immiserable (immiserable) wrote in gradschool_hell,

On not surviving.

I am sorry for using an empty account. At this point I am so humiliated and defeated that I have resorted to lying to everyone I care about what's actually happening to me and so I don't want to associate this post with my real lj name that, consequently, virtually everyone I know in RL knows about and reads.

As an undergrad I was completely unstoppable as I imagine many of those reading were. I went to a school that is routinely as a top five institution (and often top three depending on the ranking) in the world. It was hyper competitive and large and I fought hard to distinguish myself. I was invited to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, and by the time I graduated I had three publications, one of which was in a discipline other than my two majors. I had a 4.0 in both majors and a 3.9 overall. My GRE scores were the envy of my peers. I had worked with some of the top minds in the world doing original research and they all wrote me glowing letters of recommendation. I was applied to only the top grad schools in my discipline, I was accepted to all five. I went to my first choice with 6 years of full funding.

I don't mention any of this to brag, for all these "accomplishments" are completely meaningless. I mention it only to illustrate that I was, at one time anyway, a good student by most standards. I was hard working, motivated and somewhat smart. However, graduate school for me, from about half way through my first semester has been one big fight to stay sane and healthy.

I've been here for two years and in those two years I've had more than a few complete mental breakdowns, I usually have such a high level of anxiety that the mere thought of school makes me want to just crawl into bed, curl up into a little ball and disappear. I often throw up around finals time without warning. I've dropped an unhealthy amount of weight and I when I sleep, especially towards the end of each semester I usually have anxiety dreams and wake up sweating with my heart racing.

Nothing I've ever produced here has warranted praise or even approval, if I'm lucky I'm met with indifference but more often than not I'm met with scorn. It doesn't matter how hard I try or how much I work, I'm never good enough. I am a straight B student. Most recently I received an e-mail from the head of my department (and a total big name who does what I want to do) telling me that the paper I produced for his class (which I had talked to him in depth about) was something he might expect from an undergraduate and not even an advanced one. And even though I was a prime contributor in his class, he gave me a grade that dropped my already suffering GPA below the acceptable level for me to keep my funding (3.5). In other words, I am completely screwed.

I don't know what to do.  My life, my dreams and all my priorities have been completely dismantled in the last two years. My peers have all but completely left me behind and the worst part of this is that I'm so embarrassed that I feel like I can't tell anyone. Not my family, not my friends and not my girlfriend. Everyone expected so much of me, and I can't help but feel like a disappointment on everyone. I have no other prospects. Just a useless MA in a horrible economy and more debt than I care to think about.

I'm not asking for anyone's pity. I know full well that I caused all this ruin, I just desperately needed to tell someone what's happening to me without having to omit major parts of the story. So, thanks for reading. Also, I'm still trying to determine whether or not this is survivable. If anyone else has been in a situation and had a happy ending? I just don't know what the right move to make it anymore.


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I think you'll be fine...maybe even better than fine, after some time. The entire world isn't about academics or academic value. You've been leading such a narrowly focused life for so long that maybe you're losing perspective a little. One thing you really have to do is put aside this idea that you're disappointing others. You can't live for other people, or to make other people proud/happy... you have to shift a little and start living for yourself. Yes, you might be disappointed in yourself too... but why? Maybe life is handing you this struggle because there's something else you can do that will make you happier, something you don't even know about yet. Maybe you NEED to leave this field so your health won't be damaged permanently.

Speaking of which, if you have any time left while you DO have funding and health insurance, I would run as quickly as possible to your university's counseling center while it's still free. No one you know has to know that you're going. I was at an all-time low last summer, and I started going to counseling and my life has improved a million times over. I always thought it was dumb or for weak people or crazy people or whatever, but that's really not the case at all... and you could talk to someone, and that someone can help you get some perspective outside this narrow "academics define me" mentality that so many of us get in school. You HAVE to do this, because the throwing up, being physically sick, all of that, is destroying you. Your health is more important than any sense of pride or any academic performance.

