How to overcome these learning obstacles and bad habits?

Page 1 of 1 [ 12 posts ] 

deep-techno
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 7 Jan 2006
Age: 29
Gender: Male
Posts: 1,080
Location: Exeter, UK

07 Aug 2015, 5:27 am

I am a mathematics graduate who recently dropped out of a PhD for personal reasons. I also have Asperger's Syndrome which I was diagnosed with in 1996. Since dropping out, I have been thinking long and hard about why it did not work out, and something that's just occurred to me is that being on the autistic spectrum has presented greater challenges in trying to succeed in general than I originally anticipated. It is something that I have tried to overcome and repress in very recent years but it has still played a major part in how I learn and interpret things compared to other people.

Unfortunately, I seem to have hit a snag, as many of my learning difficulties have present since early school days, but I haven't really had to address them so much due to the simple nature of the exam-based assessment methods and relatively low difficulty of the contents up until now. I've reached a point where if I don't correct my detrimental learning and cognitive habits, I won't be able to progress very far in life and this is really getting me down. Although the context of this post may generally be in academia, I worry that this will affect me regardless of which career path I choose to go down and also in my personal life (e.g. improving fitness and interpersonal relationships.)

Here are some examples of general difficulties I have experienced over the years:

- I often find independent and open-ended learning tasks overwhelming; even if the work is relatively straightforward, I find it very hard to progress unless there is someone who can help me every step of the way.
- I find learning unfamiliar content a challenge, regardless of relative difficulty or topic. Although I can learn things fairly well if they engage me well enough, I find the whole process daunting, particularly when I don't know what I am working towards or if I don't have an underlying sense of what is "correct". This is especially challenging in research environments (in which I haven't been able to function as well as I've originally anticipated), where this pre-conceived knowledge is not necessarily present at first.
- I can get sidetracked from a task if I am overwhelmed by it, which leads to me going off at tangents and being afraid to directly approach the task at hand.
- I am very prone to forgetting things and mixing things up unless they are written down or stated very explicitly.
- I find it difficult to manage my time, and based on previous experience, I find I cannot simply say "I am going to learn to do X in Y hours".
- I very often find it hard to separate emotions and personal matters from professional or academic matters.
- I have a major tendency to dwell on negative and critical conversations I've had with superiors in the past, and the memories of these unpleasant conversations or confrontations constantly replay in my head without reaching any sort of conclusion.
- I have extreme difficulties interpreting criticism. If it is presented in a diplomatic and explicit manner then I can correct what was wrong, but sometimes my mind struggles to know how to process it and how to move forward. This happened during my PhD attempt, my Master's dissertation, and experimental coursework that I've done in school, which has explained why anything not based on an exam or test has proven incredibly difficult for me.
- Whenever I get a hint of criticism from someone, it has a tendency to make me depressed and cause me to mentally deflate and shy away from correcting it. I tend to just think "well that's the way it'll always be" and settle for mediocrity.
- I find it really hard to keep an open mind towards things; I can end up shutting off alternate options or interpretations and then get frustrated and upset when things don't work out.
- I try to discipline myself for a short amount of time to do something and then easily get frustrated when it isn't a very straightforward or quick task, leading to me quitting what it was I was trying to achieve.

The above things have recently made me just mentally cave in over the years, have made me feel like giving up completely and also contributed to depression over the last year and a half. I have always been a consistently high achiever at school and university (gaining several awards along the way) but this has not come without its difficulties. Learning new things can be challenging for a lot of people, but people on the autistic spectrum such as myself often have fewer tools in being able to deal with the associated stress and anxiety than most other people. As a result, I'm finding it really difficult to rectify the things I have mentioned, as they have been happening throughout my life, and I don't feel I can make any sort of progress with them unless I undergo therapy or end up trying to rewire my brain. It's frustrating because I know where my heart lies and what I want to achieve, but these "thinking traps" are hindering my progress and making things unnecessarily difficult.

