How do I keep from going insane while I apply to PhD programs?
October 22, 2007 1:37 PM   Subscribe

How do I keep from going insane while I apply to PhD programs?

I have a MA and am applying to PhD programs for next fall. I love my work and there is nothing I would rather do. I worry constantly, however, about whether or not I'll get into a program and it's seriously impacting the quality of my life. I'm applying to programs that are all reasonably if not very competitive. This is partially because it's hard to find people who work on my specific interest and also because I've been told by advisers that most professional academics in my field have degrees from top programs.

When I applied to my MA program (I only applied to one and ended up getting accepted), I honestly thought I was going to have some sort of breakdown waiting to find out if I got in. I know that I really just need to just chill out, but I just can't bring myself to be any less stressed about this. It's consuming my life.

Any pointers on reaching some sort of zen point where I can be uncertain but still function? I know this is what I want to do with my life, but it's really affecting my mental health as well as my relationship with my boyfriend and friends.
posted by lxs to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard that marijuana can be a nice way to make it through the waiting period associated with graduate school admissions.
posted by dead_ at 1:48 PM on October 22, 2007

Have you discussed your problems with anxiety with a therapist? Mental health professionals are trained to deal with these very issues.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:52 PM on October 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Make a concrete what-to-do-if-I-don't-get-in-to-any-of-the-PhD-programs plan. Assume that this is what you are going to do unless proven otherwise.
posted by peachy at 1:57 PM on October 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

I get over my anxiety in such situations by going back through what I'm doing to look for things to make better. Are your addresses perfect? Are your personal statements typo-free? Are any paper forms pristine? Can you clean up, bolster or otherwise tighten up your cv? Have you researched the schools you're applying to, or better yet, researched the people who you will study under, to best tailor your material that you submit to their program so they will see you and know you are on your toes?

Go through each app, one at a time, basically like you're re-writing. Tighten up everything. Wait a day or two, tighten it up again. Then submit it, and forget it. Because at that point, you'll know you did everything you can do. And really, you can just sit back and wait for the interviews, because what else could you have done, realistically?

Now, if you've already submitted the aps (it's unclear if you've sent everything in already), this is going to be a really stressful reply to read. If that's the case, yeah, get some weed as dead_ suggests.
posted by cashman at 2:08 PM on October 22, 2007

Start dealing with this academic anxiety now. If you get into a competitive grad program, it will only get worse and might impair your ability to finish the program. I can't say this strongly enough. You cannot flourish in academia with this level of anxiety; it will lead to a profoundly unhappy next 10+ years for you.

You need some specific coping strategies for dealing with academic anxiety. Call around and see if you can find a therapist who can help with this. If you're in university/college, your institution probably has someone on staff who specializes in this.

Say to yourself:
I want to go to grad school, and I will be great if I get in. But there are lots of other things I can do.

I am a talented and bright person, and worst case scenario, if it doesn't work out right now, it will be okay. I will get a job doing something else, and spend a year or a few years getting work experience. Either I will find a different fascinating, challenging life path, or I will apply again in a few years.

Many people who return to grad school after having spent time in "the real world" do better than people who go directly from undergrad -- partly because they've developed a sense of self that isn't so tightly tied to academic performance, and partly because they know more clearly what they want and how to go after it in a series of reasonable-sized steps. If you had to wait a few years it would not be the end of the world; it might even be better.

Second, getting into very competitive grad programs is a bit of a crapshoot. There are more fully-qualified applicants than there are spaces. Make your applications as good as you can, and then you will just have to accept that it's out of your hands. If you don't end up getting in, it may mean nothing about your academic qualifications. It will not be personal, it will not be a judgment of you. Grad programs look for people whose interests fit arcane criteria (eg, Prof X doesn't have room for any more students right now, so nobody who does her specialty will be getting in this year. Prof Y needs people for his lab, so there will be two people with that specialty offered positions. We admitted a bunch of people who came from small colleges last year, so this year we're looking for people from larger places. We need fewer women in this sub-specialty, and more men -- or vice versa. Etc.). Impenetrable. Do the best you can and then work on accepting that you will do just fine even if the luck goes against you this year.

If your programs are like the timetable of many humanities programs, you may not hear until the spring. That's a long time to be crippled with anxiety. Get out of the house, get exercise, get involved in doing something worthwhile with that 6 months, get your mind on something else.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:36 PM on October 22, 2007 [8 favorites]

First off, I've been there, and I feel your pain. Second, your problem is right here:

lxs: "...I've been told by advisers that most professional academics in my field have degrees from top programs."

You need to be above this. You apply to schools that might help you. Fear and trepidation comes from selling yourself short. Remind yourself constantly of what you told us: "I love my work and there is nothing I would rather do." I have a feeling that probably means you're reasonably good at what you do.

In academia, it's easy to become frightened, because it often seems as though our career paths are in the hands of people who don't really care. But you have to remain positive and confident in yourself. There are people, believe me, who have had lesser credentials than you're going to have, and have gone very far, because they loved what they did and they worked hard at it, some of them not even as much as you might be capable of. Remember it; 'the system' is limited, whereas your devotion to the what you do can out-think and out-work it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:36 PM on October 22, 2007

Also, LobsterMitten, as often, is dead-on.
posted by koeselitz at 2:38 PM on October 22, 2007

Print off LobsterMitten's response and staple it to your chest.

