Where did my brain go?
April 21, 2013 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Help me rescue my analytical faculties so I can survive the last months of grad school with my dignity intact.

I'm in my final semester of a research-based MA program in the social sciences, currently trying to get my thesis written so I can defend by a September deadline. My project has been incredibly intellectually and emotionally challenging – I'm researching the public commemoration of violent death among two populations in Canada – and a portion of my fieldwork was downright traumatic. That said, I know I have a compelling, stimulating and fairly original project on my hands, and numerous people both inside and outside of academia have been very supportive of my work. I'm just really not sure I'm able to carry it out.

While completing my coursework last year, I suddenly lost all confidence in my ability to comprehend and synthesize everything I was reading – I'd come to class having done the readings multiple times and always seemed to be on a totally different page from everyone else, many of whom didn't have the advantage of having a background in the discipline like I did, which led to great doubts about my abilities to critically engage texts. The crippling anxiety associated with getting it/not getting it led to me feeling totally unable to participate in what was actually an incredibly supportive small seminar environment. Everything that came out of my mouth was rambling and incoherent and frequently irrelevant. Through some miracle I managed to submit some decent written work and received As in all my classes, but the psychological barriers persisted and seemed to get worse.

I don't really know what happened this year, but it feels like I no longer understand the theory at the core of my project (and I think I've kept it pretty simple, theory has never been my strong suit) and my abilities to analyze and argue seem to have completely disappeared. I don't know how to explain my way from A to B anymore. I just got a big unsettling load of major edits back from my supervisors on everything I've written so far, pointing to an overreliance on empirics and lack of theory and absence of analysis throughout the chapter – yeah, I should have known this was coming. I've apparently totally misunderstood key texts, elided major theoretical arguments, and the whole thing reads as just so facile and simplistic. I've been following my supervisors' cues when they explain to me what my argument is all about, furiously scribbling down things I need to write about when we're in meetings together, then getting home and looking at my notes and realizing I don't understand what they said at all. This all just seems to big for my brain to process, and my mind is becoming increasingly sieve-like with respect to everything I read. I seem to forget and misunderstand so easily.

My supervisors have been wonderfully supportive but I fear they're getting really sick of me and my lack of intellectual progress (or even regression – I feel like I wasn't always this bad). I'm hugely embarrassed by the fact that I can't answer ostensibly simple questions about my project on the spot – how will I manage to get through a thesis defense if I can't string together cogent answers in meetings? I've done very good work for both of them before – it's not like I was admitted to the program by mistake – but I'm ashamed by the fact that I feel like I'm starting to waste their time. It just feels like everyone around me knows my project much better than I do. (I feel like the academic version of Guido, the protagonist of 8 1/2.)

How do I relearn how to think critically, analyze and argue in a really short period of time? I've got a big pile of substantial edits (more like a massive rewrite) due at the end of the month, and the whole thesis (most of which remains to be written) needs to be done by the beginning of August, at the latest. The government and the banks will not give me any more money if I'm not done by then, and I'll have to drop out if I'm not ready for a defense/get to a defense and end up failing.

I know this is all just a bad case of performance anxiety/impostor syndrome/self-defeating thoughts at its core. Through CBT I learned how to shut certain depression-related self-defeating thoughts down, but I don't know how to suddenly reconfigure my thought patterns to understand texts and theory and logic again. I sit down to write/lie awake at night and attempt to logically think through the questions that have been presented to me in the simplest terms possible and my mind gets stuck in this endless 20 GOTO 10 loop in which I can't think past step one of my argument, let alone follow it through to its conclusion – it's not like I've got a negative thought that I can step in and interrupt. My mind is a mess. (And yes, I'm on medication for depression, but it doesn't seem to be doing a damn thing these days. Given my previous experiences changing drugs, having to taper off and start on a new one does not seem like a good idea right now.)

Is there any way to salvage my confidence and mental faculties from this mess in time? MeMail me if you need to. Thanks for listening.
posted by avocet to Education (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Are you getting enough sleep?
posted by domnit at 1:12 PM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: In general, yes, but some nights are total writeoffs thanks to the anxiety surrounding this project and my impending deadlines.
posted by avocet at 1:17 PM on April 21, 2013

Lack of sleep occurred to me as well. It is likely that you are pressed for time, but you might benefit from a 'change of scene', getting away from where your usually are to someplace restful and refreshing like a park or whatever water that is near Toronto.
posted by Cranberry at 1:19 PM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've apparently totally misunderstood key texts, elided major theoretical arguments, and the whole thing reads as just so facile and simplistic.

