when does a wise man quit?
April 13, 2008 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Background: I am 41 years old. I am 16 credits shy of graduating with a BS in Mathemathics. my GPA is 2.79, I have over 250 hours of attempted coursework, 144 of that is being counted towards my degree. I program and design software systems for a living. The Problem: I really love math and computer science but I am lousy at learning. when I say lousy I mean slow.

It is an all or nothing proposition for me I am either a master of the material or I do not know it. When I have to study I experience psychosomatic symptoms, irritability, out of body experience, confusion, trouble concentrating. This has been happening since I was a child, I have a real aversion to studying, and it has gotten worse now in my adult years. I was diagnosed with ADHD about 8 months ago. The metadate works somewhat well to clear up the fog but when I have to study hard nothing helps.

I can perform my job well but that usually does not require me to think of the formal methods or theory about my job unless I am really pushing what I want to get implemented. To do my job I have self educated over the years I have read a large number of books because of interest in the material and the need to do my job.

I get bored at work doing repetitive tasks or tasks that don't require me to innovate or do research. I've just about reached the point where I have to become a bureacrat. I want to be able to continue to innovate, research and learn and I really want to study and become a PhD. There are jobs out there that I would qualify for if only I had a little more education adn the title. If money were no object I would simply study and take as long as I needed to in educating myself. That luxury is not available to me.

Is it wise for me to continue dreaming this way or should I simply accept my limitations and give up hope. I do fear that giving up hope will severely shorten my life. When I think of it I can feel the emotion build up. What does a wise man do when faced with the reality that he may never be what he has always wanted to be?
posted by WannaBeAPhD to Education (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"If money were no object I would simply study and take as long as I needed to in educating myself."

So get some gig that pays the bills and learn all the math you want. Probably if you get a math related job it would lose its luster anyhow.
posted by ian1977 at 7:03 PM on April 13, 2008

Pursuing a PhD will require you to be disciplined and self-motivated to stick with a course of research over a period of a couple of years -- with very little outside structure or supervision on the project. If you look at your own strengths and weaknesses, and you see that you could not realistically do that, then you should not pursue a PhD.

But you should look at your strengths and think about other avenues that are open to you. Computer science is one of the areas where your actual accomplishments and abilities matter more than a degree, toward getting you into interesting jobs. You should not just lie down and despair, you should think of alternatives that would really use your strengths.

It sounds like you are very torn up about this; you might consider seeing a therapist just to talk this through. They might be able to help you to think constructively about what to do (either about how to make study less painful, or about what alternative paths you could take), rather than just getting caught in self-defeating thoughts. You should NOT think "the only way to get a job I will like is to get a PhD", because that's just not true. That kind of thinking is a form of unproductive self-torture, and if you can snap out of it, there are plenty of good paths that you're perfectly capable of finding and following. Be the resourceful person you know you can be.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:08 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could almost certainly work for the NSA with the opportunity to do math and have good job security.

I assume you're seeing a psychiatrist to get the med. If it's being prescribed by a nonpsychiatrist, you need to find a good psychiatrist to make sure you have the right diagnosis and treatment. Might you have a sleep disorder?
posted by neuron at 7:09 PM on April 13, 2008

Do not give up hope. But, make sure your perception of what will happen if you get the degree and the title is in sync with reality. Many of my goals were hard fought and then when I got there, I realized that success was not what I wanted, but the challenge of getting there. So, I agree that giving up will shorten your life or at least curtail your enjoyment of it. I would simply find another goal that is just as appealing, that requires dedication and determination to reach and one that when reached can be expanded to another further goal.

I am in my mid forties and I can tell you that life is not what I expected or wanted. But, I really like my life because I have goals and struggles, I can see the long-term picture. My goal is to be President of the United States of America one day. I see no reason why I cannot, although the path to it is not at all clear either. I recently got involved in local politics and so far I am still enjoying it.