Also, when you're looking for a job, I really doubt that anyone out in the Real World is going to judge this negatively. They'll just think you're done with an MA, and while in school you had a B average. Big deal... that doesn't sound so bad if you don't know about grade inflation in grad school, and you have a glowing undergrad record. They'll care about what skills you have and whether or not you can use them. You may also want to hustle over to the career center to talk about non-academic jobs you may be qualified for, or to get them to help you spin your skills on a resume toward the Real World.

I know this may not all be what you want to hear. But if you feel you've exhausted all avenues of continuing the grad school path you've begun, the best thing you can do is take stock of where you are now and proceed from there as positively as you can muster.
Also, if your family, friends, and girlfriend all only like you because you're an academic success, I think it's time to get some new family, friends, and girlfriend.

I'll be seriously surprised if they'll be as disappointed in you as you think they will. Most likely they'll be understanding and you'll gradually realize they love you for other MUCH MORE IMPORTANT reasons.


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To reiterate one of the points virtualannette made (although all were excellent): go to the student counseling center ASAP. All of the counselors there have been through grad school and will know where you're coming from. There may also be a grad student support group there. My university had a grad student support group and I don't think I'd have gotten my MS without it.
I've got nothing substantive to add, but just wanted to reiterate that you should seek help from the counseling center. They can help you find any other resources that might be available to you.

I would think the most important question going forward is do you *want* to go forward in academia?

best of luck to you, keep us updated.
It's a good question.

What I want is to be is a researcher, because I LOVE my research in my field. Unfortunately, in order to do what I really want to do I need the PhD.
Wow... this is like... worst nightmare ever. I experienced something ...similar with my Undergrad adviser, but it was a very important lesson that taught me better, and now that I'm a Master's student, I realize the importance of better communication with your adviser. I think you need to have a sincere conversation with your adviser and let him/her know what is going on with you. And you need to seek therapy if grad school is doing this to you and making you so anxious you can't tell this to anyone but a community filled with anonymous strangers over the internet. I just can't believe you let things get this far with out better communication. This all seems to be a symptom of the fact you felt so proud of your undergrad begins and which weren't met with graduate school.
I wish you the best.
I would like to reiterate that you should think about seeking counseling or therapy. You do not have to feel the way to you feel or lose sleep or weight. Even really smart people need help sorting through their thoughts and feelings every once and a while. :)
Thanks :)
My thoughts as someone who used to be in clinical psych: if you get officially diagnosed with something, that might help you save your transcript or even--this is a big if--your funding. If you want to try that, get to a licensed psychologist as soon as possible. Note, though, that most states have people who aren't technically psychologists but are still licensed therapists and can legally diagnose--that's the important part. The other thing to do is call the relevant offices and ask about what policies they have for people with medical problems. A therapist's signature might get you some leeway.

And here's the spiel for someone going to counseling for the first time: it's sometimes hard to get through the door. People often think of a zillion excuses not to make the appointment, or not to keep it. Know that the phone call and the first session are pretty routine. It's usually mostly paperwork, though they can set most of that aside if you're clearly in a crisis. Know also that lawyers are the only people with stronger confidentiality restrictions than therapists: imminent violence or a court order are pretty much the only things that can loosen a therapist's lips without your consent (they'll explain exactly how it works in your state when you first meet with them.)

Take care and keep us posted if you want to.
Also excellent advice.

A close friend of mine is ADD and never filed with student disabilities. Turning in that paperwork saved his ass, frankly, because they had to stop and change their approach to his education. They HAD to, mind you, because the university said they had to.

Also, if you were able to walk in to see your DGS with your paperwork, odds are, they'll better understand YOU, too.
I agree with everyone who says you might want to seek help, but I've also got to say: it doesn't sound like you even like what you're doing. Why not just quit and go find something that makes you happy?

Nobody has to go to grad school. Don't make yourself this miserable over a sunk-cost fallacy or anyone else's expectations of you.
I love my field and I love the research aspect (and teaching and the travel it requires), I'm just getting my ass kicked by the coursework. Thus far, all my projects independent of classes (though still few) have been quite good.

Unfortunately, I have a min. two years more of courses.


