Help me not be so stressed out about grad school.
November 1, 2006 3:27 PM   Subscribe

Am I normal? For those people in PhD programs, did you contemplate dropping out on a regular basis your first term? Any advice for making it less stressful?

It seems like I'm not alone among my cohort. We're in a highly rated social science program. It is supposedly very competitive. The professors are sometimes nice but always very strict and serious. We are 1/2 way though the first term right now and I'm still feeling weird about this all. It is so overwhelming. I really like the other people in my program. I am maintaining a good relationship with my SO (thanks in part to this helpful AskMe.) But it is all so overwhelming and I am always tired. It wasn't like this during my MA. Am I normal? Any ideas for coping? The older grad students in my program are nice, but are too busy for a lot of emotional support. Maybe any MeFite grad students are too busy too to answer?
posted by k8t to Education (34 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure I know any PhD students who haven't contemplated dropping out. Things get better later on, but the PhD process is emotionally, mentally, and sometimes even physically hard. Hang in there!

If it gets too bad, let me know. If you need someone to vent to (or at), I'm often available for coffee or whatnot.
posted by JMOZ at 3:33 PM on November 1, 2006

Oh, and if your SO needs help, my wife is a pro in dealing with the various collapses of a PhD student....
posted by JMOZ at 3:34 PM on November 1, 2006

mrs. jaydee said the same exact things during the first year of her highly competitive social sciences program. that is, when she was doing her masters' coursework, before she'd started on the doctorate.

JMOZ is right when he says that most PdD students contemplate dropping out. i'd say if you're in a grad program, and you haven't contemplated dropping out, then you're not really doing it right.

my tips? (i've gone more grad school than many other mortals, holding right now at three un-related graduate degrees) . . . develop hobbies when you can. something as simple as reading, or as engaging as rock climbing, can really make a difference, if you do it at the right time.

but more than just, 'have-fun-type advice,' i'm wondering if you can incorporate those things you love into your degree. if you're doing sociology, for example, can you steer your diss. into 'sociology of an online question and answer forum?' you'll know better than anyone else.

finally . . . yoga. do you yoga? do it if you can . . . mmmmm . . . yoga . . .

best of luck! almost every PhD in the world has gone through what you're going through. and if all else fails, there should be plenty of opportunities for Friday Afternoon Seminars, which often involve a fair amount of beer, but hopefully involve a bunch of pizza and darts or pool as well.
posted by deejay jaydee at 3:47 PM on November 1, 2006

Of course it's normal to feel stress when you start another major 'phase' of your life. You are probably wondering if you made the right decision and if you are good enough to belong where you are, and if you really want to follow the path you're on. God knows this is what I've been feeling - I'm in the first term of my master's. 'overwhelming' is the word all right. But things are better now for me than they were at the beginning.

What's really been helping me so far:
- having a good relationship with my advisor - twice-weekly meetings, one of which is one-on-one, wherein if I feel like I'm sinking he is able to offer his advice.
- settling in to a very regular, monday to friday 10am to 7pm routine where I'm at my desk, and doing my best to keep the rest of the time free for relaxing and other pursuits (doesn't always work but I try)
- meeting fellow students within my research group and in my classes who are going through the same thing. going out and having a beer with them once in a while.
- having hobbies and friends outside of school - not easy in a new city but again I try.
- living off campus and taking time to explore my new home when I can. I find just wandering the streets on a sunday afternoon seems to recharge me for a whole week.

you need an advisor you can talk to. it need not be your research supervisor. it could be anyone in your group or faculty or maybe grad student society. also you should investigate counselling on campus - there is guaranteed to be someone who can help you. this is by no means an uncommon problem I'm certain.

and also remember that you are not doing this for a piece of paper. a phd is a long process, and it is really only a stepping stone into academia (usually), and that's more of the same. you're not sprinting, you're running a marathon, so you really need to settle into a rhythm wherein you're happy with the life you're living and enjoying the journey. there will be crunches where you work hard, but if it's 12 hour days every day so far think to yourself - is this really my life? you have the power to make the changes you want. don't worry about everyone else - let them compete themselves to death if they have to - it is better to live a balanced life and be happy. And if you're happy and your mind is uncluttered, you are more likely to succeed in your research anyway. All the best.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:48 PM on November 1, 2006

i'm in my second year of a ph.d. it's brutal. there's not enough time for everything required, nevermind anything fun or extra.

