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I loved my program, and now things feel different...


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I came into my program loving it. I loved the papers, the class discussions, and the ideas that I was thinking about in all of my classes. Then, during my second semester I parted ways with an ex who lives back home. It was less of my decision, although we it was sort of mutual. I am now completely unmotivated and I am terrified of failing out of grad school. I really did enjoy the work, and one of the major problems in my relationship was that the ex seemed to hate grad school (and put a lot of stress on me emotionally). I never doubted this program once during my first semester.

Many people say to stick it out, give it time. I want to do that, but I have lots of fear. I am also incredibly lonely at times, even when I am around people. I've developed mild social anxiety. I'm scared of being judged. It's really annoying to be honest. I just want to be who I was.

Any advice?

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I would say you should probably stick it out. It sounds like you were very sure of how much you loved your program before the breakup, but that the negative feelings you're dealing with as a result of the breakup are interfering with your normal feelings. I'm wondering if your feelings of doubt, lack of motivation, fear, social anxiety, and not enjoying the things (school) you used to enjoy might be some depression sneaking up on you? I mean obviously a breakup can make you depressed, but if it continues on for awhile or if it becomes unbearable, you might want to try to talk to a counselor perhaps at your school (which should be free). Even if you don't feel like you're depressed, I'd still talk to someone before making the decision to stop your program, if that's what you want to do.

I'm not saying that you'll go back to feeling like you did about your program, at least not right away, but even if you don't actively enjoy parts of it, I think you'll be glad you finished the degree, down the road. If these feelings are the result of the breakup and you don't continue on in the program, you could be really upset about that later on! Don't let your ex ruin this for you - you can do this!! :)

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Caffeinated, thank you for the feedback. I think I should stick it out as well. These feelings definitely feel like mild depression. Most things in life lately feel "gray." I am seeing a counselor and I wish I could see her more frequently.

I put a lot of work into researching graduate programs. I visited schools on my own as well as for interview weekends. I knew that I wanted to be involved with my area of research before I got engaged. But for some reason I have just been trapped in my head, feeling like a failure, and keep comparing myself to friends.

How many hours a week should I be putting in? I mean, I was spending 2 to 3 nights a week in my office my first semester, which brought on some loneliness. And then the loneliness hit really hard after the split.

Also, I often feel trapped here. I have a substantial amount of undergrad student loans that I am paying off already with my stipend from grad school... but if I quit this program, they all roll over and require instant payment, which is something I can't do right now without an alternate plan B job. That feeling of being "trapped" is often overwhelming, making it hard to focus.

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Hi Quirky,

I would compare your "gray" feelings for your program to the rest of your life, the things you used to enjoy for recreation. I have a suspicion that nothing really brings you satisfaction and happiness at the moment because of your recent breakup. If this is the case, keep in mind that these diffuse feelings of depression don't really stem from the program. I would try your best to hang in there. I struggled with depression & anxiety during undergrad and totally understand what you're going through: feeling trapped, lonely and isolated, like you're not who you used to be. The good news is things only go up from here. Keep talking to your counselor and try your best to surround yourself with people who care about you. Exercise is also key...it will give you a sense of motivation, purpose, and accomplishment (and endorphins!). Hope you feel better soon!

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Sigh. I have all of these ridiculous perceptions of myself... that I am becoming my ex (depressed and unmotivated), and that I am going to completely fail out of this program. I'm overwhelming myself with fears and irrationalities.

Today my advisor pulled one of my tasks from me, and said he was giving it to another student because he wants me to focus solely on my research trajectory that I have created for myself. I welcome the increased time to focus on my own work, but I also can't help but feel he did this because I am not keeping up. Is it appropriate to just ask him outright? "Did you pass this on to someone else because you didn't think I could hack it?!"

Honestly right now, I'm not sure I could have. I'm trying to surround myself with people who care about me here, but often times when in social settings I don't feel very connected at all. People here have families and kids. I'm a young guy with no close friends, and I'm not really close with my family either. Apologies if I sound like I'm just complaining, I'm not attempting to. The support is helpful and welcome.

