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grelleen

I haven't been very good at being a graduate student, and I would like some advice for what I should do next.

Question

I've been in a master's program, preparing to apply for a PhD program, for 2 years, and am now about to graduate. I had planned to apply with the rest of my cohort to PhD programs last fall, but my father passed away unexpectedly early in the semester. Needless to say, my whole semester and my hopes of improving myself did not go as planned. The primary problem I have had  ,is juggling all of the roles graduate students are expected to preform (researcher, intern, student, graduate assistant, etc.). It seemed as if I'd always drop the ball on one or two things. For example, I would forget something I had to do for my assisstantship occasionally. I overlook details all of the time, and end up making mistakes as a result. This often lead to me backtracking, and having to push other tasks to the last minute. It also generally took me a lot longer to complete things, in comparison to my other cohort members.  As a result of all of this, I feel like to some I've appeared as though I don't care/am unmotivated, even though I essentially spend nearly all of my days working on schoolwork/etc., and rarely taking breaks. I was having some trouble keeping everything together my first year to be sure, but I was preparing to use what I had learned to really improve for my second year; that didn't happen. My father passed away early in my first semester of my second year, which left me in a fog for some time. Although it made me want to bury myself in my work, I started to overlook MORE details in my work I should have noticed, and to forget things more easily. My program was very accommodating throughout all of this; but, of course there's a limit. My adviser, who I respect and admire deeply, essentially told me near the end of the semester that I hadn't demonstrated to them that I was detail-oriented enough to succeed in a doctoral program. I decided not to apply, since I realized that I just couldn't realistically put that much effort into applications at the time, but also because I also didn't feel like I was a worthy candidate for a PhD. Recently, I was told that I almost certainly have ADHD, which explains my forgettfulness/tendency to overlook things, so I'm going to see a psychiatrist about that, but it doesn't really help my current circumstances. I pretty much don't know what my next step should be. I feel like I've wasted most of my adult life, as well as my aspirations, in this field just to fail in the end. Before coming to the program, I had a perfect GPA, glowing letters of recommendation, and had completed several of my own independent studies. Now that I'm about to have my master's degree, I know my application might actually be less appealing then it was. I'm supposing the best course of action would be for me to find a job, and try to do extremely well and build myself up before re-applying. Has anyone else been in this situation? I'd like to know how others have handled it.

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5 answers to this question

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For what it's worth, I think you are being too hard on yourself. To put it into perspective, two years is a small amount of time in your life and everyone goes through periods where they are successful and productive and less productive and successful. Your performance is not due to a lack of motivation or laziness. Its sounds like you tried to give it your all and you should be proud of that. I do not think you should let this experience define yourself as a failure. Your advisor's judgment on your ability to succeed in a PhD program is based on two years but she/he hasnt known you long enough to know what you are capable of. I understand your predicament because your advisors' recommendation is very important for getting into a PhD program. I think the way forward is to get more experience as a technician in a research lab and make strong connections in your field. I do not have experience with Clinical Psychology Programs, but I know quite a few people who didn't do well in their undergrad, but were able to get into PhD programs because they made strong connections with potential advisors.

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I do not think you can judge a grieving student like this. AND the first year juggling four-five roles is not enough to judge somebody by. Professors forget vitally important things all the time, yet nobody tells them they need to go find another job. It is merely assumed that it is everybody else's job to remind them of things, and most of the time, everybody does (the secretary, the assistants, etc). If you are at the bottom of the hierarchy and do not have a strong support network, it is not shocking to have difficulties.

Conversely, being extremely good at details can also show that somebody is not a good researcher if they get lost in them. 

