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May 13, 2011 7:52 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend might be failing out of graduate school. What can I do to help?

My boyfriend is an organic chemist at a R1 university. He is not passing his cumulative exams. They run on a point system, B is half a point, A is a whole point, and anything less is a failing grade and doesn't get any points. You need 4 points by the end of your 2nd year max to more on to candidacy, 3 for a consolation-prize M.S. He has a point and a half, and only has 3 more tries to go. He wants to continue on to the Ph.D.

He has ADD and is depressed, and went to the campus health center and was prescribed Wellbutrin for the ADD and the depression. He just started, and was previous unmedicated for the ADD, although he has had a diagnosis and took medication as a child.

Can he appeal to the board in his department for more time to take the exams since he has ADD?(I know that's somewhat dependent on the exact school, which I'm not putting here.)

Thing is, I am headed off to graduate school in a few months for my Ph.D(in an unrelated field). I'm worried about what that might do to our relationship since I'll be pursuing something that he may have failed at doing, and I don't want him to be resentful.

I am moving in with him in a week for the summer. This issue will become more and more prevalent as time passes. If he doesn't pass these next exams with flying colors, things are not going to go well if he can't get an extension(and the thing is, he is technically already on an extension because you are supposed to have passed them by May).

He wants to be a professor. He has no other real skills. He loves chemistry and I believe that he is a good chemist when it comes to lab-work, but these exams are killing him. His relationship with his prof. seems a little strained, but I think he is on his side.

What can he do? What can I do as his (soon to be live in) girlfriend? Has anyone else been through this?

Throw-away email: metafilterquestion@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As a sideways suggestion, if he's a good chemist when it comes to lab work, but isn't as good at the exams and the theoretical stuff on them, there's plenty of work for someone with an M.S. in industrial/pharmaceutical chemistry.
posted by Oktober at 7:58 AM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

He needs to talk to the disability office at his university. I know "disability" can sound like not quite the right word, but he has a health situation that is interfering with his work. His department and professors can accommodate his needs if he has an official disability status. They are much more limited if he's just asking out of the blue without following the university's process. I don't know what the outcome would be--it's possible he'll be out of luck, but the very best thing he can do for himself is to talk to the people whose job it is to help students like him get the accommodations he needs (and deserves).
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:03 AM on May 13, 2011

He needs to get himself to his university's disability office yesterday. They should assign him a counselor who will assess him and his disability documentation and provide information on what accommodations he's allowed (if any). That can include changes to the exam time, place, or format. I doubt he'll be allowed to re-take the exams he's taken, but the accommodations may help the upcoming ones.
posted by BlooPen at 8:04 AM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Can he appeal to the board in his department for more time to take the exams since he has ADD?

This is something that really depends on his school.... But, I think the better question to ask is: can he take some time off, and then come back later, without ill effect?

Psychiatric medications mess with you. That's what they're supposed to do, but it can take time and effort to find the right type of medication. And all the time it takes to get the medication correct is time when you may feel wonky, have difficulty adjusting, and struggle even more than usual. In short, a period of time where one is struggling with psychiatric medication is NOT the time to be in a grad program. And the quest for the right medication is NOT the thing that should be put off.

Sure, it'll suck to spend a year (or a few) in a non-ideal job, and it'll be tough. But, sometimes, the tough and non-ideal thing is the necessary thing.

I speak from experience. Not my own, but a very close friend. He nearly committed suicide because he was trying to juggle a graduate program, a new therapist, and new depression meds all at the same time. It was horrible. He finally left the program and spent a year and a half working in a dead-end job. It was just what he needed: it gave him some time to work out his problems with depression. He finally went back and... Just two days ago, he received his Ph.D.

For you, there isn't much you can do but be supportive. Reaffirm, constantly, that his worth does not depend on his academic success. In a graduate program, you get struck constantly with the idea that the subject matter is THE! ONLY! THING!!! that matters, and one's success in the program is THE! ONLY! THING!!! that decides your worth as a person. That's totally false, and you may be one of the few people in his life who can point this out to him when he needs to hear it.
posted by meese at 8:06 AM on May 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

It could be worse! I was in a very similar situation with an ex - except he stopped going to courses, stopped completing work, had a nervous breakdown but couldn't identify it as such because his parents had conditioned him to believe academic performance was the most important, the ONLY, thing. So - he didn't tell anyone! Including me!

Giving your boyfriend as much emotional support as you can muster is key. If you let him know you're behind him regardless of his decisions or performance, your relationship will be much stronger.

