Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How to Not Drop Out of Graduate School

You may have noticed that as of late, our posting frequency has declined. Part of that has been a lack of good material, part has been an excess of trips (backpacking! Spain! Other exciting destinations like Ottawa!), but the biggest part has being trying to find the answer to the title of this blog post: how the hell to not drop out of graduate school. Meaghan just finished her 3rd year of not-dropping-out, and Amy just finished her first, so at this point we're kind of becoming experts in this whole "not abandoning ship" thing, but the past few months have really put that to the test. There's a lot of reasons to drop out, and a lot of reasons not to drop out - the pros and cons lists of graduate school isn't what we're here to discuss, but rather the ways you stay just barely afloat right up until you're rescued by graduating.

Trigger warning: we will be discussing some of the aspects of depression and anxiety that go hand-in-hand with graduate school.
Look, grad school is hard. It's exhausting, poorly-paid, and can often feel futile or endless. For many students fresh from undergrad and used to working on projects that resolve over the course of a term, the endless monotony of large-scale projects is daunting and seemingly impossible. A recent study from Berkeley found that 47% of PhD students suffer or have suffered from depression, and no wonder: with fewer and fewer tenure track jobs, our career track is a long tunnel of over-worked and underpaid TAships and post-docs that will funnel into seemingly nothingness if we can't get our shit together and beat out the competition.

This means we're forced to work even harder in graduate school, publishing more papers and in higher-profile journals which leaves to the inevitable seesawing of "no you have Imposter syndrome" versus "except you're probably not going to get a job if you get rejected by Nature."  The end result is that our research is not valuable unless others find it valuable; rejection from journals feels like a cheese-grater on our souls as that career tunnel becomes ever-more narrow. To deal, people often end up working in excess, leading to greater and greater burnout which in turn undercuts your resolve to stay even further.

Sometimes it seems you just can't keep it together until graduation.
Working 16-hour days may imply to your coworkers and your advisors that you're committed but it can also make you wonder if that's actually true. Do you genuinely love your work to the exclusion of all things? Do you love it more than your hobbies, your body, your emotional well-being, your significant other, your children, your family, your dog, your life? Hell, do you love science enough to deal with this level of stress for potentially forever? Tenure-track jobs aren't common, and even then you have 7 more years of panic until you can potentially relax. If you're in your first year of your masters in your early twenties, you're looking at a stressful more-than-decade before this science stuff pays off.

So. How do you stay at bat when it everything coming at you wants to hit you in the face? We have a few suggestions, gleaned from our own successes at not-dropping-out as well as some literature on personality traits that make people more successful in academia.

If you, like us, find that reading reviews on your papers makes you want to crawl into a hole and die, maybe it's time to remember that your papers are not the sole sum of your worth as a human being. More specifically, science is not who you are, it's what you do. You are a human - a girlfriend, a neighbor, a rock climber, an outdoor enthusiast, an improving cook, good with watercolor pencils, and big fan of Amy Schumer. In other words if you want to not drop out of graduate school, maybe you should stop defining yourself as only a graduate student.

Meaghan enjoys birds of prey and zombie movies.
She likes rock climbing and witty jokes.

Amy enjoys eating jelly beans and reading murder mystery novels.
She likes being outside and making collages of adorable animals.
We've found that acknowledging that we are real people, and respecting that fact, has been one of the key factors in keeping us in graduate school. We have other interests, we have other facets, and if our papers get rejected that's just an unfortunate aspect of our job, not a reflection of who we are as people.

ET is off to increase productivity by not fucking working all the time.
Studies have shown that your productivity tanks with more than 50-hour workweeks anyways, so really it's simply more efficient. Don't want to drop out of graduate school? Go home and be a real person. Play Diablo III, watch Project Runway, do your laundry, interact with the important people in your life. This is the first step on the path to remembering you're a real human, not a struggling pile of dissertation woes.

Pro Tip: If you happen to have an advisor who expects you to work insane hours, try this trick recommended by one of ours: he used to finish his work early, but not send it in to his advisor until late at night. Sneaky, eh? No wonder he got his Ph.D with that sort of devious resourcefulness.

Amy and Meaghan met at science camp, where people ask each other where your "P" is. That's Positive Mental Attitude, and it can be real hard to maintain in the face of rejected papers, red-encrusted revisions, and abrasive advisors  (Not you Edward or Chris, you are great!). But just because there's a lot of negativity in your life doesn't mean you can't see the glass is half full (of WATER, not urine, don't be gross). For example: did you find a big flaw in your research that means you have to start over from scratch? Well, aren't you clever since your co-authors and reviewers didn't see it! There's some evidence that people who have more positive attitudes tend to be more resilient in academia, so cultivate your good mental mojo. Go through this checklist of understated successes and remember that no matter how shitty your life seems, there are things that you're mega-succeeding at that you didn't even think of as a success.