As long as you think you can make progress and are making progress toward your goal, do not quit. Quit only when you have given a 100% effort and there is a definitive roadblock to your success such as lack of talent (that day in 1979 when I realized that I would never pitch for the Yankees hurt. Real bad.) or lack of resources.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:09 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I understand a lot of what you're saying. I was diagnosed with ADD at 31 after a life filled with near-misses, half-hearted attempts and giving up on myself. I recognize a lot of myself in the pattern of thinking you've got going here. A few things:

Are you getting treatment for the ADD? I mean from a psychiatrist? You mention "metadate" and I'm not sure what that is. You may need to be more aggressive and up-front with your doctor when things are not working for you. ADD often requires a multi-pronged approach, ie. not just a stimulant but also antidepressant(s), because you're dealing with motivation as well as executive functioning. Make sure you are seeing someone experienced with adult ADD.

Are you talking to anyone? Cognitive behavioural therapy can help you find a path out of unproductive and cyclical thinking patterns. If you're unable to get professional CBT the workbook "Mind Over Mood" is great. Lessons are short but thoughtful. It's definitely better to do with a professional if you can though.

A couple of book recommendations: Delivered From Distraction by Hallowell and Ratey, and Journeys Through ADDulthood by Solden.
posted by loiseau at 7:22 PM on April 13, 2008

I want to be able to continue to innovate, research and learn and I really want to study and become a PhD.

The amount of studying you'd have to do as a PhD (especially in computer science, I don't know much about mathematics) is at least an order of magnitude greater than what you have to do now. I worked in a cs lab when I was an undergrad, and I remember when some of my labmates (phd students) were taking Algorithms -- for weeks before the final exam they lived and breathed their study materials. It was probably the single must intense and focused studying experience I've seen anyone going through. (Probably, if you go to a school with them, quals are even worse.)

In general, I suspect you may have incorrect perceptions of what getting a PhD involves, and what it gets you, and perhaps have become fixated on some non-realistic ideal. I suspect this because of where you say "I do fear that giving up hope will severely shorten my life." A PhD is not the be all and end all of life, and you really shouldn't view not getting one as "giving up" (though it is very common for people fixated on the degree to fell this way). It does not make you a better, happier, or smarter person (and in fact may make you less happy). It can provide a forum for doing interesting research, but the kind of focus you need to do this is much greater than that needed for the kind of studying you do as an undergraduate. It will not increase your long-term earnings potential nearly as much as it seems, in large part because of the time at low pay you will have to sink into it. There are a lot more repetitive tasks than you may realize, especially if you don't get a good funding package and have to TA a lot (to be honest, you might have some trouble getting funding with that GPA). The time spent "doing research" is somewhat smaller than it may seem, and even that can involve a lot of repetitive tasks depending on what you are doing. You may not have much control over the direction of your research, as in CS often the advisor plays a large role in deciding it.

Do you know any phd students, or people with phds? You may want to find some and ask if you can talk to them more about what it is like, and why they are doing it. (Perhaps one of your TAs, or a younger professor who still remembers?)
posted by advil at 7:53 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: neuron: Working for the NSA doing math would be next to impossible withouta PhD I've looked into it. I had a sleep test done. I have sleep apnea but that has been in treatement for over a month.

LobsterMitten: I wish what you are saying were true but the jobs I am interested in demand a PhD. After 9/11 I was forced to leave New York because no programing jobs were being given to anyone without enough background to do quant analysis, black scholes and simulation (mathematical programming). I have worked four or five contracts after that but the jobs are disastifying. The solution can't be too elaborate or employ anything too advanced. It's business they don't pay for advanced technology they pay for quick and dirty. I am very dedicated and can be focused but I take a long time.

loiseau: Thanks for the tips on the books. metadate is a slow release ritalin.

Thanks all.
posted by WannaBeAPhD at 8:02 PM on April 13, 2008

Response by poster: advil: that is what I do now. which is the reason that I cannot take too many subjects and I go very slow. I must master the material. If yoou look closely at the material and curiculum in graduate and undergrad classes the only difference is the depth with which the material is covered not the actual content many grad course use the same books. Sure I know lots of PhD students main difference is they can cover more material in a shorter time.

I interact with professors and PhD's as part of my job.
posted by WannaBeAPhD at 8:15 PM on April 13, 2008

I do fear that giving up hope will severely shorten my life.

I don't get it. Hopeline?