Does anyone else on here encounter similar learning/cognitive difficulties? Does anyone have any advice on how to overcome these issues in the fullness of time, or more realistically, alleviate them?


_________________
If the phrase "you are what you eat" is correct, technically we must all be cannibals.


btbnnyr
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 18 May 2011
Gender: Female
Posts: 7,359
Location: Lost Angleles Carmen Santiago

07 Aug 2015, 12:06 pm

The two major emotional issues seem to be:
1) problems handling criticism
2) problems handling frustration

It is possible to become better at handling both, but you should probably get therapy rather than trying on your own.
Therapists will teach you ways to handle your negative thoughts and feelings, so you are not blocked by them and can't do what you want to do like research.

The primary cognitive issue seems to be knowing how to do open-ended research which is much different from book+class-learning in high school or college. It seems like you haven't developed the skills needed to figure out what to do in research like how to figure out a research direction or concrete goals, how to synthesize the information you need from mixed sources, what tasks you should be doing day to day. These things are difficult for most beginning researchers, they can be developed with experience. For some people, it takes longer than for others, but that doesn't mean a person who takes longer can't be a good researcher or do cool new things. I think it will be easier to develop these skills if you deal with the emotional issues first. Then, problems that arise won't hit you as hard, so you won't get as overwhelmed or frozen by frustration, which opens the way to improving research skills. One basic idea is just to think rationally about what happens in research, especially about inevitable mistakes and failures.

I suggest getting a good therapist as soon as possible. At first, it may seem like therapy is not going to fix what you perceive to be a large number of problems preventing your progress, but if you really go with trying to think differently about things and trying to manage emotions better, you may find that fixing one or two emotional issues goes a long way towards your ability to do research and how you perceive yourself.


_________________
Drain and plane and grain and blain your brain, and then again,
Propane and butane out of the gas main, your blain shall sustain!


SocOfAutism
Veteran
Veteran

Joined: 2 Mar 2015
Gender: Female
Posts: 2,714

07 Aug 2015, 12:37 pm

I agree that criticism and frustration seem to be the major issues. But you know, just because you have weak points, doesn't mean that you can't improve them.

I have to write things down for myself in a day planner and/or put alerts in my phone in broken down tasks, or I won't get them done. And when I find I'm stressing myself out by thinking about something for too long, I make myself get up and do something that requires a switch in my attention.

I have known a few other people who have either started PhDs or completed them and then walked away from academia. Most of them were smarter and better people than the people who stay in. Most academia is BS. People patting themselves on the back and waiting for their turn to talk. You'll probably make a better contribution to the world and have a better life outside of it.



deep-techno
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 7 Jan 2006
Age: 29
Gender: Male
Posts: 1,080
Location: Exeter, UK

07 Aug 2015, 4:52 pm

This is a good suggestion. Lucking during my times at university (and during my subsequent teacher training programme - as I have decided to teach for a while) I was offered non-medical help in the form of a mentor, who can encourage the use of CBT-style techniques and also just provide an impartial perspective to talk to.

One thing I have re-realised today is that if I make a return to academia in a few years, I will be far more careful about the type of supervisor I choose to work with. The previous two I worked with complained about my apparent lack of progress, but when I tried to talk to them about how my Asperger's (and then depression) affects my ability to learn and that there were things that could be done to help make the experience a bit easier, they either refused or couldn't be bothered to engage with this. I should also point out that they were both inexperienced at supervising a range of students, and therefore may not have developed a great set of interpersonal skills with which they can engage with a range of students. I made some posts about this on Academia Stack Exchange, only to be met with a barrage of criticism, saying that the main thing connecting my experiences was me. When actually, if I decide to work with a supervisor who is very experienced and has a personality that strongly matches mine, then things could work out much better in my opinion.

Still though, I admit there are shortcomings in my cognitive learning processes, that therapy or mentoring might substantially help with.


