How to 'fess up to slacking off.
April 27, 2008 10:24 PM   Subscribe

I haven't done any work yet, but I swear I will soon - (how) do I tell my thesis advisor?

I'm doing my final year Engineering thesis, but I haven't really done anything yet. I'm always a terrible procrastinator and work to deadlines, and the sheer size of this thesis project makes me panic and stare at the wall when I just start trying to break it up into tasks. I have weekly meetings with my advisor where she asks me what I've done, and I talk about the deliverable for that week (meta stuff like a Lit Review, a project timeline, etc) and gloss over the actual work that I thought about doing but didn't. It's week 9 and I haven't even run half of the software I'm supposed to be working on yet.

On the bright side, I recently saw a doctor and got some antidepressants and an appointment with a psychologist (not just thesis stuff). I'm trying to cancel the job I had lined up for midyear holidays so I can spend them working on my thesis instead. It's not due till October, so I'm pretty sure (assuming meds and therapy help) I can get back on track. But I feel ridiculously guilty and don't know how I can tell my advisor where I'm actually at. (I think I'll have to, really, because some of the questions I need to ask are obvious 'I'm just getting started' material).

Summary - I don't want to go into gory personal detail and tmi, but I don't want to just give a glib "by the way, I haven't actually started yet. How do I turn this thing on?" So, what's a nice medium? What does she actually want to know? Should I not bother trying to say anything until I can say 'I have started doing x' instead of 'I'm going to start doing x' (in case I don't follow through)?
posted by jacalata to Education (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
First, about talking to advisor: Be honest, and be focused on solutions not on your inner personal struggle. "I've actually found it really hard to get started. The size of the project has me really paralyzed. Could we meet and maybe you could help me work out a realistic plan?"

Second point: re: cancelling your job. Look honestly at your own work habits. Are you the kind of person who, given a lot of open time, will just fritter it away, but given a hard deadline that's n-1 (where n is the amount of time you really need) time units, you will suddenly kick into gear? If you are the latter, then cancelling a job to free up a lot of time might be the kiss of death for your motivation.

Third point: See if your university has counselors who specialize in working with stuck grad students. This happens all the damn time, and there is probably someone on staff who will have good advice for you.

The only solution to this problem is to do the work. So meet with advisor to chunk it into reasonable chunks, and start doing one of the chunks immediately. Not to wait for conditions to become perfect, and not to waste a bunch of time beating yourself up over how you haven't met goal x. Imagine that you wanted to get fit. The only way is to start exercising, and the only way to do that is really, honestly, to go to the damn gym (or whatever) on a set, immovable schedule, no matter how you're feeling. If you can't do this with the project, if you have a real psychological block to even starting the first chunk, then you need to be in counseling and maybe to take a leave of absence until you get your feet under you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:35 PM on April 27, 2008

Here is a really good article on how to deal gracefully with returning from "academic AWOL," including advice on how to approach professors.
posted by sciapod at 10:45 PM on April 27, 2008 [6 favorites]

(I don't mean to say that you DO need a leave of absence. This (paralysis with big projects) happens a lot and usually doesn't require time off. I just mean if you think there is a major psychological issue happening, time off is an option.)

This week, do three main things. Get the counseling lined up. Talk to your advisor this about how to chunk it and setting some interim deadlines, etc. Do all this without guilt, with your head held high. And by the end of the week, start working on that first chunk. You absolutely can do it. It really is as easy as picking one thing to do, and sitting down and doing it. And then doing that again. And if you get stuck, you go to your advisor and say, help me pick the next thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:48 PM on April 27, 2008

I've been right there, and LobsterMitten is right, it does happen all the time. Communicate with your advisor. Be honest, but communicate.
posted by eclectist at 11:18 PM on April 27, 2008

I'd say that a good approach is your last idea. Get started on something concrete, and go speak with your advisor once you've made at least a little bit of progress on that. It will show that you're serious, and that you're not just making excuses for yourself.

I also think it wouldn't hurt to be honest about the fact that you're having some personal problems right now. Lots of students experience depression at some time or another, and professors understand this. This isn't an excuse, but it is an explanation.
posted by number9dream at 12:03 AM on April 28, 2008

the sheer size of this thesis project makes me panic and stare at the wall when I just start trying to break it up into tasks

I'd like to suggest a technique I've adopted to get through this which is loosely based on the principle of flooding from psychology. The idea is to stay at your work station with your work materials in view and patiently wait out the panic feeling until it burns itself out. You'll then get a period of calm where you can get on with things for a while before something sets you off again and you need to wait out the next episode.

It's not exactly pleasant waiting out the panicky feeling but it's bearable, and passes in a few minutes. Instead of being this terrifying mysterious thing that makes you question your ability to get anything done ever, it becomes psychologically more like a muscle cramp - something that might hold you up for a while but doesn't snowball into a complete loss of confidence.