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Honestly right now, I'm not sure I could have. I'm trying to surround myself with people who care about me here, but often times when in social settings I don't feel very connected at all. People here have families and kids. I'm a young guy with no close friends, and I'm not really close with my family either. Apologies if I sound like I'm just complaining, I'm not attempting to. The support is helpful and welcome.

Sounds like you have a lot of time to spend in your head, and just by shear luck, have a cohort where most have chosen a vastly different lifestyle. Time to add something new to the mix! What resources are in your community, outside of your department? Are there beer brewing/tasting clubs? Slow Food? Hiking groups? Backpacking meetups? Martial arts? Running groups? Ultimate frisbee? Intramural sports? Volunteerism? Disc golf?

Anything with fitness, in particular, I think will help with mood and tends to attract like-minded, positive individuals. I joined a hiking/wilderness club in my area, and while most are quite a bit older than me, they're fun, upbeat, and full of ideas about what's new to see and do in the area. B)

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Well I've taken on a side tutoring job which will force me to be more organized an scheduled. And I have weekend plans for the next few weekends, which will keep me focused during the weeks. It's just going to be a bit of a slow adjustment, but it's nothing I can't handle. I've considered hiking groups several times. There are lots in my area. I have had a fear that people might be older, but honestly I should just do it.

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Grad school is quite emotionally tough. Add a breakup to it, and it becomes even tougher. I was in a similar situation to yours and had every intention to drop out of my program, because for the first time in my life, throwing myself into my academic work didn't work as a distraction. As all this was going on, I suddenly had a bunch of stuff to do and basically forgot to go through the program withdrawal process. Before I knew it a whole semester had gone by, and I had gotten over any desire to drop out. It was still a very tough semester, but I stuck it out, and I graduated. I never rekindled the love I had for my program, but I still enjoyed the work and benefitted a lot personally from sticking it out and finishing. Good luck.

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Today has been a decent day. I have gotten more absorbed in work today. I read an article given to me by a friend that describes students who dropped out and why they dropped out. Apparently a professor here gave it to them in one of their classes. I felt like I identified with some of their feelings and thoughts, but I also don't think I am ready to leave yet. It feels too soon and too sudden to drop this just because of a breakup. I also have the burden of student loan debt that I can keep paying while it's deferred. Granted that's not a reason to keep doing something if I realize that I hate it, but I don't hate this. I just need some more guidance from my advisor, and some more time and energy in getting back into my work.

My advisor is really kind and nice, but sometimes he seems to "simply agree" with my decisions about data collection and my research. He doesn't always seem to think critically. I spent part of last semester collecting data we agreed upon, only to now not be using it at all. Our data is video data. How should I feel about this? Is this normal?

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Had a great meeting with my adviser today. He had no negative feedback and gave positive responses to my agenda. I'm starting a new agenda system to keep me on top of what to talk about with him. It's helpful. I don't feel like quitting anymore. I'm deeper into data. I do think I need to critically plan what I want to do with this PhD... it might not be academia. But I don't feel so intense about quitting.

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Breakups can make you unmotivated about EVERYTHING. Give yourself time to get over the impact of the loss. Then you can find new muses (crushes) to motivate you! You'll need to social more than before, though, because you're no long in a relationship, and you'll have to find that social gratification elsewhere. If you are a "younger guy," find out where the other single younger grads are hanging out. You are not used to seeking out the singles, but this is where you'll find others who are not preoccupied with their partners/kids. Beyond work and more work, I agree with the person above who said to find a group to join.

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I had a very long conversation today with a friend. She told me that I seem to be really enthusiastic about psychology and deep interpersonal conversations. She asked if I ever thought of switching to a PhD program in clinical psych...

I thought about it, and I have had those thoughts. Has anyone here ever considered making a switch from one PhD program to something similar, but different, because it was a slightly better fit. The work that I am doing now could be refined in a more psychological and emotional direction, but the appeal of a psychology PhD is that I could actually be a counselor when I'm done.

