I really messed up.
December 12, 2011 9:05 PM   Subscribe

I was asked to leave my masters program, but given a written assurance that I could reapply to the program. Now, four years later, I'd like to approach them about coming back, but I have no idea how to do so--and of course there are major complicating issues involved that are entirely my fault.

About six years ago, I was accepted into a masters' program at a small liberal arts college. I had my doubts about going but had no real idea what else I could do with my undergraduate degree and my friends were all cheerfully certain that graduate school was what we were meant to do.

I should mention that I've always suffered from mild to moderate depression, anxiety and what I'm pretty certain is Avoidant Personality Disorder. I can usually keep things in check myself, but I have had bad periods throughout the years. I'm also shy, socially awkward and way, WAY too concerned with what people think of me.

My first semester started off fine, with a few problems. One was the head of my department, who would be friendly and enthusiastic one day, then very brusque and dismissive the next, with no pattern and no warning. Her behavior made me very tense and I hated dealing with her. Another was my advisor: I realise now that she's just very reserved until she knows you better but at the time I couldn't make out if she liked me, if she thought I was doing good work, etc., and meetings with her were always a huge source of anxiety for me.

A much larger problem was my housing. I lived in an off-campus house run by the school with three guys: one of them was noisy, inconsiderate and completely inpervious to complaints. None of the guys cleaned and I have stories about the place that would horrify Mike Rowe. I complained to the school, but they refused to do anything, saying that these things had to be worked out amongst ourselves. I ended up moving back home at the end of the year.

Things quickly went bad in my second semester. My new classes turned out to be awful and between my housing issues, sleep deprivation and anxiety, I started to let work slip away from me. One class was graded on two papers: I skipped both. A month after the semester ended, the professor finally contacted me about it: I lied and claimed I had turned them in. I did one paper from memory and sent it, but couldn't remember the other topic and claimed that I lost that paper in a hard drive crash. Ashamed of myself and afraid of his reaction, I never checked my school email account again.

When I returned for the next semester, my department head wanted to know why I hadn't responded to the teacher about my missing paper: I had failed the class because of it. I lied again and said I couldn't log into my school email from home and actually went to the IT department to let them know about the "problem".

My guilt and anxiety over the situation snowballed rapidly. I started avoiding my work; I stopped scheduling appointments with my advisor and stopped attending my thesis workshop meetings about halfway through the semester, at first because I didn't do the required work and then out of fear for what they would say when I did go back. I kept up the "no email access" story and added another one: that a relative had been injured in an accident and that I had to take care of them (partially true but very much exaggerated). After March, I never went back to school.

Despite all this, I still worked on my thesis and one of the last things I did before disappearing completely was to send what I had to my advisor. A few weeks after the semester ended, I got a package from her: it took me another few weeks to open it. Once I did, I found that she had sent me a critique, even though I had stopped meeting with her and communicating with her halfway through the semester. Also included was a note that said that she was very sorry but she would never believe me again when I said I had email issues.

A few weeks after the package arrived, I got a letter from the department. Too afraid to read it, I let that letter sit in my closet for years. I finally got the courage to open it last month and read what I had always suspected: that I was dismissed from the program. What I didn't expect was that it also said I was welcome to reapply.

I want to go back and finish. However, I'm afraid of approaching them because of my shitty, horrible and deceptive behavior. I take full responsibility for the way I acted: not a day passes that I don't beat myself up over the terrible way I behaved. However, I'm terrified at the thought of their reaction if I do reapply. The department head is still the department head and my advisor is also still there. So much time has passed that I hope it would show them that I'm sincere about coming back and finishing my degree, but they have reason to be wary of me and the knowledge of how badly I treated my thesis advsior absolutely kills me. She liked me and thought I was capable of excellent work and I took her goodwill and shit all over it.

