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May 2, 2012 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Are they going to kick me out of grad school(linguistics phd)?

So, I'm in a linguistics program on the east coast, first year. I was not doing well mentally, went to a p-doc and got diagnosed with bi-polar 2 half-way through my first semester. Academically, I feel that I was not doing well at all. I had to adjust to medicine and couldn't concentrate or read for long lengths of time(I'm fine now), and I feel that I didn't retain much at all, which left me scrambling to catch up at the beginning of 2nd semester. The profs whose classes I was struggling in know about my issues, I told them as much once I got the diagnosis and they said that they noticed improvement once I got on medicine.

2nd semester rolls around and I'm doing better but not fantastic in my classes. My phonology professor told me that maybe another school would be a better fit for me, and asked me why I didn't go into Slavic linguistics since that's what I originally wanted to do(Russian major). I told her that my undergrad profs talked me out of it.

My possible thesis adviser(if I did syntax) is disappointed in me and basically told me that my recommender that we both know misrepresented me.

I don't want to do syntax anymore, but experimental neurolinguistics. We have two profs that do more of that sort of thing, and I have good relationships with them(and did well when I T.A.d the ones class and was in the others class).

We get review letters in the summer, and I'm afraid that they are going to basically say I have to shape up or they'll kick me out. I know that this happens, and I'm scared to death.

Based on my (scattered) account, are they going to say this to me? What can I do to fix it?
posted by lettuchi to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
We get review letters in the summer, and I'm afraid that they are going to basically say I have to shape up or they'll kick me out. I know that this happens, and I'm scared to death.

Having never attended academic grad school, I can't tell you how likely this is to happen, but let's say it does. Let's say they let you know that you are on some kind of probation.

So what?

You already know that your performance this year wasn't as good as it could have been. You are already taking steps to correct that performance -- and good for you! -- and your professors are acknowledging that you show improvement.

Surely you do not intend to repeat your performance this year. That may happen -- life is strange -- but it's not your plan, right? Your plan is to keep improving, right? To be a better linguistics grad this year than you were last year, and so on. Your plan is already to shape up, so if they tell you "you have to shape up" it's not like that's a new burden on you. It's something that you already want to do and are already trying to do. They are telling you that, if you want to stay there, you will have to do something that you already want to do. It's not a problem.

It sounds like you're afraid that you won't be able to enact your plan. Like you're worried you won't in fact be able to be a better grad student this year than last. That's okay. It's totally natural to worry about that. But sometimes, the worry can become self-fulfilling. You might benefit from talking through some of this with a therapist.
posted by gauche at 9:50 AM on May 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


There's not nearly enough information to figure out whether they will be sending you such a letter. But, as gauche says, it doesn't matter. Whether they send you a letter or not, you know you need to significantly improve your performance. And it sounds like you have taken some serious steps to do this. Good job on taking those steps.

So forget about the letter. It doesn't matter. Do the best you can next year whether you get a warning letter or not.

My possible thesis adviser(if I did syntax) is disappointed in me and basically told me that my recommender that we both know misrepresented me.

Don't do a thesis with this person. I don't care how much you want to do syntax.
posted by grouse at 10:02 AM on May 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


The reason they send those letters is because they want people to shape up, not because they want to kick people out. You also want to shape up. You know what factors led to your having issues with your coursework this year. You have a plan for managing those issues for next year, and the years after that.

Lots of people fuck up their first year of grad school and make a strong comeback. Someone from my program who almost got dropped is a pretty high-profile superstar in his field now.

Agree with grouse that you need to avoid professors who don't like you or your work, even if you're interested in their field. Work with professors you have a good relationship with. Syntax guy is bad news for your academic future; all you can do is prove him wrong by doing good work with his colleagues.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:17 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


The reason they send those letters is because they want people to shape up, not because they want to kick people out.

I couldn't have said this more clearly. They want you to stay; they chose you for their program (and they really love that tuition money you bring to the table, plus it looks bad when students drop out of programs). They will not kick you out for poor grades over 2 semesters. They might not even send a letter, but it doesn't matter.

