How to come to terms with long cycle of failure and move on?
May 10, 2012 8:51 AM   Subscribe

After years of escapism, how to anchor life to meaning (or vice versa?) when almost four years of research hasn't amounted to anything?

I'm a PhD student. I've been working on a research project of my choosing that has yielded me very little joy and continues to drain me intellectually---and for almost four years, I've been at it, and yesterday I kind of reached a breaking point with my long standing struggle to write. I know the process can be arduous, but the kind of anxiety, lack of encouragement I get reading what I've read tells me that I'm missing a key ingredient: knowledge.

I've had anxiety and depression issues, and am diagnosed with ADHD, but while I know these are factors in my struggle, they ultimately can't explain my months of burnout and indeed disgust for the way I feel about everything that's remotely related to my topic. Dissertation Midas Touch?

The caveat is, I now have a concrete (but extremely overwhelming) deadline...when my funding ends in less than half a year. After that, if I don't finish, I'll need to pack my bags and leave, and in a way this is a relief. An overwhelmingly strong voice is telling me to cut my losses and meet the challenge of finding something I'm passionate about, even though at my age, it entails some risk since I have little work experience outside academia. So I have no Plan B other than returning home and this is because I feel like thinking about this will detract from my already limited motivation...I have some support where I am, and I'll miss the friendships I've made along the way here...but the PhD has tainted so much of my lens of the world at the moment for me to enjoy their company or be good company. I'm at the point mentally where facing the fear and shame of returning with no tangible results is much less daunting than confronting the increased aimlessness and purposelessness I'm feeling at the moment.

My questions are (and I know that I ultimately must make the tough decisions):

-I know that I'm experiencing classic burnout, but at this point, juggling the deadline with R&R seems difficult, especially when I tend to view them as distractions from something dreadful I have ultimately to return to. Is there a way I can come to terms with that and still derive some joy from life?

-For those who've made the drastic choice to shift gears and put the project/PhD aside, what drove you forward to make that decision? Any insights?

-I've tried to trace the process in which I felt interest slipping away from me; but for some reason I can't get that passion back. Is there some way to rejuvinate interest at this point?

-I'd like to make the best of the time I have left, but I've rationalized lately that it isn't possible to finish barring a huge shift in mental capacity and motivation...any suggestions for budgeting the next four months of time?

I know this reads as disjointed, so please bear with me; I'm glad that I have enough within me to realize somehow I have to pick up the pieces...I just need some insight to how I might proceed with some courage and much more resolve. Thanks so much.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Just get the dissertation done. You have 6 months. Write every day, all day. You're so close that leaving with a PhD is far superior to leaving ABD. If academia isn't for you, that's fine. But having a Dr. In front of your name will open doors. (I wouldn't say this if you hadn't already started.).

While you're still on campus see a therapist.
posted by k8t at 9:16 AM on May 10, 2012 [19 favorites]

This sounds so familiar. I'm also in the last stages of separating from my Ph.D. program, which has consumed most of my adult life and my sense of self-worth, not to mention saddled me with a lifetime of debt.

At this point, I'm attracted to the prospect of getting away from the thing that killed my interest in what I used to love and distanced me from everything else, but also terrified because, like you, all of my work experience is academic.

The one concrete step I've taken is consulting my dissertation advisor and the department's staff grad student advisor, telling them that at present I cannot finish the dissertation, would like to withdraw from the program, but would like the option of returning in the future if I can get my act together. I recommend asking about this possibility of reinstatement if you can't bear to close the door on the doctorate completely.

What I'm trying to do now is find work, ideally some community college teaching gigs. That sounds like one of the best things to do with your remaining months of support, if you've decided to withdraw from the program and you want to stay where you are instead of moving back home.

On top of that, letting yourself simply live for a while, instead of trying to prove your worth or find the one right thing for you, is a huge step (that I'm nowhere close to myself), at least according to my therapist. So, if you can get a job that pays the bills and spend more time with your friends without feeling like it's a distraction from what really matters . . . well, I guess that's a life. It's also not a crime (however it feels) to fall back on family for a while if that's an option.