_________________
If the phrase "you are what you eat" is correct, technically we must all be cannibals.


CupidAardvark
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

Joined: 4 Aug 2015
Age: 37
Posts: 41

08 Aug 2015, 10:49 am

I went to grad school thinking I'd probably get a PhD... but within three months figured out that I'm temperamentally unsuited to spending the rest of my life in a wet chemical lab. Doing everything right and STILL having 99.9% of everything you do fail (if you're LUCKY), ummm, wasn't my thing. So I did a Master's and got a job as a quant instead.

Not getting a PhD isn't necessarily failure.

So I think the first, and most important, question is: 1) Why do you want to go back to grad school? Does research interest you or is it a failure daemon to be exorcised?

Research is open-ended tasks and no right (or any) answers. Indefinitely. It's criticism, both constructive and not. It's criticism from your co-authors before your work even gets to a journal that sends it out for *more* criticism (peer review). It's having your personal and professional life all mixed up as an academic (waaaaay more so than in almost any other profession).

I also think you're also misunderstanding what an academic supervisor is, or, rather, isn't -- not a therapist, not a nanny, not an emotional hand-holder nor a teacher of basic research/time management/organizational skills! Especially as you're coming in with a Master's degree

While its certainly POSSIBLE to get a therapist to assist you in improving your ability to cope with "no right answer"; separating personal/professional; "executive functioning"; frustration threshold; emotional regulation, and; staying on task... it sort of begs the question.... why do you want to? A PhD and life as an academic requires EXACTLY the skills you don't possess. Maybe you can rewire your brain somewhat... but why not do something that plays to your strengths instead?

While its certainly POSSIBLE to get a therapist to assist you in dealing with frustration, cope with "no right answer", separating work/personal matters/regulating emotions/staying on task/"executive functioning"... it sort of begs the question... why do you want to finish your PhD? Any sort of academic job is likely to require EXACTLY the skills you don't naturally possess. Maybe you can rewire your brain somewhat... but why not do something that plays to your strengths instead?

Quote:
have known a few other people who have either started PhDs or completed them and then walked away from academia. Most of them were smarter and better people than the people who stay in. Most academia is BS. People patting themselves on the back and waiting for their turn to talk. You'll probably make a better contribution to the world and have a better life outside of it.


What kind of academics do *you* know? There are bad barnacle-esque ones (as there are teachers, cops, civil servants, etc) but lots of good ones too.

Academia is also surprisingly autism-friendly -- it's an environment in which having all your proverbial eggs in the brains basket (none left for the social skills one) is common and where lack of emotional regulation is regarded as par for the course. My advisor's lab had to be moved across campus at enormous expense in what came to be known as the Great Snowball Earth Argument of 1994 -- he and a tenured colleague were literally incapable of being civil to each other in the hallways of a 9 storey building that housed both their labs.... and nobody batted an eyelash.



btbnnyr
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 18 May 2011
Gender: Female
Posts: 7,359
Location: Lost Angleles Carmen Santiago

08 Aug 2015, 11:13 am

Lol, the great snowball earth argument of 1994, I want to know more about that. One of my collaborating professors is proponent of snowball earth.

It is true that academia has lots of good people, there are few nasty ones but only occasionally encountered and it is more like gossip that blow up their dominance to more than it is. Also many are socially inept and misunderstood.


_________________
Drain and plane and grain and blain your brain, and then again,
Propane and butane out of the gas main, your blain shall sustain!


deep-techno
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 7 Jan 2006
Age: 29
Gender: Male
Posts: 1,080
Location: Exeter, UK

08 Aug 2015, 11:35 am

CupidAardvark wrote:
So I think the first, and most important, question is: 1) Why do you want to go back to grad school? Does research interest you or is it a failure daemon to be exorcised?


