Academic anxiety?
September 10, 2017 4:33 PM   Subscribe

My first paper for my graduate school program is due in a few days and every time I think about it or start doing research I get anxious. I have never, ever experienced this type of anxiety when it comes to school projects before. How do I get over it?

I guess I do have a fair bit of anxiety in my life at the moment (see my last post), BUT regardless I have always found it fairly "easy" to get on with assignments. I can't seem to start this assignment. It's ultimately a reflection which only has to be a couple of pages long, but I am freaking out. I keep worrying that my topic is stupid, but no other topics appeal to me! I'm finding decent articles and chapters to read, but I feel like anything I write will sound awful. I don't want to get a terrible grade on my FIRST assignment.

I haven't done any work at the university level in about 7 years. Ack! I should have thought about this before I applied for grad school. I don't know why I am choking so badly with this assignment. How do I get it together and write a kick-ass paper in a matter of days?
posted by modesty.blaise to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You do it by not worrying about a writing a kick-ass paper. I know it seems like the very first paper in grad school is something that determines if you belong, if you are up to grad school-level courses, that you should be impressing everyone - but it's an assignment. You got into the program, you deserve to be there, no one will remember this paper down the road - it's just another school assignment, like you've done a million times before. Just sit down and start scribbling down whatever comes into your head to get started - it'll help get you over this hump. You can do this.
posted by umwhat at 4:38 PM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am a professor. My advice is please don't worry about writing a kick-ass paper. It's your first paper, and you need to allow yourself to acknowledge a learning curve. Instead of thinking "omg it's grad school! I have to write an amazing paper!" just think instead: "I am going to communicate my ideas about this topic to my professor."
It does not have to be a perfect topic. There is no perfect topic. And this is a short paper, not one you're supposed to be deciding as a culminating topic, like a dissertation.
Imagine the paper as a kind of letter to your professor -- a start to a conversation, and a way to communicate what you are thinking about. Your professor wants to engage with you, most likely, not be blown away by you.
On preview: umwhat is saying something similar :).
posted by flourpot at 4:42 PM on September 10, 2017 [15 favorites]

Get something down - anything - and the rest is just editing. Open up Word and type "intro" hit return a bunch of times, then the same for "main body" and "conclusion". Make bullet list for each, and list what it is you need to communicate to the reader, i.e. in the intro -1. the wide field 2. why it is important, 3. controversy 4. your narrower ssubject for this paper...
Now you can target your research to support and turn the bullets into sentences.
posted by 445supermag at 4:48 PM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Try to find the smallest "slice" of the assignment you can get yourself to do. One way to approach it is to tell yourself you're going to write a shitty first draft - ie, you're going to almost purposefully write something so bad that you wouldn't want anyone else to see it. You can go back and edit later.

If that doesn't appeal, can you get your ideas down on paper in bullet form? Or call up a friend and talk through your topic with the goal of identifying a thesis and some supporting points? Or maybe pick one idea/aspect you feel comfortable with and start writing there, even if it's not the beginning?

The idea is that it's normal to feel anxious, but your anxiety doesn't have to dictate your actions. Just start wherever or in whatever way feels the least anxiety-producing and go from there.

And yes to what flourpot says - this assignment is not a make-or-break moment and it won't be a verdict on your preparedness for grad school. It's just your first assignment. Even if you get an A, you will probably look at it in 2 years and marvel at all you didn't know. It's ok to be a beginner right now.
posted by lunasol at 4:57 PM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

What they said, plus it may help to remind yourself that everybody else is feeling the same anxiety. I sure did, and I went straight from undergrad to grad school. It's a uniquely toxic environment, for all the great things that can be part of it, and you need to keep telling yourself "Breathe in, breathe out, I can do this..."
posted by languagehat at 5:28 PM on September 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding the advice from 445supermag. I'm doing a graduate degree right now and I find that beginning is the hardest part of any assignment. Now I give myself an extra day or two to edit so that when I start writing, I feel less pressured to write well/my best right off the bat. I focus on getting my ideas and thoughts out in some kind of coherent order, and then I go back and re-work things and edit and add thoughts or take things out. More often than not, the work I do needs less editing than I anticipated - it's just that my brain freaks out about starting/writing a paper so I have to trick it into getting started. The rest seems to go fairly easily most of the time. Good luck!
posted by gursky at 5:40 PM on September 10, 2017

I was pretty much you a few years ago facing down the first paper I had to write for my law school studies after being out of school for 14 years. Eventually, I wrote a paper. I got a kind of crappy grade on it. It sucked and I cried because I was not accustomed to getting crappy grades on things.