I am not totally turned off by my current field, but there is a "grass is always greener" appeal to switching into this other program...

Thoughts?

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She told me that I seem to be really enthusiastic about psychology and deep interpersonal conversations.

I think this is just common for many in their 20s...doubly so if you've just had a breakup, and the loneliness in your day-to-day life that you describe up-thread.

I used to have this love for deep conversation as well and deconstructing what makes people tick, but ten years later, it's completely evaporated. Continually absorbing others' drama and problems as they talk/work them out sounds exhausting, but that's just me. The people that do it best and can sustain it long-term seem to be either 1) VERY skilled at compartmentalizing work/personal life, or 2) completely selfless (overly so), often at the expense of their own health and well-being.

If an inclination towards psychiatry is your true path, it will manifest/evolve in your life naturally, and over the long-term. I wouldn't completely and suddenly switch programs at this point...I wouldn't make any life-altering decisions like this, so soon after a breakup. Take time for life to equilibrate to some sort of "normal" and then see if the interest is still there.

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Yeah this is true. I was interested in med school for psychiatry before my current program, and then when this program came across my radar, it felt like more of a passion. So who knows. I think I need more time to refine my research trajectory to incorporate the components of psychology that interest me. My field is pretty interdisciplinary.

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Well very broadly, I'm in Education coupled with Technology. It's really cool stuff. My interest in psychiatry was eventually going to be geared at child psychiatry. This field is cool because I get to be around kids, interview kids, and work on more applied solutions. I think in time I am going to get more and more interested in my work. I've heard that many first years have a minor freak out when it's over. Plus my break up certainly didn't help things.

I guess my generalized fears are that my future work will never be tangible or applicable to real life contexts and classrooms, but many academics find ways to publish their work (books etc) so that it can be appreciated by people outside the ivory tower. I think that's the kind of academic I dream of being.

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I'm at the stage you're at now, wondering and poking into different fields. I am pretty sure I don't want to be an academic. I love teaching and sharing my passion for psychology and public health with others, especially undergrad students who are new to the field, and I love research, but I know that I don't love the academic world. My ideal would be to work in the federal government as a researcher, but I would also like to work in a think tank or NGO doing research or policy work. I'd publish on the side (and not necessarily only in academic journals) and I'd want to give talks and connect with my community doing outreach work instead of only within academia.

I have the same fears as you. I've started reading career books, as next year will be my last, and they've helped me. You can read guides about how to turn your CV into a resume (the book "So What Are You Going To Do With That?" has helpful advice to that end) and that might help you start thinking about the very concrete skills that academic work gives you. For one, we present all the time, so you know how to do public speaking. We have to learn a lot of material very quickly and distill out major points and themes. We write A LOT, and depending on the field we sometimes have to write short, concise material for public dissemination. We do analysis of data, whether it's quantitative or qualitative. Really, we have a lot of skills, we just need to find ways to distill them out onto paper and talk about them in interviews.

I hope you are feeling better soon!

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Thanks Juillet. So overall, the program that I am in I think is giving me some decent transferable skills, and I am taking on some leadership roles as well. I guess I am going to keep up the reading about options outside of academia and stick with the program. I am still uncertain about life in academia, but I think I will have a lot to offer if I play my cards right when I leave. The trick is to keep thinking forward, planning, working hard, etc. It's scary!

Some big fears are ticking off my advisor... ugh... but this is MY LIFE! Dammit! And he's really nice, so I think he would understand if long term I don't want to be in the ivory tower.

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  • 3 weeks later...

So just an update on my situation... I had a major depressive episode last week, and had to go on some meds. I've never had that happen before. I think the stress of worrying about my project debt and a whole host of other issues have just piled up and I'm burnt out. I've actually started looking for (and applying) to jobs outside of academia. I don't want to act to hastily, but I do need to seriously consider my health here. I also need to get some strength and talk to my advisor, tell him the beginning of my research are no longer stimulating, and that if I am going to succeed I need a bit more guidance. I just don't want to come off as weak or needy. He's really busy.

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