All said, I don't know how helpful or unique my advice is. Mostly I just want to say you're not alone.
posted by Idler King at 9:21 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had to make the same decision after taking a brief sabbatical after my father's death. I chose to finish, even though I'd moved a thousand miles away from campus. For me, finishing tied off the experience and let me move past it; I don't work in my field, I don't read those journals any more, I don't even work in academe, but leaving ABD would have triggered far worse mental states than the resentment and struggle of getting back into the routine and setting a writing schedule.
posted by catlet at 9:22 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Has your research not panned out in terms of producing results that can be used to create a meaningful thesis, or are you just not invested in the research/results enough to expend the effort needed to put in a pretty package? I get that the latter is happening, but is the former happening at all too?
posted by skrozidile at 9:23 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of people I know have cut their losses and moved on from writing dissertations. They lead productive and fulfilling lives, and don't regret it at all. Others have graduated with PhDs and aren't in academia anymore. So sure, maybe you should finish, there are probably lots of reasons to do so. But if you don't, it will not be the end of the world.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:27 AM on May 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

I just realized that my advice to ask about reinstatement might not apply if you don't want to or can't take student loans once your funding has run out.

Also, from what you've said, I'd guess depression and anxiety actually go a long way towards explaining the disgust and helplessness you're feeling. I agree with others who've suggested seeing a therapist, who might be able to help you make the decision either to grind out the diss or walk away.
posted by Idler King at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2012

After years of escapism

The elaborate ways you're talking about this are more escapism, ways of distancing yourself from the plain reality.

Get support from your friends, maybe from counselors, and get this done.

It's ok if it's not fun. It's ok if you give it your best shot and in the end don't make it.

You'll feel better when your sole focus isn't on how to make yourself feel better.
posted by philipy at 9:41 AM on May 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

Seconding philipy. It kind of sounds like you're trying to convince yourself that it would be a good idea to quit.

Do the paper anyway. Use the Seinfeld Method. Do a crappy job, the easiest job, write the last page today...but get to the end. If you have enough time, revise it into something that doesn't suck so bad. Six months, come on. You can do it.
posted by rhizome at 9:52 AM on May 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

You're supposed to hate everything about your thesis topic. That is perfectly normal. No, it won't get better. You will not rediscover your passion. You will hate every second until the bitter end. But this doesn't mean you won't finish.

You feel like you don't know anything, despite all your work. This is also normal. You're wrong about that. You know more about your subject than anyone else in the world, probably—you're just realizing how little anybody really knows about anything.

A deadline has a wonderful way of focusing the mind. Make up a schedule of milestones you want to hit, and like rhizome says, start crossing Xs off on the calendar

I took two years away from my thesis topic after I finished my PhD. I did other stuff. I highly recommend it. Then I got new data, and I went back to it. With the perspective I'd gained, I recovered my passion for the subject.

I really, really wish I'd seen a counselor in grad school. Do it.
posted by BrashTech at 10:08 AM on May 10, 2012 [18 favorites]

If it helps, perhaps consider that your goal right now is not to complete your project, your goal is to beat the system such that you are awarded a phd.

Worry less about the quality of your work and focus on assembling something that can be turned in. Even if it fails to meet your expectations of what your work should be and feels a complete embarrassment and takes a months of misery just to achieve that embarrassment, it is still a far smarter thing to do than to throw away four years.

If being miserable for 6 months is the price to pay, it's a hell of a bargain and you should take it. The price of throwing away the last four years is not the things you seem to thinking about (embarrassment to your family, etc), it's putting your life - the only one you have - onto a track that can never fully be recovered from, that will disadvantage you for your entire life.

Another thing to bear in mind: 6 months of abject misery, by your own will, is a kind of school-of-hard-knocks doctorate in its own right that gets fuck-yeah real results in the real world. People who have done that sort of thing emerge as noticeably tougher and more capable people, and they more often win at life as a result. You won't even understand this, it will simply seem strange to you when you see someone else crumble under (what seems like) the mildest pressure.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:20 AM on May 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

After seeing it recommended many times on ask.mefi, I finally bought The Now Habit. It addresses many of the exact issues you've brought up, and while the book can't magically make them go away, it can help you better understand what's going on inside your head. You can buy the e-book and read it today -- I really think you should.

I think that a useful model is that your passion for your subject is still there, but is buried under a heap of negative thoughts about yourself and everything connected with your project. I would try working in a different location, for limited, pre-specified periods of time, with immediate rewards -- e.g., I will go the coffee shop, read this one paper, then have a brownie. I wouldn't try to do anything specific to rekindle your excitement about the research -- just try to reduce the tremendous burden of stress and disappointment, and let the positive feelings come back on their own.

Finally, I would look to see if something outside the thesis, but connected to it, is causing uncertainty. In my case, I was a total wreck about 6 months before my thesis deadline because I was trying to find a postdoc close to my girlfriend. Once I got that squared away, I had three months left: I banged out the planned chapters of the thesis in two, then devised and finished another chapter in the remaining month, which later became my most successful paper to date. So, you might be very surprised at what your level of productivity can be when you've removed some psychological obstacles.
posted by inkfish at 11:43 AM on May 10, 2012

Finish your dissertation. Just fill pages with words until you have enough pages. If you need a therapist to help you with this, your university has that resource. If you need a support group, your university is likely to have that resource.

