graduate student support group
May 1, 2005 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Grad students unite! Calling all Ph.D. students, but especially those in the humanities, literature, languages, or history departments. How do you stay healthy (mentally and physically), keep sane, be positive, get work finished in a timely manner, stay happy?

I'm Ph.D. student in Literature/Film at Duke. This is the end of my second year, and well, life has been better. I feel like my social skills are dying, my stress levels are too high, my bank account too low, and my future uncertain. There are parts of me that absolutely love what I do: it is definitely a moral/ethical/doing-it-for-the-love career and life experience. But there are days where I don't talk to anyone in person, and my long-distance relationship seems to be falling apart. I came in as one of the more social people in my department, and perhaps that's why I'm feeling the pain more than others. I love books and films, and I like both the practice and idea of teaching, adore writing, and really can sink my teeth into research that matters. BUT, I miss having sustained personal contact, deadlines on a more regular basis than twice yearly, and don't really love the area that I live in. To make it a little worse, the job market these days doesn't exactly give me tons of hope for the future. I'm definitely not in this solely for a job after the dissertation, but I'd be joking if I didn't consider it as part of the overall journey and part of the plan for my future. I took time off between my undergrad degree and starting here, and worked, travelled, and really thought about what I wanted to do.

I know there must be lots of science Ph.D. students here, but somehow I feel like your situation is slightly different: you work with other people in a lab, have frequent deadlines, and options outside of academia when you're finished. There is also a much stronger mentor/boss relationship. MA students are here for a year, maybe two, and it's a much different career trajectory. There are any number of reasons why this was a bad school year for me. But after talking with some of my fellow students, this seems like a general state-of-mind, no matter the personal situation that adds a slightly different colour. It's a well-known program, filled with top-notch professors, I have an advisor that seems to understand me and my project, and I'm not totally destitute. And yet, it seems like I'm missing something here.

If you were a grad student, or are a grad student, what are your words of wisdom? What are your tips for getting through this? How do you manage your time, keep sane, stay healthy, see people? What do you wish someone had told you before all of this started?

I wish it were as simple as 1) Get accepted 2) Work hard 3) ???? 4) Profit!! But alas, no such luck yet. Please help me stay in school :-)
posted by fionab to Education (35 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
fionab, I am in much the same boat, although I am beginning my data collection/dissertation writing phase now (tomorrow, in fact!) in English Education.

What I have found to be most helpful in keeping my stress levels low and my spirits high is a tight group of friends-- kind of a self-selected cohort. We are not all doing the same thing, (although we are all in Ed.), but we have enough in common that we can easily wander out of our offices and find each other, bitch and moan about something or share some good news, take a walk and momentarily relax, and not feel like we are putting anyone out by talking shop.

All of us are graduate assistants, so we make next to nothing. Our approach has been to support each other for small things like lunches or sodas or a little bit of gas money when we each have it. Kind of communally, we make sure we have some kind of support.

We also drink a bit.

You say you are social, so perhaps you can actively seek out people that you think might be good to surround yourself with-- you want people that will make you do your work even when you are at your most resistant, and who will call you off when they can see you are pushing too hard. You will have to do the same for them, as well.

remember that time management includes making time for yourself and those you love. If you are shoehorning too much in, you become useless for even the most basic and easy of tasks. Rethink your courseload, talk to your professors, do what you can to organize your time to allow for you, your relationship, goofing off, and sleep. I allot myself at least 5 hours a week where I am not going to look at or otherwise think about schoolwork. Sometimes I have to rob one week to pay another, but I do manage to average out at 5 a week for total screwing off.

Carry a "fun" book everywhere you go. Catch snippets of it when you can.

exercise. Make the time to do that.

And remember you got into this because you loved it, but it is after all just school. Important school, but just school.
posted by oflinkey at 9:24 PM on May 1, 2005

Um, OK, this is not meant to be a flip or dismissive answer but: I had a similar problem, and solved it by simply leaving academia. I still look back on that as having been one of the smartest decisions I've ever made.

...having said that, I also concur with what oflinkey just said, esp. the time-management bit.
posted by aramaic at 9:27 PM on May 1, 2005

My single best piece of advice is this: Barring extraordinary situations like test cramming and lecture preparation, there is a finite amount of work that you can accomplish in a given day. Figure out what this amount is and then budget for it. Wake up as early as you can and get it done. Then live your life.

A lot of grad students assume that time spent in the library is time spent working. They drive themselves crazy looking busy when they're only built to accomplish a certain amount of work in a day. If you can get that work out of the way with a minimum of anxiety, you'll be able to hit the gym, read for pleasure, date, work a part-time job, etc. All the sanity preserving activities that your colleagues can't or won't permit themselves. Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint; stamina and balance count for at least as much as smarts.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to cramming for a qualifying exam tomorrow!
posted by felix betachat at 9:28 PM on May 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

Sorry - (bitter) science student here.

I *totally* get what you're feeling. Initial thought is; is this really what you want to do? If the answer right now is, "maybe not" then you might want to figure out what you can do with the degree - HR? management? Gov work? It sucks to waste years of your life (I made a very bad decision to do a MSc (where I'm doing it now) - compounded with a totally shity situation - I feel that I'm throwing away the "best" three years of my life).

