How can I graduate and find a job when I'm struggling?
May 7, 2012 5:40 AM   Subscribe

I am in my 7th year of a science Ph.D. at MIT and I need to graduate. I have invested an incredible amount of time and energy in this process, and I definitely have a Ph.D. level of skills and knowledge by now. 7 years is not outside the norm for my department. The problem is that a number of circumstances occurring in a row have lead to a bad/toxic relationship with my advisor and slow performance on my part.

About a month ago, I was surprised with a meeting in which I was told that I would get a Master's degree, not a Ph.D., at the end of the semester. This was egregious as I had never gotten written or verbal feedback prior to that saying that I was in danger of losing my degree, after years of work on my part. I rallied support from the department and dean and I have documentation of positive feedback from my advisor last semester. I managed to turn things around so that the Ph.D. is still on the table, but I'm struggling.

The factors leading to my slow performance were
a) illness (3 major surgeries in 1.5 years and an unrelated autoimmune condition on top of that),
b) working on a large complex project by myself with objectively not enough support, and simply being unable to accomplish it as one person working alone,
c) a coworker starting work on the two "most easily publishable" parts of my dataset (data I collected) while I worked on the harder pieces, and her preparing them for publication with my advisor's support before I was told she was working on them, and the stress and shock of that,
d) mental burnout after not being allowed a vacation and being pressured with the above for about 3 years, to the point of the 3 vacations I actually planned getting cancelled because my advisor said no even after I'd bought plane tickets,
e) the end of both long term relationships I tried to have in the past 3 years, partly due to the stresses of work,
f) lastly, at a time when I was already burnt out, the additional shock of being told mid-semester that I wasn't getting a degree and going through a several week nightmare of trying to put together thesis chapters and find someone/anyone to support me.

I'm at a point where I have set up more reasonable milestones to try to graduate, but I'm so emotionally and mentally tired that it's tough to go to work each day. I know that the practical way to deal with this is to build relationships with outside mentors and advisors this summer in addition to my current ones, and start my nonacademic job search. However, I can hardly dredge up the energy. I am seeing a therapist and doing daily yoga, and trying to get enough sleep. I have a really supportive sister and Dad who support me almost every day. I went to the ombudsperson at the school for the most egregious violations (got co-authorship on one of the works I described in "c" above), but that sort of help can only go so far because students aren't really protected by employment laws and bigwig advisors have a lot of power. I asked the department's education chair to oversee my weekly graduation milestones in addition to my advisor, and he is very supportive.

On my side, I don't have the performance record to protect myself -- my work has indeed been slow and I indeed don't have publications in the past few years except for coauthorship on the publications by the coworker who worked on my research. Looking back, I should have managed the process better. The project simply became unwieldy and didn't produce results. Hindsight is 20/20 and I should have lobbied for more help, guidance, and breaks. That said, in my life I have never been a slacker or had poor performance on anything I've done and have plenty of past awards. Now is the time to try to finish up, not rehash the mistakes of the past few years. There are enough results in my dataset for sufficient thesis chapters to graduate, if I can put them together.

I am looking for any pieces of advice to help me get through the rest of this and finish my degree when I'm struggling so much. I am so tired that missing even the reasonable milestones I've set, and harming more relationships, e.g. with the education chair, is possible. I am also not sure I can dredge up the energy to do the outside tasks to support my career and try to find a job for after, and it's important to do while still in school and networking is 100x easier. Lastly I am just kind of lonely at this point.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you haven't already make sure you are utterly familiar with your institution's regs concerning PhD study, including progression, examination, award and grounds for deregistration.

Sit down with your supervisor ASAP and get them to spell out what sufficient progress in the next year will look like.
posted by biffa at 6:14 AM on May 7, 2012

Meant to say, the career stuff may be easier to do while still a student but the bigger barrier to your career at this stage will be not having a PhD. Prioritise.
posted by biffa at 6:16 AM on May 7, 2012

Where is your committee in all this? In most science PhD programs you should have been holding regular committee meetings from year 3 or so. THey can override your PIs 'opinion' that you are not ready to finsih or that you have not completed a PhD. Who exactly is saying that you only deserve a masters?
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:21 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

My advice is to stop thinking of yourself as a victim and empower yourself to take the steps necessary for graduation. It seems like you know what you need to do but you are having a hard time motivating yourself to do it.

Even when there are literally not enough hours in the day, you need to have the attitude of "this needs to be done, therefore I shall do it by any means necessary". Letting stress and anxiety get the best of you wastes your time and energy - which you can't afford to throw away. Before you start a career search you should definitely definitely definitely get on track to graduate and get your PhD. (it's really not important that you do this WHILE in school. It's not like your academic advisors and staff are going to forget you after several months when you've been working with them for 7 years.)
posted by sarahnicolesays at 6:39 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I teach at MIT and I'd like to help if I can; check your Mefi Mail.
posted by range at 6:43 AM on May 7, 2012 [10 favorites]

It sounds like you have been put through an awful lot and that your current advisor has acted rather egregiously. Still, you seem to have a lot of support within MIT & your department, and I am wondering if switching advisors would be possible at this point. I don't know what that would do to your funding or if that is something that ever happens, but it may be worth investigating. I imagine if that were a possibility, you would have already done so by now, but I'm mentioning it because with so much going on, it can be easy to overlook a solution that might seem obvious. Also, you don't mention taking a medical leave of absence at any point, and that may be an option worth exploring now. I do not know what that would do to your future prospects, but it is kind of difficult for anyone to hold a medical issue against you.

