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Admissions How to continue after a major academic failure

  1. Aug 27, 2016 #1
    [Big forewarning that this is a bit of a rant written by a sleep-deprived person at the edge of their wits, but I am genuinely asking for advice as well, if a bit desperately.]

    [tl;dr: I flunked out of one of the best undergrad physics programs in the US in my junior year due to health issues both physical (fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis, along with an unfortunately-timed bacterial infection) and mental (severe PTSD, depression, and anxiety from childhood physical abuse and emotional trauma), and have had no luck finding an institution which will allow me to 1) finish my undergrad education AND 2) conduct original research with the potential for publication. I could go to any joke school to do 1), but most schools that offer 2) will most likely reject me. I feel 1) is not an option however, since I have aspirations for grad school. I'm wondering if perhaps I should settle for being a janitor.]

    I have to admit that one of the last times I was lurking on this forum, I was a high school senior who had gotten a B on a calculus test and I felt my life was over. I probably googled "Am I too stupid for physics." A little melodramatic, as I'd already matriculated at one of the most prestigious STEM schools in the US and was about to graduate high school with every honor available to me.

    If 18-year-old me could have glimpsed at my life right now and the events leading up to it, I would have taken my own life. Not worth it! I'm still not sure if it's worth it.

    I don't like to talk about what happened because I am so disgusted with myself and my failures, and the only way I can keep moving forward is by surrounding myself with people who don't know what happened, and breaking bonds before they find out I never graduated. Rinse and repeat. So, I turn to forums that allow some degree of anonymity so my peers cannot judge me, but I desperately need advice. I created an account here, and only after posting my introduction did the irony dawn on me.

    Long story short: I flunked out of one of the best physics programs in the country after my junior year, and now I'm left picking up the pieces, wondering how to proceed. I still want to pursue physics, and first-things-first I need to finish undergrad, but am unsure how while still maintaining the ability to get into grad school.

    My issues in my failed undergrad experience were never fundamentally academic. If I had known of my conditions, I would have taken several years after high school to fix them, but it wasn't until I'd been given the boot that I was diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression, and not until last year that I have been struggling with severe pain, weakness, fatigue, falling, cognitive and memory problems, and a myriad of sleep issues. Even though I had professors left and right who were telling me I was entirely intellectually capable, I was usually too ill to complete most homework but still managed to get above average -- and occasionally top -- scores on my exams, amongst students who had also been the smartest and most promising minds at their high schools. We were told to get used to being average, but I felt incredibly stupid if I didn't hit average, and eventually, as I began intensive theoretical coursework, it became impossible. By the time I left school, I was sleeping about 18 hours a day and was only able to make it to about half my class sessions, and had no energy to eat let alone do homework.

    It's been two years since I left, and I moved 1,000 miles away to do work at a university in my current home city, but learned three days in that I had quite literally been scammed -- the courses I'd seen in their program online weren't even offered there, and the professors I'd been meaning to work with listed expertise they didn't actually have. The only reason I didn't abort sooner -- long before the semester started -- was because I kept being directed toward a professor whom they believed I could work with, but was abroad. When I finally met with him, three days into the semester, he told me about the "dummy" upper-division courses listed on the website to make the school look better, said that his colleagues were mistaken about the field of his research (there is no physical physics department at this university, so none of the physics professors ever TALK to each other), that the state of the physics department was downright depressing, and that I should take my money and run. I did.

    I then applied to a small private school nearby that had been one of my backup schools if I hadn't gotten into my dream school back in high school, which also happens to have a really good physics program, and a professor whose research is exactly what I want to focus on, at least for my undergrad thesis. I called admissions almost every day beginning on the date I was supposed to hear a decision, and their claim was that they'd "lost" or "never received" my SAT scores that I paid forty (40!) dollars to retrieve from archival, and only budged and waived the scores after several days of arguing and showing them my receipt from College Board. Then they said it'd take two weeks for my application to be read and processed, as it hadn't yet been touched due to being "incomplete." I got rejected the next day. I must be an epic screw-up.

    Here is the tl;dr issue here: I want to continue with the sort of opportunity I had in my initial undergrad experience. That is, to graduate, you must have completed original research or done tangible applied work in your field. I want to, at the very least, have submitted a paper for publication by the time I get my degree. I think any school that would take me (my horrible GPA and bad academic standing) will essentially be a playground for the underperforming, "thesis-is-a-dirty-word" (a professor at the scam school said this verbatim), no chance for grad school sort of institution. Any institution that would meet my needs would most likely be completely inaccessible to me. Please agree or refute.