If this *is* what you want to do, then it beggers the question as to whether or not this is something you're just going to have to put up with.

As I've made steps to make my future better, I can (more) comfortably grit my teeth and 'put up and put out' and hopefully end it. As for the beginning of program... PhD is a comic that came up on mefi a short while ago, it might salve short term irritation.

For the money - sci students can fight for a TA position - as non-sci students tend to have more flex time, can you TA for extra money? I know MA (lib/info sci / art history) students who do p/t jobs to help the $ situation.

A stronger boss/mentor relationship is not necessarily a good thing - strong can mean a *lot* of different things. In my case, negative (for me) ones.

From what I've gleaned from my peers, having a strong relationship with another individual who isn't a student (ie., actually making money) helps things considerably. Financials aside - stable/whatever romantic relationships help disengage the sense of isolation. Strong platonic friendships (and friendship activities) also help some.

I dunno - I sympathize with you, the melancholy may pass on its own, or it may seed a whole messy ball of disgust - it depends on how you deal with it and what the fates deal you. It's kinda hard to give any concrete advise/sympathy sounds without knowing more specifics.

Best of luck.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 9:34 PM on May 1, 2005

I am not a grad student, though most of my work is self-initiated (ie, I work at home) and I can get get crazy busy. However, I think this applies no matter what:

The best thing I ever taught myself was how to just say "fuck it."

Fuck what I should do. Fuck the consequences. Fuck my goals. I'm gonna go have some ice cream and cupackes and then get drunk and go on a two-day road trip and have lots of sex and spend money I don't have and just not care. If you don't act like a flake in general, then despite your actions everything can be put back together again in a day or two. You can't do it too often, but learning how to do it when necessary has saved me from insanity more than once. You have more time than you think you do, even if it's less than you wish. Good luck.
posted by dame at 9:42 PM on May 1, 2005 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Great advice/sympathy so far. Thanks for all of your encouragement or commiseration! As an aside, I'm an international student so I can't work (for pay) anymore than I already am. I am a TA, and next year I'll be teaching my own class, but the number of hours that covers is my limit according to the student visa. aramaic, leaving is definitely something that I've thought about, and it's something I'll think about this summer if I continue to have doubts. And thanks, dame, that's something I'm definitely trying to get better at!
posted by fionab at 9:44 PM on May 1, 2005

I am a science PhD student, but my situation isn't all as positive as you describe. Working in the lab with other people? Most of my time is spent either sitting in a room on my own weighing / staining / scanning samples or watering pot-plants, or sitting at my computer on my own typing in data.

I think what keeps me going is the thought that, at the end of the day, it's all just a laugh. I'll get to the end eventually, in my own time. The fate of the universe, or indeed, the fate of my life does not hinge on on this. Perhaps, as a humanities student, this is even more true for you: As a scientist, having a PhD opens a lot of doors for me. For you, as you said, it only opens one door. Don't let it also close all the others by sucking away your life.

If, when I submit, they don't want to award me the degree, it's not going to break my heart. I have the option of working at it more until it's acceptable, or quitting and becoming a gardener.

I particularly take inspiration from a fellow student, who's just turned 60 and has been working at her PhD for 6 years. What's it going to do for her? Nothing. She's not looking for a technical job at the end of it. She's not looking for a career in academia. It's just a few letters to add to her name, and she treats it suitably flippantly. She's one of the most lively, sociable, life-filled people I know (she's holding a "Coming of Age" ball next weekend) because she's quite aware that a PhD doesn't equal a life.

Honestly, I think my primary driving motivation is looking forward to the day I get to go to the bank and tell them to change my title to Dr.

I keep sane by having well defined "time-outs". Afternoons in the garden. Weekends at a friend's place shooting pool and smoking pot. I don't take these time-outs until I'm satisfied with my recent progress. Once I'm satisfied, I can leave that world behind. If you are finding you're never satisfied, or that you've never got time to take off then, quite simply, you're working too hard, and you have to slow down. Because when it gets to that stage, it's not worth it.
posted by Jimbob at 9:44 PM on May 1, 2005

I finished up with Duke's polisci program in 2000.

Mostly, life is hard. Duke's grad admissions pamphlets used to admit this up front, calling it "austere."

End of the second year is one of the worst times, probably. If your program was like mine, you haven't yet taken comps (or just did it), so you're not feeling very professional yet and you have that looming in the future. Things can pick up after you pass comps, start writing your own papers instead of class papers, start going to conferences and meeting fun-enough people, and work on your own stuff. It helps to start being a junior professor-type instead of a senior student-type; there's much less helplessness about it, but self-motivation is a real bitch.

Treat grad school as a job. It's not a mystic program of self-improvement, it's not the culmination of personal integrity and self-expression, it's just a damn job. Maybe it legitimately takes more hours than most jobs you'd be moving into fresh out of a BA program, but it's still just a job. It's not your life, it's not what defines your life, it's not going to change the world, it's just a fucking job, just another anonymous job like everyone else has -- so don't let it put on airs. Keep it in its place.

