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First semester discouragement


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I just started my first semester of my Masters and honestly I'm feeling incredibly discouraged. It's my first time teaching and I feel like I'm drowning -- I have no idea what I'm doing, every step I take seems to be a very public mistake (my students witness every mishap) that I need to correct and "learn from." My classes are okay but the workload just seems nonstop. Plus I'm 2000 miles away from home and in a long-distance relationship, so every moment of stress or sadness seems amplified by the fact that, as childish as it may sound, I can't just go hug my mom. And I've had trouble making friends because I think I've just been slow to find somebody I click with...and I have this fear that I never will.

Yes, I'm young -- I just got my Bachelors last year and went immediately into grad school. I "know" that first semester grad school is stressful, and that I'm not the only one who has experienced (or is experiencing) this, but it's like I don't really believe it or something.

Does anyone else feel like this? I'm homesick, stressed, and just feel really out of my element. I feel like everything I do ends up being a misstep, like I'm blindly trying to figure out my way. Any advice or words of encouragement?

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Sorry - that sounds really tough. It will probably get better. Adjusting to teaching is not easy. I taught part-time for the first time recently, and the first term was stressful. Having to adjust to grad school and a new home on top of teaching would have been even worse. I'll be starting grad school soon, but my program does not make its first year students teach. Possible encouragement: teaching turned out to be really fun. I'll actually miss it. But I wouldn't have guessed it based on my experiences the first few weeks.

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{{gentle hug}}

I had a rough first semester of my MA and downright horrible first year of my PhD. Here I am back for more.

So the good news is, it does get better, it really does. The beginning sucks, no matter what. (To be clear: the second semester of my PhD was bad not in and of itself but b/c it was basically a 'hangover' from the first semester.)

Feeling alone *is* the worst part of it. There is very much a culture of "pretending everything is hunky dory" in academia, even though nearly everyone is falling apart underneath the facade, at least/especially the first year. Is there a grad student support group run through your counseling center? If there is, GO. I cannot recommend it highly enough. (I had a scheduling conflict first semester last year and couldn't go. But I am convinced they are the sole reason I made it through the spring. :wub: Well, them, and long protracted phone conversations with, yes, my mother.) At least at my school, it's not group therapy in the traditional sense--which I've done for a different issue and have actually found quite counterproductive--it's basically grad students in all sorts of programs sitting around and venting. Of course it feels AMAZING to get everything off your chest IN PERSON, i.e. not just on the phone :P, and sometimes other people will have really good advice for you (especially the older more experienced students...I am eternally in their debt). But the absolute biggest value is that it completely beats you over the head with the giant Baseball Bat of You Are Not Alone. 'Cause let me tell you, I was convinced that I was the only person in my department at my university in graduate school who took an incomplete in a class, still couldn't finish the paper, nearly failed out of the program, cried every night, was homesick, loved what she did so much it hurts and would die if she had to give it up but didn't know if she could bear how crappy other stuff was, etc. (And keep in mind I had already been through First Year Blues with my MA! /sigh.) Grad student support group saved me.

As far as teaching goes--yeah, the beginning sucks. (The beginning of any job sucks.) But I guarantee you that your students aren't nearly as hard on you as you are on yourself.

As for friends--I finished the first entire year with basically no friends. It is three weeks into year two and I am rich in developing friendships, even if we don't have time to hang out beyond an hour for coffee after office hours. :D

(Also, if you need a dose of "you are not alone" right now, search this forum for "depression." You'll find several threads from last fall consisting of multiple people, including me, basically talking about how stressed and sad we are and how much grad school sucks and everyone says it's going to get better and why can't it just get better now. I was a stunning exemplar of maturity last fall, yes, yes I was. :lol: )

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Wow, thank you so much for the responses. I've looked a little bit into counseling but I feel like my outlook changes so often, whenever I start even considering checking it out, I suddenly begin to feel like I'm doing okay and that I don't need to talk to anyone. But if my experiences could be anything like yours...that would be probably the most helpful thing I could think of. I just want to vent to and hear from people who actually know what I'm talking about.

I guess I feel like I'm supposed to have it all figured out by now ("by now" meaning a month into things) but it's REALLY, REALLY good to know I'm not alone. I feel like a little kid again, crying, beating myself up for every little mistake, convinced that everyone is judging me and that all my actions have some sort of profound, irreversible impact on everything in my life (melodramatic much?). I definitely need that You Are Not Alone baseball bat.

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I just know I am going to be completely overwhelmed during the first year. I am sure I will feel really stupid. I'm lucky in that I'm not alone, as I am going to my local U. and have people I can count on to prop me up when I'm feeling really down. I hope you find people to support you soon. I guarantee you're not the only person in your program feeling this way.

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emmm, when do you start courses? If you ever need to vent or anything feel free to talk to me.

