Grad school doubts, and it's only been three weeks!
September 20, 2014 11:22 PM   Subscribe

I moved back to North America after living abroad for four years to start a Masters program. I’m here now, it’s been three weeks and I feel alternatingly very unhappy, stressed and panicked about the choice that I’ve made, and I'm hoping for some of advice on how to proceed.

I have been living abroad for the past four years. At times, the experience was a struggle and I dealt with feelings of loneliness as well as working in a job that was an extremely poor fit for me. However, by my last year there, I had found a job I really enjoyed, a group of housemates I liked, and in general, had found some peace and stability there, perhaps for the first time in my life. I was also in a relationship with someone who I cared for deeply and who leaving was/is incredibly hard, although we decided to end our relationship when I left because although we both really liked each other, we fought a lot and had major issues with communicating in a healthy way.

I wanted to do a Masters because the job I had abroad although very rewarding (working with children), was allowing me to save about $50 a month and in my mid-20s, I wanted to be on track towards more stability and the ability to save a little bit more every month, afford a car, go on holiday occasionally etc., and I thought (hoped?) that a Masters degree in urban planning would put me on a better path. I also wanted to move back to North America, although I enjoyed living where I was living, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to commit to continue living so far from home.

I chose the school I am at now because I received a large scholarship for my first year -- my funding will cover all of my tuition and probably about 80% of my living costs.

So I’m here now, still a significant flight away from my family here, and waking up in the early hours with my heart racing and the feeling that I have made a huge mistake. I did not visit the university or the town before attending (the scholarship was enough reason to go), and it’s all… ok. But being here, without even being sure that I want to become an urban planner is starting to feel like a ludicrous and incredibly irrational choice. The coursework is mostly interesting (I knew before I came that I found the topic academically engaging, I’d done some related work in my undergrad) but it’s also very theoretical and pretty detached from practice. The program I am doing also requires a thesis—again, I chose to go into the program because of the scholarship without seriously thinking about the implications of writing another thesis (now I’m here, it’s pretty clear to me I’d much rather not be writing one, again). Really, at this moment in my life, I want to be DOING, not reading or studying or researching.

So I’ve just spent the last six hours in bed, with the covers over my head, trying to pretend that I’m not really here but, well, I am. I don’t have any other plans/alternatives and I’d like to commit to at least finishing this term (I think?)

A lot of the reason that I ended up here was through playing the game of self-comparison and feeling that my peers were years ahead of me—finishing programs in medicine and law etc, and I was left behind doing unqualified work and earning shit money, hence the reason to jump on the grad school boat.

I don’t really know what to do now, or *what* I should be doing next.

So my questions are these:
1) How can I make the rest of this term bearable, and make myself actually complete assignments and write a thesis proposal for something I don’t really want to do?
2) What should I do (beyond coursework) to get a better idea if this career is even the right fit for me?
3) Is it crazy to stay with all the doubt that I am experiencing? (I’ve tried to convince myself that I’m doing a really crappily remunerated internship, but that hasn’t been working)
4) Considering this program is 2 years long, would it be silly to transfer to another school that has a non-thesis based option (but which would most likely also involve doing two more years since the courses offered by the different schools are not transferable)?
posted by anonymous to Education (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm having trouble counting up the number of people who've confessed to me their inner turmoil their first semester in a new graduate program, but it's more than a handful. I've seen at least two people pack up and quit within a week. So that happens, and I think both of those folks made reasonable decisions. But I feel way more optimistic about the situation you describe, because you have at least a few positive and several neutral things to say about where you are and because I can attribute much of what you're feeling to simply going through a lot of change at once. I hesitate to use a medical term for it, but there's one that might be on point: adjustment disorder.

I suggest avoiding thoughts about your overall life plan if you can. You describe having interesting things to contemplate in your classes, even if they're a bit too theoretical, and you're OK with the city and school you're in. That all sounds pretty good for now, and truthfully, most graduate programs as well as most careers resolve to tasks that have a lot in common: you have to keep track of what needs to be done, get things done on time, grind through matters other people find hard or irritating or else they'd do it themselves, make yourself focus, get your bills paid, hunt around and find ways to be interested/intrigued/rewarded by some aspect of the work, achieve some happiness outside of your assignments, and get along with other people who may or may not be the greatest colleagues all the time. In short, work is mostly work, whatever the domain happens to be. The nature of it is obviously a factor, but it's not necessarily an important one, particularly not right now while you're getting settled into a new situation and new routines.

