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Should I drop out of graduate school?

  1. Nov 3, 2013 #1
    I'm a first year graduate student working toward a Physics PhD at a large, top 50, private university in the US. I have weekly (increasingly frequent) panic attacks and I cannot motivate myself to study or do homework. Because of this, I have intense feelings of guilt nearly constantly.

    I wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares about graduate school, which usually consist of failing courses or failing quals (which I take at the beginning of my second year). I have multiple fist-shaped holes in the walls in my bedroom from panic attacks. I've actually screamed out loud twice now, without knowing why I was screaming. These are my worst moments.

    I also have good, positive moments. Sometimes I breeze through homework and grading, and my life feels like it's going well. Unfortunately, these days don't last very long. Once the guilt of not doing homework/work catches up, it's over.

    I have no interest in my courses. I am not struggling because the material is difficult - I just can't bring myself to actually do homework or study. I catastrophically failed my first midterm in Classical Electrodynamics (Jackson). Whenever I tried to study, I froze. I just couldn't convince myself to study for more than an hour. I am low or mid-passing my other courses. TA work is easy and low-stress, and pays generously.

    Ultimately, I know I'm "capable" of getting my Physics PhD, meaning that I know I have the intelligence necessary. I do not have the work ethic, and ironic as it may be, no matter how hard I try, I cannot convince myself to try to do well in graduate school.

    I don't want to give up. I feel like a failure already, and I haven't dropped out yet. But at the same time, I can't handle the stress. Do I drop out? Is this normal? Do I just need to suck it up and do the work? If so, how do I do that?

    I'm not sure what I want to accomplish with this post, but it somehow feels cathartic to just share my thoughts. Does anyone have advice, or can anyone relate to how I feel? Is this a normal part of graduate school?

    Thanks for reading, and any genuine responses are appreciated.


    I graduated from a small 4-year liberal arts college last May, with a full scholarship. I have a BS with a double major in Physics and Mathematics. I participated in three summer REU programs, all at top five, ivy league universities (this is largely due to luck, not brilliance). I also worked as a TA for three years. I have excellent computer and programming skills, despite never taking a programming course (and waiving required programming courses in college). I have an abysmal score on the Physics GRE, because I simply could not motivate myself to study for it, and instead chose to wing it.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 4, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 3, 2013 #2


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    See a mental health professional at your school.

    You really need to do that.

    Also, what do you do to relieve stress? Do you work out regularly, eat right?
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 4, 2013
  4. Nov 3, 2013 #3


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    Well is sounds to me like you've got a lot of stuff going on.

    I think you've got to figure out and deal with the panic attacks first and foremost. It's completely normal to feel a little more stressed once you're in graduate school. The work is more challenging. You're in a new environment. You're embarking on a project that is likely to have a significant effect on your career. Not to mention you've gone through another major bottleneck and may find yourself among a cohort of peers that are more intelligent or motivated than your undergraduate class. And it's quite easy to feel like you're on the bottom of the heap again.

    That said, most graduate students deal with this without punching holes in walls or waking up screaming. I agree with Student100 in that because the stress has crossed a threshold where it's having a significant impact on your life, it's probably a good idea to seek some kind of medical opinion. Panic attacks can be exacerbated by conditions like aid reflux. Or if this is the result of some kind of depression it will be good to make sure that's diagnosed and that you can get whatever tools you need to deal with it.

    Once the medical side of things is under control you then may have some personal direction issues to sort out. One option you could try in this respect is to sit down with your graduate advisor or supervisor or the associate chair of your department and explain that you're having trouble adjusting. If nothing else they may understand why your performance may be inconsistent with their expectations of you. But ideally, this may help to explore options such as a leave of absence from the program. I know I would rather have a student take time off than to fail out.

    You may also be experiencing a touch of the "haven't I suffered through enough classes yet" or HISTECY syndrome. Most people reach a point where they get sick of studying for exams, and yearn for some kind of real-world work. (For many this point happens somewhere during high school.) It's possible you've crossed this threshold.

    How to deal with it? Well you either suck it up and deal, or move on to something else, I'm afraid. But things that can help you to deal include making time for exploration of your own personal interests, pursuing your own projects, and generally taking care of yourself.

    That last point is a big one. I won't go into too many details. Most people already know what it means: eat right, get enough sleep, exercise, do constructive things with your down time, choose your friends wisely and associate more with people who have a positive impact on you - that kind of thing.
  5. Nov 3, 2013 #4
    I just wanted to sympathize with the classical electrodynamics thing. I think this was quite possibly the least interesting part of my physics education. Tedious expansions in terms of special functions is not the reason most of us are attracted to physics. But (imho) it does get better once you get past the qualifying exams and especially once you have your own problem to work on.