but it's meant to be that way, i think. it's a crucible, and at the end you come out stronger.

at least that's what i keep saying to myself at 5:30 am in the middle of some hellacious problem set

hang in there, kid!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 3:50 PM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I got my Ph.D. last year. While it was very difficult at times, I never thought about dropping out. There were a few things that, I found, made my grad-skool sentence tenure more endurable and enjoyable.

- make friends outside of your department. Not just in other departments, but outside of academia entirely. This was very important for me: it reminded me that there was/is life outside of school.
- spend some time doing something you love that has nothing to do with your course of study. For me, it was throwing myself headfirst into amassing an excellent record collection; I also started cooking a whole lot more often.
- Figure out which assignments/readings/etc you can get away with not doing. I mean, if you did/read everything, you could skip sleeping and eating and you'd still be working nonstop. This was one of the best pieces of advice I got as a new grad student.
- Understand that a paper, e.g., is something of a promissory note. That is, your profs know full well that you're overworked. They want and deserve your best work, but they also understand (in my experience) that a paper submitted carries with it the unspoken caveat "if I had more time/resources, I could improve this." Don't let a single paper break your back. Do your best, but not so that you're staying up several nights in a row or otherwise compromising your health/sanity. I never once pulled an all-nighter in grad skool. It is possible.
- make sure your SO understands that your priorities will be pretty skewed for the next X years. Best to reach an understanding on this, if you haven't already.

I wish you well. Feel free to email me if you want more "advice."
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:55 PM on November 1, 2006 [3 favorites]

On non-preview, I agree with the above advice to stick to a schedule, work closely with your colleagues (you can really help each other out a great deal), and EXERCISE! This helped me so much - I can't believe I forgot to mention it above. I went to a spinning class 3-4 times a week and lifted weights on off-days; it helped me immensely.
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:58 PM on November 1, 2006

Yep, I thought about dropping out constantly my first year. Now I have my Ph.D. and am a professor. Keep strong. The yoga suggestion is a good one.
posted by escabeche at 4:04 PM on November 1, 2006

Heck, I had a plane ticket bought to spend 6 months in Europe by the end of my first year. Turned out all right. Note that this feeling of wanting to leave is completely compatible with the people you study with being less than human.

Something really weird happened to me after my first year. I (basically) took the summer off -- reading things here and there but no sustained study. When I came back in the fall it was all MUCH easier. It was like my brain needed to rest or something like that.

All the advice you've been given above is really good. I also recommend taking little bits of time off to recharge, even if it means missing something that others may consider important. Some people's brains need to recharge. You're lucky to be going through the process with someone who cares about you. Just don't make your whole life about graduate school.

Oh, and there's always support in Piled Higher and Deeper.

Good luck. It's (probably) worth it.
posted by ontic at 4:06 PM on November 1, 2006

I have an excellent advisor, committee, and department and have made incredible progress for a 3rd year PhD student in my field. That said, I think about dropping out and going back to carpentry EVERY WEEK. It is, at this point, my firm belief that anyone who says they have never thought of dropping out is either a) patently lying, or b) a certifiable loonie (sorry Dr. Wu, I have a feeling you fall in to category 'b').

Note that even when you have it all - good friends, advisor, etc. - you will still have a lousy week once in awhile. Hang in there and take the advice in this thread to heart (especially exercising and making sure you have other, non-academic, things that you do) and you WILL make it.

One of my faculty frequently states that a PhD takes a very low level of intelligence, and a very high level of perseverance. Keep plugging away!
posted by sablazo at 4:11 PM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yes, you are normal, and yes, almost everyone has this kind of adjustment process (and many of us continue to wonder sporadically, all the way through the process, even after mostly coming to terms with it, whether we ought to give up).