I think the reason I want to do a PhD in the future is because it seems like the natural way to extend my mathematical knowledge, and potentially discover something new (albeit small). I think at this stage my desire to do a PhD in the future would be more for personal satisfaction (as I obviously find research quite difficult), and then be qualified to do research in the future if I want. It's partly fuelled by a desire to do something that I find really stretching but very rewarding once I manage to conquer it. Having said that, a PhD is something I've wanted to do all my life (and I've spent comparatively less time working outside of an academic setting than most other people), so it could just be a backlash of that. My immediate plan for the future is to become a maths teacher in a 16-18 college, so I'm aware that if I do that and find it plays much more to my strengths, that I may not want to return to academia, but is that such a bad thing?

CupidAardvark wrote:
I also think you're also misunderstanding what an academic supervisor is, or, rather, isn't -- not a therapist, not a nanny, not an emotional hand-holder nor a teacher of basic research/time management/organizational skills! Especially as you're coming in with a Master's degree

While its certainly POSSIBLE to get a therapist to assist you in improving your ability to cope with "no right answer"; separating personal/professional; "executive functioning"; frustration threshold; emotional regulation, and; staying on task... it sort of begs the question.... why do you want to? A PhD and life as an academic requires EXACTLY the skills you don't possess.


I feel that many supervisors simply want an easy ride with their students, and expect them to be autonomous self-researchers right from the start. Whilst this is the long-term goal of research, it seems to me that their role should be to nurture people to become researchers and provide them with help and advice, when actually they're just people you see occasionally and then they suggest different directions on how to proceed - something that is very different from what I thought a supervisor is supposed to be. You wouldn't start a job without being trained up, so why should academia be any different?

My previous supervisors seemed indifferent when I mentioned being on the autistic spectrum and weren't willing to make adjustments in order to help make things less anxious for me. Then they became disappointed with my lack of progress. Whilst it may not be a supervisor's responsibility to provide therapy or detailed help, I do feel that if a supervisor is unwilling to go to lengths to make sure things are okay, that they're not worth working for in the first place. When you spend 3-4 years of your life working closely with someone, they need to be willing to engage with you as a person rather than simply the output of your work. You wouldn't shout at someone in a wheelchair for not being able to get into a building without putting a ramp there!

I sense that there are more skilled/experienced supervisors who might be able to achieve this (in fact, I spoke to a former lecturer at my undergrad university who recognised my potential, and he was very sympathetic to my situation), but I just need to go out and look for them. I think I am capable of doing research but it'll take me a long time to learn those skills compared to other people - so it seems a bit fatalistic to assume that if I don't have these skills then I shouldn't bother with it entirely. If people can't handle me at my worst, then they don't deserve me at my best.

CupidAardvark wrote:
Academia is also surprisingly autism-friendly -- it's an environment in which having all your proverbial eggs in the brains basket (none left for the social skills one) is common and where lack of emotional regulation is regarded as par for the course. My advisor's lab had to be moved across campus at enormous expense in what came to be known as the Great Snowball Earth Argument of 1994 -- he and a tenured colleague were literally incapable of being civil to each other in the hallways of a 9 storey building that housed both their labs.... and nobody batted an eyelash.


This precisely my problem with a lot of academics. They have no concept of what a normal life is like, they spend their lives working in very narrow fields and then get frustrated at others who don't take the same approach. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of great academics out there, both communications-wise and reputation-wise, but I feel that good communication skills are extremely important in academia, as with any other job. There seems to be a notion that because academia is all about publishing papers, that people can get away with having very poor or non-existent communication skills. If they were to go into any other job or the real world, they would probably not be able to function. But there are some faculty out there who are ordinary people, have a broad life perspective, know a lot about their subject but at the same time are kind-hearted and try not to make other people feel stupid. Those are the kinds of faculty I would like to work with should I return.


_________________
If the phrase "you are what you eat" is correct, technically we must all be cannibals.


Adamantium
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 6 Feb 2013
Age: 1021
Gender: Female
Posts: 5,863
Location: Erehwon

08 Aug 2015, 4:07 pm

There are some interesting notes on the life of a mathematician in the New York Times Magazine piece on Terrence Tao:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/magaz ... y-tao.html



btbnnyr
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 18 May 2011
Gender: Female
Posts: 7,359
Location: Lost Angleles Carmen Santiago

08 Aug 2015, 4:33 pm

Maybe you would do better with a more micromanaging type of mentor who would meet with you more frequently and tell you more details of what to do.