One thing is ya gotta keep a regular life. Having friends in your department or from Duke is one thing, but it's nice to be able to find friends such that you being a grad student is not the most interesting, defining thing about you. If it's the kind of thing you do, you could ask around and drop by a local church that seems, well, ideologically and emotionally acceptable; if that's not your thing you could still check out the local Unitarian assembly or try to find other gatherings.

Putting both together, it helps to budget time for yourself, and to budget time for school stuff and not go beyond it without a good reason.

Even if you're not overly fond of Durham, that's not the be-all and end-all of the area. Maybe you'd be happier moving to Chapel Hill -- the rents aren't *that* much more, and the areas between where Erwin dumps back onto 15-501 and Estes are a pretty easy commute. The point is that you're going to be living there, odds are, for at least another three years so you're better off looking around to see where you think you can be happy/happier. Myself, I spent the last couple years living alone in a wee silly house in Chatham County, which didn't particularly suit being a grad student at Duke -- the rent was a bit too much at $450 and it was ~40 minutes away -- but it suited me.

It also helps to better ground yourself in the area. There are lots of good, cheap day trips available unto you. The first thing I'd do is get a membership at the NC Zoo about an hour and a half away in Asheboro -- it's relatively small but very well done and very modern and animal-friendly, and it makes a very nice Saturday out with a couple friends, or a nice place to go yourself on a weekday to clear your head. Similarly, you can leave in the morning, do a bit of hiking at Hanging Rock or Pilot Mountain, grab a pork-chop sammich at the Snappy Lunch in Mt. Airy, and come home. Or drop down to Wilmington to check out the battleship (it's done up as a really good exhibit of itself) and some seafood. There's a weird little rodeo that stops in Efland, right near Mebane, every year put on by -- I shit you not -- the Cowboys for Christ. No active evangelising IIRC, but hoo-boy is that a slice of life. The state fair in Raleigh is good fun too, in a similar slice-of-life way.

Outside of day trips, the Blue Ridge and Smokies are very pleasant places to be for a nice weekend (and cheap if you avoid the big seasons, or camp, or both), and Ocracoke is cheap-ish in late Sept/early Oct. If you have friends in DC, crash there for a weekend.

When you start writing your dissertation, remember what your goal is -- a document that's minimally complete enough to get you your degree, and a job. Not a magnum opus of perfection. Your question to your advisers should always be "What can I cut because I don't need it?," and they should be taking the lead on that, really.

Grad school is just a job, and your dissertation is just your journeyman's piece, and nothing more. The number of people who actually sit down and carefully read all of your dissertation might well end up being one or even zero. All that other stuff you wanted to work in or deal with -- those are other articles in the future.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:05 PM on May 1, 2005 [2 favorites]

Atrophy is normal. Really good advice is given above. I'm doing my fourth year in a dungeon basement lab, so I'll try to add just a bit.

Instead of dreading on about post-degree opportunities/lack thereof, concentrate on making these four six-point-five years as unique and free as possible. Be aware that in a few years you likely should have more tools at your disposal to invent great opportunities than most. Only one month ago did it occur to me in a great flash what the next 5-10 years in my particular sub-field is going to be like; I now feel much better about my situation and near-term future.

So in the meantime, find time to become a regular at a good coffee house on Sunday mornings. Go to the local civic orchestra every now and then. Movies, books, new music; don't miss them. Make time to volunteer speaking at a school or working with kids: it can be the ultimate upper.

Try to find an exercise routine that works for you; I don't do much, but I bike commute to work which guarantees 40 minutes a day. Otherwise, your schedule as a graduate student is flexible so you can always find a time to go to the gym when it isn't busy.

I also find the lack of deadlines and general acceptance of malaise highly annoying. If you are finding organization to be a problem, there are plenty of geek-minded solutions floating around the blogsphere these days.

Truth be told, older graduate students did warn me. I chalked it up to their lack of ambition and thought "Well, that won't be me. I'll be outta here in four years flat and damn happy to boot." Not so much. Atrophy is normal.
posted by fatllama at 10:10 PM on May 1, 2005

ugh......thanks for bumming me out. I'm starting my PhD in a month. But then again, I'm medical science ( in drug design, not drug dispensing) and I'm moving to new york.

But seriously, I concur with the "fuck it" comments. No matter how grand the goal, you have to enjoy the ride. Part of the reason I turned down Uchicago and UPenn was because I wouldn't have the established circle of friends I would have in nyc. Take a step back and do something else you really enjoy, then come back to your PhD.

and don't give up, the new kids need role models....
posted by slapshot57 at 10:12 PM on May 1, 2005

Wow -- this sounds like me a number of years ago. I'm one of the lucky ones in the humanities, having been hired for a job next semester and finishing my PhD this semester. I'm actually blogging about it right now (you can check my profile if you want).

But I was one of the most social people I knew before graduate school. Now, not so much. My university has no college town to speak of and the grads are spread pretty thin. What kept me going was my teaching, my cat, and my connections to people outside of academia. This is absolutely necessary. Being around academics day in and day out tends to constrict one's vision. So early on I auditioned for a (really bad) play, made some friends and stuck with them for most of grad school. Also, I find it's good to get irrationally excited about small victories -- a thesis chapter drafted, crafting a make-shift fly-swatter, watching the buds open on the trees during the spring...

