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Thursday, May 22, 2008

The view from below.

A while back I wrote a post that contained a number of hints for graduate students. I referred to these as "Unhelpful Hints," but the reaction to them was, on the whole, quite positive. Now, it's been a while since I put that little list together but, as it turns out, there continues to be interest in it. Specifically, it recently won a new comment:

This is very interesting. I am an advanced doctoral student in sociology. I learned many of these same points, but because I did not follow them initially. Now I am doing OK but very late to get going with dissertation research. I'd like to see advice here or elsewhere on ways to dig yourself out of grad school depression, low level of production, and general ambivalence. Are you doomed if you take a long time to finish?


This is an issue that was, indeed, beyond the scope of my original list. Assuming one makes mistakes early in graduate life- perhaps even serious mistakes- is it possible to recover and then succeed? I confess that, in truth, I don't know. This isn't to say that I haven't made mistakes or needed to recover from stumbles- anyone who claims that they have never done either is a liar or a fool- but rather that it remains very much in question whether or not I will be successful. So, while I might have my own opinions, who can really tell if I'm right? Nevertheless I will give my best response to this inquiry and invite my readers to do the same.

And now for today's uplifting feature:

So you've dug yourself a hole in graduate school?

(1) Don't panic. Seriously, it never helps. You may feel lost, way behind, and generally screwed. These things may be true to a greater or less extent. Yet, freaking out does little except distract you from more productive activity.

(2) Get a second opinion. You may have decided you're in a hole, but you may not be able to assess how deep that hole is. Find a trusted faculty member and lay it all out. Grad students can help too but keep in mind that by definition grad students have not yet molted into the beautiful butterflies of adult faculty. Their opinions may not be all that helpful.

(3) Check your pride at the door. It is a crass but nevertheless accurate generalization that a lot of grad students are cocky. We enter grad school thinking we're the top dogs because we probably were in our respective undergrad departments. This can be good because it means that we're motivated but, at the same time, can backfire. Often proud people don't like to admit when they're having trouble or stumbling. Even when things get bad they may refrain from truly reaching out in the mistaken belief that nobody else is having trouble. Unfortunately, this means that too many smart, talented, but proud, people end up in worse straits than they might be in otherwise. If you have realized that you're in trouble- way behind with the clock running out- the time for putting on a brave face is over. Swallow your pride, summon up some humility, and ask for help.

(4) Do not be a time waster. People will very often be willing to give their time and advice if only they are convinced that aforementioned time and advice will be put to use. What this means is: take the advice you receive seriously. If nothing else, keep in mind that what you've been doing hasn't been working so you need to try something new. And on an organizational level, just showing the faculty that you're trying may help convince them that you can be rehabilitated into a valuable member of the department.*

(5) Make a plan. Specifically, think in terms of short, medium, and long term. Short term boils down to "What do I need to get done THIS SEMESTER to help make sure I don't get booted?" Medium term deals with those things that need to happen in the next year or so. Finally, long term refers to where you want to end up. If you're in a hole in grad school you're probably a number of years in and feel behind. Be brutally honest with yourself, figure out what you want (that you can realistically achieve), and then figure out what needs to happen to get you there.

(6) Stick to your plan. I can't stress this enough- making the plan is great but actions are required to improve your situation. Somehow, keep yourself grinding away at those objectives. If to-do lists work, great. If little rewards work, great. If you need to put a block on your internet usage, then do it! It is very easy to take a long time to do very little in grad school and you need to do the opposite. Whatever that requires for you- do it.

(7) Work at getting your motivation back. Sapped motivation is one of the greatest dangers for grad students. If you're unmotivated because you hate your discipline, your best bet may be to try to find something else you want to do more. Throwing good time after bad will not make you any happier. If you like your discipline but hate your department, things may be different. If you're early enough in your program to transfer that can be an option but, if not, you're going to have to grit your teeth and try to live through it. If this is the case, try to focus on the goals. I would strongly urge you, however, to avoid using rage to fuel your drive to success. Aside from the fact that it will eat you up, your rage is most likely going to focus on your advisor or committee who- let's face it- you really should be on good terms with.