This sounds like a very normal MA thesis in the social sciences. Seriously, I'm not just being cynical. There's a big difference between having the critical acumen to see and/or agree to points like that and being able to write stuff that gets past it. You have to forgive yourself for being normal, even bad at the start, and just plod on to the point where you're more practiced.

With respect to feeling confused by the texts, it's not just you. Part of the problem is that social theory actually is complicated. But another side worth considering is that it's the texts that are sieve-like, too, not just your brain. Really, if you pay too close attention, they dissolve and dissolve and dissolve. They gesture at arguments instead of making them. Assume connections not in evidence between topics they raise. Use metaphors that are wildly inexact. Allude to philosophical traditions, other texts, and historical moments that don't actually mean just the right thing. Etc., etc. You want them to fit together as clearly as computer programs, and they just don't.

So forgive yourself for your writing and blame the texts a bit more for the confusion.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:27 PM on April 21, 2013 [14 favorites]

It sounds like you might have a case of imposter syndrome. Have you asked someone else in your program about the scope of these edits? It might be that this is normal and your peers are experiencing the same thing but don't want to admit it.

Student counseling has seen all this before and might be able to help you figure out how to break the loop.

Finally, consider lowering your expectations for yourself. The best thesis is a finished thesis and your advisor will not let you defend if they don't think you'll pass. The quality of your thesis won't matter a year from now.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 1:27 PM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can relate to this big time. I'm barely in the beginning stages of thesis work but thus far the Grad School Experience has entailed many, many sleepless nights and episodes of anxiety and self-doubt. Impostor syndrome without a doubt. Comes with the territory. I haven't figured out how to make those things go away either, but my advice to you is to take a day or two off, get out of [your city] and DO NOT BRING BOOKS OR THINK ABOUT WORK. Hike, fish, watch stupid movies, drink beer with fun people who are Not Academics, whatever you think might give your brain a rest for just a little while.
posted by tealsocks at 1:40 PM on April 21, 2013

This is depression and imposter syndrome, absolutely, and it's conspiring to make you believe you are incapable of doing things. This 20 GOTO 10 stuff is textbook. I've been caught in such loops before, many times. I just busted out of one recently. The characteristic is that small challenges (how do I figure out this little piece) become tangled with big issues (these arguments are shaky, I'll never get past my defense, other people are so much better at this, what am I going to do with my life, I'm going to fail my thesis and end up on food stamps, aaagh). Forward progress is impossible in such states. But the only way to get anywhere is forward progress, one step at a time.

The way I busted out of my recent loop was to externalize it with the help of my adviser. I reduced the sprawling project I was working on to a small chunk and wrote up a set of powerpoint slides outlining the main argument, method, data, analysis of that chunk. I took about a week to do this. I was explicit about the parts I wasn't sure about and of course it all feels like a big pile of garbage to me. But even so, the act of stepping back to a high-level view really helped me see the big picture of my work and how it fit together, and I feel like I understand it a lot better and I know the next steps I have to take.

I think a good place to start would be for you and your advisers to come to a shared understanding of the theoretical framework you're using in your thesis, since it seems you don't have this now, and you need this before you can write a good thesis. However shaky and tenuous your grasp of this is right now, get it into bullet points on slides as best you can. Show it to your peers and send it to your profs. The nice thing about bullets is that they cannot hide in the writing and they demand a response other than vague-and-not-very-helpful comments like 'too empirical'. You can and should go back and forth on the fundamentals before rewriting the whole thing. Do it one small piece at a time, as small as it needs to be for it to get done. One foot in front of the other. The point here is to make all the worrying and debate about the words in those slides, rather than your worth as a human being and researcher.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:53 PM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may be on the verge of understanding better. Things seem to be falling apart because you're reaching a deeper level of understanding. Your brain is taking apart and putting back together a massive amount of information, and doing it in a way that a) is relevant to you and your project, and b) interfaces coherently with your advisor and your discipline. Be gentle with yourself. I went through a period where I couldn't speak coherently about what I was doing, which was embarrassing, but my brain eventually did whatever it was trying to do, and it all came back together in service of my goals. It took many months of stressful slogging (years, actually, but PhD).

Put in the time, follow threads that seem relevant to you, get sleep, weather the stress in the smartest way you know how. I think it will all come back together.
posted by zeek321 at 2:05 PM on April 21, 2013 [9 favorites]

Are you by any chance dipping into critical/post-modern theory (or whatever emerged from it since the 90s; seems likely)? I haven't gone anywhere near it since my last attempt at (undergrad) studies, but there's plenty of room for slippage in those waters. (Maybe someone else remembers: there was once a gibberish article that wound up being published in some cultural studies journal, maybe in the 90s? And certain people are famous for murky writing. Trying to say, clarity isn't always rewarded, in certain branches of the social sciences, even at the level of publication; i.e., it's not necessarily you.)