I just made an intake appointment with my university's counseling services; I'll be meeting with someone tomorrow. I feel so much better just for having taken that step. Hopefully it'll be as useful as I want/need it to be!

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I just started my first semester of my Masters and honestly I'm feeling incredibly discouraged. It's my first time teaching and I feel like I'm drowning -- I have no idea what I'm doing, every step I take seems to be a very public mistake (my students witness every mishap) that I need to correct and "learn from."

<<snip>>

Any advice or words of encouragement?

Kelkyann--

I recommend that you identify the professors in your department who are excellent teachers and that you ask them for guidance on how to improve those skills you think are deficient.

Also, if your program requires you to do coursework outside of your department, consider the value of doing that coursework in your institution's school of education.

Second, consider the value of handing out a student evaluation form to your students at the end of each class. This practice may provide useful feedback that allows you to make on the fly adjustments and to avoid fixing stuff that isn't broken. (Shoot me a PM with an email address if you want a template.)

Third, if you do take Sparky's guidance and go to a graduate student support group, I strongly recommend you pay careful attention to the motivation of the group's members. If your focus is on becoming an outstanding teacher, associating with those who have different goals may not be the most efficient use of your time.

HTH.

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associating with those who have different goals may not be the most efficient use of your time.

Wow.

This is not about efficiency. This is about surviving.

As I said in my first post, at least at my school (maybe you had a bad experience elsewhere, Sigaba? If so, shame on them for letting you down), the grad student support group attracts people from all sorts of programs. Academic PhD, academic master's, MBA, law, med. It's an emotional support group, not a "how to get an academic R1 job" seminar. You vent, cry, people give you Kleenex, and then you listen to other people vent, cry, you give them Kleenex, and you leave feeling not so alone.

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As far as teaching goes--yeah, the beginning sucks. (The beginning of any job sucks.) But I guarantee you that your students aren't nearly as hard on you as you are on yourself.

This is absolutely true. My students were oblivious to many of my smaller missteps in front of the classroom my first term, which horrified me. The ones that they did notice were not nearly so awful as I perceived them to be. You're probably doing better than you think you are! Even if it doesn't feel like it.

And when you DO make a mistake, admitting is actually the most helpful thing you can do. You'll feel better acknowledging it, and students actually really appreciate it. (They prefer to learn from someone human, anyway!)

Edited by runonsentence
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Hang in there, sister. I am in my first semester of my master's and I'm overwhelmed, too. I get about four hours of sleep per night because I'm having a difficult time tweaking my schedule to make it as efficient as possible. I got straight A's as an undergrad, wrote extra papers, T.A.'d, worked, tutored, led clubs, and still had down time. Now I only have four classes and a part time job whilst simultaneously tearing my hair out. I moved to a city where I know absolutely no one and am getting started at a new job. I'm sure we will both get better at this as we learn the ropes. I drink tons of chamomile tea (which helps with the anxiety) and I tell myself that it will get better. :) Solidarity, we can do it!

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As a suggestion of mine is proving to be controversial, I am going to take a moment to elaborate my position.

Third, if you do take Sparky's guidance and go to a graduate student support group, I strongly recommend you pay careful attention to the motivation of the group's members. If your focus is on becoming an outstanding teacher, associating with those who have different goals may not be the most efficient use of your time.

MOO, there are only so many hours in a day and there are many demands on a graduate student's time. In my experience, discussions among graduate students about the emotional components of an issue can get in the way of addressing a problem successfully. Second, I believe that the best sources for guidance and support are skilled professors who have navigated successfully most--if not all--of the issues that graduate students in a specific field of study might face. Third, I'm of the belief that teaching is the most important, and rewarding, responsibility graduate students will have.

In combination, these three views shaped my suggestion that one double check the motivations of one's fellow graduate students. If they have different goals than you, if they don't have the expertise you need, if compassion becomes distraction, and if sympathy comes at the expense of solutions, then might it not be in one's best interests (to say nothing of one's students) to find those who have, as the saying goes, been there and done that, and can provide guidance and emotional support in a very efficient manner? (FWIW, one of my greatest concerns as a rookie T.A. was put to rest after talking to a professor for four minutes--three of which were spent laughing.) Might more effective guidance empower one to find different methods that lead to improved skills and confidence? In turn, might the improved skills lead to a higher level of confidence in and satisfaction with graduate school?

My $0.02.

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Sigaba, thank you for your advice. It is extremely good and practical advice for improving my teaching. Your advice actually reminds me a bit of my dad, who I really admire -- he is all about finding a solution to a problem rather than emoting over a problem. I will be sure to watch myself, to see if my need for compassion gets in the way of my actually doing anything productive, but I know myself and I am the type of person who really craves empathy when I feel like I'm falling apart at the seams. What can I say?

runonsentence, I kept trying to convince myself that was true, that my students really DON'T notice all my mistakes and that whatever negative opinions they may have are not nearly as extreme as I imagine them to be...but I didn't believe it. It's so funny, I know all these things are true but I need somebody else to tell me...so thank you.