Most students dislike micromanagers, but they seem like a good fit for someone who needs more guidance to get started with research.

These types of mentors have a bad reputation, but in some cases, they are nice people who just want more direct involvment in the day-to-day operations of their research groups and what students are doing.


_________________
Drain and plane and grain and blain your brain, and then again,
Propane and butane out of the gas main, your blain shall sustain!


budgiezilla
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

Joined: 20 Jul 2015
Age: 29
Posts: 34

08 Aug 2015, 4:47 pm

I don't have a lot to add, but deep techno, your first post is a great description of me, too. I love a lot of aspects of research and academia, but I have an incredibly low tolerance to frustration and criticism too. I fully understand why criticism is necessary and good, but it still reduces me to a blob of "I can't do this" for days.

Thanks for your posts - it's not JUST ME!! !

I just started a new master's degree. my temporary solution is to get a statistics certificate, and see if I can join a research team as "numbers lady" or something like that. I figure my ego will get less in the way, and I can do what I do best in my little niche. Let's see if that works out. If it doesn't, there's plenty of room for numbers people in cubicles.



CupidAardvark
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

Joined: 4 Aug 2015
Age: 37
Posts: 41

09 Aug 2015, 1:04 pm

Quote:
Having said that, a PhD is something I've wanted to do all my life (and I've spent comparatively less time working outside of an academic setting than most other people), so it could just


Is there a reason you want to do besides 1) having always wanted to do it and 2) having little experience doing anything else?

Quote:
My previous supervisors seemed indifferent when I mentioned being on the autistic spectrum and weren't willing to make adjustments in order to help make things less anxious for me.


I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one -- an academic supervisor's job *isn't* to make his advisees less anxious.

Quote:
Then they became disappointed with my lack of progress. Whilst it may not be a supervisor's responsibility to provide therapy or detailed help, I do feel that if a supervisor is unwilling to go to lengths to make sure things are okay, that they're not worth working for in the first place. When you spend 3-4 years of your life working closely with someone, they need to be willing to engage with you as a person rather than simply the output of your work.


Ummmm, no. Maybe if you were a 20 yo undergrad with no research experience. As a person with a grad degree (aka evidence of your research abilities), no.

When you entered grad school, you knew you'd be assessed annually on a single metric: research output.

Quote:
You wouldn't shout at someone in a wheelchair for not being able to get into a building without putting a ramp there!


This analogy doesn't work. By your own account, you were admitted to a PhD program with ZERO academic "handicaps" -- excellent grades, academic awards, a Master's degree. You were, figuratively, a top sprinter who qualified on.your.own.merits to the Olympics who baulked at the starting line of the first heat.

(A top wheelchair athlete? Figuratively qualifies to the Paralympics. No amount of effort will or skill qualify a wheelchair athlete to the "regular" Olympics).

Quote:
sense that there are more skilled/experienced supervisors who might be able to achieve this (in fact, I spoke to a former lecturer at my undergrad university who recognised my potential, and he was very sympathetic to my situation), but I just need to go out and look for them. I think I am capable of doing research but it'll take me a long time to learn those skills compared to other people - so it seems a bit fatalistic to assume that if I don't have these skills then I shouldn't bother with it entirely. If people can't handle me at my worst, then they don't deserve me at my best.


I did not mean to imply that you *couldn't* learn those skills -- just to point out that doing something *because* it's a struggle FOR YOU isn't, in and of itself, a reason to do it. To remind you that doing something that comes easier TO YOU is always an option.

Quote:
This precisely my problem with a lot of academics. They have no concept of what a normal life is like, they spend their lives working in very narrow fields and then get frustrated at others who don't take the same approach.


