Making Your Way Through the Doldrums

When your progress stalls before you have started to get to the core of your dissertation, how do you break through the stress and isolation? Victoria McGovern offers some suggestions.

December 11, 2017

The Council of Graduate Schools Ph.D. Completion Project found 10-year Ph.D. completion rates to range around only 50 to 65 percent, depending on field. The project, which collected data on 29 institutions, discovered that the reasons people leave Ph.D. programs are complex, but that few students drop out because they are intellectually incapable of doing the work. Stress, lack of financial support and problematic relationships with faculty members are among the factors cited to explain the remarkable rate at which students who have successfully completed other educational challenges leave graduate school.

Based on my experience advising graduate students, I’ve determined that you will often go through different phases in your pursuit of a doctoral degree. Students who launch their graduate educations soon after college usually adjust relatively well socially in the beginning years. The new-to-school feeling is still familiar to you from college and high school. You have classmates to hang out with, a core curriculum to master, parties after big exams, program-related mixers, departmental events and even intramural sports -- all providing ways to meet new people and develop a sense of belonging. The environment is primed to encourage formation of bonds that feel deep and lasting. Good times and bad times are shared; crises appear and are managed or not; romances form and feel large. If you are doing well, the first two years pass quickly.

But once you have finished classroom work, passed qualifying exams and begun to focus entirely on research, you may experience periods of frustratingly slow progress and intense loneliness. The first few times you systematically work through a seemingly unsolvable research problem, the work ahead of you can seem boundless. As classmates, running buddies, soul mates and happy-hour companions become more and more consumed with their own work, the class bonds that sustained your first and second years can begin to fray.

A Stayer, Not a Leaver

You did well in your course work, you picked a smart problem and you did a great job on your qualifying exams. But now your world has changed, and you don’t feel you are making the progress that you used to or that you should as you go forward. Worse, if your research is primarily based in reading and analysis of existing data, you can find yourself literally spending your workdays all alone. If you are working in laboratory groups, the isolation is metaphorical but still painful. Months spent struggling to optimize the conditions for a complex technique or troubleshoot an intermittent problem can leave a once-confident student shaken, defensive and too embarrassed to spend time in the companionable mainstream of daily lab life.

Your relationship with your adviser is positive, though you’ve started to hide when you hear she’s looking for you. At the core of your grad student being, you believe that you’re a stayer, not a leaver. But how can you hope to get anywhere when your best efforts can’t seem to get results?

First, stop hiding from your adviser. When advisers realize you’re hiding, it disappoints them far more than delayed results do. Second, understand that the research doldrums are real. Sometimes progress is barely incremental and the only way to proceed is to work systematically at finding forward motion again. But when your progress stalls before you have started to get to the core of your dissertation, the time and effort required can feel wasted. It’s tempting to just put your head down and work harder and harder. But unless you haven’t already been working hard, working ever harder probably won’t help.

Not a Small Problem

One way to break through the stress and isolation of slow progress is to view this phase as an opportunity to get better at the day-to-day business of working, not like a student but like the millions of other people who have challenging, engaging jobs that they enjoy. Frustration is not a small problem and loneliness is hard to admit. Sometimes, people don’t even recognize that “lonely” is the name for the sadness that they’re feeling. Fortunately, loneliness is a problem within your capacity to solve.

When you have put in an honest day’s work, stop worrying about being stuck. Go home and spend your energy on building up interests and friendships beyond the university. The people you meet at the dog park, the bottle shop, the public library’s book clubs or in a city recreational sports league may be intrigued to hear you are a historian or biochemist, but they are not likely to have deep questions about your thoughts on the frontiers of research or the vagaries of experimental technique. Spending time with them will help you stop feeling alone, and thinking about nonwork pursuits can give you the mental space needed to solve the problems in front of you.

Make a weekly schedule. Planning your workweek in advance will help you maintain predictable hours and keep you from becoming exhausted from trying to do “just one more thing” when your work doesn’t progress. Make sure you leave enough time for sleeping, and build in a few substantial, reliable blocks of time for doing non-work-related things.

If you feel guilty about not spending every waking hour on your work, try getting involved in the global conversations in your field. When you are bedeviled by tiny details, resting your eyes on the big picture can ease the strain. If a morning’s failures have made the afternoon’s work unbearable, give yourself a break to read essays, reviews and thought pieces written by the most orthodox, the most avant-garde and the most cross-disciplinary thinkers in your field.

Make sure you’re not looking at scholarship as a spectator sport, aligning with a given school of thought because you think it fits with your politics or philosophy or the best interests of your favorite model of how the world works. Be a gregarious reader, excited to meet new ideas, even if they’re dressed funny and especially if they come from other fields. Engaging big ideas, including impractical ones, will make you more resilient to your current slow patch and future ones when they come.

When a new idea surprises or delights you, look for ways to go on learning. Go to seminars in distal fields and let anonymity free you to raise naïve questions you wouldn’t dare be seen asking in your home department. Clueless questions often turn out to be important ones. When the answers excite you, go along to the reception afterward and have a chat with the speaker. If there’s no reception and the speaker is spirited away, follow the graduate students into the foyer and introduce yourself. You may find you’ll want to spend time with them -- and they with you.

They’ll know interesting things, things that you haven’t learned yet. They won’t be worried about your stalled work and your daily frustrations. If you enjoy their company, invite them to come to a seminar in your department. Go eat nachos together. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. When that happens, tell them about the horse latitudes, the doldrums and the vast blue funk. Odds are good that some of them have been spending time there, too.


Graduate Career Consortium logoVictoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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