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Post-decision woes leading to a breakdown

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First of, this post is half asking for advice or opinions, and half just venting. Also, before anyone asks, I am planning to see a psychologist and talk to a couple of former professors in the very near future - I know that, as helpful as these forums may be, this issue is most appropriately addressed by professionals. I just need to get it off my chest, and maybe get some viewpoints from people who have recently been in the same or similar position as me.


I got into all of my top three choices this application cycle and like many people had a terrible time deciding between them. A big part of my dilemma was that the school where they were doing the research I liked the best was the school with the program that was probably the least well-rounded, has reputations for advisor-related issues, has the worst job placement record out of the three (although they've had a couple of pretty great placements in the past decade), and was the one school I honestly felt slightly uncomfortable at when I visited. I'd actually removed it from consideration at least once after visiting, before doubts about the other schools and a fondness for this school's research made me put it back into the running. Plus, I have a history of depression and anxiety issues, and now realize that I was in the middle of a (still ongoing) major depressive episode during the entire decision making process- which definitely affected my ability to make even minor decisions, and made me feel completely lost when it came to making such a monumental decision as where to go to graduate school.


The thursday before April 15th I decided to attend the school where I love the research they're doing- even though pretty much everything else, except maybe for the amount of research and travel funding available (I was fully funded everywhere), went in the other schools' favor- and spent the next 24 hours having hourly panic attacks and crying. I calmed down, talked to the professor I RA for, and we decided that my reaction was probably due to the stress of making a decision, not the specific decision I made (an assessment I still at least partially agree with). So I officially committed to this school- I still wasn't entirely confident in my decision, and felt a little ball of doubt/dread in my stomach every once and a while, but I figured that was just the normal post-decision blues.


Just under three months later, I'm at least as depressed and anxious as I was three months ago, and possibly worse than I've ever been- crying multiple times a day again, having chains of panic attacks every couple of days, and basically scaring the crap out of my parents with my constant freaking out over my growing concerns that I'll be miserable, that I'll be unproductive, that I'll never get a job, that the worse teaching and mentoring opportunities at this school will hurt me in the long run, that my research interests will change and/or otherwise won't fit within the (admittedly fairly narrow) scope of the research being done at this school. I know a lot of this freaking out probably has to do with mental illness instead of the specific school, regardless of whether or not it was the "best" choice.


Honestly, I'm afraid both that I made the wrong choice in which program to attend, and more importantly that my mental state is just not healthy enough right now to start graduate school... but I also feel trapped with the decision I made. I want this, to get a PhD and hopefully have an academic career, so badly- even after working very closely for three years with someone currently trying to get tenure, and getting a first hand glimpse of just how hard he has to work and how stressful his life is, I'm still convinced that that's the job and the existence I want.


I'm afraid that if I do start and realize I really am at the wrong place, and then try to reapply to the other schools I got into this year, I'll not only waste a year or two of my life but also end up as "damaged goods", without any acceptances and having burned bridges with people at the school I committed to (and possibly people they work with frequently, including one of my former LOR writers). But on the other hand, I'm afraid to back out now for exactly the same reasons- since everyone knows I had multiple admissions offers this year and where I eventually decided to go, I'm afraid I'll end up with the same damaged reputation (maybe even worse than if I attended and tried to transfer later). I suppose one option would be to try and defer... but that doesn't necessarily resolve my fear that I'd be happier and generally do better somewhere else.


Part of me feels really bad writing all of this, because the school I chose does NOT deserve this type of fatalistic, panicked reaction- it's a good school, and it either currently houses or has produced multiple scholars I really highly respect and want to try and emulate. If I did make a poor choice, it's just a poor choice for me, not necessarily a poor choice in general (although I am the only person I know of to choose this school over the other two I was seriously considering, which also doesn't help my general state of mind) - the extent of my reaction is pretty irrational, which is part of what's making me so concerned about my own mental health. And which is part of why I'm honestly afraid to approach people I actually know with this problem (even though I recognize it's probably the best course of action).