It can seem largely impossible to fit yet another thing into your day, but exercise is always worth it. Not only does exercise help you stay physically healthier, but it does wonders for mental health, too. There is nothing like a long run after a particularly frustrating day staring at a computer screen and kickboxing is a great way to work out your anger after that last round of reviews. It may also give you the time away from your project that you need in order to generate some sort of research-revelation!


Just do it. It's good for you, we promise. Now we know you might be saying, "I have my friends and family to talk to, why do I need a complete stranger?" But guess what, your friends and family are not experts on mental health and their suggestions are not always actually helpful. It's one thing to lean on your friends and family during tough times, we all do that, but it's rude to expect your loved ones to constantly be able to deal with your shit. Professionals on the other hand are literally paid to pay attention to you and they have gone through years of training to deal with the pile of crap you lay out in front of them. Most universities have great mental health resources for students, including discounted rates on therapy. A good therapist can help you see your ticks and help you address them, with the end result that you'll work more effectively and be happier on the whole.

If you aren't ready to jump into the therapy pool just yet, that's okay. Here's a little trick to try in the meantime: name your emotions. Good and bad, putting your emotions into words can make you feel happier overall. Studies have shown that consciously recognizing your emotions can reduce the impacts of those negative feelings. That's right, pretending like your emotions don't exist does not work; it can even have deleterious effects.

Talk to them about problems that may be holding you back: sleep issues, concentration issues, depression, anxiety, etc. Don't be afraid to try medications for these different issues. Another great graduate student and blogger we know just wrote a great post on her changed attitude towards medication that we would like to echo: even if you think it's just stress, it's quite possible your doctor can help.

The Anxiety Monster, by Claire Jones
A disability is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment" as copied and pasted from the American Disabilities Act

That means that if you're suffering from depression, ADHD, bouts of insomnia, carpal tunnel or any other number of problems, you could be considered disabled and your program should make some reasonable accommodations for you. But to get any accommodations, your school needs to know that you suffer from it. At UO, you can register your disabilities with the Accessible Education Center (for school-related things), and at the Affirmative Action Office (for work-related things). If you are suffering from a mental or physical illness, you should register. That way, if you miss class or work because you are having a panic attack at home, for example, it can't be used as grounds for removing you from your program.

This is not your mandatory future! Esp. since he's not even in tweed, amateur.
Academia is only a job, and it is not the only job. It is not even the best job. People in academia often define themselves by what they do, which makes it really hard to maintain forward progress when there's a bump in your research road. If you don't like graduate school or you don't like the idea of working in Academia for the rest of your life, that's cool. That's 100% fine. There are many other jobs that are excited to hire someone with an advanced degree, who can write technical documents and use fancy-pants computer programs. There are options outside the ivory tower. If you'd like to hear more about this, we suggest the podcast Rock your Research, a series of interviews with recent graduates talking about how they didn't drop out and how they moved on, sometimes in academia and sometimes not.


Graduate school can feel like an endless hamster wheel of stress and self-doubt, but no matter where you are there are going to be specific things that make that worse and in many cases, they're things you can change. Did you know you can transfer during graduate school? You can. You can change committees, you can change topics, you can change advisors or offices or departments or your work schedule. Do you find lab meetings to be stressful and unproductive? Find reasons to skip them, or use them as a time to reflect on how you would change them. If conferences make you feel like you've accomplished nothing in your life and know nothing, be more selective in the talks that you see, and go to conferences with a buddy in tow. If you can't get work done because your office mate is too chatty or farts too much or is otherwise disruptive, try working in the library or with earphones on. Or feed your office mate fewer beans or something.

No. Make it both.
Find your academic pressure points and release as many of them as you can. Your goal is not to revolutionize your grad experience, just to make it tolerable. Take care of yourself, and don't let yourself be defined by the research you produce - whether it is bad, or even if it is good. Remember that there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and you get to determine where it leads - maybe a tenure track job, but also maybe an awesome industry job, or a fun field-work-focused job with a land management agency. Most importantly, remember that you signed up for graduate school to improve yourself, not destroy yourself. You are the most important part of this equation. Take care of yourself.


Barkhuizen, Nicolene, Sebastiaan Rothmann, and Fons JR Vijver. "Burnout and work engagement of academics in higher education institutions: Effects of dispositional optimism." Stress and Health 30.4 (2014): 322-332.


Kinman, Gail. "Pressure points: A review of research on stressors and strains in UK academics." Educational psychology 21.4 (2001): 473-492.

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological science,18(5), 421-428.

Mark, George, and Andrew P. Smith. "Effects of occupational stress, job characteristics, coping, and attributional style on the mental health and job satisfaction of university employees." Anxiety, Stress & Coping 25.1 (2012): 63-78.

Melin, Marika, Wanja Astvik, and Claudia Bernhard-Oettel. "New work demands in higher education. A study of the relationship between excessive workload, coping strategies and subsequent health among academic staff." Quality in Higher Education 20.3 (2014): 290-308.

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