This is really helping me a lot because I now know that any time I have an hour to work on my thesis, I'll be able to be calm and productive for at least part of that time. When a panic phase comes, I don't exhaust myself by trying to fight it, I just acknowledge it and allow it to leave when it wants to.
posted by tomcooke at 2:00 AM on April 28, 2008 [11 favorites]

a. you stop feeling guilty. what is, is. This situation doesn't make you a terrible person.
b. you talk to the professor and work out a plan. Professor probably needs to change his/her approach to mentoring you. Professor probably will have encountered such situations before and be able to deal.
c. Usually there is a third party you can talk to, like the head of the graduate program, who can tactfully mediate any complications that could arise between you and prof, esp if the latter is not a sympathetic type or is inexperienced. The head of the graduate program or comparable person is supposed to help with this kind of thing. Given the nature of the job, they typically ARE more sympathetic and have good ideas about how to proceed given one's particular circumstances.
d. talk to a behaviorally-oriented therapist who will help you focus on changing self-defeating behaviors.

IANA clinical psychologist but have some relevant experience.
posted by cogneuro at 2:03 AM on April 28, 2008

As I'm watching the sun rise on the day that my engineering honors thesis is due, still making more diagrams, charts, and refining (writing?) the paper, I feel for you.

A part of these projects is learning to manage yourself and learning strategies to overcome your biggest stumbling blocks. Your advisor is there to help you with those just as much as anything else.

Make some plans, create some deadlines that you know you can reach, talk with your advisor about things that you can do. Make some realistic concrete commitments (I'll have X by Y. I'll meet you to do Z at A.)

For me, my advisor has been super-understanding even with how many times I've walked into our meeting and just said, "Life has been crazy - I'm at this point way behind where my plan was, and I know I want to get back on track fast, but I'm not sure how to go about it in a reasonable manner. Help?" I also pushed myself whenever I reasonably could to go a tiny bit beyond what I said I would do for that week, so that sometimes I could show up with a little surprise (or a big surprise).
posted by Galt at 2:46 AM on April 28, 2008

I know right where you're coming from.
  • Always keep in mind that you're doing research -- it's supposed to be hard, or they won't give you a thesis. Just because you're not making progress, or you don't know where to start, or you find out that the last week's/year's worth of work has to be thrown out: that doesn't mean you suck. It means this is hard, and therefore worthwhile.
  • Don't think about what you haven't done, and don't think about how much you still have to do. You do this the same way you eat a phone book, one page at a time. Keep a small number (2-4) of manageably-sized (two to seven day) tasks on your plate. If you're not making progress on one, try one of the others and see what happens. But don't worry about how much is still to come, because you can only work on these things here.
  • If you're not making progress as a researcher, the easy assumption is that you can't hack it -- especially if your brain, like mine, enjoys leaping to the most dismal conclusion. The biggest determiner of graduation rate, though, is "thesis adviser". You say you can't yet 'break it up into tasks': A lot of this is your adviser's fault, or at least a major problem in the communication between you two. Do not wait until you've "done" something. Just go in and say "I'm having problems figuring out where to start on [subproblem A]. Can you help me break it into bite-sized pieces?" She doesn't need to know (and you don't want to worry about) the fact that you also don't know where to start on [subproblems B, C and D]. Just set a *concrete* task that will take a few days to a week, and work on *just that*.
  • If you don't know how to switch on machine A or software package B, can you ask someone else in the group rather than your adviser?
  • Sometimes you'll find you've been working hard -- as in, you're showing up at work/lab/library and doing stuff (not rearranging your desk or fooling around online) -- but you're not making any progress. Look back at what you've actually done in that time, and the decisions you made, and whether that stuff was worthwhile and whether those were good decisions based on what you knew at the time. Usually the reason you fell nothing got done is because nothing exciting got done -- you spend the last three days ordering equipment, or figuring out how to compile on the supercomputer cluster, or machining something really simple (that wasn't). There's a large menu of things that in both foresight and hindsight should take an hour or three but do take a day or three, and you should feel proud that you got them out of the way.
  • Talk to other friends doing this kind of work, and tell them about your fears and setbacks. It will be a bonding experience as the group of you find out how universal the feeling is.

posted by mrflip at 4:21 AM on April 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

You haven't done any work yet and it is the end of April? You are hosed. If you attempt to turn it in this semester you will not get a good grade at all. You need to work out a plan with your adviser for getting it turned in next semester if possible.
posted by caddis at 5:18 AM on April 28, 2008

be honest with the advisor. you are not the first person to flake on your thesis and you will not be the last. just tell her you've had "medical stuff" going on, that you've done a bit of research, and you're ready to buckle down.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:52 AM on April 28, 2008