Worrying about grad school is nothing compared to worrying about passing prelims. And that is nothing compared to worrying about each of your dissertation chapters as your advisor takes her sweet time marking them. Which in turn is nothing compared to worrying about your dissertation defense. But the diss defense is a mere bagatelle compared to the agonies of the job market. And when you get to the tenure decision all your previous worries are revealed to have been inconsequential in comparison.

Are you sure this is the right path for you?
posted by LarryC at 2:54 PM on October 22, 2007

And koeselitz has an excellent point: in many fields, having a degree from a "top" program does give you a much better chance of getting a good first job, but -- in philosophy anyway (which is insanely competitive) -- your work is what will really distinguish you. Nobody gets tenure, and nobody gets published a second time, on the strength of which grad program they went to.

Some -- or even most? -- of the best-regarded young people in my sub-specialty are people who got PhDs from "lesser" programs and got first jobs at similar programs, but worked hard and are smart and devoted, and they are now setting the agenda for the sub-specialty and are the subject of bidding wars from Ivy league schools. It really is true that you can rise.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:56 PM on October 22, 2007

Second Peachy's advice. Have a plan B, and make it a plan B that you can be happy with. Then your fear of not getting in doesn't lead to thoughts of ending up penniless on the street.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:56 PM on October 22, 2007

Listen to LobsterMitten - perfect advice. As coming from someone who is desperately trying to finish writing the last few chapters of her PhD thesis, the anxiety between waiting to hear about your acceptance and trying to finish the thing don't even compare. On an anxiety to pain scale, I'd say that waiting to hear about my application was like stubbing my toe and completing the thesis and hashing it out with my supervisor is like giving birth. You need to learn how to deal with your anxiety pronto. That's what your current school's counselling and/or learning skills centre is for - take full advantage of it.

In the meantime, the only advice I can give would be to transfer one obsession to another. Which is not going to help the situation with your boyfriend/friends and is not going to help you learn to deal with the stress of academic life, I realize. But it may help even slightly to start obsessing about something you can actually control: the MA you're doing now. Whenever you start thinking about PhD application, hit the books, re-write that paper, jot down ideas, attend a seminar, sign up for a conference, just keep busy busy busy. Good luck!
posted by meerkatty at 3:17 PM on October 22, 2007

LM's first post should be a full sized poster.
posted by k8t at 4:20 PM on October 22, 2007

Yes. LobsterMitten.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:55 PM on October 22, 2007

First: Listen to LobsterMitten. Every word of that is the perfect answer to your question; think of this as a footnote to it.

Realize that you don't have to get in this year. Even if you don't get into the program of your choice immediately, reapplying is perfectly acceptable (and more often successful than you might expect, at least in my experience). Plan to do something non-academic in the intervening year if your applications don't work out, and try to have a good time and begin imagining a workable career/life path outside of academia. If it begins to seem attractive, take some time off, whether you get admitted to Ph.D. programs (and defer) or not.

Start thinking more confidently about your decision: act as though you are shopping for the perfect program rather than waiting to be chosen. (This confidence, by the way, will probably make you more attractive as an applicant, since you will begin to seem less like a cowed student.) Think about the choices you'll be making in the spring in the best-case as well as the worst-case scenario.

Finally, try to work on your applications in a pleasant place. I sat for hours in my favorite coffee shop filling out the endless forms, and having a snack whenever my energy flagged. This was the only thing that made applying to grad school bearable for me, and I'm sure it helped to lower the anxiety I attached to the applications.
posted by RogerB at 6:35 PM on October 22, 2007

Look at it this way: this period of your life is like psychological weightlifting. You're going to have an exponential increase in the amount of anxiety you experience once you start your new program. Look at this "limbo" period as a time to reflect, relax, and get used to the craziness that is the world of academia.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:15 PM on October 22, 2007

Wow...LobsterMitten couldn't be any closer to the truth. In fact, I'm printing that for our M.A.s who have applications out. I would add that rejection is an integral part of grad school and the professionalizing activities you do there. Successful grad students aren't necessarily those ones who get every opportunity and outperform in all of them...really, there are very, very few of those. Successful grad students are the ones that tenaciously pursue next-best opportunities after being slapped in the face with rejection. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and you have to have strategies to cope for the long haul. Ultimately, you have to learn to be reconciled to rejection being part of the process by which work gets done in your world, a world which becomes (as everyone points out) dramatically more stressful. Part of the hurdle is acclimating to that.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:37 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Successful grad students are the ones that tenaciously pursue next-best opportunities after being slapped in the face with rejection.

Yes, yes, yes. Successful professors, writers, etc too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:43 AM on October 23, 2007

I sent off my applications, and then forgot about them. Until I heard, I worked on the assumption that I wasn't going to any of those graduate schools, and began planning my life accordingly - and then when I heard, it was a pleasant surprise.

Maybe low expectations are not the best way to go through life, but it worked.
posted by jb at 4:15 AM on October 24, 2007

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