It's not easy, but it does get easier to stand the isolation. You may not want to stand it, (and you shouldn't have to stand it). I didn't want to, but the inertia was there and I chose to for the schedule an academic gets to keep during his or her working days -- it's just so much more humane. In return for the punishment now, I'm planning some long healing periods after it's all over.

I know that's not much of a solution -- I suspect most graduate students in rural environs live with a certain degree of depression. Just don't go too deep. And take a hiking/camping trip here and there.
posted by ontic at 10:14 PM on May 1, 2005

I'm doing a PhD and I love it! Things that make it work for me are (1) a good bunch of fellow students who are usually available for a coffee or beer, and (2) a great supervisor.

I spent some years working in general admin jobs before starting my PhD, and one thing I brought from the "real world" workplace is that I treat the PhD as a job, which means working hard during the week, knocking off early on Friday for beers then doing my own thing over the weekend.

On the lack of deadlines: I tend to slack off without deadlines, so I'll meet with my supervisor and say something like "I'll give you some writing next week"; that gives me the motivation to get that section completed, and the frequent feedback is good too.

Best of luck, I hope it works out for you!
posted by nomis at 10:23 PM on May 1, 2005

dame and others have got it right. *Sometimes* you need to just say fuckit.

For me, I sometimes need to pause for a bit and ask whether the 4 hours I'm spending at 3am in the morning is for *me* or for someone else.

Being a grad student - sometimes you feel obliged to someone else, but ultimately, you're doing this for yourself. Sure, there are things that your supervisor will want you to do, but your supervisory committee ought to help you out of stuff that you shouldn't be doing. But I doubt that you're angsting about this - I think that you just need to set limits, and to figure out what exactly it required for you to grad.

/knocking wood - 1&1/2 weeks....
posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:32 PM on May 1, 2005


You are definitely not the only person feeling this way. I'm in my third year of a History PhD, and it has not been a good one. I know I have a lot of issues, especially around depression and motivation, that I need to work out; undergrad kept me running so much I never learned how to plan a healthy work schedule, and now that I'm out of coursework I've found myself drifting terribly.

My roommate is going through similar stuff; so are many of my other friends.

That said, because your situation is so common, I would think seriously before dropping out. You aren't failing - you are just experiencing what so many do. Do you love what you are studying? Do you get excited by papers or conferences in your field? Do you get all curious about new books, even if (like me) you have trouble finishing them? If these are all true, it's probably worth sticking it out through this rough patch. Unless there is something else you are thinking you would rather do - if you are hankering after something else, then maybe you should go. But it's always best to be running to, not away. If you stop without a plan, you might just find your self esteem takes a blow - it's really hard to fail at something so important (I've had some disapointments like that).

Humanities is difficult - and the isolation makes it worse. Colloquia help; we set up a monthly interdisciplinary colloquiua for graduate students (and got the gard school to pay for lunch - does your school have any such program?). I also have a weekly informal lunch with people in my field, which is something to look forward to. People in my department will also get study buddies - people they work with at the library. They are both silent, doing their own thing, but not so isolated.

As for work habits, I'm not the best, but schedules do help. Getting up the same time everyday (preferrably in the morning :), going to the library to work - the big reading room at our library is always full of history students Monday to Friday. And internal deadlines - I do much better when I have to get something done for my advisor.
posted by jb at 10:43 PM on May 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also, if it's a possibility, you might consider moving into a graduate dormitory or at least a shared living situation. I know a lot of graduate students are sick of dorm life, and want to be all "adult" by having their own place, but living in a dorm was the best thing for helping with my isolation and depression in my first two years. Twice a day, I hadthe chance/was forced to eat with other people from all sorts of different fields, and I talked and just got to be social for a bit. Actually, most of my good friends in grad school I either met in the dorm or through people there - I only have a handful of friends in my department (which is huge - the people I know all tend to be either medieval or early modern, because we pre-moderns stick together). I got to know people in different fields, and gained a wider perspective - including on the job market, as one of my best friends was a classical musician - we have it so easy compared to them!

This year, I am living in an apartment, but I have a roommate, and I don't think I would have gotten by on my own. We're both a little crazy sometimes, but we seem to have our timing good so that one of us is sane at any given point. And at least we are guarenteed of a human conversation once a day - the cat is cute, but no replacement for talking to another person. I think my roommate is happier - she had been living on her own for two years, and it was very isolating.
posted by jb at 10:52 PM on May 1, 2005

Some good advice above, about keeping time for yourself, setting deadlines that others know about, etc. Doing a phd is a very isolating experience, and prone to the mindfuck of self-indulgence/selfishness. Having emerged from the other side, more or less in one piece, in a quasi-humanities related field, and having luckily got a job, my advice is:

-- dont fall prey to "presenteeism" -- going to your office/sitting at your desk in order to give the appearance of work. Practice "desk hygiene" -- if you are at your desk, then work - don't play solitaire, surf the net, doze, or goof off. Recognize if you are able to work at the time -- if you sit there for 15 minutes without an idea or writing a sentence then do something else for an hour. Walk, find a comfy chair and read some schlock, whatever. But at all costs, don't spend time at your desk when you are not working.