30 minutes a day. That's the key to get going. It's only 30 minutes, it's only half an hour. Just make yourself sit at the computer for 30 minutes a day, no matter what, and write stuff. Bad text is better than no text, as my advisor says, and it's easier to edit than it is to generate. Be honest: "I'm sorry, I've been under the weather and I haven't been motivated. I have a plan now, and I am ready to get into gear." Remember, your advisor has advised many students, and is completely aware of how challenging this process is. And then admit to yourself and be OK with the fact that you might not get to turn it in this semester; you might have to turn it in at the end of the summer or in the fall but remember: THAT'S OK. And check out the book "Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day."

I'm going through the same thing, and for some strange reason, my dissertation is not writing itself. I'm waiting for the dissertation elves to show up, but until then, 30 minutes a day, dammit! :)

Good luck!
posted by cachondeo45 at 6:07 AM on April 28, 2008

I know it doesn't directly address your problem, but if you're feeling overwhelmed with how to approach everything, maybe this Dissertation Calculator be of use. I'm in the midst of my thesis, and I think it's a wonderful tool. There are a lot of extra things they list that I had never considered, and lead to a lot of helpful advice and links elsewhere on the internet.

And relax, you're completely normal. In the fall I was in your shoes and kept "lying" to my thesis advisor myself, for about 2 months. I'm pretty sure he saw through my arm flailing and esoteric statements about my research (I'm in an "emerging" field, so there's not much out there yet), and yet he didn't do much about it except have faith in me. He understood that I worked best when I have to stumble through these research obstacles myself, and in the long run I'd be a happier grad student for finding my own path. Not everyone works the way I do, and I was quite frustrated at times by it all (and his lack of "hand holding"), but in the end I managed to develop something that I love to work on. I'm not sure if it was a fluke, or my advisor's observation of my work habits that led me to this happy ending, but maybe it's time to discuss how you work best with your own advisor so you can get through this?
posted by carabiner at 6:30 AM on April 28, 2008

As a new professor, I just had an experience that relates to your situation. A student came into my office the other day with a hangdog look and, peering up at me, revealed that she needed an extension on her paper because she just wasn't going to finish. It was a moment where I should have been stern, because she really didn't have a good reason for not having finished, but I just full-on burst out laughing.

Don't worry--she was puzzled, but didn't think it was cruel. I regained my composure and worked something out with her. I think the reason that I did that was that it has only been a couple years since I was in that same situation, but on the other side of the desk. It just appeared so pathetic from the other side. I realized that it is really common for students to think that their professors are sitting around suffering bouts of overwhelming disappointment when things like this happen.

Now, I take my job seriously, and I want to set up a structure for my students to thrive. At the same time, I have almost 100 of them this semester, so I can't agonize over each one all that much. What I mean is, when they drop the ball, I almost never take it personally.

So adopt a serious tone with a touch of contrition, but leave the self-flagellation and melodrama at home. Be business-like, and ask for advice to how to get moving on it. May to October? I don't know your specific project, but I'd say that as long as you gain momentum right away, you should be fine.
posted by umbĂș at 6:31 AM on April 28, 2008

Caddis, what part of
It's not due till October
don't you understand? Way to be helpful...

jacalata, I echo everyone else who says leave the personal stuff aside (which may be a relief anyway) and just say you're having non-specific trouble. Then come up with an achievable plan with your adviser and try to stick to it. This is exactly what I didn't do for my MA thesis so I know what I'm talking about...
posted by altolinguistic at 8:27 AM on April 28, 2008

*must do a better job of reading the question thoroughly. flagellates self.

There is plenty of time. Just be honest with your adviser.
posted by caddis at 8:53 AM on April 28, 2008

Thanks all! It is surprisingly reassuring to be reminded how mundane and non-unique most problems really are :) I'll probably come back and read this a lot just for that!

I think my adviser is pretty good, actually. She has previously run a research methods course for undergrads and advised many other students to success, and has been helping plan the work - if I had the adviser some of my friends have, I'd probably have given up already. I described it badly in the original post - I already have a plan and 'manageable 2-7 day chunks' like 'run simulation A; run results analysis program; compare graphs to simulation A result graphs found by $previous_study'. When I'm struggling to start, trying to do even one of these (significant but fairly atomic) tasks feels impossible. I think part of the reason I feel uncomfortable bringing it up to her is that I know the only thing needed is some actual work - I'm not doing it and she can't really do anything about that. But presumably this 'counselling' should approach that problem.

