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Exhausted and unhappy - seeking a supportive ear


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Dear fellow grad students, 

Apologies for this self-involved and very long post. 

Basically, I just passed my comprehensive exams in a top PhD program in Comparative Literature in the U.S. The process was exhausting; I went straight from my first year of teaching to cramming for exams during the summer. By the end of this, I was crying every day and regularly having panic attacks - I had never been so stressed out in my life. Now that I've finished my exams, my department is asking for a draft of my prospectus (only one month after my exams). I started trying to write it yesterday (I thought if I get it over with, I might have time to just relax), but I am just so exhausted and don't want to work anymore.  Getting myself to work on the prospectus is making me miserable. I've spent hours just crying, because I feel I barely have an idea of what I'd like to write about - and, at the moment, I don't want to think about anything. Everything seems to come out confused, and I know my prospectus won't be great, seeing as I only have 10 days to work on it. I'm not sure if it's being exhausted/upset that is making me confused about what to write, or if it's being confused about what to write that is making me upset (and even more exhausted).  It's a possibility to ask for more time, but I'm not sure I would get it - I'm also not sure it would make a difference, because I'm so exhausted that it would take at least a few months for me to get some form of energy back.

Although I think that I can manage to continue working on my prospectus by just gritting my teeth and doing it, the general experience of teaching, taking my generals exams, and then having to crunch out this prospectus, which is causing me so many panic attacks, makes me question my decision to have gone to grad school in general. I worry that maybe it's difficult for me only because I'm not as brilliant as the other students, and that maybe it's just that I don't have the intellectual and emotional (and physical) stamina to continue pushing myself like this because I'm not smart enough. I seem to manage to have done fairly well in some classes and some aspects of the PhD program, but only because of an enormous effort, which always came at a great physical and emotional cost. Other students seem either to accept these costs (it seems many grad students don't care about their health) or somehow have a stouter constitution. Anyway, I feel ashamed and worried that maybe I am not smart enough/hard-working enough, and also find it extremely difficult to continue doing any work. I'm just so exhausted. I will finish my Ph.D., but in the meantime am struggling with extreme unhappiness - both about my choice to go to grad school, my choice in topic, having to continue working constantly, and now my possible lack of career options once I finish.

Additionally, I feel I'm not saying anything important and/or am not brilliant enough to say something important and meaningful about literature. I know that I can write something fairly decent but bullshitty and that it would be accepted, but that doesn't make me feel better - it makes me even more upset to think about how easy it is to get away with bullshit in my (top) literature program. I know that there are some students who may make brilliant and insightful arguments, but I worry that I am not one of them - even if I am, any worthwhile papers I write seem to require a lot of time and a monumental amount of effort, which I don't feel is possible to do on a regular and continued basis.  I have considered dropping out but would literally have no idea what to do with myself - I think it's better to finish and then start looking for other career options. 

If I had any questions, they would probably be - should I possibly ask to have more time for the prospectus or get it over with? Are these panic/crying attacks normal for grad students? Has anyone ever felt this way before due to lack of energy? I honestly am not sure if I am disillusioned with the whole Ph.D. process or am just very exhausted. I worry that maybe I am somehow just lazy and a person whose constitution is just not made out for intensive work (then I worry as well about what my career options would be like - what if I'm just lazy!?)  

I would love to talk to someone who could possibly talk me through this, but don't have any other grad students or professors I would feel comfortable confiding in. I just feel desperate, useless, stupid, lazy, scared, and exhausted. 

Any advice, suggestions, or commiserations are so appreciated. Thank you.

Edited by danielyamahoto
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If I had any questions, they would probably be - should I possibly ask to have more time for the prospectus or get it over with? Are these panic/crying attacks normal for grad students? Has anyone ever felt this way before due to lack of energy? I honestly am not sure if I am disillusioned with the whole Ph.D. process or am just very exhausted. I worry that maybe I am somehow just lazy and a person whose constitution is just not made out for intensive work (then I worry as well about what my career options would be like - what if I'm just lazy!?)  

First off, are you me? Ha. My anxiety has been through the roof this month as I prepare for exams, teach two different classes, and mother a beautiful ten month old daughter. The stress is so much that my milk supply as been affected, which stresses me out more: I can't pump enough milk to feed my daughter when I'm on campus! I was awake for two hours last night, staring at the ceiling. We are not lazy, useless, or stupid. This shit is HARD, and the timeline is built for very specific bodies and minds. Hell, I'm a fast worker and pretty damn confident usually, and I'm feeling so overwhelmed.

It's okay to take a break. In fact, your brain will probably thank you for doing so. Take a break and work on a totally different project or work on nothing academic at all. Do whatever centers you: yoga, cook, veg on Netflix, write some poetry, talk to a therapist, burn stuff, road trip somewhere pretty, I don't know. Maybe your break will help you realize that academia is not for you, or maybe your break will help you approach your project with fresh eyes and make brilliant insights. Either way, it's worth it to be kind to yourself and put your work on the backburner for a while. 