-- if the mood strikes you and you are on a roll, don't get off the roll for anything. Skip food, guest lectures, coffees, chats, emails, other deadlines, whatever IF you are being productive. Most people I know who have done PhDs relate how the back of the project was broken in a few bursts of intense creativity. For myself, the creative contribution of my thesis occured in an intense four day session. A year before then, in a two week burst I had written the general context. A year after the burst in a 10 day period I wrote much of the rest of the good bits. It is false to think the intervening time was wasted - it isnt, it is a necessary springboard for the bursts - but for heavens sake when you are on a roll and firing on all cylinders then DONT STOP until the burst is exhausted.

-- in conjunction with the above, keep things ticking over the rest of the time. Read a journal article or chapter each day, every day, regardless if it is directly relevant or not.

-- keep a list of "mindless" tasks to do. Bibliographies, figures, tables, filing, etc. There's no rule that these have to be done at the last minute!

-- when needed, set weekly deadlines with your supervisor --- for something like "five pages on x", where x can be almost anything -- part of a chapter, a book review, whatever. The pages add up and you can mine them later. Committing to do the work can be very important, as nomis notes. I sue this with my own graduate students now and it works. Also, consider using other members of your committee in this role.

-- take notes on everything you do or think of, in a notebook, not the margins. A gem of an idea in the ntoebook is money in the bank. A vague memory of a good idea or a lost marginal note under a glacier of paper is just frustrating.

-- remember that if you could write a page per day, thats over 300 pages in a year. While these may come in bursts, they add up quickly.

Sometimes writing blocks are all about writing. Find someone to tell your ideas to, and get them to take notes, or record the conversation. Then transcribe it, and with some editing you have some good stuff.

-- on the social front, get into regular commitments and social settings -- a weekly game of intramural ultimate or floor hockey, a weekly game of squash, a book club, an Amnesty letters group, make pizzas communally. Ideally you'd have at least four or five of these a week so that you don't disappear up your own garret.

-- enjoy the journey. One thing I immediately realized on getting a faculty position was how fragmented the work day becomes. As a grad student, I often had whole weeks when my only task was to make some progress on the thesis. This can be overwhelming - hence the strategies above - but if I could do it all over again I would try to savour the liberating aspects of the experience more -- I struggled in much the same way you describe but in retrospect it truly does seem possible to have an enjoyable grad student life. Its all about curiosity in the present - the future will happen regardless.
posted by Rumple at 11:12 PM on May 1, 2005 [5 favorites]

As a research student, I think that the experience just tends to breed depression. I was on the point of suspending my studies just a few weeks ago but I have seen things start to pick up after making a few lifestyle changes. I'm sure you can find a bunch of suggestions in previous AskMe threads on depression but for me the basics are:

* Vigorous exercise three times a week. At least some experimental evidence shows this to be potentially as effective as antidepressants for many people. I chose jogging; it's completely mindless so I'm able to do it no matter how fried my brain is.

* Good nutrition. In addition to the usual guidelines you should get plenty of B vitamins and omega-3 fats. I take supplements of high-EPA fish oil as well which you might want to consider. I also quit caffeine and cut refined sugar back to the unavoidable bare minimum which is clearly not necessary for everyone but arguably is a potentially helpful part of a depression defense strategy.

* Don't keep any junk around that you don't need, use or love. Be merciless. This doesn't come up as often as the other suggestions I'm giving here and I haven't seen any studies on this effect but it makes a big difference for me. It's somehow much easier to get it together to go out and do things when you know that things are in order at home.

This might seem to be low-level advice that doesn't have anything to do with doing a PhD, but I think you'll find that if you get can your brain chemistry working at its absolute best the higher level problems will be much easier to deal with. That said, many of the suggestions in this thread seem really useful and I'll definitely be adopting a few.

One more thing, it's worth keeping in mind that if you ever reach a situation where you have to drop out, you will survive and have plenty of opportunities to build a happy life doing something else. Knowing I can leave if I have to is a big source of comfort for me.
posted by teleskiving at 11:23 PM on May 1, 2005

Maybe setting up a standing Metafilter "PhD completion support group" would be a good idea? I'm a technopeasant but would take part for sure.
posted by Rumple at 11:23 PM on May 1, 2005

Fionab: If it isn't fun, why are you doing it? Aramaic may have nailed it. Your Ph.D. program is training for being a professor--if you don't like it now, I am not sure you will like it any better with "Dr." in front of your name. Grad school should be an exhilarating intellectual adventure. As Rumple says in his superb post, enjoy the journey.

I am finishing my 9th year of being a professor know, and though I love my job it is not nearly as much fun as being a grad student was.

On Preview: Second the grad student support group.
posted by LarryC at 11:33 PM on May 1, 2005

Maybe this will help. the Principle of DE (Do Easy)
posted by dhruva at 12:11 AM on May 2, 2005

Not a grad student myself, but my friend recommends PhinisheD - an online support group.. lots of advice, ideas, fellow grad students to talk with..
posted by AnnaRat at 2:16 AM on May 2, 2005

LarryC -- I'm sure you know this, but sometimes you have to do some un-fun things in order to get to the fun things. There are a good number of things about a graduate career that are different from being a professor, namely the poverty, isolation, and lack of job security. There are people who don't like what they're studying, and I'd dissuade them from going on to share it with students. But there are other reasons why being a grad might be less fun than being a professor.