Turn it in, and then go on a retreat somewhere and let your mind recharge itself.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:11 PM on May 10, 2012

Two facts to keep in front of you:
1. Say it with me: if you leave ABD you will be JUST FINE. It will be okey doke. Within academia it seems like you will be consigned to the flames if you don't finish, but outside of academia that is just not true. There is a whole world out there of perfectly normal okay people who don't have doctorates, and they are all okay. Deep breath. The worst case scenario here is that you are an intelligent resourceful person without a PhD. That is not so bad.

2. Four years is a comparatively short time, and it's GREAT that you have a firm deadline now. Love that deadline. You will not just float indefinitely - you'll need to make a decisions firmly this calendar year.

Ok. So given these two facts, can you do this thing, minimally, enough to pass, in six months?
Yes. And you should try.

The way to do it is to force yourself to write for x hours a day - go to the library and make your computer forget the wireless password, go to a place with no distractions, and firmly require yourself to produce x hundred words per day. You CAN do this. You did it when writing papers at the last minute for your classes, you can do it now. Ass in chair. Begin today.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:12 PM on May 10, 2012

I think that I felt very much the same way you do a year and a half ago. I had already scheduled to present at a conference in Puerto Rico in February, so as discouraged and burned out as I was, I went. Other than giving my talk, I didn't attend that much of the meeting, but sat on the rooftop patio of the convention center and wrote a chapter that I had been stuck on for 2 years. It was the breakthrough I needed. I went home and wrote the rest of the thing in a month. I graduated a year ago, have a job I love, and everyday am so glad that I found a way to get through that awful experience and out the door.

The things that helped me:
1) That trip away from everything where I could finally just write
2) When I got back, setting up a space that was not my office or on the couch that was just for writing. When I stopped being able to write, I left that space and did something else, so that space remained just for writing.
3) lists! Do a thing, check it off the list. If you feel up to it, do another thing and check it off the list.
3) exercise! It's so cliche, but so true.
4) For me, getting my job offer obviously helped, because I knew I needed the PhD to actually have the job. For you, your funding situation may be the same impetus.

You can do this. If I can do it, I think almost anyone can.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:16 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

What field? Engineering? Math? Psych? Sociology? Humanities? It matters a little bit cf. the advice above. Ask a mod to paste in your field.
posted by zeek321 at 12:38 PM on May 10, 2012

Oh lord. Just finish the damn thing. Do whatever it takes -- but don't invent 10,000 excuses (and I say this as someone who has lived with anxiety and depression myself). And don't expect the folks on Ask MeFi to give you a pass.

Writing a dissertation is not supposed to be fun... for anybody.

Ball that jack, sacrifice six more months -- no goofing off, no breaks, no escapism -- get the bloody thing done, and THEN you can decide what to do next.

I'll tell you what wrecks more lives than "choosing the wrong path", and that's unfinished business. If you care about future employment prospects, nothing makes a candidate more radioactive than a resume that says he pissed away four years in grad school and then didn't even finish. Yes, there are lots of people without Ph.Ds -- but it's the failure to finish things you start that makes employers nervous, not whether you have a Ph.D. or not. I've hired people, and it makes me nervous.

Finish it. FINISH IT. You can do it.

Close your web browser and get writing.
posted by rhombus at 2:44 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

As some who left a degree programme that still haunts me:

1. Take a weekend and go hiking/to the beach/somewhere with no computer, no smart phone, nothing related to your phD, and a couple good books meaning whatever you might read for fun. Breathe. Look at the world of trees/rocks/sun/rain/water. It does not care a whit for your degree.

Come back and work like crazy for 5 days. Take a regular weekend. Work like crazy for 5 more days. Repeat. One unplugged weekend as often as you can.

2. Even if you don't finish, it'll be okay. But finish. It will not get easier to do so.
posted by Zen_warrior at 3:50 PM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ok. I left my PhD after five years (one year unfunded). I had no passion for it, I hated writing, and my project was all over the place and it would have taken way longer than I was willing to devote to do it all over again. I had accepted a long time before that that I did not belong in academia and was going to get out as soon as I finished so it was maybe a bit easier to let go for me. I took a week off to decide what I wanted to do and I was noticeably better and more relaxed not working on my diss. Ultimately leaving was the best decision for me and I don't regret it. (I did go on leave for a year, but I knew pretty much at the very beginning that there was no way I was going back.) You have to figure out if you can be happy leaving it behind or if it'll always haunt you. I'm sure I COULD have finished, but I just really didn't want to -- I didn't have the heart for it any longer.

