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I am an undergraduate in theoretical chemistry, and I am currently having a summer research internship at one of the top institutions in the world. I was dreaming about this experience for a long time, but now I think that I can't handle it.

I started to feel drained of energy six months ago when my family had serious problems in their relationships, finances and health. Now, it's two weeks into my 8-week-long internship and I am unable to focus on anything at all. The only hope I have is that intermittently I have bursts of energy, when the idea of leaving seems preposterous, but they only last 1-2 days max. I also have troubles sleeping.

I have always been a diligent student coming in top 1-5 in all examinations I sat. My internship last year also went quite well and my results from it resulted in a publication. I have never felt as I do now, and even though I'm trying really hard to pull myself together, I'm failing.

I wonder how much quitting would affect my reputation, especially if I'm being honest that the issue is about my mental health. On the other hand, if I stay but am utterly unproductive, would it be worse?

  • This is not really the best forum for this. You need to go see a counselor to talk through what's going on. They can probably guide you better in what you need to do, rather than asking the masses who don't necessarily have your best interests in mind (not that this community is out to get you, but we don't the background that a trained counselor could gain on your particular situation). – scrappedcola Jul 9 '18 at 14:14
  • @scrappedcola Thanks. I just wanted to hear from any PI's or senior academics what they response would it be in this situation. I'll speak to my counsellor as well but they might not necessarily have an understanding of the attitudes in academic circles. – Ginger Badger Jul 9 '18 at 14:17
  • Your institution may also have academic counselors that could give you a better feel for how stopping your internship at this point could affect you. If you want academic advice you may want to edit your question as it seems more about your mental state than an actual question on how this would affect your academic career. – scrappedcola Jul 9 '18 at 14:20
  • @scrappedcola, you might want to expand your comments about counselors into a full answer. Comments often get purged in time whereas answers won't. – Buffy Jul 9 '18 at 14:45
  • See this related answer on quitting a PhD. I think you should speak to a medical counselor if available at the university. These sound like classic symptoms of anxiety and depression, and you may be able to get some medication or talk therapy that will help! academia.stackexchange.com/questions/95747/… – Dawn Jul 9 '18 at 16:31
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I think it would be a mistake to discuss your mental health. But you can more safely discuss the issues that might have led to it. It is natural to feel drained when family/relationship issues take so much mental and emotional effort.

The best thing, assuming you cannot continue, is to discuss the underlying issues with someone involved in the program. They might have some solutions for you that you don't see now, such as deferring your participation. Be sure to stress your interest in the program and your abilities, so that you have some positive things to say beyond any obstacles in your way.

If I were the person you talked to, I would try to find a way to make it possible. Your background suggests you would be the sort of person the PI would want to accommodate.

The comment of user scrappedcola also seems wise.

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Talk to your advisor. The thing is that you are, as an undergrad researcher, most likely not vital to the research.* You are there to learn things rather than produce a lot of output. But this also means that it shouldn't be a problem if you don't finish your internship or you put it on pause and continue later.

* in my experience in theoretical chemistry undergrad internships are often used to test feasibility of projects or do routine work, both of which the more experienced students can do quite easily beside their main tasks.

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Quitting a program like this would not disqualify you from future research pursuits as long as the rest of your CV is on point and you have strong recommendations.

However, before quitting, I strongly suggest that you speak to a mental health counselor at the school, if available. The issues you describe sound like classic symptoms of anxiety or depression, which could have been triggered by the family problems. You may be able to continue the internship successfully if you get the help you need.

In any case, university counselors trained in mental health are very familiar with the pressures of research and the career paths of students like you. They can help you make a balanced decision based on your individual problems and circumstances and can also help you make a plan on who to talk to and how to frame the issue.

See also this answer I gave to a PhD students who had a somewhat related question: How do I know that I have truly lost interest in research and should drop out of a top CS PhD program?

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