And yet, I have finished law school, I won a few awards at graduation for being a good student, I was selected for a competitive mooting team and an intensive study program. That first assignment counted against me in exactly no way whatsoever.

Not writing it, on the other hand, would have caused a major storm of shit in my life.

So, here's my advice:

Write a paragraph. Not the first paragraph. Just a paragraph. Any paragraph. No pressure. It might suck. Don't edit it. Write a different paragraph.

Do that 10 times or so, and then start thinking about how those paragraphs go together. Once you've got the basics of your paper on the page, you can write in the blanks.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:42 PM on September 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

The idea of the "shitty first draft" is a good one, because it brings humor into the process and also allows you to articulate your thoughts in order. Even if you don't keep the phrasing intact, the outline stays the same, and you can change the wording to be paper-appropriate.

Chances are that you know what the paper needs to say. The ideas are baking. You just need to start assembling them into a coherent format. And you can google whatever supporting information you need.
posted by Autumnheart at 8:00 PM on September 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I have writers block I start out by just writing a letter to my mom or to a friend describing what I am going to say. I gets my brain moved toward actually writing, and the ideas I want to express, but it somehow feels like I'm supported (thanks mom!)

I even include things like "I'm really having a hard time starting this paper, mom, and it's driving me crazy"

Second, I do this using the pomodoro method (20 minutes writing non stop, even if all you write is "I have nothing to say") and then a five minute break, then back to 20 minutes or writing ... until done. Use a timer! Be strict!

Also, I just want to say that work with grad students and this is a pretty normal sort of freak out. If you have someone in your class you have met, you could try confessing your struggle and arranging to meet in the library for a silent writing challenge.
posted by chapps at 9:43 PM on September 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh, this is so recognizable! There has been some excellent advice already. I'd like to add a helpful idea that I picked up in the book Demystifying Dissertation Writing by Peg Boyle Single that I read while struggling with comparable issues when writing my thesis. It applies to a dissertation but is actually even more suited to the very first paper of your graduate studies. Keep in mind: this paper won't be perfect. In fact, it'll probably be the worst paper you write during your time as a grad student, one that you'll later look back on and think: what was I doing!? This thought shouldn't depress you. Rather, it's freeing: this paper is a stepping stone on a path on which you'll only grow. You will make mistakes and learn because you made them.

"Lower your standards until you are able to write", Boyle writes elsewhere. This really works, I tried. Good luck!
posted by Desertshore at 3:37 AM on September 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Another prof here--lots of good advice already. Another trick you could try, especially for shorter assignments like this, is just meet for coffee with another of your cohort and talk through your ideas--maybe even have them take notes and talk it back to you. In general, any kind of informal writing group can be a fantastic resource, and only more so as you move toward a thesis/diss.
Good luck!
posted by Mngo at 8:20 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I always liked to imagine that if I didn't write that great a first paper and then got better as the semester went on, my professors would take credit for my improvement and thus give me higher grades. I think it worked out that way sometimes, actually.
posted by ferret branca at 9:28 AM on September 11, 2017

All of this is great advice, but I want to add one piece: you might discover that all this great advice doesn't help. Graduate school is a big adjustment, and sometimes it's hard to land. If your anxiety doesn't improve or gets worse, or it prevents you from finishing the work that you need to finish, consider reaching out to someone for help. Most colleges/universities have counseling centers whose staff is well-versed in treating academic and clinical anxiety (disclosure: I work at one). Most counseling centers offer short-term (4-10 sessions, depending on the school) and are able to provide referrals if more treatment is needed or wanted. Good luck!
posted by mister-o at 1:17 PM on September 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

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