#5: Academic Overwhelm

Dear Story Nurse,

My question is regarding writing peer reviewed journal articles. I really struggle with the theory section of the paper—as two panels of reviewers on two separate papers have been pretty blunt about. (I mean, my advisor had told me before more politely, but it hadn’t sunk in.) I’m still a graduate student, so I feel like I just don’t know the literature well enough to even know where to start with strengthening the theory section. On one paper the reviewers were nice enough to mention a few authors to look at, and sometimes my advisor does that, but more often they don’t and they all just say “you need to say why this is important,” or “you need to reference Theory X” (which is so broad there’s hundreds of papers on it).

The thing is, even if I were a full-time graduate student, I wouldn’t have enough time to read all of those hundreds of papers. But I’m also working on another really important project for my PhD, and preparing to teach a class in the Fall that I haven’t taught in more than 5 years, plus other classes I teach every year but need to revise, plus struggling with motivation due to some jerky stuff an ex-advisor did to me. Even when people suggest “well, just read a few random papers and see who they all cite,” even “just” seems like an insurmountable hurdle, when each individual paper can take me more than a day to understand. And even if I don’t read each one all the way through but jump straight to their references section, it still takes time to decide on which papers to even look at in the first place, and it’s also time consuming to get ahold of the papers.

Help! It’s just so overwhelming. This feels like something that in 10 years will be a non-issue, but how do I get from here to there?

—Writing Grad (they/them)

Dear Writing Grad,

The key word in your letter is “overwhelming.” The straw of needing to read up on theory in your field has sent the proverbial camel to the proverbial chiropractor. I do have some suggestions on that front, but first, take a few slow deep breaths and sit with your feelings of overwhelmedness. You are doing a lot right now, and anticipating a lot more to do in the fall semester, which may be starting in just a week or two. All of those obligations and responsibilities feel even bigger than they are when you look at them collectively, and thinking of one just leads to the next—look at how a letter asking for help with a relatively specific writing concern turned into a litany of everything that’s on your plate. I am very glad to be someone you can recite that litany to, but there’s more going on in your life than an advice columnist can help you with, and it sounds like you’re really struggling. So please seek support from what Captain Awkward calls “Team You”: friends, family, partners, your advisor (who is hopefully less of a jerk than the ex-advisor was), mentors in your field, a counselor or therapist, whoever will be kind and useful when you ask for help. Your school may be able to help you access counseling resources. As far as I can tell, anyone doing a PhD should be getting significant professional mental health support; my first attempt at undergrad study sent me into a massive depressive tailspin to the point where I had to drop out, and I can only imagine how much more emotionally and psychologically challenging graduate-level work is. So please do reach out for what you need.

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