(And we'll have to have a MO meetup when I get down there in the fall!)

Good luck Fiona -- bash on regardless.
posted by ontic at 2:48 AM on May 2, 2005

You are not alone Fiona. I could have written your question, although I am a science student. (Yes, I would have changed the relevant little details). Some of the suggestions here are really good, and I know I'll have just as much trouble carrying them out as you will. Best of luck.
posted by grouse at 3:07 AM on May 2, 2005

When you're tired, deal with "low-hanging fruit," i.e. the easy, mindless stuff. Get "Getting Things Done" and read it, despite its silly cover. I wish I'd had it when I started. Work smart, not hard. If a prof never discusses the reading and it has no bearing on your grade, don't do it... just skim. You can't work all the time. Leave time for play, but don't make play getting trashed or you'll drain yourself. Have friends in the same predicament. Have work dates... at the library, at the coffee shop. Make structure that isn't there. Sleep enough. Only do that every now and again, if you must. It's triage. What is essential? Like the others, I'd write more, but I have to defend my dissertation in 10 days, plus I have a new internship rotation to start today (my PhD is in Psychology). For me, perhaps the best thing I did for myself was to join my dissertation support group. It kept me moving on my project through some REALLY tough times of tough personal emotional stuff. See if you have something like that where you are. I think the social/academic/peer support was key for me... both on my diss and for qualifying exams and for classes and everything.

Oh, lastly... no matter what your advisor says, if the pace is too fast, you can slow down. I was going to finish everything in 6 years (even though the average in my field is 7), but I went through an unexpected divorce (as in, he sprung it on me). As a result, I took an extra year. No biggie. It was a reasonable response to trying times.

Best of luck! It's a really hard road.


Soon-to-be Dr. Abbyladybug!
posted by abbyladybug at 5:07 AM on May 2, 2005

Response by poster: Hey everyone, thank you so much for all of the advice and thoughts. Really, you just made my day, if not week. And yes, I do love what I do - the reading, the viewing, the teaching, the thinking, the writing, but it's true that this stage really sucks. I'm an old student, not really teaching yet, and kind of in the purgatory stage of grad school. Our department doesn't really do prelims until 3rd or 4th so I'm really feeling out of it, writing papers for classes. I have to go off to finalize grades for my little students (TA extraordinaire), but this afternoon I'll read through all of these responses closely and take them to heart. As for the MeFi grad support group, I think I was only partially kidding when I wrote that as the page title, so yeah, we should think about *something* along those lines. Thanks again everyone, this really helps even just to know that I'm not alone, people I know aren't just humouring me by grimly nodding to my bitchings and that yes, there may even be hope out there. I'll drop in soon after I read through everything.
posted by fionab at 5:34 AM on May 2, 2005

I'm just at the end of my second year in an English PhD, and I've found the more practical advice here to be what's helped me most in my own life: e.g., get lots of exercise, learn to cook and eat right, get up _early_ and work until dinnertime (I get up at around 6:30), get organized (with something like GTD), keep a notebook (I use Levenger Circa), and so on. I've also taken to leaving my computer at home or using full-screen editors like CopyWrite for the Mac.

I think the hardest part of graduate school is the shapelessness of the work-week. I make sure I take one day a week off (usually Sunday, actually). The book How to Work the Competition Into the Ground (And Have Fun Doing It) by John T. Molloy has been tremendously helpful in terms of showing me how to be more focused and productive. It's out of print, but you can get used copies on Amazon and (obviously) in libraries. The one irremediable problem is money--all I've really been able to do about it is live thriftily. My main luxury is fancy groceries.

To that advice I'll add the power lunch, something you'll have done if you've worked in business. Schedule lunches with friends that last at most 50 minutes. Make yourself leave after that time is up. Spread your social commitments throughout the week; see people often for short periods. Avoid the cycle where you never see people because 'seeing people' means dinner for three hours or a two-hour lunch because it's been so long. Get a Palm Pilot and schedule your life that way, but schedule yourself one way or the other.
posted by josh at 5:45 AM on May 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

One thing got me through grad school: my twice weekly basketball game. Seriously. In the throes of dissertation hell (and I feel I should warn you: if you think you are miserable now, just wait a couple of years), I would wake up Monday morning and think "life sucks, but at least I get to play ball Tuesday and Thursday."

So my advice: get involved in a team sport. Doesn't matter if you suck at it to begin with (I did); you just have to find a good group of folks to play with. You get social interaction that has nothing whatsoever to do with academia (ideally, find non-academic folks to play with). You get exercise. You get a feeling of accomplishment. And you forget about everything else and focus on something relatively mindless.
posted by googly at 5:45 AM on May 2, 2005

I forgot something. Be honest with yourself about how you work. The truth is (and I forget it almost daily) is that I get NOTHING done at home. This is just a fact. There are too many distractions here. If I want to accomplish anything, I need to be at the library, or in my department, or at a coffeeshop, or a bookstore. Home does not equal productivity. Why I can't remember this, I'll never know. Face reality and work within it.
posted by abbyladybug at 5:53 AM on May 2, 2005

Um, OK, this is not meant to be a flip or dismissive answer but: I had a similar problem, and solved it by simply leaving academia. I still look back on that as having been one of the smartest decisions I've ever made.

