In her former life, Emily “Gynomite” Gordon was a couples and family therapist licensed in 2 1/2 states. In this life, she’s a freelance fighter of your emotional woes with Ask Gynomite. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org- all emails stay confidential. Today, Gynomite takes on happiness.
Hi! Um, a friend recommended I give this a try since it helped her. I just started a PhD program this month, which I realize isn’t that long, but I hate it. I’m so miserable and I don’t know what to do. The research is so much more than I expected, and I like research but it feels overwhelming, and it seems like the school is geared towards something different then what they described to me and what I basically signed up for. My classes are terrible, too, and I dread going to them. And I’m alone in a new town, so I don’t have anyone to talk to or any way to really decompress. I want to think that it will get better, but part of me is starting to think that maybe the career path I chose isn’t for me.
I’ve been reading about the job market in that field, and hearing horror stories about what it’s like to actually do this work. What if I’ve made a terrible mistake? The thought of years of this, and it being my life… I can’t really stomach that. But then I also worry if maybe I’m just stressed now and will get used it? Maybe it’s just horrible for everyone and I have to suck it up? It makes me feel horrible that I got into this great program, that my parents helped me move, that I have an apartment and furniture and everything here. I mean I painted the walls. I know that probably sounds silly.
The thought of walking away from that makes me feel like an asshole. I don’t even know where I’d go or what I’d do if I did walk away. That’s what I mean about being stuck. How do I figure this out? Another factor in this is that I really want to write. I’ve done some work writing for blogs and magazines. I also like fiction, screenwriting, etc. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I know that you started writing so I’m curious about how you got started, especially since it was a career shift for you. I’m sorry that sounds creepy, I’ve heard a lot of podcasts! I’m not really cut out for the starving artist route, and I don’t have a lot of confidence in my work though other people tell me it’s good. I also have trouble finishing things and getting motivated. I know everyone has that, but again I’m stuck.
Hi there! Well, there are a lot of parts to what you’re asking, but they’re all fairly similar. Here’s how I see it: you’re in a rut deep enough to hang up posters. You’re wallowing. You’re miserable and basting in your own misery so much that you can’t see outside of it. That’s a terrible place to be, but a weirdly comfortable one. I’ve certainly been in ruts like this before, and they feel unsurmountable. The good news is that it is surmountable. This rut is fixable. You’ll just need to make some adjustments.
My guess is that, rightfully so, you expected that moving to this new place and starting this grad program was going to be like a whole new life- and in some ways, it is, but you’re somewhat disappointed by how quickly that feeling wore off. That can be a tough thing to recover from. I picture you painting those walls with a sense of hope and optimism- I’m gonna be a grad student! – that fell away halfway through your second class. I’ve painted walls with the hope that it’ll paint my entire life as well. It doesn’t always work.
My two main pieces of advice for you are this: make some friends/find a therapist, and stay in your program for a full year. The main thing you need is someone to talk to. Anything, and I mean anything, can feel unsurmountable if you don’t have someone to vent to, and not just online. We all need social interaction. Right now, instead of getting stressed and scared and anxious and pouring it onto your support network, you’re feeling stressed and scared and anxious and just swimming in it. I highly recommend finding a therapist to dump your stuff on, making some friends to distract you and give you outings in your new city, and then slowly phasing out the therapist and phasing in the new friends as your confidants. (You can’t meet a new friend and immediately start bellyaching about your life, most people will run away.)
Now, why should you stay in your program a year before deciding to leave? Because all grad programs suck at first, and are overwhelming and miserable. They just are. Give yourself a year to get settled in and get an actual taste of it, and if you’re still miserable, then you can leave. But other people were rejected from this program so that you could get in, which means they saw in you that you could do it. When I started my program I looked around at my cohort and was like “I am nothing like these people, I gotta get out of here”, and years later, they still get me more than a lot of my friends do.
Perhaps you won’t always be in the field you’re getting a degree in, but you will always have a PhD. I have a Masters degree that I use to answer people’s questions on the Internet, for god’s sake, and you know what? It was worth every minute of pain and stress. I learned skills that other people don’t have, and I have the ability to get through an advanced degree program, which is no small feat. Racing from classes to practicum to work while doing research on weekends? Packing a lunch that I’ll maybe get to eat at 4pm? Doing hundreds of pages of readings in a two hour span? Accomplishing these feats made me a better person, no doubt. Getting through a grad program is more important than what the grad program is in, really. So I highly encourage you to stick it out for a year, but if after a year, you’re still miserable, then leave. Worry less about who you’ll be disappointing and worry more about your own levels of happiness and satisfaction. Pleasing the people around you will never make you as happy as you doing what you need to do.
Oh, and to answer you on how I got started writing, I started my own blog, I started cold pitching websites I liked, and a big part of it was me pitching myself as a “masters level therapist who wants to write unprofessionally”. So there’s that. I wrote a more detailed post about it here.
Good luck to you.