There's of course tons of room for interference from anxiety, given the stress around producing something original, and maybe the culture in your department or academia in general.

I hope you don't take my suggestion with any offence, but maybe going back to basics will help. E.g., reviewing secondary sources that articulate your core references in really simple ways (e.g., an undergrad survey textbook introducing critical theory, or whatever you're using) might help clear your head around your framework. And/or, find a recent review article that summarizes the state of relevant theory today.

Maybe also, try some hacks or programs to visually relate your findings/assumptions to theories (index cards on a cork board; Scrivener).

When you feel like you've got a better grip on what you're doing/have done, you could try verbally explaining it to a trusted peer (if not someone from your department, maybe somebody at another school, or from a cognate department).
posted by nelljie at 2:08 PM on April 21, 2013

nelljie: Maybe someone else remembers: there was once a gibberish article that wound up being published in some cultural studies journal, maybe in the 90s?

Are you thinking of the Sokal affair?

posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:45 PM on April 21, 2013

I think maybe you should see a doctor. This kind of mental fog is sometimes related to vitamin or nutrient deficiency, hormone or chemical imbalance, even brain blood flow issues, degenerative disorders and tumors.
posted by amaire at 3:17 PM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

My advice to anyone doing graduate work is to actually view it as work rather than some grand intellectual endeavour that will prove you are worthy of a cleverness mantle. The value comes out of the grind rather than out of genius. Scale back your expectations of yourself. Genius may come or it may not. There is no shame in being someone who hits singles rather than home runs.

[I wish someone had said this to me when I was tying myself in knots in grad school]
posted by srboisvert at 4:00 PM on April 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

The red flag thing for me is that you really should have had some kind of debriefing whilst doing your fieldwork and afterwards - going through traumatic experiences, even vicariously, depletes you enormously. I highly suggest you talk to a counsellor/psychologist. I would definitely be looking into whether you can in any way get some form of extension on medical grounds, just to give yourself a buffer (even if it's a very small one).

I would also have your iron levels tested - when we get stressed we eat crap - and allow yourself time away from studying - it will actually make the whole process easier.

And, remember, you have the support of people both inside and outside of academia. You are on the right track.
posted by heyjude at 4:08 PM on April 21, 2013

Seconding zeek321 — the anguish is evidence that you're learning something big. This is the reason you have to do big projects to get advanced degrees. Some people find ways of finishing their projects without really coming to grips with themselves, but you're getting the full experience. Count yourself lucky!

As for actually getting through it, I find anger helps. But maybe that's just me.
posted by brianconn at 6:42 PM on April 21, 2013

On a reread, I think heyjude's right. I'm also wondering whether the emotional, experiential aspects of fieldwork might have shaken up your theoretical firmament. I think it's one thing to apprehend things intellectually (to be able to describe, parse, critique theory, grasped as propositional knowledge), and quite another to integrate them with lived experience, or conversely to metabolize what you've experienced, and then review it using the lens of theory. (Is my memory serving me badly by forcing me to want to call this 'praxis'? I feel like that's right.) It's much easier to shuffle words and concepts around for work that doesn't call on you to engage in that kind of synthesis. I'm sure this is familiar to anthropologists, at least (as I remember reading about exactly this kind of dis/reintegration. Like, a lot). Does this kind of framing make sense to you?

(Even as a reader, I know for sure that, e.g., certain feminist texts resonate in much richer and more complicated ways now that I've got years and life between my first encounter with them in my early 20s.)

James Scott-Brown: yup, that's the one.
posted by nelljie at 7:17 PM on April 21, 2013

Yes, deal with the traumatic fieldwork. Therapy, journal, etc.

Work on the sleep issue. Search AskMe. There have been multiple questions about addressing sleep problems.

Work on nutrition -- diet, supplements, whatever works. Some things that support the brain: co-q-10, B vitamins, fish oil/omega 3s.

When I was extremely ill I dropped out of college for a time. When I was finally diagnosed with an incurable condition, I decided to "make more B's" and promptly went back to school. I didn't make that many B's but I did stop crying on my sister's shoulder if I got less than a 98 on a test or paper and I got through a lot more classes. I suggest you vow to "make more B's" so you don't lose all funding, etc.
posted by Michele in California at 9:21 PM on April 21, 2013

« Older Websites with lots of pictures, photographs, etc   |   Where can I live in San Francisco for the summer? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.