From your post, I'd say the most important issue is following a topic that you are very interested in. Go with experimental neurolinguistics (or even revisit the Slavic linguistics interest) and build those relationships with the other professors. I agree with the others that Dr. Syntax is probably a lost cause and you should probably avoid working with him/her.
posted by puritycontrol at 10:25 AM on May 2, 2012


I got a similar letter in graduate school (as did several of my classmates in a class that numbered in the single digits). I was never kicked out. The letter feels awful, which is actually a good thing because if it didn't you wouldn't be motivated to change. If it arrives, it will outline specific conditions you will need to meet and a specific time frame in which to do so. Once you've met those conditions, you are back to being a regular graduate student again and it won't affect you in any way going forward. I graduated years ago, am working in my chosen field and no one has ever directly asked me about it again. My classmates' experiences are similar.

I agree with the folks above who are recommending you steer clear of the syntax guy. Graduate school is stressful enough without having to negotiate a negative interpersonal relationship with the person who will be guiding you on to your career. I also agree that it's a lot rarer than we might be programmed to think as students that someone is actually kicked out of their program. Your faculty does want to help.

You have taken all the right steps to take care of yourself, and that is excellent. One foot in front of the other and you'll get through this next bit too. Lots of us have been in similar positions and have come out the other side. Good luck.
posted by goggie at 10:29 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've had students who totally effed up their first semester, due to mental health issues (according to them; I'm not privvy to, nor do I want, the details).

Many of these students spent the next semester showing steady improvement, and the next semester after that doing excellent work. I have nothing but admiration for these students.

I think you know that your assessment for this year is not going to be "Thumbs up! Keep up the good work!" so don't get yourself into a mental state where if the letter isn't uniformly positive, you're going to shrivel up and die. Know it's going to be rough, but also be aware it won't be the end of the world.

Drop the syntax. You don't want to do it any more so why? Also, you do NOT want a grad advisor who is anything short of 100% confident in your ability to do stellar work. Plenty of people switch advisors. Follow up with the neuro profs, ask them in detail about their research, do a literature search and read up on their stuff, come back to them with more questions about what you've read, and show them your enthusiasm and your ability to work in their field.
posted by BrashTech at 10:34 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unless you're in a program that counts on cutting people in first year, you're surely safe. And if you do get the letter you fear, it will be crushing. There's no getting around that and no matter what anyone says it will make you feel really small. But it doesn't mean that you don't belong and that you can't turn this around; it's usually the comps that are the cut off points in programs, not the end of first year. You say you're on an upward trajectory and that's what's important. And a lot of people have a hard time adjusting to grad school. Trust me, your department is used to it.

You've had rough year: try and be kind to yourself and not look back on your failures, but on what you did right, how you are improving under difficult circumstances, and how you will continue to improve. Good luck.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:00 AM on May 2, 2012


Have you spoken to the graduate coordinator? It might make you feel better to let him/her know what you're thinking and that you are aware that things went a bit poorly this year, but that they will go better next year.

Speaking to her/him before the annual review session will also give you someone in the room who knows your side of the story and can (at least potentially) ameliorate any negative opinions.

You might also consider talking to the professors that you'd like to work with. If they like you and know you want to work with them they'll be on your side during the review process.

Remember that, generally speaking, the department wants you to succeed.
posted by oddman at 12:56 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


they really love that tuition money you bring to the table

Not even slightly part of how faculty think about PhD students.
posted by spitbull at 5:56 PM on May 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm at a laptop instead of on the phone . . . so I will say that I think some of the comments here are a little too optimistic. Syntax is an essential component of a linguist's doctoral training, so you can't avoid it until you get to the dissertation, and even then it's hard to marginalize it entirely since it is the central focus of modern linguistic theory (for better or worse, I think, as a phonologist at heart, that it is for worse). Given your interest specifically in Russian linguistics, have you considered comparative literature or Slavic or sociolinguistics instead?
posted by spitbull at 5:39 AM on May 3, 2012


Also, nearly everyone struggles in their first year of a PhD program on some level, and it is entirely typical to form a much more negative impression of your own success level than your faculty members actually have. The solution, as some have said, is to kick ass next year, be entirely serious, own up to the bad first year but don't dwell on it, and to find your own passion (and dissertation topic, at least broadly speaking) as soon as you can, and with a savvy attention to the specializations of the faculty members you want to work with.
posted by spitbull at 5:42 AM on May 3, 2012


Syntax is an essential component of a linguist's doctoral training, so you can't avoid it until you get to the dissertation, and even then it's hard to marginalize it entirely since it is the central focus of modern linguistic theory (for better or worse, I think, as a phonologist at heart, that it is for worse).