Based on your 2.79 GPA, and your admission that you are a slow learner, I'd say that a Ph.D. is not realistic.
posted by mpls2 at 8:31 PM on April 13, 2008

ahh... Hopeline
posted by mpls2 at 8:31 PM on April 13, 2008

First, I would suggest meeting with a professor who knows you and your work personally, and talk to them about what graduate work is like, and how your strengths and weaknesses would fit with that.

If you are a perfectionist, or someone who has a lot of anxiety around studying and academic assessment, or if you are depressed and tend to put off studying, then entering a PhD program will (probably) bring you a lot of frustration and unhappy times, and you may eventually have to drop out anyway.

If you can conquer perfectionism, and you can conquer your anxiety, and your only real difficulty is that you go slow, then you could get a PhD without that long period of frustration. If you are a person who will put his head down and just work, work, work, for the 5-10 years it will take to get the PhD, and won't get discouraged or anxious or depressed about your research etc, then it could work well.

I've seen many -- very smart! -- people begin PhD programs because they feel they must get the degree, but it becomes a terrible slog and they eventually quit after sinking 5-10 years into it. These are the people who are perfectionists, who are very anxious about how their work is evaluated by others, who are depressed, who put off studying, etc. That's why I say, if your personality has those characteristics, you should think hard about whether a PhD program will really be good for you.

The reason to think about avenues that don't require a PhD would be to spare yourself a long period of unhappiness and anxiety. The decision not to seek a PhD is one you can make in an intelligent and realistic way, and it is not "just quitting" or anything of the sort. (I'm not saying you have to decide this way; you should talk with other people who really know you and your strengths. I'm just saying, don't torture yourself with the thought that the PhD is the only possible way to get any job that's more in line with your interests. There are lots of other ways.)

Why not try this: suppose that all the PhD programs on earth magically disappeared, so there was no possible way you could pursue a PhD. Just for the sake of argument, in that imaginary scenario, what are some jobs you might look into? Can you list, say, 5 or 10 jobs, or types of jobs, here?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:43 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

What does a wise man do when faced with the reality that he may never be what he has always wanted to be?

The truly wise man knows there's simply not enough time in one life to do all the things you want to do. It's one of the fundamental ironies of life: the more you learn about your world, the more you want to learn. And no matter how hard you try, for most people it's an uphill battle just keeping the car on the road and the roof over your head. There's just not enough hours in the day to get all self-actualized.

But that's OK. Just because you didn't get to drink the whole river down doesn't mean you didn't get your fill of water. If you have a passion for math, by all means keep at it. But also understand that, no matter how hard you try, or even how much you may like it, some things you're just not going to ever be any real good at. As such, it would probably be smart not to try and make those things in your life that you're not very good at the very things that you're hinging your life around. Just to be on the safe side, at least.

If money were no object I would simply study and take as long as I needed to in educating myself. That luxury is not available to me.

I don't think you're looking at this the right way. Money is, quite literally, no object in your case, so you will have to simply take a long-ass time educating yourself. To be 16 credits shy at 41 means you've been spending a lot of time doing this. If you really have the interest, there's no reason you can spend another 10 going the next step while you keep working the day job. Get what you need to get and apply when you're ready, age be damned. I used to know a woman that worked a secretarial job for 35 years while taking what little extra time (and money) she had to getting her law degree. She finally got it when she was something-like 55 years old, and she now is a practicing attorney. My point is, if it really interests you that much, you'll find a way to keep working at it. If not, well, that's OK as well.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:45 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another thought, for the meantime, might be this:
if your day job is dull and you have lots of extra mental energy to devote to cool theoretically-interesting projects, maybe you could get involved in some kind of outside activity that rewards that? Get involved in designing web games or elaborate online puzzles, or recreational coding challenges, etc?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:48 PM on April 13, 2008

Oh man, you've really got to read Seth Godin's "The Dip."

Go. Buy. Read. Follow.
posted by SlyBevel at 9:31 PM on April 13, 2008

Oh, also: be in contact with your school's office for students with disabilities office. That is what they are there for!
posted by loiseau at 9:49 PM on April 13, 2008

It doesn't sound to me like grad school would be a good choice in for you. From what you've said, I think it would be far too intense and difficult for you. But there is still hope -- it isn't grad school or nothing.