This surely varies a lot from department to department and student to student, but my experience was that the first two or three years (the course-taking, paper-writing, qualifying-exam-taking phase) served mostly as a period of settling in and acculturing, and the intellectual content was really secondary. Perhaps it would help you to think of it this way, and even spend a little less energy on course work and a little more energy getting to know faculty and student colleagues early on. At the same time, do make friends outside of the department so you don't overburden your collegial relationships with an expectation of friendship -- it was important for me to realize that my student cohort didn't have to be my friends.
posted by RogerB at 4:12 PM on November 1, 2006

It is, at this point, my firm belief that anyone who says they have never thought of dropping out is either a) patently lying, or b) a certifiable loonie (sorry Dr. Wu, I have a feeling you fall in to category 'b').

Frankly, I'd rather be called a loonie than a liar.

But, honestly, I enjoyed my course of study, liked teaching, got along well with the people in my department. Grad school was, for me, the exactly right place for me to be at the time. I'd never do it again, but I really didn't consider dropping out. I guess I sort of made peace with my decision to be there, which, now that I think about it, was probably a very healthy thing for me to do.
posted by Dr. Wu at 4:15 PM on November 1, 2006

deejay jaydee: ".... and if all else fails, there should be plenty of opportunities for Friday Afternoon Seminars, which often involve a fair amount of beer, but hopefully involve a bunch of pizza and darts or pool as well."

Sadly, the University of California system no longer allows department funds to be used for purchasing food or beverages for any sort of recurring event (seminars, meetings, etc.) thanks to an investigative report by the San Francisco Chronicle, which reported on all the taxpayer money the administration "wasted" on this frivolities.
posted by JMOZ at 4:25 PM on November 1, 2006

haha, I'm getting to the end and I STILL think of dropping out.

My advice would be the same as the others here. Perserverance beats intelligence. So to answer your question: Yes, totally normal. Don't worry, you'll be fine as long as you go through the motions and do what's required.
posted by gadha at 4:26 PM on November 1, 2006

I think every day about dropping out. I took a 80% pay cut to go to grad school (cognitive neuroscience), and sometimes I wonder why I'm stressing out all the time for peanuts when I used to do practically nothing for five times as much.

Then I remember that I *hated* the corporate world (code monkey for big pharma and then for an AT&T spinoff).
posted by dmd at 4:43 PM on November 1, 2006

I'm a seventh year graduate student in molecular biology. I'm roughly a year away from finishing. I think about dropping out every day.
posted by dendrite at 4:51 PM on November 1, 2006

I finished my PhD recently and can say, based on my own experience and that of some of my peers, that it is normal to feel overwhelmed initially. For some people this ultimately results in the crashing realization that this pursuit was neither what they expected nor what they want. Those people often look for the exit and find their bliss elsewhere. Others, like me, persevere and repress as much as possible the feelings of inadequacy. For me, something clicked around the beginning of year two. I never again felt that I didn’t belong. My advice to you is something along the lines of, keep plugging along and this too shall pass.
posted by langedon at 4:54 PM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I dropped out. It was a great decision for me, at least for the time being. But it wasn't the overwhelmingness of the first term that made me leave (it was a dislike of academic detachment). But just being tired and overwhelmed, that's normal and you'll either find ways to make your life better, get used to it, or decide it's not worth it.
posted by salvia at 5:21 PM on November 1, 2006

Some choice quotes from fellow students during study-sessions, etc during my first two years:
"Fuck physics!"
"I'm going to light myself on fire."
"It was nominally a three hour exam, but it's actually a wee-hour exam."

Although all were heart-felt, the third was the worst. Seriously, imagine how tired you'd have to be before that was funny enough to e-mail to the professor, and all the other graduate students in the class.

I fantasize about dropping out all the time, but I've been here long enough that I might as well finish. Plus, there were reasons why I signed up for this crappy gig in the first place. If I concentrate ... I can vaguely, distantly remember.