And know you're in good company. I imagine your colleagues are feeling the same way. I'm a straight up baller, and I feel like I'm crumbling under the weight of balancing my work and my family life. We are not weak! We are human. And we need to care for our whole selves, not just our academic selves. 

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I would love to talk to someone who could possibly talk me through this, but don't have any other grad students or professors I would feel comfortable confiding in. I just feel desperate, useless, stupid, lazy, scared, and exhausted. 

To add to what the Prof (always brilliantly) says, this part of your post stuck out to me. I know I would never have made it through my toughest graduate school moments if not for colleagues that I could lean on, whine to, or have full-on outpourings of grief (or, even better, ecstatic joy). I also found the reciprocal moments when I could help them through a "moment" or share in an accomplishment made all the difference in dark times. I know this won't solve your problem now but I would really suggest that you find at least one other person to talk to about the big and small things. Shared suffering does wonders for mental resiliency! Good luck!

Edited by 1Q84
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I've been feeling the same way lately, but in my MA program. Wondering if I should even apply for a PhD because it's easy to become disillusioned with the process. Couldn't write even a five page paper because I was just done with all the work I'd done the last several weeks. Last week was good though. And this week is okay too. I took Prof's advice (though before she offered it) and just did something for myself--started to read a book just to enjoy reading again (Book Thief). I only got about 100 pages in before I had to go back to my school work, but it took a weight off. Also went out of town that weekend (missed a conference I was supposed to present at because I misscheduled everything) but had a lovely time in a beautiful new city. I second finding something for yourself. Ask for an extension on the prospectus if possible. 

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For me, personally, exams/prospectus/first chapter was the absolute darkest tunnel in grad school. And exams especially. It's so difficult to even know what to focus on as you're doing all that reading, and to anticipate the questions they're going to ask you. 

Prospectus is hard because everyone's asking you to describe a project you haven't even yet started. It's really the stupidest exercise in grad school. My dissertation has ended up looking NOTHING like my prospectus, nothing. 

And first chapter is hard because it just is. It's difficult to go from writing the 20-page seminar paper to the 50-page chapter. It was for me, anyway. 

The good news, though, is that it does get easier. Just concentrate on getting through the exam and accept the fact that no one enjoys their exam, and no one ever thinks they did that well. 

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Well the upload software is turning that from a nice idea into a terrifying close-up of an alpaca's eye only, and I can't attach anything new through the 'edit' software, so let me go find something smaller and that maybe isn't a gif.

Edited by knp
uploading yikes
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Ah, thanks so much, ProfLorax! I'm glad to know that even ballers can get overwhelmed. I've been struggling with feeling I have to try hard to turn a good prospectus in and therefore haven't been really taking care of myself, but I think I'll just take it easy, even if it means I turn in a not-perfect prospectus. It's only a draft, anyway! 

Keep on doing your thing, you straight-up baller, you! I don't know how I'd even manage a family and work at the same time. That's fantastic and props to you. 

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To add to what the Prof (always brilliantly) says, this part of your post stuck out to me. I know I would never have made it through my toughest graduate school moments if not for colleagues that I could lean on, whine to, or have full-on outpourings of grief (or, even better, ecstatic joy). I also found the reciprocal moments when I could help them through a "moment" or share in an accomplishment made all the difference in dark times. I know this won't solve your problem now but I would really suggest that you find at least one other person to talk to about the big and small things. Shared suffering does wonders for mental resiliency! Good luck!

Thanks for the comment. I honestly do feel so relieved even just having read everyone's responses! Unfortunately my program is in a big school and I don't run into my colleagues very much and when we do, we're not comfortable enough to tell each other what's really on our minds - however, finding other people to talk to yesterday has been a great source of relief. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. Good luck to you (and your colleagues) too! :) 

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  • 2 months later...

Reading this was like reading a transcript of my own thoughts, which I don't seem to have immediate access to as a result of feeling like this all of the time. Although I am only in an MA program, I have been feeling so utterly defeated by everything about it. It's making me reconsider the one thing that I thought I had passion for, so now I feel like I have nothing (similar to what you said -- if I leave, what else is there for me? I've never put energy or effort into anything else). I got to the point where I had to basically have my supervisor write my thesis proposal for me because I physically could not string words together and the deadline was in a few hours. I have never felt like this before. My good brain has always been my one consistent thing about me -- I could always count on it (I thought), but now I can't even look at a book without feeling the symptoms of a panic attack encroaching slowly, until I have to shut down and can't get anything done.

It also makes me feel super lazy and worthless. Like, seriously? I can't do this? I also have the same thoughts about being able to BS something -- I feel like I BSed my way through undergrad and although I was REALLY good at it, I feel crushingly guilty for even entertaining the idea of BSing my way through the rest of my career. Like, I also want so badly to write/do something that has a positive impact on something or someone, but it seems like my mind isn't cut out for actually useful scholarship -- it's only good at ~play~ and mischievous BS. Or whatever.

That being said, it seems like you actually give a shit about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what impact it potentially has on the world at large. I'd say you sound like someone who absolutely should be in academia, because it SHOULD be populated with people who actually take a step back and think about what's going on. I find that I internalize things a lot, and especially in times of high stress, my work becomes my body and then obliterates my mind, or something. I don't have any answers for you but I hope that the stress gets more manageable, and it truly sounds like you are of great value to the academic "community" / the cesspool of the "production of knowledge" that is academia. 

