobody has to suffer through without help. Make the time to go to a psych clinic for evaluation. You can count this time as thesis time and/or work time and/or family time, because good mental health will help support all of your goals.

Your university's library probably archives past student theses. Grab four or five recent theses from your department (preferably written with the same advisors as yours) and peruse the lit reviews to get a sense of the conventions. If you're lucky, you'll find a thesis that strikes you as mediocre in quality, but that passed anyway. That can help you calibrate the effort you put into your writing, if you've been setting the bar too high.

I've written before on AskMetafilter about how important it was for me to hire an independent coach to help me manage my work in grad school. I also talked with her a lot about balancing / prioritizing the different sectors of my life. It was an IMMENSE help to have someone to check in with who was not one of my academic advisors. I knew she wouldn't be judging my work, so I had no hesitation in telling her about my difficulties and hashing out practical solutions. If you find somebody that you click with, it could be well worth spending about $50 and 45-60 minutes every couple of weeks to get some non-judgmental, supportive coaching.

The last several months of my dissertation writing, when I really "got it done," were not fun--I put most of my social/romantic/family life on hold, temporarily quit most of my pleasure activities (including Metafilter), and worked seven days a week. I kept telling myself, "This is a temporary situation. It will come to an end." And it did, and now I enjoy my pastimes and my social life with renewed pleasure and appreciation. In the long run, my stint as a "dissertation hermit" will have been a relatively short period in my life. Of course it makes you sad to feel like you're not being as good a wife/daughter/niece/sister/friend as you would be if you weren't shouldering such a huge workload. But grad school is temporary, and now is the time to let other people support you, or just let your relationships go into a kind of low-energy mode. You can look forward to celebrating your freedom with everyone once you get out of grad school.
posted by Orinda at 8:53 AM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know well the feeling of being overwhelmed with needing to write something but unable to move from the "reading a ton of articles" to "putting pen on paper" stage.

I second the idea of working for a few hours each morning BEFORE WORK on your thesis. I found that 2 hours was the sweet spot for me; little enough time that if I didn't get too far I didn't feel like I had wasted a huge chunk of time, but enough time to really get your head into the subject and think. Ask your boss if you can come in late for a few weeks while you finish your thesis--and if not, whether you can take an hour of vacation time every day in the morning. Eight mornings of writing before work might make a better use of time off than a full day where you stare at a blank page and get anxious about it.

Personally, I've rarely been able to sit down and just write academic-type text, and this goes triple for literature reviews. What I find helpful is to start by outlining: I take the 10 or 15 or 50 articles I've read, I paste the citations into a Word document, and start moving them around until they're clumped into similar topics. Then I start to create sections, then sub-sections, and on and on. I'll sometimes pick a clump of articles that I feel pretty good about and just write a paragraph that ties them all together. You don't have to go top to bottom! You can skip all over your outline! For me, the key is to separate the process of thinking about what I'm going to say--outlining--from the process of actually coming up with the words to say it--writing. (Obviously, this method of writing means you need to leave in sufficient time for at least one solid revision--the first draft doesn't necessarily flow very well, but revising is 10,000 times easier than creating new text so I prefer to do it this way.) Maybe try to do some outlining to see if that will break your block and just get you going.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:04 AM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm about to finish (the more I say it the more I'll believe it) my PhD, and I've been working 3 days a week and studying part time. I started in September 2007, which means I should finish my thesis within 3 years.

One might wonder how this is possible - but I firmly believe that the compression of time is by no means a tragedy for your studies (though it may be for your energy levels), it means when it's time to work, time you have set aside, then work is the things you're doing.

The best advice, and this may well have seeped into me from Metafilter but I can't find a source for it, is "Be in the room you're in". If you're at work, you're at work. If you're with your husband, you're with your husband. If you're studying, you're studying. By all means schedule in these things, but once scheduled, then you need to commit to it - even if you're committing to dozing on the sofa, having a nap or having date night.

Please feel free to mail me for any queries about any of this, but that single piece of advice means that I'm reasonably sane, and finishing on schedule.
posted by Augenblick at 5:27 AM on July 14, 2010

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