This gets into a did-the-chicken-or-the-egg-come-first territory. The ability to focus on, to spend a lifetime fascinated by, one hyper-specialized thing (to the exclusion of pretty much everything else) is PRECISELY what results in academics... well, in the sciences.

Quote:
Don't get me wrong, there are lots of great academics out there, both communications-wise and reputation-wise, but I feel that good communication skills are extremely important in academia, as with any other job. There seems to be a notion that because academia is all about publishing papers, that people can get away with having very poor or non-existent communication skills.


Academia, specifically, academia in the hard sciences at first-class research institutions*, is about the acquisition of new knowledge -- so, yes, the emphasis is on NEW RESEARCH, as measured by the METRIC of publication in proper, peer-reviewed scientific journals. The potential for producing new knowledge is the basis on which grants are allocated and tenure-track professorships are offered. Which is as it should be... and why social/communication skills are effectively an "optional extra" in hiring and tenure-granting decisions at first-class research institutions.

* as distinct from, say, smaller colleges where the emphasis is on teaching undergrads

Quote:
If they were to go into any other job or the real world, they would probably not be able to function.


True... because academia* is NOT like other fields/jobs. Academics* probably make bad chefs. Chefs probably make bad professional football players. Professional football players will probably never have the skills to make it as professional ballet dancers. Not all skills are transferable, they're just not.

As a side note, possessing a rare, in-demand skill makes the "real world" willing to overlook a LOT. I'm a quant and an Aspie and so are many of my colleagues.



deep-techno
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 7 Jan 2006
Age: 29
Gender: Male
Posts: 1,080
Location: Exeter, UK

23 Aug 2015, 4:33 pm

CupidAardvark wrote:
Is there a reason you want to do besides 1) having always wanted to do it and 2) having little experience doing anything else?


Also because it's the natural extension of what I've done before and enjoyed, which includes learning mathematics at an advanced level. However, in my case, my ability to do this has saturated and maybe needs some time to replenish.

CupidAardvark wrote:
Ummmm, no. Maybe if you were a 20 yo undergrad with no research experience. As a person with a grad degree (aka evidence of your research abilities), no.


I should probably point out my Master's degree was a taught Masters, which was mostly sitting lecture courses. I did submit a dissertation and got a 1st, but I think this was purely because my piece of work well met the criteria in the mark scheme rather than because it had any sort of research value. I remember a long conversation with my supervisor at the end of that, who said that my work would be close to a 1st but it didn't have any value. So in some ways, my graduate degree was not a good indication of my research skills and I probably should have taken more time to decide whether I felt fit for a PhD at that point. I personally felt no, although my personal tutor suggested that I go straight into a PhD because I would otherwise forget a lot. In my case, this was a poor point of reference.

CupidAardvark wrote:
When you entered grad school, you knew you'd be assessed annually on a single metric: research output.


Yes, but I thought that if I gave myself time to gain some research skills that in the end I would become good at it. Again, this ended up not happening.

CupidAardvark wrote:
By your own account, you were admitted to a PhD program with ZERO academic "handicaps" -- excellent grades, academic awards, a Master's degree. You were, figuratively, a top sprinter who qualified on.your.own.merits to the Olympics who baulked at the starting line of the first heat.


Maybe I shouldn't have achieved so much then... Then people wouldn't have such high expectations of me.

CupidAardvark wrote:
I did not mean to imply that you *couldn't* learn those skills -- just to point out that doing something *because* it's a struggle FOR YOU isn't, in and of itself, a reason to do it. To remind you that doing something that comes easier TO YOU is always an option.


Me doing a PhD wasn't BECAUSE it would be a struggle. It was one thing that I thought might be a rewarding pursuit if I can get it licked in the long run, though this was probably more based on ideologies than a realistic option given my abilities and strengths. I am going into something else for the time being, which plays much more to my strengths - i.e. teaching mathematics.


_________________
If the phrase "you are what you eat" is correct, technically we must all be cannibals.