I've thought about writing a letter but have been wondering lately if going in person might be better: however, I don't know if I have the courage for that at this point and it would be very difficult to do since I work full time. Any suggestions and thoughts about the best way to go about approaching them would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you want to go back?
posted by grouse at 9:10 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

It seems to me that there are too many problems here, especially with this part:

I've thought about writing a letter but have been wondering lately if going in person might be better: however, I don't know if I have the courage for that at this point and it would be very difficult to do since I work full time. Any suggestions and thoughts about the best way to go about approaching them would be greatly appreciated.

Before you think about going back, you should contact these people individually, explain yourself, and apologize. Tell them what you just told us. If you're not prepared to see them and talk things over in person, why even think about returning?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 9:23 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh dude, stop being so self-obsessed. Academics see a hundred - a thousand - people just like you who drop out of programs every single year, mostly precluded by small landslides of shitty excuses and anxieties - just like you. You're not that special.

If they they haven't forgotten you altogether, they really truly won't give much of a shit if you do or don't come back, except insofar as it will mean some more money for their department. You didn't break anyone's heart; this is just their jobs, they could not afford the emotional investment you are ascribing to them. I know this is hard to realise, because it was such a big thing for you, but trust me even if you haven't, they put this behind them a long time ago. And to reiterate, they see it all time (albeit perhaps without so much fabulism).

Two more things:

1) If they do take you back, expect no leeway whatsoever.

2) I don't know why you want or think you're ready to go back, when you can't even muster up the courage or time to show up in person (which you will have to do sooner or later if they accept you). It doesn't really sound like you have the resources, emotional or logistical to be going into a masters' degree at the moment. Don't write a letter, that sounds like just more drama-filled blah. They don't want a True Confessions; if they want anything it's a simple application and acknowledgement that you had a lot going on back then, but you've got it sorted out now, thank you very much, and you're very interested in the program.

But from your question, I have to say it really doesn't sound like you are ready to go back, despite protestations to the contrary. The fact you're still, not just beating yourself up but beating yourself to a pulp about it, the laundry list of reasons and excuses you felt compelled to list here, the anxiety, and - sorry - somewhat melodramatic tone. I dunno, dude. That's not the kind of baggage you want to be dragging into uni, I think, and I don't know if the pressures of a grad degree will give you the closure you're looking for, but rather add to it.
posted by smoke at 9:28 PM on December 12, 2011 [34 favorites]

One was the head of my department, who would be friendly and enthusiastic one day, then very brusque and dismissive the next, with no pattern and no warning.

So, like, about three weeks ago, Incredibly Prominent Prof (The One Who Loved Me) responded to a comment I made in their seminar. I thought it was interesting, so I said something back. Then they responded again - with a line of thought that I disagreed with, strongly (based on my own theory and research, etc.) So, I said, "No, actually, BLA BLA BLA."

For the past three weeks, they have reamed me out in class, whenever they've had the chance. Put me through the effin' wringer. One one hand, I could interpret this as indication that they hate me. On the other, I could interpret this as indication that they are now treating me as an almost-colleague, and are willing to dole it out (now that I've made the bold move of calling them out), the way they would to another scholar.

Which do I think it is?

...I really don't give a shit.
I suppose if I wanted to, I could say it was the latter, and plan to back it up next I'm in their class. Truthfully, though: I've got my own research, they've got their own thing going on. They are a super-smart genius-type. I'm not a total idiot. They might like me, or they might forget me the next time the new cohort rolls in, all shiny and new. I may rue the day I irritated them, or I might never study anything in their area of research, ever, and will thus never really have to think of them again after I graduate.

But, if I fretted about all this (as opposed to, you know, just doing my work), I would drive myself absolutely bonkers. So: I don't.

I don't know what to tell you about getting back into school, but if you decide to go ahead and do so, I would suggest you examine your emotional investment in the experience, and perhaps see a therapist.* Just reading your assessment of your grad experience was exhausting. Some of that was totally out of your control. But some of it? You know, I might ponder briefly what the deal is with the dramz in the department, but then I usually just head home to my partner, to hang out/work on my own research/plan our holiday trip/make a quesadilla.

I think this suggestion is apt, especially considering language, such as: However, I'm afraid of approaching them because of my shitty, horrible and deceptive behavior. I take full responsibility for the way I acted: not a day passes that I don't beat myself up over the terrible way I behaved.

