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Too dumb for grad school?


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As finals papers are due, I fear I am incapable of completing my assignments. Unfortunately, this isn't primarily a matter of time management since I have delegated more than enough time to complete the papers I am working on, but a matter of textual misunderstanding, writers block, and I fear, stupidity.

Basically, I have spent two weeks working on a paper it took my peers one week to complete, and still am unable to compose an acceptable paragraph. I have read all of my sources, brain stormed, written multiple drafts, but every time I sit down to write, I discover that I have misread my sources, or am using the incorrect primary source, have misplaced a point in my overall textual composition, and so on.

Hence what seems to be easy for everyone else takes me days to accomplish. I haven't slept and still haven't finished my work and fear my professors will inevitably grow tired of my repeated requests for extensions due to an inability to meet deadlines. I am a first year student, so does this get better w/ time? I wonder if I am overly meticulous, spend too much time reading, etc., but since I can't even read a text appropriately, it seems that spending too much time on attempted comprehension is not my problem. Is anyone else going through this? Has anyone else gotten over a similar problem? Help!

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Dependson your program (both specific to the university, and the overall type of program).  For instance, my Neuroscience Graduate program has all of the extremely time consuming and contextually difficult core classes crammed into the first year, and its lessens up a bit during the second, and dissapears for the most part beyond the third.  All the time at that point is focused primarily on writing for grants, publications, dissertation/thesis, etc. 

 

They would likely not have accepted you into the program if they didn't believe you were intellectually capable of grasping the coursework, and suceeding overall within the program. 

 

Almost sounds like you might be overthinking and "psyching" yourself out.  Don't let your unconscious prevent you from giving it your all. 

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I haven't slept

 

I think you've partially answered your own question here.

 

Being exhausted is by far the most effective way to make yourself feel dumb and ineffectual, and it ensures that you'll probably keep making little mistakes like the ones you described above. Go get a good night's sleep and come back to your assignment when you're better rested. I know you probably feel like you don't have time, but if you just keep getting more and more fatigued it's going to become increasingly harder to produce good work.

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Hi there! I agree with the two above posters -- you have been accepted to your program with the thought that you are capable of the work, and second, being fatigued compromises your ability to process and produce work.

 
While I am not trained and I am by no means able to diagnose, I had a hunch that what you may describe might be a learning difference, or a personality disorder (like perfectionism)? If that is possible, it may be worth your while to make an appointment with the Office of Disabilities, or Academic Support, at your university to investigate further. These student services should be able to evaluate you -- or send you to places to validate whether or not your issues are "typical" -- so that you can see if you actually have something limiting you -- and that you require an adjustment of some sorts.   
 
Secondly, not only do these student services help you arrange accommodations you may need to succeed, but they may also advise how to advocate for yourself and how to communicate your (dis)abilities to your professors should that ever come up. On the other hand, you may find going through the process that a learning difference (or other) is not the case, but all the same, they might offer you a full understanding of your current abilities, and subsequently offer you information about other student services, which may assist you better, such as the university's writing center.
 
Anyway, I wish you all the best and good luck!
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I agree with the previous posters. Also, your description of finding that you misread sources, misplaced the points you want to make, etc. is another clue, from my perspective, that your problem is not "stupidity." If you were simply a dumb-dumb, I don't think you'd be catching your own mistakes - you'd think your reading of primary sources was correct and that your points were made in the order they ought to be. The fact that you are realizing when/where you've gone wrong leads me to think that your fatigue is, in fact, interfering with you clarity of thought. Try to get some sleep and relax a little! Might be good to keep in mind that nutrition, exercise, and taking deliberate break-time away from your work can make a big difference as well. When I'm good about following through on intentions, I will pause my work to eat something that isn't straight-up junk food and/or take a brisk walk. That way, break-time is also brain-reboot time - it's multi-tasking in a healthy, ultimately productive way. I'm amazed by how writer's block can suddenly be lifted when I return to a task after giving my brain a chance to process without being consciously directed to do so. And combining that off-the-clock time with some nutrients and cobweb-clearing physical activity can work wonders! Good luck and trust yourself - as others have said, you got in for a reason!

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Thanks for the responses guys! Reading them has made me feel better. I realize this may have been a dramatic morning post of early frustration, and hope to get some sleep before figuring out how to manage my work/ leisure time.

And ArtHistoryandMeseam, I work in the writing center. Gotta love a writing tutor who can't write! I will be getting feedback from my peers on my essay shortly, so woohoo.

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And ArtHistoryandMeseam, I work in the writing center. Gotta love a writing tutor who can't write! I will be getting feedback from my peers on my essay shortly, so woohoo.