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Is there a way for you to delay graduating -- e.g. take a leave of absence to recover, restore your mental health to a better place, diagnose and treat your ADHD, and catch up on work? It's too bad someone didn't suggest this for your spring semester (and frankly, even for the fall semester) and it might be too late now, but if possible, I think the thing to do is to talk to your advisor and/or your DGS both about the ADHD and about the grieving process, and see if you can make up some lost time and stability by slowing down. You say that you work hard and don't take breaks -- that too isn't healthy, and isn't actually a good way to catch up or keep all your balls in the air. It's pretty much a guaranteed way to wear yourself out and eventually drop balls all over the place. So given that you were on the right track last year before your father died, you can't quite rewind to that point, but you could ask to be given a chance to put the pieces of your life back together and try again when you're freer to concentrate on your studies. I don't know how this would work technically, there may be financial difficulties (and visa issues, if you're international), so this would be something to discuss with the DGS sooner rather than later. But overall I think the situation is such that your professors can't judge your abilities fairly because your work has suffered from external circumstances outside of your control, so the best argument you can make is that you are still passionate about a PhD and you'd like the chance to earn their good opinion and support, once you've had time to process what has happened in your life this year and recover. If you have extra time to concentrate on your work once you've dealt with other issues, I hope you'd be able to get to a place where your advisors would be happy to support your PhD application. 

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My condolences for your loss. It sounds like the past year and a half have been quite challenging for you on so many levels and anyone under those circumstances would have been having a hard time to keep afloat.

If you don't mind me asking, was your father terminally ill or was his passing sudden and completely unexpected? 

The reason I ask is because you mention having difficulty in the year prior to his passing. From what I understand, the clinical psych program is extremely difficult. I don't think anyone feels on top of things until the only thing outstanding is to prepare for the PhD defense. If you believe you were within a certain range that was reasonably acceptable compared to other students in your program (not compared to the best student, of course) or that your performance issues were starting to improve until your father's passing, then I think you should really try to do what you can to be able to do a PhD.

If you haven't done so already, make an appointment to see an Accessible Learning Advisor at your school and explain the situation. I'd make an appointment with a psychologist right away (as they could write you a medical note if needed to confirm what is going on based on any assessments they make). Try to register as a student with a disability at your school (which will require medical documentation) and, as fuzzylogician suggested, try to get a medical leave for 2 reasons - to give yourself some time off to grieve and to recover so you will perform optimally upon your return to school and also to make your claims more legitimate to your supervisor that you have a genuine mental health issue that was impacting your performance.

You might also be able to file an appeal with the graduate studies department if you think the supervisor is not being fair with you after finding out about your health issues. I've heard that this is possible if you disagree with a grade that you received, but I'm not sure about your specific set of circumstances. If this is an option, there will be a neutral committee (comprised of grad students and staff/faculty) who will examine statements and documents provided from both parties involved and vote on the issue to determine the final outcome. If it comes down to it, talk to someone there with advice on how to proceed.

If it is too late to take a medical leave (which probably isn't the case if you finish at the end of the summer), then I'd still get a medical note to show your supervisor so at least they will keep this in mind when providing you with a reference for employment. If you leave the school on good terms, with evidence that you have mental health issues getting in your way, then you could take some personal time off and try to work in the field for a few years (perhaps as a psychometrist, researcher or psychotherapist), establish a strong work history and strong references, and apply to PhD programs again. Time can do wonders to cover up a weak academic record (as long as you can provide a legitimate reason as to why it happened and why it won't happen again!) If you got in once, you can certainly do it again!

Best of luck to you!

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I'm very sorry for your loss.

This is a small change compared to the accommodation I think you should seek out, but have you thought about how working all day and potentially being more frazzled, and then trying to work harder can contribute to missing some things and forgetting some details? I have noticed that in myself through this semester, that I am constantly forgetting things (even when assignments are due!!) and getting the dates/times/locations wrong for important events. I think part of it might be that I'm trying to work all the time, even when I get home after going to school all day, and late into the night. Part of it for me comes from guilt I think, also of not seeming like I'm committed or taking the program seriously, because I'm juggling things outside of school.

So maybe giving yourself more time to breathe, be calm, and not work count, counterintuitively, help you work better when you are working and focus on those key details.

However, the bigger challenge of managing your ADHD and taking time to properly grieve is more important than this. I just wanted to offer that suggestion of diminishing returns of working too much, or the potentially harmful impact of working too much, beyond the hours making you less productive as they go on.

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