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So I am a MS student somewhere on the east coast US as an international student. I have a rough draft of my MS thesis.

I have been struggling really badly with motivation. I feel like I am able to the bare minimum to by and am honestly surprised that mentality and bad work ethic has gotten me so far in life.

I am having trouble accepting it and still am in denial perhaps, but I was diagnosed with MDD ~10 months ago (if I can remember). My plan initially was to submit my thesis long back, but the severe lack of motivation is really hitting hard. I am not sure but I somehow have managed to get by this far with minimal motivation, or doing a majority of work that I need to do (exams, project which was the basis of thesis, etc) in random bursts of motivation. The draft I have now was a product of those bursts of motivation, late night sessions, and moments where I felt like the smartest fella around.

But I guess my luck has all but run out -- bone dry -- and I need to get my proverbial s%%t together and fix this situation. I haven't had a burst of motivation etc over the past 4 months, and the thesis is stagnant. I know the severe consequences of not doing it in time, and losing the job I am at - job at an org that I only dreamed of being in as a kid, and work that I seem to be enjoying. It has costed me dearly, both literally (in tuition fees) and figuratively. The fear of deadlines, nor the interest with which I seemed to work on it before, none of them are around anymore. At some point I was hurting myself to write a page or two, before I felt zero motivation again, and realized this wasn't sustainable. So I swallowed my ego or disbelief etc and got on medication a few months ago which apparently was supposed to help with focus and lifting mood and spirit in general, but months in, it doesn't seem to be doing anything. I'm falling back on my old mechanisms to crank out work.

Now, you might ask "well if you were that bad, why even go to a foreign country?" and that would be a valid question, but I did not know what I was doing was not normal. I guess my luck ran out after I arrived here. Everyone has been really kind to me -- I don't know why -- despite being such a disorganized individual who probably does not belong here, wasting resources, both of my family and the countries. I sought help due to some of the more physical symptoms, perhaps due to the symptoms of my diagnosis (bad sleep eating habits etc.), got on medication as a "last ditch effort" because I had nothing else to try. I am really ashamed of myself, for being like this despite having pretty good circumstances and no reasons to feel this way.

I have sought advice in other places, but haven't gotten anywhere. I feel like I'm grasping at straws, and want to try a little before I ultimately give this up. I guess this question is one of those desperate attempts to try and find anything useful to help me get back on track with my thesis. I understand this isn't the place for mental health advice, so I am looking for academic advice. What can I do to trick myself or somehow motivate myself, even a little, to get something done each day, so that they add up and I eventually finish it.

What have I tried?

I was speaking with a counsellor on campus, but haven't found the motivation to figure out insurance and research places to seek LTT. I tried various techniques, breaking down big goals into small more manageable ones (fix typos on page 35, then break this passage into 2 ... and so on) to try and accumulate small wins. This has given me the most success relatively (after hurting myself) but am running out of time, progress isn't fast enough. I also tried bribing myself with food etc when 10 or so small goals are met, but I can only go so far when it feels tasteless. Tried to make a stringent timetable to do things, a flexible one that says "do this do that", motivational TED videos, motivation from family and friends. I just need to write things up! I'm starting to think I'm not cut out for the adult world, and want to give it all up.

I feel like I am at the end of my rope. Am I just making excuses? Am I not being harsh enough with myself? Am I just procrastinating without responsibility? Please share advice on techniques that people in academia use to get back on track. I maybe do not deserve the things I have (my job and internship experiences, for example) considering the effort I put into things compared to my peers, but I do not want to let it go to waste. I want to try a little more, before I give up.

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    Go back to the counselor or a doctor to see if they can tweak or update your medication.
    – mkennedy
    Nov 10, 2023 at 14:20
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    Have you talked to your thesis advisor ? Did they say how much more would be needed for a master thesis ? Remember you are writing a master thesis, not a PhD thesis. It's not supposed to be this hard. I suspect you are pushing yourself too hard.
    – Nobody
    Nov 10, 2023 at 14:24
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    How much do you really need to add if you have a draft? Can it just be turned in and you can accept it is not A work?
    – Dawn
    Nov 10, 2023 at 14:25
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    @mkennedy yeah I did I was bumped up on dosage and it has been about 3 weeks. She recommends waiting for about 2 more weeks for it to "kick in". @ Nobody I haven't told him about the made-up issues I'm facing, but he has been really helpful when I asked for a review. Need to get through the changes and write a couple more pages. @ Dawn I expect around ~10-15 more pages. And reviews for that and the rest of the doc. Nov 10, 2023 at 14:42
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    Have you tried to do a “co-writing” session with a buddy? Set a time together, share your goal for the session, and do it (live or remotely). If self-imposed pressure / motivation doesn’t work for you, a bit of social pressure might help
    – user126108
    Nov 10, 2023 at 18:03