    I have one more school I can try and apply to before I will need to uproot completely to continue my education, which is also difficult, as I'm about to be around $5,000 in medical debt (if I'm lucky!) and $30,000 in student loan debt. I work for a horrible math tutoring company that pays little more than minimum wage + no benefits, even though I've been with them for over two years and am second in command at our center. I hate it and can't wait to get out, but every other job I applied to I never heard back, probably because of my lack of degree! No matter that 3/4 of it came from a school people "ooh" and "ahh" about, I sucked!

    I'm not sure where to go from here, also, if I happen to get into the last school available to me in the city, what I'll do if it's horrible. I've been meaning to visit and speak with the physics department but I work weird hours six days a week and just don't have the time right now. Poking around on their website, it seems it can't be worse than Scam School, with no physics department and "physics" professors without physics degrees (my designated "physics" advisor was a biologist for crying out loud).

    There was a time a little while ago where I committed to reading papers, attempting to learn specialized software, and trying to do research on my own, but even barely getting started it was too difficult without guidance, and everyone I know who has their foot in the door somewhere I refuse to speak to out of shame, so I no longer have any connections to academia. Most of my academic peers are getting their PhDs at Stanford, Harvard, Caltech, MIT... some have recently been hired as tenure-track professors, and my peers who went into industry are bragging about their real estate, burgeoning 401ks, and are probably buying Teslas and traveling the world. I am nothing and don't deserve to talk to them.

    I don't really know how to wrap this up. At this point I am angry and tired and will later regret ranting at o-dark-thirty rather than writing something more palatable and coherent at a decent hour. My advance apologies.

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 27, 2016 #2
    An obvious first question: if you got accepted in a good program, can you guarantee that you'll do better? That is: are the PTSD/depression/anxiety/fibromyalgia/Multiple sclerosis under control now?
  4. Aug 27, 2016 #3
    Obvious yet important -- but the answer I'm unsure of, as I don't know how to replicate or imagine how I'd do again under extremely high stress situations. I manage better now than I was back in school, but I'm also not subjected to 6+ classes with an 80 hour workload. (I wasn't physically capable of working 80 hours, but my peers who succeeded told me that 80hr/week was normal with classes, meetings, colloquia, and homework.)

    The other thing in play here is my stepdad is very unhappy with my life right now, and yells at me every time we talk and says I need to go back to school, or I don't get to live on my own. I should probably consider having my doctors mail him notes if he gets particularly bad, as he keeps telling me I'm lazy and incompetent because the illnesses I have "don't exist" and I am "wasting my life away in a dead-end job." My parents were devastated when I moved out and they keep telling me to move back "home," but their town is very small so jobs and school are limited or nonexistent. So along with the extreme boredom that comes with my job right now and wanting so badly to be learning and doing interesting work again, my parents have access to my bank account and the means to financially drain me if I don't go back to school very soon.

    I am certainly not asking for advice about the parents issue. It's not good, but I'm well aware they are abusive and manipulative. They are not rational people so there is no use discussing anything with them, and my doctors agree that the worst possible choice would be to give in to their whims.
  5. Aug 27, 2016 #4
    Actually, stealing money from anyone, including your own children, is illegal.

    Anyway, can you not do a part-time workload? Take one or two classes per semester?
  6. Aug 27, 2016 #5
    Right. Go to your bank now and tell them that you don't allow your parents access to your account anymore.

    Anyway, you should fix your psychological issues first before going back to school (full time at least). Otherwise you'll fail again.
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 27, 2016
  7. Aug 28, 2016 #6


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    80 hour work weeks are perfectly reasonable while studying with a heavy course load - including lecture sections/ lab work / etc. Assuming you sleep eight hours a night, you still would have time for other interest, socializing and healthy activities with proper time management.

    If you still don't think you can handle this, why're you still trying to go back into a program? You said if you knew what you knew now you wouldn't go straight into college, but that's exactly what're you trying to do now - still unsure if your issues are resolved.

    It sounds like you still have a ways to go with treatment, school shouldn't be a priority right now. It's likely only to end just as poorly and negate any healing you've accomplished.
  8. Aug 29, 2016 #7


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    Zombie: You need to focus on your therapy and become more stable emotionally and psychologically. If you attend school, it should be at a very reduced credit load ie 1-2 classes until you can cope with the work load and your life issues. Truthfully, none of us should be giving you any advice because we do not know all of the issues you may be facing.
    See a counselor and listen to their advice on what steps you should take to get your life back together.
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