...rant over.



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I am glad you are going to see a professional about this, but I will go ahead and give you some feedback.


First of all, I think you are overthinking it. You have a lot of very legitimate concerns, but recycling all of your thoughts over and over is making it difficult for you to make your decision.


Really, doctoral programs can send otherwise sane people into breakdowns, so having good advisors and good support systems are very important factors to think about. I, too, have been prone to depression during my life (and I am definitely in the non-traditional student category, age-wise), and so when I am considering important choices, I always give weight to how I think it might affect my mental state. There is no use getting the good job/school/partner if it/they are going to drive you nuts. You need to respect your emotional reactions, because they are not going to just sit down and shut up while you finish your schooling.


When I applied to Master's programs, I wound up with funded offers from two schools, and all of my advisors thought it was a no-brainer - School A was more highly regarded and would get me where I wanted to go. But I looked at all the angles, including factors that, while not on my adviser's radar, I knew would have an effect on my ability to function well. Still, I arrived at the morning of April 15 with the scales pretty even. I called both schools, and had a conversation with each POI, asking them to just tell me about the program. When I got off the phone, there was no question....School B was going to be my kind of place. Two years later, though it has not always been smooth sailing, I still think I made the right decision.


I believe it was Emperor Hirohito who was once heard to say that, when he had an important decision to make, he would think it through carefully, then make a decision, "eat" that decision before bedtime, and go to sleep. If it gave him indigestion, then in the morning he would do the other thing instead.


So, what I would do is write down on paper (I use an Excel sheet) all of the factors that you are considering, and weight them subjectively, look at the worst that could happen, and the best that could happen, for each scenario, and then make a decision based on logic. Once you feel sure you know what the logical choice is, then do a real self-assessment of your feelings about that decision. At least, this exercise will make it easier when you go to discuss it with your counselor.


Best of luck to you.

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If you're this worried about it, have you considered contacting the other schools to see if you could still enroll with funding for the fall? If your mental health issues are leaving you concerned about your ability to do well in a PhD program this fall, have you thought about requesting a deferral or medical "leave" so that you could get your health in order and then start your program either in January or next fall? Those are the first two things that popped into my mind.


I would also say, without knowing your field, that some of your concerns seem legitimate to me. I would be concerned about a program that has only a few good placements in the last decade. But, I would also look to your specific advisor's placement and use that as a guide. (For example, my PhD program has decent placement but, of the faculty in it, the best placement record belonged to one specific person whose students got jobs at R1s and top SLACs.) Having full funding is definitely an asset though and one you shouldn't just shrug off. Have you talked to current grad students in that program about their experiences? That might help allay some of your fears/worries about the department.


Good luck!

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I second everything rising_star and firewitch said. I only want to add that feelings similar to what you are describing are typical for many about-to-be graduate students making such a big decision! I know I had some doubts too! 


I'm not saying that all of your concerns are "just" post-decision woes: they certainly sound like something you want to look further into as rising_star suggested (talk to people with experience with your new PI, look into other options at other schools etc.). Instead, I mean to say that you are not "broken" or somehow weird/not-cut-out-for-academia because you have these worries and concerns! Good luck :)

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Thanks to everyone for this advice, and for the reassurances that my concerns are valid and not necessarily atypical. I'm trying to approach this from a very logical perspective, even though my mind just wants to panic which makes it hard to think straight!


It's a little hard to gauge my potential advisor's job placement record, since he's only had 3 students complete their dissertations at this school since he's been there - his advisee placement record at his last position was ok, but not great for our field (a social science that doesn't have a completely over-saturated job market yet). I will say that out of the professors currently at this program, his students have done the best- the only two alumni who got TT jobs at R1s within the past 5 years were his advisees. The students of his I've talked to really admire and respect him, even while admitting he's too busy to be anything more than a very hands-off advisor. And everyone I know who has worked with him thinks very highly of him as a scholar.