Two pieces of advice:
1) Suck it up, BUT
2) You're in this for the long haul. Think long term. Don't try to sprint a marathon. Don't burn out by overworking. It's absolutely AMAZING how little you can do, and still stay in grad school. You practically have to shoot people to get kicked out (and before you gripe, this is something that I've observed across many departments). It can be done, but if you adopt a reasonable, sane work level, you'll be fine.
posted by Humanzee at 6:00 PM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I had a nice long response typed up but was afraid portions of it would get back to the wrong people. I finished my program four years ago, yet parts of that experience are still with me.

Anyway, I second the advice to get lots of healthy extra-curricular activities and relationships.
posted by mecran01 at 6:04 PM on November 1, 2006

This might sound a little negative.

I don't regret finishing (yes I thought about quitting many times). It's nice to have the degree. But I am now a successful post-doc and finding that I hate the reality of the job I trained for. I do wish I had known more post-docs in my field.

I naively believed I could find family/work balance in my career, in spite of what I saw professors struggling with. Now that I'm in the grant-writing/paper-writing cycle, I realize I don't love the field enough to dedicate this much time to it, and there's no real way to be in this field and compete without working my ass off.

Fortunately, I've found another way to use the degree, with a little more training. But people keep saying to me, "You worked six years to get that degree and you're not going to use it?" Frankly, I don't think it was wasted time. It was just a low-paying job with a very prestigious set of letters at the end, which will provide some interesting opportunities in the future.

So, I definitely think it's worth sticking with, but you might want to make sure you're not surprised at the amount of work it takes to have the career you're preparing for. I found grad school hard, but it was MUCH easier than the actual job.
posted by aimless at 6:47 PM on November 1, 2006

I'm in the middle of my first semester as a grad student, and I've already twice considered quitting. So don't worry too much about it; just try to hang in there, and I will attempt to do likewise.
posted by jenovus at 8:09 PM on November 1, 2006

did you contemplate dropping out on a regular basis your first term?

Yes, constantly. Including today.

Any ideas for coping?

Beer. Lots of beer. (those are my plans for the evening anyway).

Am I normal?

Hell yes. One of my supervisors told me today that the first year is the worst for all the reasons mine has sucked so much. I'm currently pretending to forget all the times I've been told how awful the second and third years are and focussing on the first year being nearly over.

I think in some ways you just need to grit your teeth and keep working. Acknowledge that it sucks and that it's going to keep sucking for a while, then put that aside and focus on what you can do to keep things moving forwards. The end part is apparently pretty darn good, and right now you're learning all kinds of coping mechanisms and new ways of thinking that you didn't even know you'd need. One day you'll realise how much easier things are, I'm in my tenth month and just started to notice that some previously-sucky things are a lot easier and my work is taking on a new complexity.

I have a nice fantasy about chucking it all in and running away to live on a farm somewhere. Throwing away my phone, buying a pet donkey then cutting myself off from everyone. Retreating into the fantasy was a reflex through the really bad bits. But then I find a new journal paper or think of a new way of looking at the data and get all excited about being here and about what I'm doing, and the farmgirl fantasy pales in comparison.

Stick with it :D
posted by shelleycat at 9:13 PM on November 1, 2006

Hmm. The donkey part might sound a bit weird. She was to ride into town each week to buy food *nods*. It's, um, a fairly convoluted fantasy.
posted by shelleycat at 9:14 PM on November 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

I thought about quitting every day up until about a week before I defended.

What kept me going was the fact that I am stubborn, especially when I have publicly told other people that I will do something. I then have to do it.

I got through because I made some great friends outside of my specific department, but in my field. I also have a research area that I love and that is fun.

I drank a lot.

My non-PhD friends were my grounders in reality and my advisor was accessible and reliable.