Red Bull, solidarity is 90% of what I need right now, so I'm really glad you responded to this post! It's really good to know that someone who juggled so many things during undergrad still feels the same as I do (I did basically no extracurriculars in undergrad). Though I am sorry you are stressed :( What school in CA do you go to? And I love your avatar, Futurama is one of my favorite shows!

I have a preliminary appointment with a counselor tomorrow, we'll see how that goes.

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Sigaba, thank you for your advice. It is extremely good and practical advice for improving my teaching. Your advice actually reminds me a bit of my dad, who I really admire -- he is all about finding a solution to a problem rather than emoting over a problem. I will be sure to watch myself, to see if my need for compassion gets in the way of my actually doing anything productive, but I know myself and I am the type of person who really craves empathy when I feel like I'm falling apart at the seams. What can I say?

runonsentence, I kept trying to convince myself that was true, that my students really DON'T notice all my mistakes and that whatever negative opinions they may have are not nearly as extreme as I imagine them to be...but I didn't believe it. It's so funny, I know all these things are true but I need somebody else to tell me...so thank you.

Red Bull, solidarity is 90% of what I need right now, so I'm really glad you responded to this post! It's really good to know that someone who juggled so many things during undergrad still feels the same as I do (I did basically no extracurriculars in undergrad). Though I am sorry you are stressed :( What school in CA do you go to? And I love your avatar, Futurama is one of my favorite shows!

I have a preliminary appointment with a counselor tomorrow, we'll see how that goes.

Kelkyann--

I hope that your appointment tomorrow goes well.

As for the issue of emotions, if it seems that my advice reflects an emphasis on practicality over emotion it is because I'm exceptionally even tempered: I'm always pissed off.

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runonsentence, I kept trying to convince myself that was true, that my students really DON'T notice all my mistakes and that whatever negative opinions they may have are not nearly as extreme as I imagine them to be...but I didn't believe it. It's so funny, I know all these things are true but I need somebody else to tell me...so thank you.

It really is true (and I know what you mean).

For instance: every term I teach, I elect to do an informal mid-term evaluation, or I even just do short, informal ones a few weeks in. I keep the questions very simple: usually I ask what has helped their learning, what has hindered their learning, and (sometimes, depending on what point we are at in the term) what I can do to better help their learning.

...and every single time I administer such an evaluation, I'm petrified to read the results. But every time I do, they're much more positive than I thought they would be. In fact, last term I kept telling my colleagues how awful class was going, how I didn't feel like I was connecting with the students, but every single informal evaluation I received back from my students was positive in terms of how I was teaching the class.

So I've found this myself, that our perceptions of how our teaching is going is often worse than the reality. But, even if it ISN'T going well, I think that acknowledging that in some way and working to fix it is something that students REALLY REALLY appreciate. ("I think that our discussions in class this semester so far haven't been what they could be, so I'd like you all to complete this anonymous survey and tell me what's been helping your learning and what hasn't, so that we can find a better solution.")

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You're in Berkeley?! That's where I did my undergrad! :)

I had my first experience with counseling today, although it was just an intake appointment so not much happened. What's interesting though is that just even having taken this step makes me feel much more productive, like I'm doing something with myself. It seems so obvious now, but when you're in a funk it's kind of hard to see any rationality. Hopefully this good mood lasts, at least for a while.

@runonsentence: That's exactly what I'm petrified of...reading the results. All I can say is, the last month has made me respect every single teacher I've ever had 10 times more.

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This thread is therapeutic :) You guys rock.

Agreed!

I've found that the first two weeks of this semester was the worst by far, and now I'm finally getting into a groove. I try to be on campus 9-5 everyday (give or take) and then go home and do NO work whatsoever. I've taught before numerous times as a solo instructor, who made all my curricula, but now I'm in a new class with a new setup (computer lab vs traditional classroom setting). I have two fellow TAs who have taught the class for several semesters and are quite helpful when I have questions, but I still doubt how good I'm doing. I'm so used to knowing the curriculum, knowing each class step-by-step, but this new setting and class just has me off my game. I know it'll take time, but it's still tough to not worry about how my student evals will be at the end of the semester

Grad school is about proving you can make it. It's a horrible, crappy, frustrating process, but if you're enrolled and attending classes, then you've won half the battle right there.

Let us remember to keep our heads up, appreciate this privilege we have, and to just take a breath when things get us down.

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@runonsentence: That's exactly what I'm petrified of...reading the results. All I can say is, the last month has made me respect every single teacher I've ever had 10 times more.