 

"Gotta love a writing tutor who can't write!" It's always easier said than done, haha :-)

 

And on a serious note, good for you to get feedback from your peers. Maybe you can ask them for how they approach work and if they have any suggestions for improving  your study style.

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When I struggle with writing, I take a deep breath and go back to the basics: outline, all the way up through the specific points you want to cover to tell your "story" (you read the literature, you know your story). Then work backwards.

 

Honestly, I read through the literature to get a sense of what I want to say/propose/whatever, and then after that, I mostly skim the abstracts, and when I want to use a paper to support my proposal/stance/whatever, then I read it a bit more thoroughly.

 

Don't spend more time on anything than you have to, or else you'll just be running in circles and wasting time :-D.

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"The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe." --Gustave Flaubert

 

Writing is a deeply personal, complex endeavor. It takes me a long time to write. It gets easier with time and training (some parts of academic writing require little imagination). I feel better when I read that writers like John McPhee says that he used to sit all day and sharpen pencils rather than write ()http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5997/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-3-john-mcphee). I also love Stephen King's book On Writing (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-10th-Anniversary-Memoir-Craft/dp/1439156816). I am amazed by prolific scholars who are able to churn out a book every few years (e.g., in my field, James Paul Gee).

 

Also, it's okay to take an incomplete for a course. I did it in my MS program, and I would imagine that it's the same now. Depends on your institution/department, but most professors I know wouldn't care if you didn't submit it on time (as long as it doesn't happen every single time). They know grad students have lives and families and other responsibilities.

 

Also, sometimes I've found that writing on GradCafe helps, just to get the words flowing... good luck! :)

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Sure at times I feel like I'm not intellectually up to par with what I must do.

 

Take it a step at a time, don't worry about whether or not you are intelligent enough.  Do what you can to the best of your ability and ask for help when needed.

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If you search the forum for writing anxiety, I think you'll find you're not alone in getting blocked on papers.  I too am a first year student, and while I had major writer's block anxiety as an undergrad, I thought my work years would have helped me to outgrow it.  Alas, they didn't. 

It wasn't that I needed help learning how to write, and it wasn't just time management... it was that, if I sat locked in a room with absolutely no stimulation but my paper, I would try to write a sentence, I would question if it was the right sentence, freeze, and then contemplate my belly button for an hour.  I needed someone to help me figure out why I had such big block when it came to writing papers, even though I am so verbose that I regularly write 1,000-word emails (and GC posts, for that matter) then have to dial them back.  So I took advantage of my university's free student counseling.

I'm not "cured", and the only paper I've had to write since getting help was for a class outside my department (less pressure), so it's not a controlled experiment, but talking to someone did help.  I really care about the craft of writing (as it sounds like you do too), and when I put something in a paper, it feels like it is an official record of my mind, so I want to be exactly right.  It sounds silly, but contrary to the platitude about "giving it 110%", I'm trying to convince myself that 90% will be okay.  If there is a weak point or hole in a paper, acknowledge it, skip it, and write the rest of the paper.  Then if I have time before the deadline and nothing else to do (this never happens) I can go back and fix it. 
Someone else on the forum said that, when writing personal statements, got the juices flowing by writing a really awful statement.  I've done this sometimes with starting papers.  (Ex: "Some people don't believe in global warming.  That's stupid cuz all the scientists know it's real. But people are brainwashed and then try to stay brainwashed.  That's stupid.  We should change it.")    If it's intentionally awful, it doesn't matter how disorganized, poorly worded, or rhetorically unsound it is, but you can still hit some of your main points, and it can be a way of expressing what you want to get at.
Have you heard of WriteOrDie.com ? It makes obknoxious sounds at you if you quit typing for more than a few seconds.  It's horrible for writing well-crafted prose, and not so great for academic stuff where you have to be referencing things all the time, but I have found it useful.  After I read a paper that gets me thinking, I'll pull up Write Or Die and spend a half hour writing my thoughts based on the article and any connections to other stuff I've thought about.  I don't cite anything, I make claims I'm not positive I can support, and if I can't think of how to finish a sentence I just hit Enter and start a new one.  Then I paste that into a file called "paper scraps", which I later used to provide some scaffolding to more proper work.  It turns out I don't have to change as much as I think I will.  It's basically a way to trick myself into writing SOMETHING which is what I know I should do but get frozen on when I think of it as part of a formal paper.

The last thing I did was that I looked at the due date and realized that I would be swamped with tests that week, so I knew I had to get started on the paper earlier (I had all semester to write it), but also knew I always go up the deadline.  So, I emailed the prof and told him that I had to have the deadline moved up so that I could focus on other things. Realistically, he probably wouldn't have done anything if I didn't turn it in on "my" due date, but fear of breaking the commitment I had made was enough to force me to get it done by the date I said.  I could easily work on it for another week, and it would be better... there were aspects of the issue I didn't touch, sources I over-used when it would have been better to use their sources, etc.  But: It. Is. Done.  And if he wants me to fix it later, I can.  Or if I want to use part of it for a future publication, I can fix it up.  It's 90%, and that is good enough.  "Done is better than good," as my friend reminds me.
...Now let's see if I can remember this for the next paper...