But above all, I promised myself a 5 hour block a week where I got to screw around and do nothing but dumb stuff having no relation to my research.
posted by oflinkey at 9:19 PM on November 1, 2006

While I agree with a lot of what's been said, I just want to add that grad school isn't for everyone. You aren't a failure if you decide it isn't for you, despite what some in the game might suggest.
Having your ego rocked, realizing grad school is a completely different thing than undergrad, that it is harder and more consuming than you expected--all that is par for the course. But you should love it despite all that, and if you don't, I'd think hard about whether it's something you really want as the centerpiece of your life for the next 5+ years. It only will get harder to walk away.
posted by slipperynirvana at 9:24 PM on November 1, 2006

I stick with my program because while there are things I would rather not deal with, I want to lead my own research, and to do that, I need my PhD. It's the simple reason why I decided to continue on in my education. I love what I study and want to spend the rest of my life working in this field, but I would not be putting myself through more schooling if I didn't need to. Maybe you need to ask yourself what you really want out of this degree and whether or not a PhD is required to achieve your goals. A

And I nth the advice about making non-classmate friends--my friends who are not in school have the time to do way more fun stuff and occasionally I get to join them.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:43 PM on November 1, 2006

My academic career has been somewhat convoluted, so please take this with a grain of salt. When I stick to a fairly regular schedule and engage in regular exercise, I find my PhD enjoyable. I've very deliberately taken up activities outside of my program (rowing, choirs) in order to meet new people and keep some sense of perspective: while a PhD student, it's all too easy to forget that other people are doing intersting and important things, too.

I also refrain--as much as is realistically possible--from bitching about professors, politics, institutional inadequacies or biases, and fellow students. I'm sure you've heard people going on about how unfair it is that only students studying X or with Y get funded, bitching about cramped offices, complaining that it's impossible to get anything done owing to inadequate library resources, how it's so unfair that [some other discipline] gets way more money from university administration, or whinging about one's teaching workload, marking workload or unprepared/ungrateful students. Don't play this game of "my life is so shitty" one upsmanship with your colleagues, even if they goad you. It's fine to get something off your chest or rant about it and get it over with, but this kind of bitching tends to be extraordinarily unproductive. If there's a real problem, sure, you should try to find a remedy for it. It's a matter of perspective: once all you're seeing are problems and defects, it becomes very difficult to get out of these vicious (and endless!) circles of complaining. It's really important to be able to take a step back, focus on the good things, remind yourself that you can do it, and then keeping plugging away.

Lastly, I think that everyone feels like a fraud or feels like they shouldn't be there at some point. Don't dwell on just how impossibly hard things: doing this will only make things harder. Of course, a PhD is hard work but it's not insurmountable. I just remind myself that I'm not the first person to enrol in a PhD and that there are people who aren't terribly bright with PhDs. If they can do it, I can too.
posted by lumiere at 1:36 AM on November 2, 2006

I dropped out, but not until I was well into writing the diss. The classwork was stressful but at least I felt I was getting somewhere and learning good stuff. Hang in there, but if you end up feeling trapped and increasingly crazed and decide it's not for you, don't stick it out to justify the time you've already invested. There is life outside academia, and I'm here as living proof.
posted by languagehat at 6:10 AM on November 2, 2006

Lots of good things about maintaining life balance, so I have a few things to add about the inevitable moments when life gets out of balance, when exercise, friends, home cooking, and hobbies are not making it into your life in a healthy mix.

First: Things are pretty cyclical in grad school (and academia in general, I find). Crunch times crop up predictably when you have to hand in large assignments, apply for grants, or mark. Your profs have similar crunch periods. If you get to know your crunch periods, you can do some advance planning to not go crazy. Make sure you know where you're at with your advisor, in case meetings start getting cancelled by either one of you; make sure you have your preferred style of convenience food on hand; make sure your partner knows that you are going to be working overtime; and prioritize your other activities in such a way that you are deciding what to forgo ahead of time, and how you will make up for it. (For instance, I usually take Saturdays off, but I will sometimes work through a two-week period towards a deadline, knowing that I'll take an extra day or more off when the work load is less.) This can contribute a great deal to maintaining a sense of control.