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Thanks for the post, I say thanks because I am kind of in a similar boat. I am lucky enough to be teaching now and not needing more than a masters. Grad school can burn out the best, in fact a number of good friends warned me of this and I just thought they were wimps. All I can really say is that this happens to many people, and often they have good work, but Professors can be fickle. Just know that you can still very much make a positive difference in our world and try to meditate on your own value rather than that of others who may come down on you for entire different reasons other than your actual quality of work.

Good luck.
You have no idea how much I appreciated this comment. Thank you. :)
For what it's worth, I guarantee that your family, friends and girlfriend already know that you're miserable and unwell. They may not know exactly why, but I'm sure they at least know that it has to do with school--after all, it's virtually impossible to conceal distress as serious as yours, especially from people who know you well. And I also guarantee you that when you tell them that you're unhappy and need help, they'll react with relief and hugs, NOT NOT NOT scorn. They love you, they are undoubtedly torn up from seeing you unhappy and being unable to help you, and they will be relieved that you are on a path to being happier! Believe me, I've been in positions similar to yours (though for different reasons), and that's what happens. Your shame, I am sure, is almost entirely a product of your own pride--not of your loved ones' expectations.
Yeah, you're right. What used to be an enormous self confident has been pretty well destroyed. I'm becoming sure that I will fuck up anything I begin (with the strange exception of my recent MA defense, which went remarkably well). I do have a great deal of pride and I'm personally embarassed at my apparent inability to do right by myself or my professors.
You're telling the story of my only two years in grad school. I've been there. I could have written so much of this post myself. Even when I did have support from faculty, I couldn't see or feel or acknowledge it. On top of everything else you described, I had very intense vertigo for the last two weeks of every quarter - and fainting episodes.

I left my grad program and lived to tell the tale. I was ashamed and disgusted with myself and I didn't want to tell anyone. But my parents and peers ended up being really supportive. No one who loves you wants you to be in pain. Your health and happiness should come first.

I want you to know that I've been out of grad school for a year and I've never been happier. To other academics, it looks like I have a useless MA in a terrible economy. But I was shocked to learn that in the world outside academia, my MA means a LOT. It's been wonderful to explore myself as a non-student. Everything about me before this year was "STUDENT." It was, I thought, my only identity. Turns out there's a lot more to me than that. I have a great job, I'm happy, I'm healthy, and I have no regrets about my decision to leave graduate school. I no longer suffer from vertigo or vomiting. I still have occasional anxiety flare-ups, PTSD from my grad school experience. But it's nothing like it used to be.

Whatever decision you make, I hope it's a healthy one. I hope you seek support from a counselor and that you learn to be proud of who you are, even if that means being something besides a student. I promise you're not alone. Feel free to add me on LJ if you have questions or if you need to vent to someone who's been where you are. It's going to be ok. Good luck.
I know you're trying to stay anonymous, but can I ask what field you're in? Could you remain active in your field with the MA?

Part of the problem may be an issue of departmental fit...Departmental cultures can vary widely from school to school, at least in my field (Sociology), especially in top ranked departments where the curricula seem designed to tear people down and weed them out. I've known people who've been miserable at one place only to move to another where there's a more compatible intellectual/cultural/whatever fit. If you're still in your first or second year you could still move without it making a huge time difference.
I know you're trying to stay anonymous, but can I ask what field you're in? Could you remain active in your field with the MA?

The OP has stated that they can't go anywhere in their field without the advanced degree. I'm curious too, 'cause I really feel like that sounds more like the Blinders of a Hopeless Situation (tm) than the actual case. Just about any field I can think of, there's opportunities for related work that don't require the terminal degree-- and sometimes they even pay better.


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Your struggles could be caused by any number of things. It might be lack of community in school, the teaching style, burnout, or something more like depression. Whatever the case, you seem very stressed out right now.

You have a lot of options from staying in school to leaving and doing something you've never done before. In the long run I think you'll find your path. I understand how you could feel you've let people down, but in the end I don't think anyone you care about is going to judge you. One struggle doesn't ruin your character or make you a lesser person.

I had a miserable first year of grad school I switched advisors after my first year and my boyfriend and mom were both supportive. I almost left school and they would have supported that too. Now things are better.

