How to deal with being put on an action plan for school?
December 30, 2014 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I've been put on an action plan in my graduate program. I am not coping well. Looking for help.

In August I moved to attend graduate school. In September my close/only friend (who was also my ex and only boyfriend) killed himself. Life has just generally been a huge struggle since. I really struggle to do my work, while doing all the normal functions of living (cleaning, cooking, etc). After many, many hours of studying for finals I was feeling great! I got high grades on all my final exams and projects. Except one, which I had mistakenly thought I had a good grade on, but I really got a C (I need a minimum of a B to meet professional standards).

So now I'm on an action plan and I have to redo my final project and turn it in by 1/26, getting at least an 83%. This final hit, it is just too much. I literally feel like I can't cope. School is the only thing I had left after losing my friend, and now that's gone too. The only reason I kept going was because I'd been able to still do well academically.

This professor called me to discuss what I need to do, and it wasn't a good conversation. I started to cry, he didn't understand why I was upset, I explained my doubts and he just made me feel worse.

It also ruined my plans for the holidays. I was going to spend the last week of my holiday break with my friend's family (who I've become really close to) but instead I'll be working on my project all alone in my apartment (I can't work while I visit because they don't have internet).

The thing is, I don't know that I can get to the minimum on this project. We did a rough draft and mine got low marks so I really spent a lot of time re-doing it, and I thought it was so much better. So now on top of grieving, and depression, and loneliness, I now feel like shit about the only thing I ever had any talent for. Even though life was still a struggle, I had been coping so much better with my grief but this has really pushed me back.

The only thing I look forward to is visiting his family, and now that I can't do that, I don't see any light in my life at all. Only a black hole of misery without the only person who ever accepted me just as I was, and who was always there, even when I didn't deserve it. How does one live with nothing to look forward to? I was getting excited about my classes next semester but now I see nothing but bleakness.

So I'd like to hear about your experiences with being put on an action plan and any advice on coping with major setbacks when you were already dealing with the worst thing to ever happen to you. I feel like I have lost every part of myself.

*I'm in therapy and have been since he died so that's not a useful suggestion. I love my therapist, we have a great rapport, but I see her through university services so I won't see her till 1/13.
posted by Aranquis to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry you're feeling low. I get it, it sucks. But let's put it in perspective, It's one project for one class. I have faith that you can do it. Yes, it's disappointing that you're missing your vacation, but I promise, you can survive it.

If you can arrange to meet with the professor in person, do that. Show him exactly what you have and ask him for as much specific guidance as possible. Tell him, "I have had a really terrible semester, I'm trying very hard to move forward, and I need help." Most people will work with you. Even if he's a complete shit heel, it's one guy.

I had a professor in college who gave the most cryptic assignments. I worked with others in a study group on the most opaque project you've ever heard of, none of us got a good grade. Only one person in the class got a grade above a C. You know what? Oh well, clearly that guy was an ass. I met with him to discuss what I needed to do, he had NO specific information. He was all airy-fairy about stuff. Asked me what I'd do if I wasn't an English major, I said, "Sing Opera." He said, "Oh, I can see that. You should do that." The implication being that I had no business being an English major. What rot! Like what? Like I was going to make great contributions in English and if I couldn't that I should chuck it all? Again, what an ASS!

So just focus your energies on getting it done. 83% is fine, don't go for the 100. See if you can use previous successful papers for comparison.

Don't let this one thing torpedo you. It's one guy, it's one assignment. You're a strong person, you can surmount this.

Just start, once you get into it, you'll feel better.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:30 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Give yourself another day or two to wallow, then pull yourself up. Stop catastrophizing- you got a less-than-adequate grade on one assignment, and you've been given the opportunity to do it over, so your life is not anywhere near over. You are still smart, you are still talented. Can you have another call with the professor in a few days to go over the first steps again? Maybe you could even do the first step and go over it with him.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:46 AM on December 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need to have an in-person conversation with your instructor. You need to figure out why your outline was received so poorly, and what you need to do to get your assignment to 83% .