Even though I have both worked for and been enrolled in graduate programs, sciences are a bit outside of my wheelhouse, so the following may or may not be helpful. From your own description, it sounds like your original project was too ambitious and you did not reach out for the support that would have made it more manageable at the time. I think your decision to focus on the future than rehash the mistakes of the past is an excellent approach. Since there are "enough results in my dataset for sufficient thesis chapters to graduate, if I can put them together," I would look at redefining the parameters of your thesis and whittling it down to reflect what you do have. You could even include a section about your original intentions and outline the rationale for refocusing your thesis, perhaps concluding with a section about future development.

What really jumped out at me most are your descriptions of how tired and drained you are. IANAD, but I wonder how much of that might be your autoimmune condition and how much of that could be depression. Given what you've been through your weariness is totally understandable, and it is good that you are being proactive about seeing a therapist and positive self-care like yoga and sleep. Most of that sounds behavioral, however, and I wonder if you should start looking towards medical solutions. Is your autoimmune condition being well managed and when is the last time you've seen your primary care? It might be time for a follow up. In terms of the depression, I wonder if you might need some medication temporarily while you pass through this. I tend to sound very pro-medication on MeFi, but the truth is that I do not believes meds are always indicated or the answer. That said, when you need them, the right ones can make a tremendous difference. Seriously, it's like night and day. Perhaps you might want to discuss this possibility with your therapist and make an appointment with a psychiatrist, if you haven't done so already. While we all value or brains and intellect, some of us, including me, are even more protective of our mind than others and the thought of taking something that might affect that can be a scary prospect. If you are taking the right meds, they should help lift any fog, anxiety, or barrier to your thinking. If you are taking the wrong ones, you usually find out pretty quickly. For example, I took Zoloft and was stoned out of my gourd. It took me less than a week to realize this was not the drug for me. Meds may not make sense for you, but I think it's worth looking into, if you haven't already.

While you may not have handled everything the best before, it sounds like you are doing all the right things now. Keep that up and take care of yourself. A PhD program, never mind one at MIT, is an intense time for everyone. Factoring in all that has happened during your doctoral period, I honestly think you are managing quite well. Try not to be too hard on yourself. That will only drain you further and make things that much harder. Focus on what you've done right and try not to repeat any earlier mistakes. Best of luck to you! Honestly, while it may not feel that way now, I think you'll be fine if you receive whatever support and care you need.
posted by katemcd at 8:59 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm also having a hard time in grad school, feeling tired and unsupported and lonely. You sound like you have a good idea on what you need to do, which is good. Now it seems that you have to change your feelings. The only thing that comes close to helping me is David Burn's book Feeling Good (I have linked to the handbook because it's more directly helpful than the book it's based on, but the book is also very good). Please give it a look! MIT doesn't seem to stock it in its library but I would say the book is worth purchasing.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 9:38 AM on May 7, 2012

Please get help from Student Disabilities Services immediately. They are there to protect your rights. They are also the people who can best direct you to resources to support you in finishing your dissertation.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:07 AM on May 7, 2012

This may seem minor but it's not: you can get help with the actual writing part of your thesis writing (since you say you have data). I checked and there's a Writing & Communication Center at MIT, there to help you with your writing on the undergrad & graduate levels. They can brainstorm with you, hold you accountable, and generally provide support. Big projects really require that sort of support. If you approach it properly, writing can be a relaxing activity (like for instance you can write in a park, or with soothing music, etc). You also don't need a Major Vacation to learn to have Mini-Vacations, such as doing the things you need to do in as pleasant a way or location as possible, or such as maximizing your living space (soothing or energizing colors, scents, music), and making sure you take time out (say, 30 mins to 2 hours) every day to do stuff you enjoy, even if it's eating a really yummy lunch where you don't think about work.

I know that a project can sit in your craw after enough time spent with it, but should try to really get interested in it again. I would also recommend reading through popular science-type magazines or watching Nova just to get some positive 'w00t! science!' type vibes and feel more awesome about the fact that you're in freaking MIT being a badass science explorer, etc. I mean (this is just my feeling), I don't think people go to MIT without at some people feeling like, OMG Science is Totally Awesome!-- so, well, get in touch with that. What makes you feel good about science? Do you like sci-fi? Do you like watching snails? Do you like totally unrelated things like puppies and tutoring 8 year-olds in multiplication? Take some weekend time to pursue some of these things to give your brain lots of small breaks rather than one big one.
posted by reenka at 4:09 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

this may not be helpful, or wanted suggestions, but if I were you, Id change my career plan entirely. Health is first, for me, relationships are first, for me, and doing everything to be happy that doesn't deal with work is first, for me. Go get friends, join hobbies for the things you enjoy doing. Fortune will follow. Go work somewhere even for free, so you can network. Meet people everywhere you can. Life's too short to be what you set out to be and if circumstances are screwing you, as you've illustrated, screw it and perhaps venture on other things. Science careers usually are really competitive on the doctorate level, low-paying, and just strenuous for a normal life. Im an engineer here, but I love life more than my work. Good luck and just have the courage to be flexible in your choices. Your project was screwed and I feel you were robbed. Evaluate your career motivations deep down to see what it is you exactly want out of science. Talk to a career counselor and options if you haven't already done so. Start up a business with your skills. Etc.
posted by chichi88 at 1:02 AM on June 7, 2012

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