Fortunately it's a two semester project, and as I said it's not due till October (cheers altolinguistic :), so I think that if I do start to get a grip on it now it'll be ok. Today I started running a simulation - tomorrow or Wednesday I'll go into the office and ask one of the grad students to show me how to run the other two programs I need, and then at least I'll know what I'm talking about before my next meeting on Thursday, where I will say something like 'I've been having motivational problems/trouble getting started, but I have done x and y, how do I start z?'

(I know that I won't spend all of my freed-up holiday on the thesis, but I feel like I need a break anyway, and even if I only spend 20% of five weeks on it, that's a lot more than no time at all. It also encourages me to spend some time hanging out in the research group where I might absorb something through osmosis.)
posted by jacalata at 8:56 AM on April 28, 2008

sounds like a good plan. Hooray for starting that simulation today! Kick ass.

Other tips:
1. have a physical place where you go to work, don't try to work from home or in a place where you also relax/hang out
2. parcel out short units of time for work. 1/2 hour, 1 hr, something like that. Each day you MUST do that unit of work, really working, but you're allowed to stop once it's done. Anything else is gravy. (ie stop the guilt)
3. if you can't bring yourself to get started, could you have a work buddy who meets you at the lab or whatever at 10 AM, and the two of you sit together for 15 minutes just getting started on the day's task? this helps with working out.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:10 PM on April 28, 2008

1. have a physical place where you go to work, don't try to work from home or in a place where you also relax/hang out

For me at least this is very important to getting things done. It is too easy to get distracted in your relaxation space. Now that I am older, it is easier. Perhaps maturity came late, I don't know. Now, I frequently am more productive on the days that I work from home merely because I am removed from the distraction of the phone and constant emails (50 to 100 per day, about half of which require substantive response, ouch). Anyway, it is important to establish a work space in which only work, and not relaxation, occurs. I am you, and if you haven't noticed, very many others here on MeFi are also.

It does pay to be a bit hard on yourself. A little guilt goes a long way toward getting things done. When the procrastination is really bad, and you sound like that, then you need to make third party commitments, like with substance abuse, weight loss or other behavior mod issues. Tell your friends and family what your schedule is for various milestones on this huge project. Let them know when you succeed, and let them know when you fail. When it is a group effort, and they are helping to cheer you on, and you do not want to fail them, it makes it easier to work when you don't want to work, and harder to cheat because you are cheating your friends, not just yourself. Traditional control sources such as parents are some of the most powerful sometimes; it depends upon your relationship with them. This is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure success on schedule. You will fail yourself, you will fail your adviser, but it is harder to fail your friends and family.

Whatever you do, make a strict schedule with your adviser, a schedule which front end loads the project to make room for future failures in commitment. You will probably have some tough weeks or even more along the way. Your thought that you do not want to spend your whole vacation on this project is not a good sign. I think you should forget about vacation and relaxation for awhile. Get serious about this. October seems far away, but in the context of an entire thesis which you have not really started, it is not very far at all.

I am thinking you should have your research done by the end of June, perhaps sometime in July depending upon scope, with perhaps a bit of follow on research for minor topics by the middle of September. An outline of the thesis with all of your data and conclusions by sometime in late August or so. You should have a complete draft done in the middle of September, COMPLETE, with cites, data, everything, every effing thing in the whole document. Leave the last month and a half to tweak it, any less would be suicide, especially for a procrastinator. This assumes an end of October delivery; back it up a few weeks for an earlier deadline. If you were smart you would take my schedule and go early at least a few weeks or a month on everything. It always takes TWICE as long as you think for things like this. Really, I mean it, TWICE as long, and that is conservative. Good luck and if you need help, I am an engineer by training. Email me for help. I would be happy to oblige to the extent that I can. Good luck.
posted by caddis at 5:28 PM on April 28, 2008

Thought I would drop in to update: I didn't take the holiday job, which was good because around June I realised that the study I had designed and run so far was not going in the right direction, so scrapped it and started again (with my advisers blessing). I now have a few more studies designed and just about running, and have a draft (complete in structure but not in content - obviously waiting for actual results to do discussion) that I gave my supervisor last week. She seems pretty positive about what I've got done so far, so I assume I'm at least on track to pass - I have plenty of discussion already at least!

I have also started talking to friends about their theses, and the general attitude seems to be 'wow, you've already done x? omigod!' so I'm feeling more and more confident about it.

Specifically, regarding my original question: I never actually came out and said 'I'm not getting this done', but did manage to get slightly back on track, by asking the grad students for help in logistical stuff. When I told my adviser that I didn't feel like I was making progress, she told me that the research and design I was doing counted as well (rather than No Running Software = No Progress), and then when it turned out my whole study was broken, it didn't really matter that I hadn't gotten beyond the prototyping stage with it, so I kind of got a chance to start again.
posted by jacalata at 3:25 AM on September 7, 2008

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