Good luck!

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Although we are in very different fields, so the examples you gave are irrelevant to me, the gist of what you said is exactly like me. I often feel incompetent and like I'm not using my time efficiently with the tasks that I have to do.

 

...But then I just think, I'm doing my best. It'll be fine. Nothing like blind optimism, eh?

Edited by Arcadian
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Wow. Forget all that wishy-washy stuff I said about nutrition and exercise...go with SeriousSillyPutty's advice! 

Haha...

My first thought after reading the OP was what you articulated -- that if you catch your own "dumb" mistakes, then you're clearly not dumb -- but you phased that part well!

And to be honest, what helps me begin to "let go" of school stuff a wee bit is telling myself that there are healthier things I should be doing: Getting sleep and spending time with people who don't care about my school performance top the list.  I mandated no school work on Sundays, and although it's been hard at times, and when I'm busy I really wish I had those extra hours, over-all I think it's helped me to prevent burnout.  I can say, "Yep, maybe if I hadn't taken children to the park this weekend I would have been able to create a better paper.  Maybe. But I don't regret taking them to the park, and they certainly appreciated my time more than my prof would appreciate that extra paragraph, so there!"

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Haha...

My first thought after reading the OP was what you articulated -- that if you catch your own "dumb" mistakes, then you're clearly not dumb -- but you phased that part well!

 

Why, thank you! And thank you for both of your posts here -- they couldn't have come at a better time for me. This end-of-semester crunch time has been pretty overwhelming...not only am I using your "tricks" (I love the file for "paper scraps" one), your comments in the second post about spending time with important people was also a great reminder that there's more to life than grad school and final papers this semester are not the be-all end-all (hard to keep that in sight this week). Before I curtail the lovefest, I gotta say, your comments turned my procrastination time here on GradCafe into something actually productive. So, seriously, SillyPutty of the Serious variety, thank you! 

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well you've gotten plenty of supportive, and in my opinion accurate , replies, but I'lll add my 2 cents.

Once in while I really struggle with an essay and I feel dumb and get sick of it,at then it feels like pulling teeth, or trying to draw blood from a stone to get it finished. I am currently editing one of those essays right now. I spent way more time than usual on the essay and its still sub par. but reading your post made me realise that i have actually done this before and then got with things. So my answer to your questions is no I dont think you are stupid, probably too stuck in essay, ie cant see woods for trees. but don't let this experience knock your general confidence. as other posters have said, you wouldn't have got this far if weren't smart enough.

realising from reading your post that others get stuck too, made me feel better, so I hope my reply alleviates some of your concerns.

Hope it's coming together somewhat since you posted.

Good luck!

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A grad student told me about this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

 

It's common. You're not alone. You're smart - that's why you got in. Don't think too much and give it your best.

This sums up my entire academic career up until now. As I prepare for my next step in the journey, I'm glad to know that I am not alone with this struggle, and appreciate the wise words and advice everyone has offered.

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I'm a writer, creative and academic. I've noticed a strong correlation between "writer's block" or "muse" issues and stress. The more stress, pressure, and expectations you (and others) pile on yourself, the more difficult it is to write. I'm particuarly used to opening up a word processor document, typing away, and watching satisfactory prose make its way across the page. Sometimes, though, it changes from pleasure to chore and the only thing I read on the screen is an unspooled fishing line of syntax. I forget how to spell words like "their" and doubt every comma placement.

 

That's me, of course. I have no idea what your writing is like, beyond what I see here. You express yourself clearly and your prose is relatively clean and pleasurable. It seems to me that it's less that you can't write and more that you doubt that you can write. There are some easy-peasy ideas to fix ailing text, but I don't know what to do for ailing confidence. I never believe anyone when they tell me that I'm smart and I'm great and I'll do fantastic. All I know is that the 25 page essays that were always due at the end of the semester were more difficult to push out than the baby was all those years ago.

 

Sometimes, you just have to give yourself permission to suck. Write the essay. When you don't know what to write, fake it. Write until you've reached the end of the essay (not the end of your patience, because you've probably left that behind). Then put it away for a day, three if you can do it. Then come back and revise. That's the key to good writing: revise. Yeah, I'm in English. We revise. A lot. And then some. Hit up your writing center for some face-to-face help, too.

 

Book rec: William Zinnser's On Writing Well. I love it more than I do Strunk & White. Though, Strunk & White is still da bomb.

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