How do you force yourself to do something you're not internally motivated to do?
August 3, 2012 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Need specific advice on finding motivation for work in a PhD program. Snowflakey background information included of course.

I am sorry this is so long but I think the background stuff is relevant. There is a TL;DR at the bottom if you want to skip it.

Right now, I am going to start my third year at Big State University on a PhD fellowship in the social sciences. I get a very small stipend but I pay no tuition and I am not going into debt for this. I think of my PhD as a low-wage job with some prestige, health insurance, flexible working hours, and generally nice colleagues (and some real asshats just to keep it interesting). However, I have been unhappy since the first day of the program.

During the application process I was single and envisioning a think-tank type job at the end of the PhD. I never wanted to be an academic and was clear on that going into this. Now, at the start of Year 3, I’m very happily married to someone whose job is not geographically flexible. Last year we were able to live together, before my partner’s job moved to another state. That involved a 6-hour round trip commute for me each day. It was horrible. At the moment we live thousands of miles apart from each other, and although I don’t have that wretched commute anymore the situation is not much better.

The industry careers I had in mind when I began this process aren’t a good fit anymore. I’d like to live with my spouse eventually and think tank-y type jobs only exist in a few urban places where my spouse cannot work. There is no other job I’d like to do that requires this PhD and it now seems totally useless.

I have been struggling with the issue of whether or not to quit since the very first day. In Year 1 everyone said, “Don’t worry it gets better.” In Year 2 it did get better in some ways and worse in other ways. I still though about quitting all the time. If I quit now I have nothing to “show for it”. If I quit after this year (3) I can at least get the conciliatory MA. Big State University makes the leave-with-an-MA process as difficult and unappealing as possible. Big State University does not award MAs in my field, so I’d technically get the MA from Affiliated College not Big State University. Straight MA students at Affiliated College (where I have never been) only have to complete 30 credits and write a thesis to get their degree. En-route-MA students from the PhD Program have to complete 45 credits, pass the first set of comprehensive exams, and write a “thesis comparable” paper to get the exact same MA. The soonest I could walk away with the MA is the end of this academic year, Spring 2013.

If I for some reason decide to stick it out after this year then I can live and work from wherever I want in order to do my research and write-up. Average time-to-finish in our department is 7.5 years, but I am aiming to finish in 5. So far I am on track to finish in five years. Unfortunately that doesn’t resolve the problem of a PhD not being relevant to a career. I also think I'd be less miserable and better able to cope with the aspects of the program I dislike if I could live with my partner and have that personal life balance. Unfortunately that part of my life had to be sacrificed to the PhD.

And now, after all that preamble, here is my actual question: I was starting to panic about failing the comprehensive exam in a few weeks due to my excruciating inability to study for it. I sat at my desk for days and just blanked out, unable to read a thing. I went to see a counselor at Big State University because I was wondering if this was a sign that I should just quit already and I didn’t know what else to do.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t really helpful – I just babbled a lot about not knowing what to do and she nodded and told me she hears that a lot. Empathy is great but it didn’t help me make up my mind. After a few sessions I just felt like I was wasting my time talking when I needed to be making a decision. I figured that I needed to knuckle down to study because waffling between quitting and staying was making me crazy and the test dates was getting closer every day.

So now I’ve made the decision to continue just for this year and then if I’m still miserable I’ll leave with the MA and at least I’ll have “something to show for it.” I do really enjoy teaching (I currently teach 2 courses on my own, write my own curriculum, etc and I enjoy it) so a community college or high school job might be in the future for me-- in that case the MA might be handy.

I’ve made the decision. I should be good to go now, right? If only. I still can’t manage to motivate myself to study. Fear of failing isn’t doing it, nose-to-the-grindstone determination isn’t there, passion for my discipline isn’t working, walking away with an MA doesn’t feel so great and I’m just at a loss. I’ve tried to give myself a healthy routine, I exercise outdoors every day in the morning, eat well, make time to see friends and socialize, but I literally spend hours at my desk each day just totally stuck. I use Freedom to turn off the internet, I use a timer to try and set myself small tasks but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’m going to lose my mind. I’m frustrated with the situation on a macro scale and I’m frustrated on a micro level too. I don’t know what to do, but I have to get through this somehow. I only have a few weeks until the exam. Help.

TL;DR: I’m unhappy in my PhD program but committed to stay through this year. I have to pass a set of exams in a few weeks and I just can’t seem to motivate myself to study. I have to unblock myself but I don’t know how.
posted by blue_bicycle to Work & Money (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Could you go live with your partner for a couple of weeks?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:54 AM on August 3, 2012

Passing your comps is necessary for whichever door you choose. Part of your mind is afraid that passing your comps will lead to New Big Unknown Scary Shit. This part of your mind is NOT WRONG. Anytime you feel stuck, try telling yourself that nothing *has* to change just because you pass your comps. You can be just as miserable and conflicted with an MA as you were before you had one. Nothing has to change, you're just going to take this big exam and pass the everliving fuck out of it, and you promise to come right back to worrying about your future in 20 minutes, when you've finished this block of studying. I mean, you might as well study, right? It's a great way to avoid doing the dishes.

That's a more deeply psychological approach. What actually works for me right now is doing my dissertation work in front of someone else, or right before an advisor meeting, so I have accountability. Ask someone in your cohort if they'd be your study buddy, or have weekly check-ins with someone (friend, advisor, pet groomer's cousin) at which you deliver little book reports on the literature you've studied that week/day. On preview: LobsterMitten's recommendation fits in with this pretty well.