A former roommate and friend of mine double majored in college, wrote an honors thesis and regular thesis, did extracurricular activities, and graduated summa cum laude. After getting into one of the best ranked Ph.D. programs in her field she struggled. She left after a year but didn't tell anyone for fear of embarrassment. Us other roommates felt bad because we didn't feel she had anything to be embarrassed about but she withdrew right when she needed support the most. It wasn't her fault. And heck, we all thought it was good that she figured out she needed to go down a different path then rather than after working toward a Ph.D. into her thirties.

It's okay to explore new options. It's okay to change plans. Life happens, things change. Don't feel bad.

I'm afraid that with my current straight B transcript, I wouldn't be able to transfer. Do you know if this is the case?
I'm in paleontology/evolutionary biology. Though you can teach and work in a museum with an MA or less, to actually be an paleontologist with your own unique research, you really need the PhD.

The great thing about flushing out of a top tier school is that you can always land on a second tier school!

If you are going for evo bio and you flush out of say, Harvard or Stanford, you can totally still end up transferring to a collaborators lab at the Univ of New Mexico where the stress and anxiety is so much lower. I had troubles at a low tier school so there wasn't really any where for me to step down too (Molecular bio), you on the other hand have options.

my suggestions.
1) therapy.
2) Get your MA, take a break from school
3) Work at a place that does stuff that interests you for a year or two.
4) Apply for a PhD at a school were someone does work that interests you and the students drink beer every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and it's not a cut throat place.

Oh, and my wife is 31, burnt out after her undergrad and is now finishing up a 3rd Bachelors and will be going to grad school in a year or so. She was valedictorian in high school, honors society in college, double major... all that stuff. There is hope, you just gotta heal your self first.
This is great advice.
The top-tier schools may get you good placement on reputation alone, but to be a shining star at a school that may not have as many, the department will usually go to bat for you all the more... It could end up being a really good thing. (And weekend booze get-togethers aren't a bad deal either!) ;)
In reading your post I was curious to know if you're still in contact with faculty at your undergrad school. Have you talked to them about the problems you're having? (I understand that from what you described, you might not want to tell Shiny Important Professor/Mentor about your struggles, of course!) Since they have perspective on you, your field, and no doubt also the faculty you're working with now, they may have insight that would be helpful to you.

That said, everyone else's advice seems quite useful and I'm glad to see that you generally agree. I wanted to add that it's hard to struggle when you've always identified yourself as a stellar student. But regardless of where your career goes, one day you won't be a student, so it's also good to come to terms with who you are underneath. Good luck with everything. Be strong, and be patient with yourself.
I really wish I had some words of wisdom. I've been in grad school for five years, and like you, course-work killed me. I lost a good bit of my mental and physical health, and it took me almost three years regain it.

Even now, I am struggling with research. If I do make it out of here with a PhD it will be a small miracle -- but I'm committed to giving it all I've got. If that's not enough, then I'll get a PhD somewhere else, or I'll just grit my teeth and jump into the job market with only a Masters and three years research that didn't amount to anything.

Sounds ugly, but if I've learned anything in grad school, it is to find solutions to seemingly unsolveable problems. I've done that over and over with my research, to the point where I've started believing that I can make anything happen with enough tenacity. So, a crappy resume is just another challenge, nothing more. Does it limit your immediate options? Sure. But it forces you to think creatively about how to live your best possible life. Sure, some people can just get on a "track" and sail from PhD to tenure. But it's just as insane to compare yourself to those people as it is to compare yourself to someone on death row.

If you're anything like me, you'll probably keep going, find another source of funding, you'll pull some more all-nighters and get your GPA back up, maybe by the skin of your teeth (I was that close to failing out -- I needed every single point I could get on all of my exams), and then maybe a couple of years from now you'll find that you still love what you do, and you're out of the woods, and it will be a pretty damn awesome feeling. You'll get there, if that's what you want.

Good luck!


May 31 2009, 05:37:07 UTC 7 years ago

This is long... both because I want to rant, and so you know that there are other in similar boats.