Second: Take moments of reflection. When you think about quitting.... consider it. What would you do? I heard an actor speak to aspiring actors once, and she said "if there is anything else that will make you happy, do it"-- mainly because it's hard to succeed and there are more actors than jobs. I've found this helpful to me for academia, as well. It fits in surprisingly well with what I was once told by an academic: that you need to have some fundamental, tangible *reason* for your studies that will carry you through the bad times. It doesn't have to be big. It can be as simple as getting credit for studying some whacky thing that you'd do anyway, or being able to sleep in on weekdays. But there has to be something more immediate than the abstract concept of getting a PhD.

I second and third PhD comicis. Apropos of thinking about alternatives, I have this comic taped to my monitor.

Third: Brains do need breaks. Time off is often productive time, so do give yourself a few days here and there, or even a week, of not working very hard towards anything other than your basic obligations (such as TAing). I am entering such a week myself, and hence the long entry :)

Finally: I find comfort in reading advice/discussions about life as a grad school/academic. You may or may not, but I have found the following sites helpful for inspiration, reflection, and procrastination that feels like I'm being productive:

Check out the "Acceptable" grade in How to Grade a Dissertation to see how low the standards you have to meet are: "...but the dissertation is a chore to read. The acceptable dissertation adds little to the field and lacks consequence."

Even profs get overwhelmed

Great advice with bibliography.

More advice. These two are mostly aimed at the writing stage, but I found them helpful even in my first year.

Phinished always gets mentioned, although I haven't looked around there too much.

Okay, gotta go attend to those basic TA duties.
posted by carmen at 6:32 AM on November 2, 2006 [5 favorites]

Lots of good advice here, so I don't have much to add. One thing that helped me was to develop a few utterly engrossing but mostly mindless hobbies, things that took enough effort to keep my mind off my studies (and problems with profs and financial difficulties), but weren't, themselves, mentally tiring. I got very much into cycling, video games, and balsa-wood flying model airplane building (no kidding). Oh, and it was the only time in my life that I ever faithfully followed a professional sports team.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:21 AM on November 2, 2006

Completely normal. I'm also at UCSB, in my 3rd year in the Mechanical Engineering dept. I thought about dropping out constantly throughout the first year and well into the second. I had had trouble finding an advisor/research group that would take me on, was sick of taking classes/exams/etc., failed my first screening exam, and was frustrated that I could be making 2-3x as much in the real world.

I was so sure that I wasn't going to stick with it that I almost didn't re-enroll for the 2nd year. I wanted to become a teacher, and started interviewing for teaching jobs in the area, but found out that the certification process was very involved, lengthy, and difficult. I started looking for other jobs too.

I think eventually I realized that I would be wasting an incredible opportunity by dropping out so soon. I decided to stick with it for at least another year, this time trying very hard to study, seek out an advisor, commit myself to school (which I hadn't really been doing previously). I realized I could always drop out next year, and that I owed it to myself to figure out if I was just wussing out under the pressure or if I really didn't belong in grad school. I started doing much better in my classes, passed my screening exam, and found a research group to join. Now, I'm fairly happy in grad school, even though some days I still think "wouldn't it be nice to just quit," although I don't agonize over it like I did last year. It really does get better after the first year or two. Being involved in a project really helps, as opposed to the first year, which at least in my dept. was more dedicated to coursework and feeling around for research interests.

As far as coping advice goes, I'd agree with exercise, beer, and friends outside your department. I'd also advise taking a look at alternative options. Interview for a job or two, and think about what you'd want to do instead of grad school. This helped me out a lot. The job market here is really tight, and seeing this reality firsthand, going through the job search process really highlighted some of the benefits of grad school that I hadn't really considered at the time. You will either find a job that you'd prefer to school, or you will realize that grad school beats out the real world.

Also, if nothing else, remember how lucky we are to be going to school in such a beautiful location. Recharging yourself mentally in Santa Barbara isn't so hard. Just walk outside. I recently took up surfing on the weekends, and now I want to stay in school just to keep myself near the ocean.
posted by SBMike at 11:26 AM on November 2, 2006

Yep, completely normal.

I'm in my second year and *I am dropping out* at the end of the semester.
posted by lastyearsfad at 12:46 PM on November 2, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks all... I feel a lot better!
posted by k8t at 4:17 PM on November 2, 2006

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