Category Archives: Fear

Pressing Reset

It’s been a slow few weeks in dissertation land for the future Doctor Jones. I have been working well for so long now that when I didn’t work for a few days I wasn’t too worried. I traveled to Arizona and New York in April, and a family friend visited. There was lots of grading and course planning to do.

But after a full week at home and making no progress, I had to face my failure to work. A very short examination of my feelings was enough to help me understand the problem. The FEAR was in full effect. I’d gotten some good, tough feedback on a chapter, and I was afraid–afraid that if I went down the rabbit hole of revision, I would never find my way out.

I’ve been mulling over something my friend J. said to me about how she’s been trying to make decisions to further her happiness. For example, the decision to exercise, not smoke a cigarette, or go to bed early may not be enticing just beforehand, but afterward, they make her feel good and  feel good about herself for making the good decision.

Yesterday, I did not make many good decisions. I didn’t do any work, didn’t change my fish Pig Pen’s water, and didn’t wash my dishes. I watched television when I should have been working. However, after a run with J., my body felt the full effect of my last several decisions to run. J. and I both found our run considerably easier than it has been the last few weeks. We felt the endorphins flowing. And in the glow of that good decision, I formulated a plan for today:

1) Read over the Future Doctor Anderson’s comments on my draft.

2) Make a plan for revision.

It was an unambitious plan. But it set me up to easily make a good decision today. I finished my tasks in less than an hour. I could have done more, you might be saying. But after the FEAR takes over, the immediate goal has to be to diminish the FEAR. I made a small goal for today. I set another small goal for tomorrow. And I know the more I work, the less the FEAR will bother me, and the more I’ll be able to accomplish.

The no-work period is over. And as long as I’m working, I’m getting closer to becoming Doctor Jones.


My husband gave his brother this advice:

If you’re going to build boats for a living, don’t just do it because you think building boats would be fun. Try to build boats greener, or faster.  Have a reason to build boats.

In many ways, I think I ended up in grad school because I thought school was fun. Lately, I haven’t been finding research that fun–so I’m wondering if I really want to be a scholar.

The only thing that can sustain research, as far as I can tell, is an honest question–really wanting to find something out, having a reason for doing it.

Lately, I have been asking myself whether I really and truly want to graduate. Since I’ve been filled with self-doubt in the past week, in many ways it’s not a good moment to make a big decision. Still, I’ve been thinking about whether or not I have reasons to stay.

My questions about poetry are, in this moment, not that pressing. But I have a very good reason for writing my blog: I want to address the problem of graduate students feeling isolated, worthless, and/or unproductive. And while I don’t seen anything inherently shameful about quitting, I don’t see how I can keep writing my blog unless I continue to pursue the degree. Also, I’ve recently had a big idea for a project relating to alternate careers for doctors. While I could do this project now, I think it will be much more credible authored by a Ph.D.

These reasons are not directly related to my dissertation, but they’ve helped ease my anxiety. I really do not want to feel trapped in grad school. It’s hard enough to be here when you have reasons. If I get to the point where I don’t have any left, I’m outta here.

Graduate School and Mental Health

In some ways, I’ve had it better than most in graduate school. It wasn’t until well into my seventh year that I had this thought: I am too stupid to be here. Until then, I had always maintained that anyone with the desire could be a doctor.

Since I’ve had the thought, it’s been hard to shake. Before that moment I had never felt too stupid for anything. I loved school and always did well, and I was given a lot of credit for being smart by those around me. I knew some people in graduate school felt inadequate, and I felt sorry for them because I was sure their problem was a lack of confidence and not a lack of ability. I felt fortunate for my own sense of self-worth.

Grad-School Blues,” a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, cited a 2004 study that revealed 54% of graduate students suffered from depression severe enough to interfere with their ability to work. Compare that to 9.5% of Americans suffering from depression in a typical year.

Writing a dissertation can be seen as an empowering act: an individual relies mostly on him or herself to complete a long, intellectual piece of work. In practice, however, graduate students can feel very powerless, at the mercy of university politics, their supervisor, or their department’s expectations.

The article cites Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell, who explains that grad students don’t typically participate in many social activities such as clubs or intramural sports. Graduate students who are socially isolated may be less likely to know about resources available to them.

Besides counseling, getting a dissertation coach, participating in online discussions about graduate school, or joining a writing group can be helpful. Practicing yoga, meditation, or a religion can also help keep the dissertation in perspective.

One doctor who had left academia was quoted in the article: “There’s this perception that if you hold your breath and make it through, you’ll be fine,” she says. But if you don’t deal with such issues, she says, “you will not be an effective student, scholar, or researcher.”

When I read “Grad-School Blues,” I thought, this is the reason I’m writing my blog. I believe it’s a bad idea to simply try to fake smartness and confidence in your academic life. We should be willing to discuss therapy and strategies for working and living–if not with out superiors, at least with our colleagues. Our health depends on it.

What Will You Do With Your Life?

Did you think that going to grad school would solve the problem you had about what to be when you grew up?


I delayed answering this question in 2001 when I decided to apply to graduate school. And for eight years, I have been (mostly) in ignorant bliss–the future life of Doctor Jones was much too far away to worry about.

I have certainly worked on opening doors for Doctor Jones, doing internships, assistant directorships, teaching, going to conferences, etc. But all my experience, the dissertation, and the degree are simply not enough to guarantee that I’ll be employed as an English professor.

I haven’t felt this way since college. And I sincerely believed then that going to college was answering this question for good. But I have grown up. And unfortunately, growing up doesn’t mean that I have all the answers. I do have some experience grappling for solutions. And that’s about it.

I’m not bringing this up to scare you. I’m bringing this up because my friend Rebecca, who has been busting her butt for three years to get a cello performance degree, said upon graduating that she wished someone would have told her that she’d be transported right back into the confusing decision making process of age twenty-one.

So, I’m telling you. I hope that if you expect it, it won’t be quite as scary when it happens. And take some comfort in knowing that what you do with your life is not something you “should” have figured out at your age.

the FEAR

As I approach graduation, I’m finding that my emotions are unusually roller coaster-y. The FEAR (of not graduating, of producing inferior work, of not being able to schedule a defense time, of not having a good dissertation topic) looms large much of the time. Yet every time something happens to let me know that graduating in May could really happen, I feel an almost paralyzing giddiness. (Today, one of my committee members said that she thought my introduction and conclusion drafts are defensible now.)

I recently talked with my friend Doctor Gale, who said that she was surprised at how quickly her self-confidence diminished after defending her dissertaton. She said that she still asks herself questions about her intelligence that have been bugging her since before she came to graduate school.

The academic environment can be a huge confidence-evaporator. People identify with their work, and then any small setback becomes a big problem. My feelings are super easily hurt, especially by my committee members, and I know many of my colleagues have the same issue.

I don’t know how to silence the FEAR.

I do know that degrees are not a measure of intelligence, and neither are the number of books written. If you’re far enough along to graduate, you know too many smart people who either decided graduate school wasn’t for them or who never applied in the first place.

The best way I know to pause the roller coaster is to remind myself that the FEAR is normal, and that transitions are hard for humans (and most organisms, for that matter). The FEAR comes to plenty of really smart people who do great  work, so the FEAR’s presence does not guarantee my inadequacy.