You are going to kick this thing's ass, and afterwards you will have the freedom to make some big decisions about your future. Congratulations on having found someone you want to spend the rest of your life with! I'd take that over a PhD and a fancy think-tank job any day.
posted by katya.lysander at 11:57 AM on August 3, 2012

Just popping back in to answer (not to thread sit!): I wish I could go visit my partner. Unfortunately tickets are really expensive and we just don't have the money right now. I'm booked for a visit in December, but can't swing another one before then, otherwise I'd be there now :(
posted by blue_bicycle at 12:09 PM on August 3, 2012

Do you have friends (in the program or not) who could drill/study with you?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:17 PM on August 3, 2012

Blue bicycle are you both in the usa? Bc if so i would very much like to use some of my gazillion miles (i fly a LOT to send you to visit your spouse. Please memail.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 2:12 PM on August 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

First, from a mental perspective, don't beat up on yourself - comps make *lots* of people feel this way. I'll bet lots of your cohort are having similar issues whether they admit it or not. Keep with the eating right, socializing, and exercise outdoors. You're in good company, try not to feel alone. It'll be ok. You have a wonderfull partner that loves you regardless of how this works out. Some number of students every year miss on their first shot at comps. The department has a vested interest in you and doesn't want to kick you out. You are there because they like you. Furthermore, a comps failure can even be kind of arbitrary and a failure at a first pass of the comps isn't an auto MA-and-goodbye. So, you will be fine and the outcome of this test does not reflect strongly upon you.

Secondly, Southwest has a 50% off deal on certain dates right now - can you meet up with your partner for a weekend somewhere that has cheap flights either mid studying or just after the exams as a treat to motivate yourself?

But otherwise, I found that LobsterMitten's advise was what worked best for me. Get a group of your cohort together that your friendly with, and start a study group. Every day, and hour and a half, either saturday or sundays off as preference dictates. Slowly increase this time as you get closer to the test. Go out for coffee and just bitch with them afterwards. Also, make sure to talk with more senior students to get a plan for all the material that you need to cover. Then, plan out your group study sessions with your group so that you cover all of it at whatever level time permits. You'll make progress everyday, and the momentum should help carry over to your personal studying. Use your alone time to do both general purpose studying and fill in particular gaps in your knowledge that the group sessions reveal. If you have issues, chat with someone from your group who seems confident in that particular area.

I found that this group stuff wasn't ever the most productive studying for me from an overall standpoint. But the routine helped me get going and stay motivated. I mean, even if that was all that I did one day I still felt productive and it is hard to skip them because hey, peer pressure. It can also be refreshing to be reminded that other people have their own strengths and weaknesses too, and that your cohort aren't all academic Terminators. Then just study on your own outside of that to whatever degree you can. Try not to stress if you have an off day or two or 5 where nothing else gets done. Take it outside, or to cafe's, or student centers, or libraries - just change venue until you find something that works. (I could work on research, but not study in my office. No idea why. Studying at home worked fine, but only after 9pm. I hate the library for class work and research, but when I went there for comps it just felt like SERIOUS BUSINESS STUDY TIME, OK. Saturday afternoons are made to be enjoyed.)

Also, if you ever want a random motivational memail from a senior grad student who's been in a similar situation and can tell you that it gets better, I can do that.
posted by McSwaggers at 3:40 PM on August 3, 2012

I'm admittedly jaded, but this is "one of those things" that are part and parcel of an academic career/grad school. Very common after periods of prolonged chronic stress and impending acute stress.

Long distance relationships are also common, and I've unfortunately seen too many women cede careers to their male spouses. But it sounds like you value the relationship more than competing to be at the top of your career cohort and that's great. Do you?

What is the difference, career potential wise, of having a PhD vs a MA? If you're not fundamentally unhappy with the work you've been doing the last couple of years, it sounds like sticking it out for the PhD might be viable.

In my field, pay and career potential between a MSc and PhD is pretty big, but there is a multiple of at least an order of magnitude less jobs for PhDs than for MSc. PhD may be an overqualification depending on your field - which I admittedly have little experience. Do you project yourself to be at the top of your class upon graduation? If not, bowing out early is certainly a rational response - I've given up on pursuing an academic career, myself.

Will you ever question yourself why you didn't go all in and get the PhD instead of "settling" with a MA?
posted by porpoise at 5:54 PM on August 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

McSwaggers - Thanks for the concrete advice, reality check and of course the sympathy. Alas, my poor partner gets hardly any time off with his job so he can't fly to meet me anywhere and Southwest doesn't fly to where he's at. Lame, I know. I'm gonna try lowering the stakes in my own head and seeing if that helps any.

porpoise - I do value my relationship more than being at the top of the career pile. I'd love to be high-flying and important but at the end of the day I don't think that's really "me". What's that thing they say about people on death-beds? No one ever wishes they'd spent more time at the office? In terms of potential careers I don't think, for me at least, there is any value to having the PhD over the MA. Maybe in the end something would reveal itself and I'd be so grateful I stuck in there for the PhD, but that a seems like a rather long shot. More than questioning why I didn't go all in I worry that I question myself on why I'm STILL in, despite all the unhappiness and all the sacrifices ... and the fact that at the end of the day the PhD will not help land me a job. Oy.
posted by blue_bicycle at 7:02 PM on August 3, 2012

All the best, and I wish good timing upon you! Sorry to realize that I did absolutely nothing towards answering your question - how to motivate yourself, one way or another.

How did you fail your comps? Was it one oddball examiner who wanted something specific that you didn't know, or were the question subjects outside of the topics that were agreed upon before the exam?

I think that defiance was one of the major contributors to my plowing through it; stupid work, I can complete you!
posted by porpoise at 10:35 PM on August 4, 2012

I didn't fail my comps, I haven't even taken them yet!
posted by blue_bicycle at 12:23 PM on August 6, 2012

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