You know?

* I did. Like, all the grad students I know do, at least once-in-a-while. Grad school is stressful. Fortunately, many universities have resources for that. Always remember that fact.
posted by vivid postcard at 9:29 PM on December 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am sure they have dealt with similar situations.

In addition to Grouse's excellent question, do you feel that you've matured and have the tools available to you to deal with grad school at this time in your life?
Are you able to provide a more mature and supportive environment for yourself now?
If you don't get back into this program, are you interested in pursuing your degree elsewhere?

You need to be sure of these answers before you're able to discuss this with the powers that be.
And then take the plunge and ask for a one-to-one meeting--that will give you more information on whether you and this program are a good fit.
posted by calgirl at 9:33 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you, after six years have passed, still feel that you want a masters degree in your original field of study? Did you want that in the first place? (You seem as though your original decision to go to grad school was shaky.) Grad school requires hard work and lots of it; someone who isn't committed isn't going to make it.

If you want a masters degree, have you considered going elsewhere? Are there financial constraints or other reasons why you need to go back to your original school? It sounds to me like cutting ties and getting a fresh start somewhere else might be for the best.

What have you been doing in the last six years? Have you had any treatment or therapy to help address some of the issues you outlined? Do you have a job history or other track record of responsibility that you can point to that shows that you've changed your ways since your first crack at grad school? If (and think very carefully about that) you decide it's best to go back to your original school, you're going to have to convince several people, particularly your advisor, that something is different now.
posted by jdwhite at 9:34 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cut the crap.

IF you REALLY DO want to go back, eat some crow... be honest to them and to you. Just ask yourself first, do you really want to go back because the curriculum interests you, or do you want to prove that you could've done it in the first place? Especially now that you have a full time job?

Yes, you really messed up. You lied, you manipulated, you procrastinated like a pro, you blamed others for your own woes that were actually under your control (those roomates are at fault?), while at the same time berated yourself. Sounds like you just really weren't ready for the task at hand. Sounds like it was easy for you to blame everybody but yourself. That's a learning experience in and of itself, but it sounds like you've learned and grown from it.

BUT... You've pretty much admitted all of that!

I'd say you have some more owning up to do. But also... life has a way of beating you down, but maybe it sounds like you're ready to rise back up? You live, you learn - and I think you're seeing that the sun always comes up tomorrow, even after the worst of days.

So admit to your failures, stop self-diagnosing, and take that first step. It's always the hardest one anyways. Make a PHONE CALL to that advisor. A letter sounds too formal IMHO. More importantly, if you don't know if you 'have the courage' at this point, then you're pretty much not ready to re-start this adventure. You have to reach a point in life when you blow off the opinions of others and reach for the goals YOU want, regardless of how others may perceive them. If they think you warrant being back in the program, they'll let you in. You can't control that.

With that in mind, when push comes to shove, all they can say is 'no', right?
posted by matty at 9:35 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Personally, I think an email is the best method of contact based on the situation. But, it's only the first step, the rest needs to be done in person. Email them saying that you would like to know if you can apply to the program again.

Then, talk to the advisor in person; be very sincere and let her know why things panned out the way that they did, that you have changed, that you would really like a second chance because of (insert reasons here), and that you hope that you and your advisor can mend your relationship despite a negative history.

Don't go into every single detail because that would be exhausting, but you can't avoid what happened (especially when they are aware of it too), otherwise it will just be the awkward thing that nobody talks about which would make you feel more awkward and uncomfortable.

From one socially awkward and socially insecure person to another: I would change my framing towards this experience. Be more understanding of yourself. Tell yourself that you have changed and that you are not who you used to be.

Without a doubt, it's going to be awkward being with these people and in this environment based on your experiences. But, if this really matters to you (for whatever reason) then you should try to overcome that fear which can only be done by forgiving yourself and initiating contact with these people (mainly your advisor).