4 Answers 4

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This is very difficult to answer for people with no specific training and who don't know you. But it is probably not something that you can just do on your own. Find the help you need to get through this.

There are several different kinds of help available:

Your advisor may be able to help, even if it is to give you extra time to complete and to let you work through the issues.

A medical advisor probably can help, though you seem to have done that already.

A psychological advisor can probably help by exploring both the root of the issue and advising on strategies to overcome the problem.

Note that many people have different sorts of issues, some similar to yours, though perhaps not quite so much of a block. I once suffered from burnout and from extreme introversion. The first required changing institutions as my advisor there was no help and had his own issues. The other was overcome through a kind of group counseling that helped (and continues to help) me act effectively in public situations. Your issues seem to be different, but there are experts who can help. Many universities (larger ones especially) will have an office that can put you in touch with them.


And, yes, rewriting from a draft is hard, often boring. I left one project for a few years because of that.

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To me this doesn't sound like an academic problem so I won't give you academic advice. The issue could be your thesis or any other major responsibility that people have. The fact is that you're unmotivated to engage with major life activities.

There are many angles you could approach this from: depression and therapy; a broken brain needing medication; a change in lifestyle habits (sleep, nutrition, exercise, exposure to daylight); life coaching to examine your life plan and learn how to "get stuff done"; a spiritual/existential depression; a medical problem.

You mention hurting yourself twice. That points to the urgency of your situation. Rather than trying to improve your school performance, which is not working, I think it might be better to take a leave of absence from school while you're solving this problem. ***If you're actually hurting yourself, your safety takes precedence over your degree!

I would approach this from two directions: (1) The small things you can do for yourself every day, starting today: sleep, nutrition, exercise, abstinence from all substances, fresh air, enjoyable activities. Simply ask yourself, what do my mind and body need right now? What can I do to help myself right now? (2) Larger supports. I can't advise you on this because I have personal biases about what kinds of help actually help people. List your options for major supports and choose the one(s) that you think are most likely to help you. Starting making contact with those people or facilities immediately.

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Depression is difficult to endure and there's no one right answer. However, along with seeing a counselor, talking to friends and family, and keeping up contact with medical professionals, I do want to mention something else that might potentially help you on your road to recovery. If you were recently diagnosed with a medical condition, you can request accommodations through your school's accessibility center. That might help alleviate some of your stress, if you don't need to worry about finishing your thesis within a certain amount of time.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers a variety of neurological and physical disorders, including "emotional illness," as is referred to by the United States Department of Health and Human Services:

An individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities means functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.

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Here are some ideas that I hope will help:

  • Find a location that you don't associate with anything to work on your thesis. Don't do anything else there. When you decide to take a break, find somewhere else to take your break.
  • Figure out how long you prefer to work without taking a break, not rushed nor overwhelming. Find separate blocks of time in your schedule of one-and-a-half times that. If you want to have multiple blocks consecutively, take a relatively long break between them, and don't work on your thesis during the break. Come up with goals that you think will fit in that length of time. If you finish a goal in significantly less time than expected (less than half), work on more goals until you've exceeded half the time you expected. If you finish in approximately the amount of time you expected (within 50%), call it enough and move on to something completely unrelated. If it's taking too long (more than one-and-a-half times the time), put it at the end of your list of goals to return to once you've done everything else, go do something unrelated, and work on a different goal next session.
  • If you come up with ideas when you're not actively working on your thesis, add it to a list of ideas. Write down everything you're thinking of, but don't do any research beyond what you need to put it into words (or drawings!). Once you have enough ideas that aren't part of existing goals, add a goal to your list to go through your ideas.

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