(8) Keep in mind: man does not live by bread alone. More specifically, you're going to be working damn hard to pull yourself out of a hole, but this does not mean you never get to have fun. If you never allow yourself to relax your newfound determination will eventually succumb to exhaustion like a bird discovering a plate glass window. Make sure to include downtime in your plan.

(9) Be prepared for skepticism. If you're way in the hole odds are other people have noticed. As you try to climb out, some of these folks may be somewhat doubtful of your ability. Be prepared for this and don't let it bother you. More likely than not they're on your side and will make this apparent once they're sure you're really serious.

(10) Get a grip on your position. A lot of grad students make the mistake of assuming- perhaps as a result of over-enthusiastic recruitment- that the department is primarily concerned with training them. This is incorrect. The department thinks you might one day transform into a useful sociologist but that remains to be seen. For the moment you are little more than a potential colleague and a source of cheap labor.** Do not wait for the department to come rescue you. Do not bitch about how the department has failed you. You may have received a raw deal but, at the end of the day, that doesn't get you a Ph.D. or a job.

(11) Take a firm grip on your own whip. Nobody in grad school is going to take more of an interest in your success than you. If you need someone to crack the whip over you to get you to work, then you're going to have to find a person who is willing to do so and then give them the necessary power/authority. If you do this, however, respond when the whip is cracked. No one is going to nanny you and, if nothing else, it's unfair to demand that they do.

(12) Get your priorities in order. A lot of grad departments give grad students a voice in governance. This is nice but is, at root, a luxury. You do not have as much of a stake in the department as the faculty and you should not devote as much time to running it as they do. Likewise, you may love teaching but few departments will reward you for this and you cannot teach your way through a dissertation. Your primary job is to do your research, get your Ph.D., and get a job, not necessarily in that order. Everything else is secondary. Let me repeat that: everything else is secondary!

(13) Try to be realistic. We all have papers that just aren't going to go anywhere. Put them in drawers and forget about them. We all have grandiose ideas that will require years to complete. Save these for later. Your job right now is to get things done quickly and efficiently. Even if your grandiose idea is really, really good this is not the time for it. Save it for when you're not racing a looming deadline.

(14) Do not give up. Keep in mind that a lot of grad students have trouble at one time or another. Logically, then, a lot of faculty similarly had problems at one point. Nevertheless, they are all grown up faculty much as you may hope to be. If they can stumble and recover then you probably can too. Likewise, if you stumble they are almost certainly not without sympathy.

(15) Try not to obsess about your colleagues. It's easy when you're feeling down to become hyper attentive to what other grads are doing. Resist this urge. Their performance doesn't mean anything about yours. Similarly, resist the urge to make yourself feel better by minimizing the accomplishments of others. This will do little except alienate those who could be very helpful.

(16) Do not forget your value. It's easy to start thinking of yourself as worthless, stupid, or lost when you're in a hole. The truth, however, is that you wouldn't have been admitted if a lot of smart people didn't think you had significant potential. Keep that in mind when trying to catch up: there are plenty of people already who believe you can. All you have to do is prove them right.

(17) Don't take my advice too seriously. I am not faculty, I have not supervised grad students, I do not know everything. Figure things out, get advice from those who know, and then kick ass the way we all know you can.


* Actual faculty should dispute me here if I'm overstating things but, while faculty are often sympathetic to grad student plight, nobody likes dragging dead weight alongside them.

** Cheap is a relative thing. You are more expensive than a lot of employees, but less expensive that a full Ph.D. I had relatively little trouble keeping my worth in perspective since a faculty member from a different department once mentioned in passing that his desk cost more than my salary for a year.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The commenter mentioned "grad school depression", which (while it probably hasn't made it into the DSM) is a very real phenomenon.

Get out, get support, or get counseling.

Quitting or transferring is sometimes the best plan.

There are sometimes formal or informal thesis support groups on campus. If you don't have one, consider starting one. Make friends who aren't in grad school.

Counseling is a very real option for many grad students, and it might even be covered by your health plan. Anecdotally I would argue that clinical depression is very common among grad students (has it been studied in this context?). Depression, anxiety, or general malaise are all good reasons to seek counseling.

There's no reason to feel despair.

And, of course, we all know that wasting thesis time on regular physical exercise and friendly socialization is a *good* thing -- right?

Friday, May 23, 2008 3:58:00 AM  

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