Graduate school woes.
May 24, 2011 6:54 PM   Subscribe

Help me overcome my emotional immaturity which has crippled my academic course.

After a quite successful master's thesis in A, I was propelled by my supervisor to do a PhD in a field close to A in a different country. Not having any better idea, and having no clue what I wanted to do with my life (and having no clue that this was a problem), I started the PhD.

I had very little idea of what a PhD was -- I read some articles my supervisor recommended, and pursued an idea which I had begun during the previous summer. I felt like it was going to work. Eventually, the idea collapsed and would have required too much reworking to keep its structure. Instead of being mature and taking this setback as a normal event, I took it personally and severely doubted myself. I had also been interested in another field, B, for a while, but mostly on a superficial/philosophical level. As my motivation was not on par with that of my coworkers, I supposed I was in the wrong field and applied for a PhD in B -- and got accepted. Meanwhile, the people at my then PhD program offered me to take a break to consider my options. I declined, being oddly convinced that B was right for me. Basically, I thought B sounded very cool but knew actually little about it (so the opposite of my first PhD). You can see where this is going.

Change city again, begin PhD in B, in which I have very little training. Immediately I see that everyone around me has a master's in B, and seems to know a lot more about the field and what they came there for. Doubts immediately set in again and never left. I read extensively about the field, and about topics closer to my project. However, I began to doubt that I liked my project, as I found it too vague and based on dubious assumptions. I tried to steer towards a new topic with my supervisor, but I guess my other interests were too vague themselves to convince him it was worth it. At some point, I started seriously considering leaving and going back home to teach, which scared me and made me doubt my motivations. I eventually broke down in his office, telling him I felt I could not do my best and that I felt I needed to know more about the field to continue, that I needed some time to have a better grasp of the direction we were going in. In parallel, I tried to obtain a leave from the program, and it turned out to be impossible.

I then fell in a depressive funk that lasted two months. Did not go to my office; I was too ashamed. New interests suddenly rushed through me, came in and out like wildfire, probably alienating friends I talked to about them in some manic frenzy. This was usually followed by deeper depression (not getting out of bed, suicidal thoughts, etc). Talking to another professor, he asked me, "what do you want to do?", which reached me to the core, because I never truly asked myself this; I felt even worse about driving without directions, and my crisis hit an existential streak. I eventually got out of the worst of it, but I see myself emotionally relapse a few times a week. I emailed my supervisor and he never replied; I tried to be assertive as to what my interests and options were, while being careful to ask him to tell me if I was asking too much, because I am too clueless to know. This made me even more anxious about my ability to even communicate at all.

I could quit this PhD and either travel (I have savings) or get an actual job (I have a potential offer, and I doubt it is my only possibility).

My main fear is that I have ruined my academic career. It makes sense to me: I will have quit two PhD's, which is absolutely ridiculous. But the decision to start the PhD in B was grossly misdirected and appears to make me feel miserable, and I miss A considerably. Could I pass off trying out B as a youthful idealist mistake, if it is clear I now understand where I went wrong?

I deeply aware that I have commitment issues and anxiety issues. I have finally found a therapist with whom it seems to work well. I want some hints to make me learn from my mistakes. I also believe I have a hard time understanding the relationship between one's motivation, interests, abilities, and the PhD program one takes, so advice on not to repeat my mistakes that I may have missed or misunderstood will be gladly taken. I am convinced that if I am motivated and able, I can achieve great things.

Thanks a lot for reading this. Throwaway:
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

It only gets harder as you continue on in your academic career.
posted by k8t at 7:14 PM on May 24, 2011

Don't feel bad about leaving your PhDs - this is not some kind of failure on your part.

With the first PhD - ideas collapse, that's what happens all the time. Don't beat yourself up because you felt you handled it 'poorly' - it's a big thing to have to leave something like that behind. It is an emotional thing - it just is.

With the second PhD it sounds like you had impostor syndrome - lots and lots of people get it in Grad school - it's perfectly normal. Sometimes our brains suck.

When I left my PhD it was at once both the best feeling and the worst feeling. I felt like I had failed because I had no idea what else I was going to do with my life. It was also the best feeling because it didn't feel right - I was very young and my area - cultural studies - is not challenging enough for me personally to have a career in it. I also had impostor syndrome - I felt like a big fraud and someone was going to come in and out me and I was terrified.

So I spent about 8 years doing all kinds of things, trying all kinds of things. Nothing really stuck to the wall. Sometimes I miss 'what could have been' but I know it wasn't the right path for me.

I'm now about to move into a research-heavy career but in a field that is more meaningful to me and at this stage it doesn't involve a PhD - but the possibility is always there.