I know this is usual advice from a MeFite, but you should talk to a therapist too, at the very least to get a sense of closure. I might be wrong, but it sounds like getting a sense of closure is the real reason why you want to go back and if that's the case then therapy is the answer.
posted by sincerely-s at 9:43 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few weeks after the package arrived, I got a letter from the department. Too afraid to read it, I let that letter sit in my closet for years. I finally got the courage to open it last month and read what I had always suspected: that I was dismissed from the program. What I didn't expect was that it also said I was welcome to reapply.

Are you currently in therapy? Because this is really extreme. You let the letter sit for years? This sounds like really extreme anxiety, but this can be treated. It sounds like you have a lot of guilt and anxiety about what happened. I feel like your first step should be to work this out with therapy just for your own well being, and work with your therapist to decide your next steps with you.
posted by sweetkid at 9:46 PM on December 12, 2011 [21 favorites]

Did you want to reapply before you read that letter?

If you still want that degree, then email your adviser. Without going into the long story say:
- You recognize your mistakes and accept accountability.
- You would like to reapply, but are unsure what steps you should follow.

This is academia. They've seen the "dog ate my homework/email didn't work/computer crashed" roughly a thousand times. They aren't going to cut you any slack - make sure you're ready to deliver on your commitments if you return.
posted by 26.2 at 10:04 PM on December 12, 2011

Why would you want to go back to your original program? Seems like some other program would make more sense.

I would be a bit surprised, actually, if the bit about reapplying was specifically in there for you, as opposed to part of a form letter.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:37 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm kind of unconvinced you've solved the underlying issues that caused the problems in the first place. You don't have to convince me, but you will need to persuade them of this - particularly your advisor, assuming she's willing to even contemplate working with you again.

(I'm an academic and advisor, but not yours, so take this all with a grain of salt).

Here is what I would want answered if I were the gatekeeper to the program. (I know you've answered some of them here - I'm saying this is what you need to include to them).

1. A huge underlying problem here is your anxiety and avoidance. What concrete steps have you taken to get those under control? Are you seeing a therapist? Have you had success in dealing with these issues in other, less stressful, contexts? Do you have tools in your toolbox for when things go wrong? (because nothing is always perfect and something will go wrong) Are you willing to sit down and commit to a plan of action for when you start to feel overwhelmed - a plan that includes provisions for immediately talking to people, and not hiding?

2. Another underlying problem was that you seemed to be in the program just because you didn't know what else to do. Do you have a better reason this time? What is it? How well have you thought through it? Can you clearly elucidate your goals from the program, in terms of your general goals for life or career?

3. Do you have someone in mind to advise you that is also willing to work with you? Depending on the program, this is very important, and I would not be surprised if your initial advisor is unwilling to work with you again. Do you have someone else? Have you felt them out? Are they studying in an area that you are interested in / that is compatible with your overall career goals?

Here is what I wouldn't care about:

4. I'm not interested in whether you feel bad or guilty. I would presume that you do, but those feelings have very little predictive value for whether you'll have the same problems again. You felt bad/guilty while they were happening and they happened anyway. In fact, they were made worse because you felt bad and thus avoided everything. Thus, your current feelings of guilt and need to apologise are fairly immaterial. It would be nice to hear an apology, but excessive self-flagellation is something I would regard as a red flag that you haven't actually sorted out the underlying problems.

5. I wouldn't really care about details about your roommates at the time, little personality clashes with the head, etc. [I know you included them to give us a full picture; I'm just saying don't go into it all with the school.] These are the sorts of things you should be able to handle, because most people's situations are imperfect, and minor personality clashes happen all of the time. Going into them in detail would make me think that next time through, the moment something minor happened, they would become the centre of a huge drama again.

This is all presuming that the school is actually willing to consider you again, and the letter you got wasn't standard boilerplate. But if they are I would bet a lot of money that these are the things they care about. If you can't answer #1-3 satisfactorily, and can't avoid going into tremendous detail on #4-5, then I doubt they would accept you. But that's fine, because it probably means this program wouldn't be a good step for you now anyway.
posted by forza at 11:03 PM on December 12, 2011 [16 favorites]

I'm wondering whether "you are welcome to reapply" is something akin to "best of luck in your future endeavors." Keep in mind that you never need to be given permission to apply for something.
posted by jayder at 11:40 PM on December 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

I want to go back and finish. However, I'm afraid of approaching them because of my shitty, horrible and deceptive behavior.