A friend in my program and I recently had breakdowns at the same time. We both had to literally flee the city we live in to get as far away from our school as possible. Neither one of us turned in our assignments on time (if any of my writing has improved, it's the "I am having some psychological problems and if you need a note I can provide one" email). She feels like she is losing her mind too, but she's truly one of the smartest people in my program with really important things to say. This is stupid and cheesy but I feel like a lot of times, the people with really important shit to say are the ones for whom saying anything is the hardest. I don't know if you experience this in your program, but one of the worst and most disorienting/disillusioning/alienating things about our program is how opaque all of the faculty and a lot of the students are. We sit around reading and talking about really fucking heavy topics, and then we are expected to show up and talk about them as if they were objects of study that we can completely separate from our mental lives. I had a completely different experience at my undergrad university -- my undergrad supervisor often talked about how/why she is personally invested in her work. I know it's crazy to expect so much from profs, because their lives are insane too, but there's something really dismal about the atmosphere of my program. Maybe yours is similar. I hope it's not all like that? 

Anyway, I hope that your situation gets better. If you wanna talk feel free to DM me, I pretty much feel exactly as you have described.

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Edit: Oops. I just realized the original post is from two months ago. I'll leave the post here in case it helps anyone.

First, I'd encourage you not to compare yourself to how your peers in the program seem to be doing. Grad students are exceptionally good at faking their own confidence, but remember that grad students are one of the highest risk populations for depression and stress-related mental health issues. Your peers might put on a brave face, but they could easily be sitting in the car crying after seminar or something.

Also, your program seems to be moving pretty quickly. You were teaching your first year and then immediately taking comps? That's a lot to cram into a year. I started teaching at the beginning of my program and have 2 years worth of coursework (I also already came in with an MA), and I'm just starting to prepare for comps now halfway through my 2nd year. So that amount of work is exhausting and I wouldn't blame yourself for feeling overwhelmed by it. It doesn't have to do with intelligence. Writing is hard. Grad school is hard. There will be dark moments. I know I have them occasionally, especially at the end of the semester. But as I told a friend of mine who was having a hard time, there will also be good days.

Though you don't feel comfortable confiding in other grad students, I'd also see if you could find someone a year or so ahead of you with interests at least somewhat similar to yours and ask if you could look at their prospectus. You could always lie and say you just want to see if you've done t right if you don't want to reveal that you haven't been able to get much done. One of my office mates, who also just finished her exams and is now struggling through the prospectus, did that and she said it's been helping her a lot. She asked for a prospectus from someone who ended up winning a fellowship for the dissertation project.

In my department, at least, the exams are supposed to function as a way to start thinking about what will go in the dissertation and what texts will go in the dissertation (the exams are entirely written and are done at home over the course of 3 days--the average exam is 30-40 pages in length at the end). Once you've rested, which I agree is completely vital before you think about anything else, maybe look through whatever you did for your exams and see if there's something there that interests you. Resting and then returning to a project with new eyes is really the best way I've found to go about it. Reread some passages you found interesting without your exam lenses on, maybe. I haven't written my prospectus so I don't know what the best technique is for it, but it's always stressed in my department that the exams are there to help you determine your dissertation project.

It's okay to get burnt out. It's okay to feel miserable. It doesn't necessarily mean that you aren't right for grad school, but it might mean that grad school isn't right for you. Your mental and physical health is more important than your grad work. (I know that this can actually be an unpopular opinion, but I honestly believe that it is much better to take time off and recoup and potentially be late with something than to force yourself to keep working. It's the only way I get by. I always designate at least one day a week where I do nothing related to graduate school.)

Edited by shortstack51
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  • 4 weeks later...

Reading about your struggle and the responses confirming that we all will struggle in the PhD program makes me feel so anxious about what is waiting me. Danielyamahoto, you are the third person in the past three months that I know of considering either the drop out or a short break. Two of my friends are now pursuing their PhD(s), this is their second year, one in the States and the other in Canada. Their enthusiasm and passion were behind their success and determination to achieve what they want, they are also my ideal students and source of inspiration. It happens that each one of them is now facing your difficulty and they are both having these thoughts of dropping out or having a short break! I am extremely surprise about that because I know how dedicated and persistent they are. I may not be able to judge their or your decision because I am still not in your shoes, but I definitely know how intelligent, capable, and talented they are. And I am pretty sure you share the same characteristics, otherwise you would not be in your program right now. When you say I can write a shitty prospectus only to be accepted, but not fully convinced of because you always think others may write a better one, then why should we strive for a better work/writing/project if we are pretty sure we are the best? I believe your concern is very common in brilliant people because they care much about their success. Perhaps my comment comes a little bit late, and maybe you are already done with your prospectus (I hope so), but please never let a deadline or a responsibility hinder or prevent your success, or even let you doubt your abilities. 

Good Luck!

 

 

 

 

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