What really matters is what you've learned. Some people get it by going to grad school, some get it by reading books on their own. You've already demonstrated that you're capable of learning on your own, so I suggest continuing to do that, studying what interests you, or is applicable to your current work situation, or what would be applicable to a future work situation. For those so disposed, learning becomes a rewarding lifelong pursuit. You know what you love to learn -- go for it! And I agree with the suggestions above for getting some personal counseling / therapy to sort out the issues you're facing, with a counselor who is familiar with ADHD and is sympathetic to your needs.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:00 PM on April 13, 2008

that is what I do now. which is the reason that I cannot take too many subjects and I go very slow. I must master the material.

Well, what I meant to imply is that whatever amount of work you do now, you would have to do at least an order of magnitude more as a grad student. One of the things that you would learn (perhaps painfully) as a grad student is that you simply can't master most topics, you can only asymptotically approach some level of understanding (what level basically varies depending on the state of the field).
posted by advil at 12:26 AM on April 14, 2008

If you've got ADD, you're not going to be able to know what you're capable of until you've tried medication. It's not clear from your post whether you're on ritalin or the like, but try it for a few months and see where you're at then.
posted by desjardins at 6:46 AM on April 14, 2008

I had a sleep test done. I have sleep apnea but that has been in treatment for over a month.

It's great that you've started treatment! However, it will probably take longer than a month or two for you to see significant changes. For me, it was nearly a year of using the CPAP before I realized "Gosh, I'm not exhausted all the time any more".
posted by shiny blue object at 11:36 AM on April 14, 2008

Well, you could always be an actuary.

You will need a Bachelor's of some stripe, you might even be able to pull one with the credits you have now. Studying is very important for this field, with many companies expecting you to study on the job. As you progress you will attain the equivalent of graduate level education, and move up in professional status through a formal system of tests. From what I understand, your CS background would be an asset to you in getting into the actuarial science field.

You can begin studying for and taking these tests now.

I think you need to do some more thinking about why you want to get a PhD. Do you want a piece of paper that says you have a PhD, or do you want the learning and knowledge?
posted by yohko at 12:55 PM on April 14, 2008

Get a job you are reasonably good at. It is important for your overall happiness. Stop torturing yourself about this PhD thing. It is only going to get worse if you continue to swim upstream. Lucky numbers 2348634.
posted by proj08 at 7:32 PM on April 14, 2008

(that came out snarkier than i intended, sorry)
posted by proj08 at 7:33 PM on April 14, 2008

Wow, this is a bit like something I can imagine writing in about 20 years.

I'm 26. I've worked in positions that normally require a PhD. I have a degree in engineering. I want a PhD in mathematics, preferably something to do with number theory.

I hate study. I love to learn, but when it's crammed down my throat I choke. I either master an area or I can't recall a thing about it - no middle ground. I get intensely passionate about things and can learn super-fast - but only if I'm passionate. Not if I'm bored.

I want that PhD.

However, over the last few years I've come to accept some realities:
- I need to eat more than I need the degree
- I probably couldn't stick with it right now due to mental health issues
- The job market for PhDs around here sucks.

Some or none of these may apply to you. In light of them, though, I've come up with a new plan: I will start my PhD on my 50th birthday. Until then, I will work towards being able to do that - have the money to focus on the PhD for 4-8 years, have my head screwed on straight so I can give it my best, and focus on the pleasure of learning for its own sake, rather than to improve my employability.

It does mean I probably won't get a Nobel Prize, though. Sigh. That's a dream I'm going to have to give up, I think.

Consider if something similar may work for you.
posted by ysabet at 8:21 PM on April 14, 2008

Response by poster: ysabet

I have been unable to get a degree yet, not even finishing a BS. Had to drop the BSEE when the Fed would no longer give me loans because I had over 180 attempted hours. The thing is my persona, the idea of who I am, is caught up in this degree and learning. The truth is I am not able to learn within the timelines required of me most of the time. So I will continue to try and fail if neccessary, if I am allowed to continue I expect I will my PhD sometime by the time I am 51 or 52. most schools the I have researched give you 10 years to get it done.
posted by WannaBeAPhD at 7:18 PM on May 11, 2008

« Older Toxic Vitamins?   |   What can go wrong at a closing? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.