However, you should know that this

months of burnout and indeed disgust for the way I feel about everything that's remotely related to my topic

is so freakin', unbelievably normal that it's almost not worth bringing up.

As for this:

An overwhelmingly strong voice is telling me to cut my losses and meet the challenge of finding something I'm passionate about, even though at my age, it entails some risk since I have little work experience outside academia.

What's the difference between having a PhD and not having one if you don't have experience? A lot of people might say it's better NOT to have one. Look, it's super-unlikely that you're going to find a job in academia, especially given the way you feel now, and it's going to be pretty hard to find a job in this economy without experience. I had some, but little experience and it took me 8 months to find a job in my city's shitty economy. I had no clue what I wanted to do, but eventually fell into an awesome job. Passion doesn't really matter at this point; just finding a job is key. And it doesn't really seem like you know what that is right now (which is fine!) but don't waste time trying to figure that out before figuring out how you're going to eat.

Anyway, I can go on and on about this. Feel free to memail.

Oh, just to add: there are people who've written the whole diss in 6 months. You totally could do it! I think everyone needs some mental health help during grad school -- make sure you're getting some of that too so you could potentially work past it and finish it up.

I will really end now, but I'd really recommend taking some time away from the thesis to think really hard about what's best for you.
posted by pised at 5:06 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure where people are getting the six month time frame. Anonymous asked about "budgeting the next four months of time" but I don't see a reference to the number six in anonymous's question. When it comes to finishing a dissertation, four months versus six makes a difference.

Anonymous, I can't judge whether you can finish the dissertation in the time that you have because I don't know how much you've completed and whether you have to factor in time for your readers to review and approve individual chapters before you can turn in the whole thing. It's not unusual for Ph.D. students to dramatically increase their rate of production when a hard deadline looms, so it may be possible. Here are a couple of previous questions about finishing a dissertation in a compressed time frame:

eight months

ten days

First of all, I think you have to decide whether you want to sprint to the finish or bow out gracefully. It should be a decision, not something that you feel boxed into.

If you want to try to finish, make a list of the remaining pieces and divide up the remaining time. Each piece of the dissertation production HAS to fit into the corresponding chunk of time. I loathe the term timeboxing but that is really what you have to do. Don't panic, just do it. When you're three days from the end of a timebox, if the piece you're working on isn't on track to finish up tidily, you have to find a compromise. Whatever is left to write, just outline it. The next day, turn the outline into a seriously shitty high-speed draft with bad grammar and colloquialisms and "I think I remember reading something about this but I can't find it now" placeholders for evidence. The next day, do whatever you can to make the shitty draft slightly less shitty. Then close the book on that chapter or section and start the new timebox on the next section.

Regardless of whether you decide to do a dissertation sprint or not, I recommend that you get a copy of "So What Are You Going to Do with That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia. The authors have a lot of good advice along the lines of valuing the experience you've had in a graduate program while also valuing life and work outside of academia.

Finally, on the psychological/motivational side of things, I've written about my process previously on Ask Metafilter. In my case, I decided to finish the dissertation, but also decided to step off the academic job track. Resolving on those decisions abated my anxieties and made finishing possible.

Whatever your choice, I wish you the best.
posted by Orinda at 7:42 PM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Life is not a series of rungs on a ladder of achievements. Being in school teaches us that is it, but it's not. Regardless of whether you remain ABD, or become PhD, you've learned a lot in the past 4 years! A lot about the world, and a lot about yourself. Fast forward 10 years: you'll be somewhere, doing something, probably not directly related to your thesis at all, but ABD or PhD, you'll be using the knowledge you've been acquiring.

Does your funding obligate you to certain hours, or can you take a week off to get out of town and clear your head? Either by going home, or on a road trip to visit a friend, or going camping or something.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, it might help you to finish if you go get a job outside academia; perhaps a 10hr a week job, but one around normal people! It's kinda the shower effect - half thinking about something while delivering pizza can bring insights, and can clarify things.

How's your support network? Friends, lovers, arch enemies?

Does your uni have a writing center? They have people eager to help.

Where physically do you work on your research? If you have an office at the uni, perhaps try working at home. If you work at home, try working in a coffee shop? Change it up.

In some uni's, people can do a team dissertation. That's model that's always intrigued me. That may not be directly appicable to you, but if you can find some one in a similar sitch, and you know there are others at your uni, perhaps even in your department, you may be able to be each other's life coaches.

Good luck with whatever you decide.
posted by at at 4:10 AM on May 11, 2012

You might want to post this question on's a forum for people working towards their PhD and this question comes up a lot.
posted by theNeutral at 3:05 PM on May 27, 2012

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