It doesn't sound to me like you had the opportunity to discuss this with your professor. Instead you (quite reasonably) attempted to explain your emotional state of mind. But it seems to me like the professor may have interpreted the conversation as being more about your anxieties about being a grad student.

While you should probably mention your friend's suicide (I'm sorry to hear about that), the majority of your conversation with your professor should *not* be about you, but needs to be about your assignment.

What you can do is create a list of "desired outcomes" for your conversation. You can even show it to your professor as an agenda at the start of the meeting.

Having your questions written down makes everything more concrete, and makes sure you get your message across, and you stay on track.

It also helps with your professor, who may have a more linear mindset.

A friend of mine went through something similar recently. Both of our boys are in the same science class. Both boys did poorly on a significant project. With my friend's case, there was some chaos in the household (a major project for the parent, a death in the extended family) that affected her son's performance at school. She tried to explain this to the teacher over the phone, but later felt like the teacher just did not understand.

I actually met the teacher in person and was able to establish a rapport. Meeting the teacher in person was pretty critical. My friend did the same and managed to get the relationship back on track.

But sometimes when emotions are involved, it is difficult to transmit precise information to busy teachers.
posted by Nevin at 10:47 AM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I got high grades on all my final exams and projects. Except one ...
I now feel like shit about the only thing I ever had any talent for.

You know, right, that you're making a really really classically obvious cognitive distortion? YOU GOT HIGH GRADES ON ALL THE OTHER STUFF. YOU ARE HELLA TALENTED. DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET.
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:54 AM on December 30, 2014 [12 favorites]

School is the only thing I had left after losing my friend, and now that's gone too.

I don't mean to be harsh It is objectively, definitively not gone, because you're still in it. It's the opposite of gone, it is super-duper ultra PRESENT.

What it is is unpleasant. And yes, it's a little unfair that you have to deal with an unpleasant thing given your current circumstances, but such is life--unfair. I had to deal with a bunch of divorce paperwork and a judge, a week after my father died. It felt horrible. I hated it. It was unfair. My brain didn't like to be told that life would continue despite my grief. My brain wanted to keep thinking that nothing would ever happen except grief again. My brain could not handle any more hard things. My brain was hurting and made a little dull and crazy by pain, and so is yours.

Grief works like this--there is progress, and there are setbacks. You are in a setback. Later, you will be in a progress phase. In each phase, your hurting brain will tell you that however things are now, is permanent. And so on, and so on. Just think-- once, you could never have imagined feeling excited about classes, and yet you did! And before this setback, you probably never imagined you could be so bleak and forlorn again. And yet you are.

You must seriously cognitively fight back against the lies that your grief and depression are telling you. When your brain tells you something that is factually untrue, you need to actively, maybe even out loud, tell it that it's lying, and then speak the truth.

The truth is: you need to redo a project and move it from a C to a B. This is an objectively possible thing that is well within your capabilities. "Don't want to because I'm sad" is a valid feeling, but it's not the *same thing as* "Can't possibly do it and I'm ruined."

You can do it. The way out is through. Sit down at your computer and do it. Follow the excellent advice above about getting the information you need from your professor. When your brain screams at you that all is darkness, that everything is gone, tell it "you're lying. I am here. School is here, and there will be light again." Or failing that, just tell it "shut the fuck up." It'll have all the time in the world to shout, later.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:22 AM on December 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

turn it in by 1/26
I was going to spend the last week of my holiday break with my friend's family

It sounds like you have four weeks from now to get it done? If you spend a week with your friend's family, that means you have three weeks to get it done. So make up your mind that you will get it done in three weeks. Honestly, there's not a big difference between three weeks or four weeks. But having a week of a real break that you're looking forward to, is invaluable.

This professor called me to discuss what I need to do, and it wasn't a good conversation. I started to cry, he didn't understand why I was upset, I explained my doubts and he just made me feel worse.

