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Burnout/Depression/Loss of Direction

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I'm entering my fifth year of the PhD and my last year of guaranteed funding at a fairly well regarded Gender Studies program (though there's likely another two years under not-so-great-teaching-conditions). I've spent the last two years in a massive depression and haven't done any work. My advisor, while famous and well regarded, has turned out to be neglectful and downright cruel. I defended a proposal before my committee that I hated and think is unsalvageable because my advisor gave me wrong info about deadlines and committee reqs AND refused to give me feedback. 

I WANT to finish and to write!! But I feel like I have nothing at all to write about and I'm paralyzed with depression, fear, and hopelessness-- no amount of therapy has helped. Nobody in the dept cares or wants to help me. My advisor hasn't checked in with me six months, which is utterly unsurprising. When I ask them for help they ignore me. I'm so unhappy. I really wanted to do this when I came into the program. I feel like every drop of potential and enthusiasm has been killed in me. If I knew what to write, I would, but I'm at such a loss I might as well write about the surface of Mars. 

I just need advice/kind words/anything. 

Edited by usullusa

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Sorry about your current situation. Have you tried to talk to the ombudsperson or dean about this? It seems clear cut that, if you say this is a well-established program, that the administrators would not be happy to see professors treating a successful student in this way.

Additionally, although it may feel like it, I am sure that it isn't the case that no one cares about your success in the program. Having graduate students successfully graduate and be placed in jobs they want is a hallmark of success and what administrators of the program should be striving for, even if only for instrumental reasons to keep the program going. If it really is the case that everyone you have met, especially your advisor, as you have mentioned, is neglectful and cruel to you, I would urge you to look toward other methods of social support like your family, friends, or religious group. 

Lastly, about knowing what to write, if you have reached your fifth year in a well-established program and have already defended a proposal, you are a competent student that understands the literature and methodology enough to finish. It is not your fault that you are in this position and it is likely that if you were in a more supportive one, you may very well be much further along with much less stress. Ultimately, know that whatever happens, this regrettable situation isn't your fault, and we all hope that it improves for the better.

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Can you reach out to any former mentors or people at other universities you might have connected with? I also second considering reaching out to the Dean (I email ours directly and stuff sometimes happens). Maybe get involved in some University stuff outside of your department? Student government often has positions on committees they are trying to fill and that was a great way for me to find some support and mentorship outside the dept, which was really crucial for me when I went through the 5th year bs (not so much like yours, Im in STEM, so its less of a writing and need access to mentor issue and more of a why am I working on this research that has nothing to do with my thesis and also crappy teaching assignments) I also have depression and anxiety, and I know that just amplifies the already high level of crap I deal with. I'm sorry you are dealing with all of this, I hope you can find a little support somewhere. You have already accomplished a lot, try to regain/hold onto some confidence and let me know if you figure out how to get any enthusiasm back, I could really use some myself. Oh first year me was soooooo jazzed. Sigh.  

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Have you considered taking a leave of absence?

If you've spent two years in depression and haven't done much if any work, and your depression is paralyzing you, you likely need some professional support and help to get going again. (A similar thing happened to me during my PhD program, so I'm super sympathetic.) Forcing yourself to work on something that you hate is probably not super healthy for you at the moment, and really, your primary concern should be you and your mental health and trying to feel better. It's possible that the therapy is not really helping much yet because you're still stuck in the same circumstances that greatly contributed to the stress and depression in the first place.

So, consider taking a leave of absence. Even if it's just for a semester to help feel better and re-energize yourself for working on your dissertation.

That said, when you're ready to advance forward with your dissertation work, here are a couple things you can do:

1) It sounds like you've tried to reach out to your advisor and they are ignoring you. The next step would be to reach out to someone else who can provide you with the academic support that you need to progress. You mentioned a committee, so you can start there: reach out to one of your committee members (preferably one that's in your department) and matter-of-factly state what your issue. It's better if you can have this meeting in person. You explain that you'd like to make progress on your dissertation, but you're finding it difficult because Judith is difficult to get in contact with and hasn't responded to your requests for feedback or meetings.

Another person to reach out to is the Director of Graduate Studies. Your advisor is really neglecting her duties to you. If she's famous and well-regarded, the department is unlikely to do anything to her, but at leas the DGS can help you find a stopgap - someone else you can go to at least informally, if not a full formal swap of advisors. It's great if you have records like unanswered or flippant emails, too.

Did you pass the proposal defense?

2) What do you hate about the proposal? Were you forced into selecting a topic you dislike, or do you not like the methods/approach, or something else? If you passed the proposal defense, I'd talk to your DGS and look at your handbook to see what the policy is for changing your focus. At some universities, the proposal is treated like a mini-contract, and you're more or less obligated to do what you said you would for your dissertation. That doesn't mean you can't change it; that just means there may be a formal process you need to modify your approach. (That also depends on how different what you want to do is from what you said you'd do.)

3) Has your advisor been like this since the beginning, or did they turn mean and neglectful at some point during the program?

4) Sadly, one of the things that I learned in my own doctoral program is I needed to be the one who tracked all the requirements and deadlines. I learned pretty quickly that my professors (while generally well-meaning) had no idea what they were or even where to find that information. Usually they'd say they didn' t know, but occasionally they'd give me inaccurate information that screwed me up. Even if you had an amazing advisor, I wouldn't rely on them to know the technical details of the committee requirements; I'd try to track as much of that stuff as you can on your own.

5) As for the topic. It's really common in depression to suddenly lose interest in the things that once interested you. Everything seems grey and unenjoyable. This is why a leave might be a good idea - it'll be hard for you to feel passionate about and invested in a topic when you're feeling so low.

But since your advisor is leaving you alone you may have plenty of quiet time and space to do this: Go back mentally to the you you were 5 years ago, when you were first entering the program, or even 6 years ago when you were applying. What excited you about your field, your program, and your advisor? What is the reason you decided to make this your life's work? You might even read some articles in your field that have come out recently, or go back to read some seminal texts/works in your field that resonated with you when you were preparing for grad school or in the first couple years. What speaks to you deeply? Sometimes the process of picking a topic requires some deep thought and reflection, and not a lot of activity.

Are there any other professors in your department that you trust, even if they aren't in your subfield? Can you talk to them about topics?

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