Ditto. I don't want to discourage you, but I understand all too well the feeling that "I've invested X amount of time and money and I have to go through with it," and I want to warn you against it. Yes, if you're one of those people who truly loves the subject and teaching (two very different things, and I'm no good at standing up in front of scores of people who don't give a shit and trying to get them to give a shit or at least listen), then forge ahead, deal with the unpleasantness, and reap the rewards. But if you have a sneaking suspicion that it may not be for you, listen to that suspicion. I wish I'd gotten out well before I did; it took me years to pay off the loans I needn't have incurred, and I'm still trying to get over the bitterness. Grad school sucks, no two ways about it (and no, you can't say "fuck it," not if you want to get the degree and your professors' help finding a job), and it's only worth it if you're really going to relish what comes after.

You might want to browse the archives at Invisible Adjunct, a sadly defunct blog that had intense, intelligent discussions of all this stuff.
posted by languagehat at 6:12 AM on May 2, 2005

The grimmest years of my Ph.D. (in English Literature) weren't the first couple (those were, in retrospect, rather enjoyable), but the last one or two out of six, when I was writing the dissertation while working as a TA, and I felt as if none of my time was my own. So I don't know how much this advice will apply to you. But here are some things that helped--

--Schedule time to meet with friends. This will be difficult--if your friends are in the same state of mind that you are, they'll believe that they don't have time to socialize, so keep at it. It may take months to pin them down for a happy-hour drink, in some cases--keep at it. Yell at them if necessary.

--Work outside whenever possible. Sunlight does wonders for the constitution. When I was studying for my special-field exams, burning through an average of three novels every two days, I spent most of a summer sitting on the same bench for about ten hours a day, one that overlooked a golf course and had a sidewalk that was often used as a running path. My day was punctuated by the joggers and golfers that came by at the same time each day, like clockwork--after a few weeks, they'd wave and say hi and sometimes stop for a bit to see what I was reading, and some interpersonal contact is better than none (pathetic, but true).

--I would advise against drinking too much (in grad school, that can turn into a slippery slope), but treat yourself to a beer in the late afternoon on a weekday, now and again. Go out to a bar to get the beer--don't just buy a six-pack of something and take it back to your place. One of the benefits of being a graduate student is the ability to have a pint or two at 3 p.m.

--If you are dealing with depression, realize that the depression is far more likely to be situational than clinical, and situational depression can be fixed by changes in your situation. At my Ivy League university, Health Services (in my opinion) would throw antidepressants at grad students at the drop of a hat, and the percentage of graduate students I know who are on them far exceeds the percentage of people on antidepressants in the general population. Some of my colleagues viewed going on antidepressants as a necessary element of completing the degree--I don't agree with that (though I won't go into that here).

--Do you know people in other fields? Make friends with people in other fields. The nice thing about this is that both of you will be so specialized that neither of you will be able to talk about the work that you feel you ought to be working on, and whatever you end up talking about will take your mind off your work.

--Are you TA'ing? Limit the time when your students have access to you. Tell them that you only check your e-mail twice a day, even if that's a lie. Undergraduates, if left unchecked, will happily rob you of time that is deservedly yours--e-mails at 11:30 p.m. that say, "URGENT!" in the subject line, etc.

--As for the long-distance relationship, I wish I knew what to say about that, other than that academic life is very, very hard on romances, and in my experience that only gets worse the farther you get into it.

If you want to talk to me further, e-mail's in my profile.
posted by Prospero at 6:41 AM on May 2, 2005

But if you have a sneaking suspicion that it may not be for you, listen to that suspicion.

well, not to confuse matters further, but I had doubts for a long time and am currently really glad I stayed with it, and honestly don't know why it took me so long to figure out that this is the right path for me (I'm in 4th year of a philosophy phd). I definitely have issues with the "ivory tower" aspect of academia, and hope to be able to maintain a clear thinking and reasonably straightforward level of discourse, though. I personally have at least as much respect for a number of writers/artists/performers who explore philosophical issues but don't know what "performative utterances" or "conditions for the possibility" or "aporia" refer to, than I do for some percentage of peers who think an expanded vocabulary makes their insights deep (it can help express things more accurately, but I think you need to have an idea to start with), so I won't pretend my relationship to academia is all smooth sailing, but people take refuge in lingo in practically every part of life.

Anyway, I guess the point is, there are good and bad sides to all options. Figuring out if you enjoy teaching is really important, since that'll be the main professional option once you're done. Recognizing that the path is flexible was also important for me, that just because some academics isolate themselves doesn't mean I have to (significantly, in my field most people basically choose between analytic and continental philosophy - philosophy via science or via literature - & I'm committed to just plain old getting as close to truth as I can via whatever provides insight, as both science & literature obviously, IMO, do.)