Life is journey and it winds up taking you all over the place. Mistakes are only mistakes if you look at them that way. Looking at if from another perspective, it's just you learning. The trick is to make sure you have plenty of options and to make sure you keep telling your brain that.
posted by mleigh at 7:18 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I suspect that if you find you have a PhD you really want to pursue you have a whole lifetime to still make that happen. If you are thinking you should do it now to somehow prove you haven't ruined my academic career, well I have to say I don't find that compelling, and neither would a good adviser. You should do what is compelling you, and if that means getting away from academia for a time, there is nothing wrong with that.

It sounds like you are still in recovery from your first really severe existential self-questioning. It happens, and can be tough, but can also propel you in new and exciting directions in your life. Embrace that.
posted by meinvt at 7:20 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are concerned about whether you would be able to return to do a PhD at a later date, I don't think you should worry. It doesn't sound like you were in either program for very long, and they were not even in your home country, correct? You could gloss over them in a CV or application for another PhD program later - call it travelling, or overseas academic experience, or if either or both were less than a year, don't mention them at all.

As for your main question about the relationship between motivation, interests and PhD programs, I can only give you my own experience: I did a PhD in a topic that I was not especially interested in, but in a field that I had a strong motivation for. I ended up miserable and full of self-doubt in the final year of the program, but just pushed through and finished. Everyone else I know who has done a PhD also ended up hating their topic and sometimes their whole field towards the end of it, and this seems to have no correlation at all with how in love they were with the topic in the first place. The whole academic cycle of complete absorption for years with one topic, brutal pressure and expectations, negative feedback and job insecurity all combines to make PhD programs incredibly soul-sucking.

That said, if you do decide to continue or to go back later and try again, having a topic that you love will at least make the first few years more pleasant, even if it won't spare you the hardship of the final push.

Finally, I think you need to think about the distinction between being interested in a topic and being confident with it. One does not imply the other. Just because you lost your confidence does not mean the topic is a bad one. It is almost impossible not to lose your confidence during a PhD. You are used to being top of your class, understanding things effortlessly, and being able to pull together quality work quickly. Then when you engage in real research, even really smart people struggle to understand it (otherwise someone would have solved your research question already). It doesn't mean you are a failure. It just means you are tackling real, interesting questions. There's a reason why dissertations take years to write.
posted by lollusc at 9:44 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Background: I'm an academic and have supervised multiple PhD students.

First, don't feel bad. PhDs are very difficult and it's not at all unusual to feel what you have, or to not complete a PhD.

Second… the thing I'm struck by, reading this, is that I don't really have a clear sense of agency from you at all. This might be just how you wrote about it, but it seems like you sort of fell into both PhDs without much thinking about why you were doing them and what your long-terms goals were. In other words, the choice to do them (and the choice of fields) was all in response to short-term pressures (feeling obliged to do something, being attracted by the superficial "coolness" of a field but not really knowing much about it, having come off a previous project that seemed to go well). Given this, it's not at all surprising to me that you stalled. The problems you ran into -- feeling out of your depth, having projects not work -- are an incredibly normal (if discouraging) part of the PhD experience. The way most people work past them is that they have such a clear sense of what they're working for that it makes them hang in there through the difficult bits. This sense is so important that I would have found it astonishing if you had reported successfully making it through a PhD without it.

My point is that it sounds like what you're missing isn't intelligence, or dedication, or whatever -- it's a sense of what you want from your life. Your professor pinpointed the issue: what do you want to do? If you only have a vague sense of that -- if you don't have any real clue about how getting a PhD fits into your goals and dreams and the outline of your life -- then grad school is going to be a killer, and I would suggest you get out. There is no shame attached to this - grad school is certainly not for everyone, and the world is full of interesting and exciting paths for smart, curious people. Don't let shame or fear of the unknown keep you in something that isn't right for you. Make the leap. You say you have a job offer. Take it.

I kind of doubt this is the case from what you've written but feel obliged to add: On the other hand, if you do have a reasonably good sense of what you want from your PhD and how it fits into what you want out of life (and I mean a real one, not one you've talked yourself into) then use that as your North Star. Keep your eye on the prize and when things go wrong (as they inevitably will) reorient, figure out what you need to change to reach your goal, and try, try again.
posted by forza at 2:20 AM on May 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

I'm going to basically agree with forza. One of the most important things to figure out before starting a PhD is what you are trying to accomplish, and whether that fits in your long-term goals. A lot of my fellow PhD candidates in grad school didn't have a good overall goal in mind, and it almost inevitably resulted in either (a) dropping out of the PhD program, or (b) getting the PhD and then staring at the mirror asking "well, now what?!"

Getting a PhD is a long, hard process for most people, with many setbacks and much self-doubt. There is no shame in either not starting until you're sure it's right, or dropping out of a program.

(I have a PhD, btw)
posted by kaszeta at 6:10 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

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