It's definitely a nerve-wracking thing to try out the first time through, but I think you'll find that you're glad you did it, if you decide to give it a shot.

Last, remember: you may not be the most experienced teacher or a complete expert in your field yet, but you still know more than they do! And that's why you're up at the front of the classroom.

Edited by runonsentence
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What do you guys do to handle stress? Here is my situation: when I started, I was absolutely OVERWHELMED with coursework. It seemed like grad school was just filled with nonstop assignments, nonstop reading. However, lately I've been feeling much less stressed about school -- my guess is that it's a combination of getting used to things, figuring out a list-making system that works for me (I live off lists), and, after my breakdown earlier this week, telling myself to take it a little easy and relax.

However, sometimes grad school's notorious "reputation" for being a time-sucking entity, along with threads on this very forum, make me feel like I'm not doing enough work. Why am I so relaxed? I have research projects due at the end of the semester, too -- why am I stuck in that undergraduate mentality that my professors will kindly let me know when I should start working on them? Why aren't I looked up research articles and reading them right now? And then suddenly the lists I've made to help me organize my work for the upcoming week seem really inadequate.

Granted, I'm the kind of person to put a lot of undue pressure on myself, so I'm trying to tell myself that's what's happening here. And two of my three classes are actually cross-listed with undergraduates. And maybe this forum attracts a certain kind of student. I don't know...just wanted your thoughts on this...I might slowly be driving myself crazy!

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the lists are great, but you need to incorporate long-term assignments into the lists, not just coursework and TA duties and whatever else is due that week. you might want to set frequent, small, "soft" deadlines for those long-term research projects, like "read three articles this week," "outline next week," "write 2 pages a day," that sort of thing.

in general, i find that works, although i also find that i tend to miss many of my soft deadlines, even the ones my advisor sets (although i let her know that her suggested deadlines are too unrealistic, so she's not left in the dark). it is great to feel like you have some free time and aren't working 24/7 but you also absolutely should progress on your research projects. they're not the sort of things you can pull off two nights before it's due anymore. they require a lot of time where you just need to sit there and think. not read, not write, just think, and you can't rush that, so you want to be sure you're making steady progress on those assignments.

for not being stressed, well... i had a hard time of that. then i decided that, in order to keep the quality of my research high, i was going to let the quality of my coursework slip. somehow, i'm still managing to get all As, but i skim most of the readings i would've once read word for word, i don't know the answer to every question in seminar, i don't spend hours perfecting a seminar paper when what i write quickly is still good enough for an A.

also, a new way i've managed to relieve stress lately is to do yoga. i go 3 times a week (although i'm hoping to get up to 4 soon, but my schedule's not matching up well with my studio's schedule). it's a really intense hot-power-flow yoga, so it's not sitting on your butt and chanting for 90 minutes, but it still helps me turn off my brain because all i can think of in class is "ow, my abs" rather than how much work i still need to do.

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I too have been quite overwhelmed, and even missed a great fellowship opportunity as a result. :(

Anxiety and depression have been sometimes crippling. I've resumed counseling.

It's a tough balance, but you have to find a way that works for you: prioritization, positive reinforcement on your own abilities and accomplishments, peer support.... find every tool at your disposal. If you need someone to kick you in the arse, maybe ask someone you trust and respect outside of the program to do so.

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Thanks for this thread! I've been feeling really down lately as well, and it's nice to know that I'm not alone (although I'm sorry to hear you've been feeling this way!)

I've just been feeling lonely, and more insecure than I've ever felt in my life. I thought I was comfortable with who I am, but it's almost like I'm 13 again, and I just want to be cool and fit in. It's strange because everyone I've met here has been really nice, but I'm so hypersensitive to any signs of social rejection that I keep worrying that people are just being nice to me to be polite. One minute I feel great, and like I fit in and things might be okay, and then the next I feel so bad, and like I will never have any friends here. Every little problem reduces me to tears. I know my parents and friends from home would want me to talk to them about how I'm feeling, but I am reluctant to do that, because I don't want them to be upset and worry about me. I worry that they would feel they can't help me because they're so far away.

It's weird because I've waited so long to get here, and I've been looking forward to being a grad student for a long time, but now that I'm here I feel terrible. I probably should have expected this because of the huge change and long distance from home. I know it will get better, but right now it's no fun.

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I find chamomile tea and a good *just for fun* novel is what I need to relax and de-stress. Also, I rigidly schedule school work. My approach is to make a weekly schedule of class/work/homework/free times. If I have homework scheduled, I begin right on time like I would if I had work or class scheduled. I also stop as soon as it is time for 'free play' (unless there is a serious impending deadline). I concentrate on what I am doing at the moment. If I am working, I think about work. If I am doing homework, I am not thinking about work or free time. This method works for me, but different strokes for different folks.

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