Also, I will add that exercise, and eating well, are both excellent pieces of advice that are way too easy to dismiss. I'd also recommend throwing out the TV if you've got one (you can rent any worthwhile shows on DVD sometime later if it still seems interesting). These kinds of daily habits honestly add up to affect mood in pretty significant ways, so don't let yourself think, oh, I'm a mental person, not a jock; exercise isn't my thing. Exercise is part of being a body, and bodies are much happier when they're used. I stepped up my workout regimen from a couple times a week to 3-4x, and I push myself harder now, and I really think it has made a difference. I also drink those pricey vitamin juices (odwalla, naked) pretty often - that's a quick, easy way to get some nutrition. Sunlight is also good advice. Be conscious of these things, and act as if they're true, and see if things don't seem vaguely less difficult after a few months of regular exercise, sunlight & good nutrition...
posted by mdn at 7:19 AM on May 2, 2005

I'm unofficially finished with my MA in English (graduation's in a couple weeks). Last fall I was all set to start applying to PhD programs but decided to take a couple years "in the world" instead, and after I made that decision I felt much happier. I was facing the prospect of applying to ~20 schools, maybe getting into 1 or 2, and then having to go wherever the money was- even if it wasn't a place I wanted to live in... and then after years of toil, a decent job would likely be hard to come by. Dropping out- either leaving after the MA or not- is common, it seems. And sometimes it's the best option. So there's that.

My experience has been that people who aren't in grad school have a hard time understanding the pressures, so your best bet is to find friends in your program. I've lost a few friends because they just didn't understand that no, I couldn't hang out, I had to write a paper or study. It bummed me out at first, but really, do I want to be friends with someone who doesn't respect my priorities? You just sorta have to accept that most people (and I believe only 7% or something of the population has a MA or better) will think you're either avoiding them or working too hard in general.

Another thing that helps is to find awesome things to do over breaks. Yeah, you might have a stack of books and articles to read, but can you do it somewhere cool?

To echo what others have said: if you're starting to feel depressed, get thee to your campus health services! My school has free clinics for students- including unlimited therapy if you're lucky [unlucky? I think the doctor was worried about my mental health] enough to bypass the usual waiting list. The great thing about school therapists is that they understand the pressures of academia and grad school life, perhaps more than a therapist who went to grad school long long ago.

Well, good luck, and I hope you get to do something fun during summer break!
posted by elisabeth r at 8:47 AM on May 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Ah, so you do still love your discipline. Then stick with it. I hope my first reply wasn't too cold-blooded. There so much good advice above I don't know what to add, except this, which you may already know:

How to Read a Book in One Hour

1. Create a clean space--a table, the book, paper and a writing utensil, and nothing else.

2. Read two academic reviews of the book you photocopied beforehand. Don't skip this step, these will tell you the book's perceived strengths and weakness. Allow five minutes for this.

3. Read the introduction, carefully. A good intro will give you the book's thesis, clues on the methods and sources, and thumbnail synopses of each chapter. Work quickly but take good notes (with a bibliographic citation at the top of the page.) Allow twenty minutes here.

4. Now turn directly to the conclusion and read that. The conclusion will reinforce the thesis and have some more quotable material. In your notes write down 1-2 direct quotes suitable for using in a review or literature review, should you later be assigned to write such a beast.
Ten to fifteen minutes.

5. Turn to the table of contents and think about what each chapter likely contains. You may be done--in many cases in grad school the facts in any particular book will already be familiar to you, what is novel is the interpretation. And you should already have that from the intro and conclusion. Five minutes.

6. (Optional) Skim 1-2 of what seem to be the key chapters. Look for something clever the author has done with her or his evidence, memorable phrases, glaring weaknesses--stuff you can mention and sound thoughtful yourself when it is your turn to talk in the seminar room. Ten minutes, max.

7. Put the notes and photocopied review in a file folder and squirrel it away. These folders will serve as fodder for future assignments, reviews of similar books, lectures, grant applications, etc.

8. Miller time. Meet some friends and tell them the interesting things you just learned (driving it deeper it your memory).

The above works better with some books than others, but will generally do the trick. Another good technique to have is paragraph surfing. Read the first sentence in each paragraph--and nothing else. After a few disconcerting minutes, it become surprisingly easy to make sense out of a book this way, and it is fast.

Bless you and good luck.
posted by LarryC at 11:32 AM on May 2, 2005 [28 favorites]

Lots of good advice here. My biggest suggestion is to be really, really hesitant when it comes to thoughts of dropping out. I know you didn't mention it in your question, but I saw many fellow students go through this when I was in grad school.

At times, it will seem like school is a pointless waste of time, you hate your advisor, you are depressed, etc. At that moment, you may start thinking about dropping out and doing something (anything!) else. The fact is, the Real World is not necessarily that much better. I've seen too many people decide that things couldn't get any worse than grad school, and drop out. Most of them ended up disappointed with their situation within a few months.

If you really are miserable and thinking about dropping out, line up a position BEFORE taking any action, then take a leave of absence. This way, you can give yak farming a try without losing everything you've worked for. In the end, grad school is a lot like high school -- meaningless things appear to have enormous, life changing significance when looked back at a few years later.

And yes, drinking is a good strategy (a weekly happy hour is a Very Good Thing).
posted by i love cheese at 7:10 PM on May 2, 2005

I don't know a single person who's sorry they dropped out of grad school. I didn't have any position lined up and wound up working in bookstores and other minimum wage jobs for several years, and I was much happier than I had been in grad school.
posted by languagehat at 12:07 PM on May 3, 2005

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