Furthermore, you probably have options for making this particular work relevant to things that feel engaging and important. You mention finding work with children to be rewarding--perhaps a thesis focusing on issues related to children (parks, playgrounds, schools, school zones, or the impact particular urban issues have on children?) would allow you to reflect on that experience or imagine you're helping in a different way. And when you're out, a professional master's is a decent starting point for any number of bureaucratic positions, city jobs, project planning careers, and so on. So you're not getting a scholarship to become an urban planner: you're getting a scholarship to know more about cities, large-scale projects, regulatory processes, etc., and you'll probably figure out something interesting to do with that eventually (I suspect most people with urban planning degrees aren't urban planners). Meanwhile, to address your need to do significant things right now, maybe find ten hours a week to volunteer somewhere: a food bank, a hotline, a shelter, a school, etc.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:20 AM on September 21, 2014 [10 favorites]

When I was in grad school (which is, as the previous poster mentioned, a real change to adjust to, especially if you're in a new town), I worked with exchange students who were preparing to go for a year abroad. One of the orientation points we covered with them was that the culture shock you feel going to another place often happens again upon return to your home country--reintegration can be hard. Add grad school and a new town on top of that and, well, it's going to be tough. I've said it before on AskMe but I cried every night in my new apartment the first week of grad school. It got much better after that. Give it some time--reevaluate after your period of readjustment is further along. I think what you're feeling is quite normal.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:57 AM on September 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

See how you feel about dropping out later, like at the end of the year or semester.

Right now, things are probably ramping up for you. Commiserate with your peers, they probably harbor similarly anxious feelings!
posted by oceanjesse at 1:04 AM on September 21, 2014

One small observation: every job (or educational pursuit)--even one you like--is going to involve some amount of doing things you don't like to do. So I would caution you about putting too much decision-making weight on your dislike of writing theses. In your particular case, it sounds like you also dislike sitting out of the job market taking classes rather than doing things. If the only real trade-off from switching programs would be to get out of doing a thesis at the cost of adding more semester of taking classes, that doesn't sound like it's much of a gain.

Another small observation: part of your motivation for wanting to move into a more lucrative career may have been envy of your friends, but it's also a valid concern in its own right. Don't be too quick to dismiss that urge to get out of the shit-pay job rut as mere striving to keep up with your peers. Being able to afford a car, save a little for retirement, go on a modest vacation--those are all very normal things to want.

If your university offers counseling services, it might be helpful to spend a few sessions talking through your worries in real-time with someone who can help put things into perspective rather than just letting your worries run wild on the hamster-wheel of rumination.
posted by drlith at 4:30 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's hard to know which if your feelings are really your feelings and which are caused by anxiety. Can you talk to a counsellor at your school? I wish I had done that sooner last year, but then again, maybe grad school was never the right thing for me, at least not at that point in time.

You can read through my history - I eventually ended up quitting after the first semester, even though I had grown to love my programme once the first few weeks were over. But the anxiety just came back with a vengence at the end of the first term.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2014

You have the right idea. Putting yourself in an entirely new situation is a challenge. A solution is to play pretend with yourself.

Pretend you want to be doing this. Pretend that you enjoy doing research. Pretend that you are delighted to have the opportunity to write a thesis proposal. Get excited about your future career options. It won't hurt to pretend you're having a good time, and you're already committed anyway.

Basically, pretend that your reality is true. That you chose to be there. Your first year is covered, it pays almost as well as your previous job, and you will develop skillz. Those skills will make you more useful in the non-academic world soon enough.

Besides which, the scholarship is an investment made in you. It is an institution saying that they value your education in this skill so much that they are willing to pay to see that you are able to get it. So that you can then go and share that needed skill with society.

In the meanwhile, see if you can get a hands-on internship to parallel your classes. Or take up volunteering somewhere relevant to your interests.
posted by aniola at 11:34 AM on September 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am on the other end of grad school (left in May) - the two years was certainly an adjustment.

Grad school might not be right for you right now (it may be right in the future, or maybe it is just about adjustment), or this program might not be right. Talk to your peers, a professor you like, or even yours school's counseling program. If you want to take a break or switch schools, that's ok: take it at your own pace, in your own way.
posted by troytroy at 1:19 PM on September 21, 2014

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