When I was deciding, I figured that, combined with my interest in his research, outweighed the fact that I wasn't sure he was the best advisor fit for me, personality-wise, as well as the phenomenal placement records of my other potential advisors (both of them have placed 3 or more students in top departments in our field within the past decade). I guess now, recognizing that I wasn't in the best state of mind when I made the decision, I'm seriously reevaluating the factors on which I based it, especially since I recently found out that a couple of professors in the department have a habit of not actually reading students' theses and dissertations when they're on their committees... and that a few students have recently been asked to leave the department without prior warning that they weren't performing up to par...

Edited by wreckingball
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  • 3 weeks later...

Truthfully, I went back and forth a million, MILLION times between my program and Program Z.  My heart was set on my current program even though Program Z was higher-ranked with an outstanding program in a field I would be going into and located in a great area for me.  But I was so dead-set on going to my program and lowered my expectations for Program Z.  Then during the campus visit for Program Z, my expectations were blown out of the water.  Deciding between the two was total agony.


Nonetheless, just like you, OP, at the end, I went with my program, convinced that my adviser and our shared interests (much closer than Program Z) were all I needed.  I still struggled with that decision throughout my first year -- while spiraling downward into severe depression and experienced PTSD symptoms.  I ended up hospitalized at the end of my first year; it was scary for me and my adviser. She and I briefly discussed whether or not I should take a leave for a semester to recover.  I opted not to because I needed the health insurance on campus and funds and instead negotiated with her for a lighter course load.  It was a bit rough as I was trying to settle in with my treatment program but the fact it was there at all helped to keep my life going forward.


What you did describe in your OP, I would really be nervous to start graduate school in that state of health.  You need to have resources in place-- a therapist, a psychiatrist, or whatever.  Having resources and a strong team of mental health professionals can make a world of difference to your academic success.  As my adviser understood it, a student's success is clearly linked to her/her well-being.


Take care of yourself first before you start your program.  I still kind of wish I did something about my depression but I just had no confidence at the time to take it seriously before I started.  People take leaves all the time for mental health issues; you just need to find out the protocol for that.


I should also point out that you cannot, CANNOT depend on your adviser alone, especially if he's a busy guy.  You will be taking classes and getting to know other professors who will act as "surrogates."  THAT is perfectly normal and very well-expected in a reasonably functioning department.  Had I not had this professor who I took a class with in my first semester, I don't know how different my life would have been.  Sure, her research interests didn't align with mine but she and I just got along so well personally and professionally.  She's currently on my exam committee.  


As my would-be adviser at Program Z said to me, "It takes a village to raise a graduate student."  It is so true.


(going into her 4th year and hanging on :) )

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  • 3 weeks later...

OP, you are not alone. I am not sure if this would be helpful for you at this stage, but should someone else stumble across this thread, I hope this information is useful for them.


I went through a very similar mini-depression. Read my post here


In my case, part of the reason was difficulty in choosing between two programs. Also, I was an international student, and had a difficult time coming to terms with the idea of leaving my country for such a long duration (~5-6 yrs). After talking to my potential advisers in the US, my parents, and letter writers, I decided to finally defer my offer. The university was kind enough to guarantee funding, and even suggested that I contact the other school to find out if they'll take me the next year. I can basically choose where to go by Jan or Feb (before the universities release their acceptance list), and can use this year to improve my health and also read up books and papers.


No university wants an unhappy population. It is also not good to start grad school in such a confused mindset. You'll be surprised how helpful and accommodative universities can be. It also makes sense from their side: they are spending resources on you, and would rather not have you in a phase where you might be unproductive. If you have some sort of back-up option for the upcoming year like an internship or possibility of continuing your undergrad research work, I'd suggest you look into that. It will give you time to recuperate, think with a clear head, and make a good decision.

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