I wasn't as high an achiever as you, but I worked pretty hard through undergrad, had good grades, was well-respected, and got into a fairly good grad program. Things started off miserably. The coursework here sort of stands in for qualifying exams in the sense that they weed you out with it. I ended up getting a B- in this one class my first quarter (which is a fail). Of course, this was more than a little devastating -- I had periods in my life earlier where I feared that I was mediocre, but never thought of myself as a _failure_. It didn't help that the instructor was a bit of a sadist who enjoyed rubbing our noses in the dirt.

I basically began to have panic attacks, depression, and constantly questioned my abilities, and worth as a person. So I just limped by the other classes, managing to pass, but with a lukewarm mixture of As and Bs. Second year comes around, and I'm basically in the pits of self-loathing with the embarrassment of having to retake the class. I completely cut myself off from everyone else in the department, stopped going to social events, and avoided talking to other students in order to avoid bringing up the topic of the class. Perhaps I was overdoing it -- half my cohort was retaking the class, so it wasn't the end of the world -- but I guess I was just too vain about myself intellectually, and couldn't stomach the whole situation. Now, I ended up doing all right in the class second time around, but ended up with only a B. This was disillusioning, since I knew that my performance relative to the class was at least an A- (based on test scores and class stats). The TA reasoned that the instructor just set a higher standard for people who were retaking it, but it just made me feel that the department was going out of its way to make me miserable, no matter how hard I worked.

I wish I could say that after the hurdle of coursework, everything is great (as I hoped it would be last year). But it isn't. There's additional pressure from the department regarding my MS thesis and what-not, because they want to make sure that despite "screwing up my classes" (as the Chair told me), I am fit to stay in the program. I do enjoy my research, but I have had a slow start, because (1) I came straight out of undergrad, when most others came in with a masters', and (2) I pretty much did no research my first 2 years in an effort to make it through. The added pressure that I perform extraordinarily in order to make up for my classes is just one more thing I don't want to deal with. I think one encouraging word, or one sign of approval from any of the faculty would go a long way, but I keep feeling that everyone is set against me (whether that's true or not). I recently got papers published in a couple of conferences, and was relieved that something was going right. The department's response was basically "it's no big deal, and oh, don't bother asking for funding, because there are more deserving students". (Not surprisingly, they fund students for conferences where they have no paper. And yes, some of these students have failed not one course, but two. So why am I such a leper?)

I don't want to discourage you, but I just want to warn that things may not suddenly become rosy after you finish your classes. Unless you have a particularly nice advisor/committee, your performance in courses may be a shadow over everything else later. So you really have got to ask yourself honestly whether you want to stay in the program. For my part, I've told myself that I will just grit my teeth for another couple of years and get out as fast as I can (and not stay in academia). But I hate that I have wasted 3 years of my life feeling so miserable and defeated. I honestly don't know if I will ever feel confident about being able to do anything. If I could talk to my first-year self (who was unbearably defeated, but hopeful that it would eventually be fine), I would tell it exactly what the previous posters have told you -- take a break, do something else for a bit, maybe start again at another university later on. Good luck for everything.


May 31 2009, 05:56:09 UTC 7 years ago

Oh, I should add that the one thing that kept me sane was the support of my family and boyfriend. They are amazing. I would most certainly have done something drastic to myself by now if I didn't have people to talk to, who are able to assure me that I'm a decent, capable human being despite everything. Your first step should be to open up to your parents and girlfriend about this.
Echo what everyone says. Academia is not the only path to being a successful, fulfilled person.

You don't have to answer this in the interest of anonymity, but do you happen to be in one of the top-ranking programs in Paleontology, in a private university somewhere in the Midwest? If so, your department's culture is one that runs deep throughout this particular university, including my program. It takes an enormous amount of resilience to even last two years in this environment, and there's nothing wrong with admitting to yourself that you'd be happier outside it. I wish I had done so a long time ago.
While I agree with those saying that taking a break from school might be a good idea, I don't understand why everyone seems to promote the idea of dropping school entirely. From your post it seems like you love the field and your research, the only nuisance is the coursework. Personally I don't believe courses should be essential part of any PhD program. Writing a good dissertation is the most important part. It is just a very unlucky situation that they make you take those four years of courses, and that they judge you based on your grades. Are there any other funding options apart from your current scholarship? Can you get a TAship or RAship, for example?