You need to talk to the professor again, possibly multiple times. If you cry again, don't explain. Just say you're having personal issues, you need a moment to calm down, and you'll be right back to continue the conversation. Hang up the phone or leave the office and go to the restroom. Then, after you have stopped crying and have done some deep breathing (or your preferred relaxation exercise), call back or come back to the office, and start the conversation over again.

83% is very specific. I would ask for a grading rubric and a sample assignment. (You might not get it, but it's worth asking.) Go over whatever guidelines you've been given for the assignment in person, to make sure you understand how the percentage points are given. Go over your assignment in person, to understand what you did right, and where you missed the mark and how to bring it back on track.

My guess is that this professor might be an outlier among his colleagues in some way. For example, maybe there is some concept or format that he emphasizes as crucial that other professors think is hogwash. You may be doing things exactly right according to your other professors and unwittingly be stomping on this guy's hobby horse. Don't be afraid to do your assignment in a way that you might feel is "wrong" or other professors have told you would be "wrong," if it's what this professor prefers.

Set yourself a mini-deadline, for example three days after you talk to the professor next, and email the professor a rough draft to see if you have corrected the problem.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:18 PM on December 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm with Bentobox Humperdinck on this: get ahold of a grading rubric (or copies of past projects, etc). There's stuff going on in your life, but really Job #1 is getting this project finished with a good grade. In order to do this, you need to have some concrete guidelines to follow so that your final product will meet standards.

(Note that this is a situation that arises in real life all the time: a customer hires you to build a website (for example). In addition to the actual work, you need to determine the customer's requirements).

Is there anyone else (a former student, teaching assistant, etc) you can go to to attempt to get a better feel for what the professor wants out of this project? Is there anyone you could hire as a "tutor" who would actually be more of an assistant? Other students in the class?

Additionally, if you can arrange for the prof to give you an advance look-over a week before the deadline, that would be good in several different ways. Be ready to accept some criticism. Some people are real jerks about providing criticism - but you need to try to ignore the snark and focus on the valid critical points that are being related.

One last thing: don't aim for an 83% on this project. Aim for a 100%. This is not just motherhood about "always be the best you can be" - I have again and again seen students finish their project with a wistful "well, it'll be good enough for a B" only to discover, to their shock, that it wasn't good enough for a B, and now they've got a C or worse dragging their GPA down a slippery slope. Always shoot for an A.

In short: find out what you need to do to get an A. Then do that.
posted by doctor tough love at 1:19 PM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you need to go and see your friend's family as planned and spend some definite quality time with them. Don't punish yourself by not going. It sounds like you are more than capable of tackling this project. You did excellently on the other schoolwork, during a very difficult time. Please don't discount all the positive things in your life and the amazing things you have accomplished. Make a plan to address the project in chunks and get detailed clarification from your professor. You can do this.
posted by megancita at 10:31 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Go spend the week with your friend's family. It will be good for your mental health and you will then do better on the project in your remaining time.

I skipped holidays and other special events to try to finish projects for school and it always made me feel so down that I still procrastinated and struggled to finish. Whereas when I'd allow myself a break to do something fun for a while, that would re-energize me. It's a LOT easier to complete a project in a short amount of time when you're not depressed than it is to complete that same project in a long amount of time when you're depressed.

Keep your holiday plans, don't think about or attempt to work on the project while you're there, and then come back and look at the project with fresh eyes and put in a solid couple weeks of work to finish it.

If you're still feeling stuck after you get back from your holiday then you should coordinate with your school therapist to get whatever medical exemptions to policy, extensions, etc. are available to students.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:19 PM on December 31, 2014

Google has saved me in situations like this. I am a horribletter starter. Now I look to find examples and start. That was the hardest part and you really have not started. Don't let fear defeat you by not starting now. You turn in what you have done at the deadline and move on. I bet you will do fine.
posted by OhSusannah at 2:52 PM on January 1, 2015

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