It is always, always, worth it to petition his adviser, or board, or anyone who'll listen, for more time or exceptions to the rules. Particularly if he has documentation of mental/emotional obstacles. This can involve a lot of swallowing of pride on his part - coach him through this but make sure it's what he actually wants to do!

Good luck - I hope everything works out!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 8:11 AM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does he have any kind of informal support system at school? You know...friends? Classmates? My husband and his classmates (physics, also at an R1 university) got through their qualifying exams together by holding study groups every night and taking practice exams over and over. That's neither cheating nor showing weakness; it's good sense and it's standard practice all over the country. Exams are hell.

Aside from that, though, there's a real problem with an academic system that indoctrinates its students in the belief that there is nothing else for them to do except perpetuate it, and if they fail at any stage, they've failed at life. Like others have said, there are lots of great careers outside of academia for scientists. They often pay better and come with a better life balance and sense of well-being. Dirty little secret.
posted by tully_monster at 8:22 AM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

3rding disability officer yesterday. My sister has horrendous but very-well-medicated OCD and just took her bar exam in a special session with I think two extra days tacked on. In case you (or your boyfriend) thinks that makes her a sub-par freak, I would merely point out that she took this special session exam in a room with 400 other people granted similar accommodation for the bar. My sister, who did very well in 2L and 3L and will make a very fine lawyer, nearly bombed out of 1L because she hadn't sought out the disability office. She could never have finished law school or her qualifying exams without utilizing the accommodation the law mandates and that academic institutions are extremely well set-up to provide.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:23 AM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, another saying he needs to get to the disability office. This is a very common issue for folks at university and they are well prepared to assist in getting the appropriate accommodations in situations like this. Given your boyfriend's history of difficulties in childhood and his recent evaluation with the school's counseling service, he should absolutely be entitled to simple accommodations like extended time to complete testing.
posted by goggie at 8:26 AM on May 13, 2011

It's a bit premature to be worrying about how he'd cope with you pursuing your PhD until he's failed his. So don't stress about that right now.

Once he's been to the disability office he needs to go to the careers advice people at his school, too. To reduce his own stress levels, he needs to understand that there are lots of great options open to him outside academia. That would make "failing" less daunting.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:55 AM on May 13, 2011

Yeah, look at interrupting. Ie getting a frew months off and coming back when he is fit to get the points he needs. Additionally, check whether he can do anything to get mitigation (or whatever they call it at his institution) so that he can get a do-over on courses he has already sat.
posted by biffa at 9:26 AM on May 13, 2011

Another voice suggesting he go to the disability officer, or accessibility office, or whatever it is called at his particular university. They can explain what accommodations are possible at his university, whether that is taking time off until his doctors can figure out the right medications so that he feels okay, or giving him extended time to take his exams, or anything else that he and they can brainstorm together. If he's mostly keen on the professorial route because he doesn't know what other options are open to him, the idea of visiting his university's careers office is a good one: if he likes chemistry and lab-work, but not the stress of exams or other pressures of academia, industry might be a great option for him. Above all, he should do at least the former ASAP, before the situation gets worse. Good luck!
posted by UniversityNomad at 9:35 AM on May 13, 2011

Disability office, and look into the possibility of a temporary (eg one semester) medical leave of absence if he and counselor think that would be enough time to get it under control.

But NEVER say that he "doesn't have any other skills" - even if he had to leave the program there are a lot of other great things he could do, he has valuable skills and lots of options open to him.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:37 AM on May 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

My brother was a serial college dropout. ADHD may have been an issue, but this was in the days before it was recognized.

At any rate, he moved to Boston to be with his girlfriend, who was in grad school. He enrolled at yet another college there, and proceeded to start the failure cycle all over again. Finally, she informed him that the quantity and quality of their sexual interludes would depend on his level of scholastic achievement.

Long story short: he graduated in record time, and they've been married for almost thirty years. Their youngest graduates cum laude from a major university this weekend.
posted by dinger at 10:11 AM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

But NEVER say that he "doesn't have any other skills" - even if he had to leave the program there are a lot of other great things he could do, he has valuable skills and lots of options open to him.

LobsterMitten is right. Keep in mind that even if he (and you, eventually) do clear up these issues and get through a PhD program, the prof route might not happen. Even with a PhD from an R1, getting a prof job is no piece of cake.

So I vote you don't think in those terms-- think about how you can help him get himself healthy now. Maybe in the process he can start to think of what other skills he has-- be it project organization, technical problem solving skills, lab bench skills, etc. Those are marketable whether or not he stays in the program to finish the PhD.
posted by nat at 10:47 AM on May 13, 2011

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