Are you kidding me with this? It's hard to even tell you how wack your perspective is. "Shitty, horrible, and deceptive behavior" is an appropriate way to describe the behavior of people who bilk the elderly out of their life savings, have wanton affairs behind their spouse's back, start wars under false pretenses, worked for Enron. Not someone who didn't do their homework and was so debilitatingly ashamed of it that had a self-sabotaging meltdown. Who did you hurt here besides yourself?

However, I'm terrified at the thought of their reaction if I do reapply.

Terrified? What are they going to do? Beat you up? The worst -- the absolute worst scenario -- is that they'll meanly reject you while citing some negative truths about things you did.

And? So what? You'll keep breathing, right? The sun will rise the next day. Why are you terrified?

It's clear that you need therapy badly, badly, badly. It's clear that this issue you have been struggling with is still in full force.

I think you should wait to re-apply until you feel like you can apply without a second thought and really not give a shit about what any of them think of you. Maybe it's not realistic for any of us to get all the way to not giving a shit, but for you, I thinkk you should wait until you're at least 75% of the way there from where you are now. When you get to that point, you won't have all this worry over the perfect way to do this. You'll just do it and not give it much thought, and either way, the outcome will be fine no matter what their decision is.
posted by cairdeas at 12:10 AM on December 13, 2011 [10 favorites]

I also want to add -- the issue you're contending with, I won't speculate about what it could be, appropriate treatments for it, etc. I just want to tell you this -- last year I had to fly for work, and I'm a wreck when I fly, usually. I went to see a doctor and told him, "I really just want something that makes me feel like I just don't care, like we could be going down in flames and I just wouldn't care." And, he had an immediate suggestion and prescribed it to me. The point of this is to say -- you can seek help and directly ask for help feeling the way you want to feel. Now you may not necessarily GET what you asked for, but it's totally okay to directly ask.
posted by cairdeas at 12:30 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

have you considered applying to a similar program at another school, for a fresh start?

to deal with the guilt and 'feel like a better person', you could write the people involved from this old program a letter apologizing for your bizarre behavior back then and say that you've used that experience to grow and whatever else you want to say, and move on.

if you go back to your old program, chances are you will overly beat yourself up for any minute mistake you might make, and they may too, while a new program will help you understand that small mistakes are normal in the grand scheme of things and you will leave your old baggage behind.

good luck with everything!
posted by saraindc at 2:06 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

You seem like you're still unhealthily obsessing over mistakes you made six years ago. I work in academia and stories like yours are a dime a dozen.

Do you actually want to get a masters degree in the same field (keep in mind the time and the expense involved) or are you just trying to prove something to yourself? There are other, more productive ways to find peace of mind (therapy, meds, succeeding at something else, etc..)

If you want the masters for your career, apply to another school. I think you're reading too much into the "welcome to reapply" part of the letter...you certainly wouldn't be welcome back there with open arms, it's probably more of a "we can't really tell people they are permanently banned because that might open us up to litigation" than an invitation.
posted by emd3737 at 3:14 AM on December 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

1) A master's program at a "small liberal arts college" is, in most cases, giving degrees that aren't worth the paper they are printed on in career terms.
2) The "you are welcome to reapply" line is included, really standard, in the vast majority of (required) written terminations of candidacy for a graduate degree, barring major ethical problems like academic dishonesty. It's there for legal reasons, and to soften the blow. It is not a personal invitation to return when you get your act together. If they meant that, someone would have said it to you in person and helped you exit gracefully.
3) It means nothing. It isn't serious. Unless the program is really *just* a cash machine for the school and/or they are drastically short of paying students, they are not likely to readmit you to the program unless *someone* there really liked you, thought you had promise, and was sympathetic to what was obviously your troubled state of mind at the time of the program.
4) Even if you could go back, why would you? Surely there are equivalent master's programs close to you, some even at real universities (by which I mean, places where master's students are taught by faculty who also teach doctoral students, and where master's students interact in courses with those doctoral students if appropriate to the field). You will start at another program with a relatively clean slate (although you may have to declare that you were terminated before in another program, or your transcript, which may be required, will reveal this). No matter what you do, if your conduct was egregious enough in the first program it will hang over you if you go back. And it sounds like it was, if your advisor directly accused you of dishonesty.