I think that's going a bit far. Neurolinguistics, experimental linguistics, and computational/corpus linguistics are where it's at in the field nowadays. If OP would be doing theoretical Chomskyan syntax with this advisor (which is somewhat likely on the east coast), I don't think the job prospects would be better at all compared to any of these other specializations. And if OP does neurolinguistics, that doesn't mean the neurolinguistic focus can't be something syntactic. It also doesn't automatically follow that syntax study would be avoided for the next several years even if the OP went into phonology.

That said, I agree with spitbull's second comment completely. If the faculty wanted to kick you out of the department, you wouldn't receive a letter this summer saying "shape up or ship out", someone would just tell you to ship out. You know you need to shape up, so make sure you do it.
posted by kosmonaut at 6:48 AM on May 3, 2012


Hi. I'm a second-year PhD student in a(nother) east coast linguistics program. I have struggled with depression and the academic problems it brings. You've already gotten some great advice; I hope that from my perspective I can offer some as well.

[So-and-so] basically told me that my recommender that we both know misrepresented me.
This strikes me as a wildly unproductive way of engaging in advising. There are a couple of ways you can proceed to mitigate this.
  1. Consider the possibility that these folks are just very bad at communicating (with you and in general). Having their egos brutalized over the years can make academics very grumpy and sad. They might genuinely want to be helpful, but not know how. This fall I was in a small-ish bureaucratic tangle with my department, and my advisor handled it by approaching me at an unrelated function in front of other students and faculty and trying to goad me into getting publicly angry. He thought I was being too passive, and was trying to teach me a lesson about standing up for myself. (Unbeknownst to him, I was dealing with things quietly, and everything worked out fine.) After spending a couple of weeks fuming, I had a long and frank (and private!) conversation with him, and I learned a lot about his communication style, mine, and how they both fit into the academic ecosystem. He's not gotten any less abrasive in how he deals with me, but it helps my peace of mind a lot to know how he ticks, and that (in his unique way) he does have my back. To give a specific example relevant to you, if you start to seriously consider changing programs, your phonology prof sounds like she would be willing to help you think about how and whether to do that.
  2. Stop relying on these people for advice. Hypothetical good intentions aren't carte blanche for behaving like a child. These will be far from the last people who will be making unhelpful, (perhaps) unsolicited, and rude remarks about you(r intelligence). A thick skin is essential for an academic, but far more important -- not just as an academic but as a person -- is to find people who you can rely on for advice and support. So let these folks flap their lip, and focus on developing a working relationship with your other professors (which it sounds like you've already begun to do -- great!).
Based on what you have told us, it is virtually inconceivable that you'll be kicked out of the program. You had a problem, are dealing with it successfully, and your professors have noticed both of these facts. It sounds like you are doing all the right things (managing mental health issues, developing ideas for future research, ...)

You haven't mentioned other students -- how do you get along with them? They will absolutely be your allies at the toughest points in your program. If you want one suggestion (Here we go with academics and their unsolicited advice! I'll try to refrain from being an utter jackass, though.), I'd say you should see if they can help you put your experiences with particular professors, courses, etc. into context. I bet that you aren't the only person who Dr. Fancyass von Syntaxpants has been rude to, and swapping those stories at the grad students' happy hour or whatever helps remind you that it's not really about you.

Best wishes!
posted by dendrochronologizer at 2:56 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


kosmonaut, I mean acquiring expertise in syntactic theory, whether or not it's your research focus.
posted by spitbull at 4:05 PM on May 3, 2012


I mean acquiring expertise in syntactic theory, whether or not it's your research focus.

I didn't gather from OP's description that the intention was to never learn any more syntax, but just not to be a syntactician. But if I misinterpreted what OP meant, then I agree with you.
posted by kosmonaut at 6:50 PM on May 3, 2012


Thanks, everyone.
posted by lettuchi at 10:01 AM on May 9, 2012


Got my letter. Nothing about being kicked out, but I need to raise my grades from B's to A's.
posted by lettuchi at 11:59 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


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