    But if you're not really interested in ANY of the usual graduate courses, you might be in the wrong field...
  6. Nov 3, 2013 #5
    Seek professional help. There's no shame in doing so, sometimes we all need someone to lean on to get through tough times.

    This is a serious problem, especially since no one on this forum can help you motivate yourself. If you don't enjoy the material or aren't interested in it, why are you getting a PhD in it?

    If you have trouble with your work ethic try and reach out to other students, study and do homework in groups. Other student's work ethic's may motivate you into fixing your own. I can't stress enough that you are ultimately the only person who can fix this, no one else can give you a magic pill to suddenly motivate you to do the necessary work.

    Stress is normal, but it is usually due to the difficulty of the material, among other reasons. Your stress however, seems to be completely of your own doing. You mentioned several times that you don't have the motivation or aren't willing to try and study/do homework. This is something (should you choose to stay in grad school) that you will have to fix, you will almost certainly not succeed otherwise.

    Again you note that you couldn't motivate yourself to study properly. Based on your post this is your only real issue. you claim the material isn't hard but you are failing or near failing your classes. Your path forward here is clear, you have to fix your work ethic. Like I said above, studying or doing homework in groups is a good place to start.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 4, 2013
  7. Nov 4, 2013 #6
    I have been unsure and hesitant for a long time, but today I finally scheduled an appointment with a counselor. The soonest available was one month from today, but at least I have something planned. I have been working out regularly (which helps) and eating fairly healthy. That's one area of my life I'm actually improving.

    This is something I've been considering for months. I don't know if I'm burned out on classes and exams, and just need a job, or if it's something temporary that will subside if I wait it out. I chose to start a physics PhD mostly because it feels like the logical next step, with better employment opportunities than just my BS.

    I love programming and software, but I'm not very interested in physics. I have no interest in postdoc work or becoming a professor, so that might be a red flag.

    I'll likely set up a meeting with my adviser (the department chair - I'm still a TA), and ask for advice. I'm extremely worried now, since I scored very low on one of my midterms.

    I'm glad I'm not the only person experiencing this. Thank you for sharing that.

    I don't enjoy any of my classes at all. I actively dislike them. There is one class next Fall I will most likely enjoy (a programming based course), but I am not looking forward to any of my courses in the Spring.

    I know this is true. This is the source of my overwhelming guilt and disappointment in myself. I am trying as hard as I can to improve my work ethic, as strange as it sounds, and I haven't been able to make any significant changes. I know the stress is my own fault, but that only seems to make it worse when the guilt catches up with me.

    Thanks for all the helpful responses!
  8. Apr 11, 2015 #7
    I turn 32 in June. After reading your post, I honestly don't know what to think about anything anymore or how to feel about myself in general and what it is I am doing. I mean, it was like you had written down all my thoughts, concerns, and emotions over the past two years ...even the parts about anxiety and panics then left it here for the day after I got back my first Jackson midterm and barely broke 20. Reading words that are your thoughts at the very moment you're reading those words is a weird feeling. That was a very unusual reading experience for me, I'm kind of just relieved in a way that I'm not alone. However I don't possess the confidence in my abilities that you do. This is partly because I transitioned from having my undergraduate in biochemistry to pursuing my graduate degree physics at a top program with people far more intelligent and seasoned than myself, and partly because of fear. I honestly don't know if I can do this to myself anymore as the motivation to even study at all is beginning to fade with my dwindling self confidence. It's more like, why even bother anymore, I'm never going to grasp this stuff like my classmates, and I hate myself and my brain so much for that. To be honest I don't even know how I made it this far,... quantum mechanics 1 and 2 from last year are complete blurs to me and now I'm bombing my very final required course (electrodynamics) and will be expected to take quals at the end of this summer. I am so afraid of failing. Not because of the word (or the implications of the word) failure, but because I am now considering giving up on the one thing in my life that brought me true joy. All of my plans for the future, my aspirations, my very identity may soon be gone... I don't know what I am going to do, and I am so sad.I want to keep going so bad, unfortunately I'm just not sure if I have it in me. I don't know how to express my feelings to my family or to my wife because they wouldn't get it.

    I'm having a peculiar rush/mix of emotions right now, and I still don't know how I feel about this post. You also got the catharsis part spot in by the way... Maybe that was my reason for responding...

    I hope you have found better days and that you're happy once again.
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