Your program failed you as much as you failed it. You sound like you were flailing by the second semester for reasons that obviously had to do with your state of mind, living situation, and possibly maturity level. A good graduate program (and advisor) will pick up on that stuff in a timely way, advise you to take a a leave, see a counselor, or otherwise avoid the crash and burn of failing out and being terminated. Don't invest the program with any special status. They treated you poorly, or carelessly. You blew them off. Call it even and walk away. Start fresh. Don't ruminate over long-lost opportunities.

(I've been teaching graduate students, and often running grad programs, for nearly 20 years. Take this comment to the bank.)
posted by spitbull at 4:26 AM on December 13, 2011 [18 favorites]

As someone who went through a messy exit from college (as an undergraduate rather than a graduate student, however) involving a lot of anxiety, shame, and avoidance on my part, the thing that stands out to me in your post is the sentence:

I take full responsibility for the way I acted: not a day passes that I don't beat myself up over the terrible way I behaved.

The biggest lesson I took from my experience was that it is very important to forgive yourself. That's not antithetical to taking responsibility--it allows you to get beyond the feelings of shame and figure out, rationally and with self-compassion, what's stopping you from being responsible and change it.

Ultimately, that's so much more important than whether you finish a master's degree. (If you do really want to, forza's criteria for determining readiness are excellent.)
posted by beryllium at 7:05 AM on December 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

I know how tempting it is to want a do-over, once you think you've figured out what you did wrong and that it's something fixable (in my case, ADHD and some resultant anxiety). I was horribly socially awkward and anxious during many of my college years, and I look back on my behavior and cringe--and I really regret missing a lot of opportunities and letting myself and other people down.

So, I hear you. It's hard to grieve over losing something as ephemeral as an opportunity, or as unquantifiable as the respect of someone who believes in you.

That said, part of dealing with grief is coming to acceptance so you can move on with your life instead of fully inhabiting your failures 24/7. I think that therapy will help. Apologizing might help, or it might not. I'm not sure. Time will help, too.

Figuring out what you really want to do and getting as healthy as possible first so that you can do it right is probably the long-term solution to your grief and regret.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:34 AM on December 13, 2011

You know, in all my years of teaching and administering grad students, I've had to terminate more than a few, often students I personally liked and cared about (really, all but a couple of times, where there was academic dishonesty or some other ethical malfeasance involved). Many more times, I have caught someone in mid-fall as an advisor and helped them leave for their own sake on their own terms, sometimes to seek help and return, sometimes to pursue another line of work. These have generally been PhD students, so you can add even more intensity to the feelings of failure, anger, lost time, frustration, and sadness that attach to leaving a program in which you were initially invested (generally, to get into a funded PhD program slot, you have to be really serious about the work, and good enough at it that failing out for any reason can do a real number on your self-esteem and confidence).

*Most* of those students have eventually gotten back in touch with me, sometimes many years later, to tell me they were doing fine, had found something else that they like better or found more suitable, and in more than a few cases, to say that leaving the grad program when they did was the right decision in hindsight. It's so common. There are so many factors. It's not the end of the world. Yeah, forgive yourself, chalk it up to experience, consider what you did learn as something of value, and let it go. If you wanted to write the advisor who was disappointed in you, that would be fine, but it would be best to do so when you can confidently say you've got a new direction. An apology would be fine, but it's not necessary. Most professors have had their own struggles. And we've seen much worse than yours. We know.
posted by spitbull at 10:12 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

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