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I read this question about falling behind, but my question is more about the long term.

I find myself becoming depressed at lack of overall opportunities in graduate school (in mathematics, specifically, though this question is more about the general case). I had a bad relationship that messed up a few semesters for me at the beginning of grad school. I'm more or less recovered now, but I'm having difficulty trying to support my progress in any way outside of classes.

My field is computational, so I really want to get a summer internship at a software company, government agency, or some other place where I can get exposure to research and skills that are not immediately available in the department (like coding). My advisor's perception of me formed during my period of low performance, too, so he hasn't invested much in teaching me. I have some mediocre grades on my transcript from this time, so the profs from these classes so far don't have such a good impression of me, either. I don't know who to ask for recommendation letters or networking opportunities. I had shining recommendations from undergrad, but that was years ago, which will raise obvious questions on any application.

Meanwhile, my friends are doing interesting projects they can associate with their name. They're giving talks, going to conferences with their advisors, being awarded fellowships, etc. Feeling like I have nothing going on except for classes and an advisor that doesn't believe in me is no good, and though I'm performing better than before, I am still far under what I know to be my potential.

In other words, I feel like I'm stuck in a cycle of poor opportunities, and I'm not sure how to break out of it. I had a lot of momentum when I came here. People were offering me all manner of things, I had many side-projects in different areas, and I was beginning to make a name for myself in research. Now, all I do is try to get my homework in on time. I'm just bored, and don't know how to get back to a successful state of mind.

How could one recover from this type of setback?

  • Not 100% the same, but check out this post for certain: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2219/… – tonysdg Dec 8 '15 at 5:05
  • In my opinion a good supervisor/advisor is also concerned with the well-being and career of the students. Did you talk with them about this issue yet? – SePro Dec 8 '15 at 7:36
  • As I understand this is not your first year or second year. Why do you still have classes to attend? Also, this "I am still far under what I know to be my potential" is working against you. You were an excellent undergraduate but you are now a mediocre PHD student. You should focus on improving your current state and not compare yourself with the ideal picture you have of yourself and your abilities based on your limited undergraduate experience. – Alexandros Dec 8 '15 at 12:32
  • The summer internship sounds like a great idea. Spiff up your resume and start applying! // I'm glad to hear you're putting effort into your homework despite your ennui. // You may be a late bloomer. Don't think about comparisons with other students -- focus on what you find most interesting about your studies. – aparente001 Dec 9 '15 at 5:01
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You've got a few problems here, so I'm going to try to address each in turn.

Depression: As has been noted before on several occasions, depression is very common among graduate students and faculty. The important thing to remember is that you're not alone. Most universities have counseling centers that are available to students for free - take advantage of that. Psychotherapy is effective for most individuals, and a trained professional can help you come up with strategies that are tailored for you.

Adviser Troubles: It's unfortunate that your adviser seems to be less interested in your progress because of some poor grades early on. The trick now is how to make your adviser regain interest in you again - whether that's through more frequent meetings with them (out of sight, out of mind, so stay in sight) or by being proactive and finding interesting research directions to pursue is something you'll have to decide. As a last resort, consider finding a new adviser - it may mean losing several years worth of work, but if it can rekindle the adviser/advisee relationship, it may be worth it.

Letters of Recommendation: One option is to consider alternative sources - are there professors of not-as-relevant courses that you can go to? Past internship employers? For networking - are there career centers or fairs at your school that you can leverage? Think outside the box. Moreover - don't give up on the professors that you've had so far. Asking for a letter of recommendation, with an acknowledgement that you may not have done as well as you hoped in the course, but you still learned valuable material may yield at least an "okay" letter of recommendation. And there's always the possibility that their opinions of you are not as poor as you think they might be.

Boredom: This may be the biggest problem of all. You can see a therapist; you can meet with your adviser weekly; you can cobble together LoRs - but if you're still bored stiff and have zero motivation to do anything, you've got a problem on your hands. Generally, I've found there are two solutions to boredom:

  1. Power through and do the best you can do. As Randy Pausch (late Prof. at Carnegie Mellon) said, "The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people." Show that you aren't "the other people".
  2. Find something else to do. Sometimes there's nothing you can do about it - you're bored, and no amount of self-negotiation will change that. In those times, you just have to find something else to do. Here that could mean a new research project, or even just a new angle on the current one.

Which solution is the "correct" one is entirely dependent on you.


Summary: My overall point is that it's going to be an uphill battle for you. If you want this degree, you're going to have to prove it, and ultimately only you can decide what's best for you.

Here's a little inspiration to get you through your day:

Optimist: Someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it's a cha-cha. ~Robert Brault

Best of luck!

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I was in a similar situation as I worked on my PhD. I had been through some stuff in my life and was depressed for a while and just unmotivated, and I was doing unrelated stuff that was taking up a lot of time. I had taken too long already and basically the message was "finish your degree or get out".

So I pulled my socks up, made a list of all the goals I would have to fulfill to complete my degree and worked on crossing several things off my list every day.

It's better to write the steps down on the list and then cross them off than just to do them without writing them down, because then you get a boost every time you look at your list and see all the things that are crossed off. Of course, you'll also be adding to your list as you go on and realize there's more to do, but as long as you cross more things off than add to the list as you go, you'll eventually get there.

Your own supervisor wants you to succeed, so if you show enthusiasm and willingness to complete your project, you will have the support you need. It has to be you that takes the first step though. Nobody else is going to motivate you so for that you need to look within and ask yourself what topic really interests you and work on that.

There's really nothing quite like having "Dr" in front of your name (I assume you are a PhD student), so hang in there!

BTW, it is over a decade later, and my PhD supervisor is still happy to write me reference letters as I need them.

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