Lots of money, zero support
August 3, 2009 5:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm getting great scholarships, but my faculty hates me. Do I stay in grad school?

Yes, it's another "what to do about grad school?" question, but I hope my situation is unique enough to keep things interesting.

Okay, so since I started grad school last year (my MA year; I'm entering PhD this year), I've received two very prestigious government scholarships for my work. The one I received this year will cover me for the next three years, is worth a lot of money, and is an honour few people in my field ever receive.

Sounds good, right? The problem is that I am hated in my faculty, and am considered by many to be a feckless troublemaker. This is causing me huge emotional distress, so much so that part of me is screaming to abandon school altogether, despite the huge piles of cash thrown my way. Yes, it is that bad.

It's hard to say exactly how I became branded in this manner. I swear in other facets of life I am considered congenial and likeable. But in grad school I have managed to build up an impressive cadre of enemies. Keep in mind that I still keep in touch with my profs from undergrad, who encourage me vehemently to continue my work, and I have made good contacts with faculty from other schools. But where I am studying right now I'm some sort of menace, apparently. I often wonder why that is so, but that's a topic for another question.

At the moment, nobody is willing to support the research for which I won this three-year scholarship. In fact, a prof recently wrote me a scathing screed detailing why such research would fail. It is not the first such screed. The main issues, by the way, are related to methodology; in my field, my current school goes about its research in a unique way, and any deviations from this standard are met with derision (nor is any consideration given to the fact that other approaches are worthwhile).

Opportunities to transfer to another school are slim, given my field and the limitations of my scholarship (in country only). Recently an opportunity presented itself to continue my work in a school in another country, but this plan is contingent on securing the necessary funding, which is dicey.

At the moment my main problem is this huge mental block I have with grad school. It's not easy having your own faculty repeatedly tell you what a pile of rags you are. My escape plan is not without merit, but any emotional investment in school at the moment causes considerable pain (yes, I am seeing a medical professional about this). The thought of throwing it all in the dustbin is so so tempting, but I worry about what that will cost me in terms of money and future career opportunities. Plus I'm not sure if any career would suit me as well as academia, though academia seems so sour to me at this point I'm not sure if it's worth the effort.

So, what to do? Any and all suggestions are welcome. E-mails may be sent to the temp address gradschooldidmein@gmail.com.
posted by anonymous to Education (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Could you be more specific about the controversies/political infighting/personal animosities that resulted in you being blackballed? Without knowing the basis for your identification as a "feckless troublemaker," it's hard to give you advice. If you would MeFi-mail one of the moderators, I'm sure they would post it. (If you will MeFi-mail me, I would be happy to post it as well --- I promise not to divulge anything you don't want divulged).

I have to say, without knowing more, that it's not sounding very good for you. Usually people don't get blackballed in graduate programs for no reason.
posted by jayder at 6:15 PM on August 3, 2009

my current school goes about its research in a unique way, and any deviations from this standard are met with derision

That's a big red flag.

Without knowing any details about your specific field, which is a very important bit of information, I'll advise as a history postgraduate manqué. Derision for standard-deviation would itself be a matter for derision in any decent humanities Department. Your school sounds quite unusual for a research institution—fixed research patterns are characteristic of ideological cadre schools, not universities.

A demonstrated capability to attract and maintain funding, in my limited experience, is *very* highly valued by good Departments of all kinds. If I were in your position, I'd get out.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:21 PM on August 3, 2009

Also, what field are you in? I wouldn't stick out a humanities PhD. in your situation unless you are a genius, because the work of non-geniuses always sucks for a while, and it sounds like you won't be getting the kind of feedback on your work from your committee members that non-geniuses need to succeed. Then your work won't be good enough for people to care about it who aren't already obligated to care, and that's basically the way you eventually get a job, by impressing people who have no institutional reason to care about you.

But it sounds like you might be a scientist (a social scientist maybe?) and that might be totally different.
posted by Kwine at 6:25 PM on August 3, 2009

You will need people like your adviser to write you recommendations once you finish and are looking for jobs. Do not stick with faculty that works against you/undermines you/doesn't support you. In other words, I'd consider changing schools if you want to get your PhD.
posted by speicus at 6:30 PM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm wondering whether anonymous is a philosophy grad student studying in an analytic-focused department but who works in a more SPEP style.
posted by jayder at 6:31 PM on August 3, 2009

One of the reasons to do a PhD at a particular program is to bask in the expertise of the faculty. If your topic isn't something that will benefit from the faculty's skills/knowledge, what's the point?

If they all do one kind of method and you want to do a different one of which you haven't received training (or at least your school isn't known for), how's that going to look in the future? Let's say your school does method X and you do method Y. The whole academic world is going to expect you to be an X and when you aren't they aren't going to know what you are about. And the practioners of Y are going to think "s/he didn't get trained in Y, so we don't trust her/him."

The fact is, your faculty have PhDs and years of expertise. They (should) know what they are talking about. If they think that your project is impossible and you've discussed it with them and neither side is willing to budge, get out.

We don't know what your topic is, but maybe finding a program in a similar, but different discipline will be a good idea for you?
posted by k8t at 6:37 PM on August 3, 2009

Forgive me if I'm way off base here, obviously particularly given that the question is anonymous, I might be misinterpreting something..but... Are you sure the faculty hates you?

You don't say where you are, but you do say you have prestigious government fellowships. The red flag for me is this: These fellowships in the US and Canada (NSF, SSHRC, NSRC) aren't something you could easily get if the faculty hates you. The way these generally works is that you write up your application and submit them to the department and the department ranks the applications of all all grad students who apply and these rankings go in with the applications. It's unlikely you could get such a scholarship without being ranked highly within the department. Why would they rank you highly if they hate you and your work?

Could this "screed" against your research be your advisors (possibly insensitive but nonetheless par for the course and well-intended) comments on your work? It's your advisors job to point out all the holes and problems with your work, and yes to point out an unfeasible or unwise plan. I've seen plenty of dissertation ideas turned away because they're too flawed (whether the grad student thinks so or not), not because the grad student or his/her approach to the discipline or topic or his/her topic are disliked. Peer reviewers aren't kind either, this is just something you have to get used to in academia!

Have faculty from other schools in your discipline read your work and encouraged you to go ahead with it? Unless the answer is yes, I would consider the possibility that you may just need to dispense with the preconception that you're disliked (they let you in, they ranked you highly enough to get a great fellowship) and grow a thicker skin.

Again, I may be way off base and if so forgive me, but I may be right also, so consider it.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:49 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Part of your question seems to be along the lines of "why is this happening to me?" I think I can address this, as I have run across versions of this pattern before.

At the moment, nobody is willing to support the research for which I won this three-year scholarship. In fact, a prof recently wrote me a scathing screed detailing why such research would fail. It is not the first such screed. The main issues, by the way, are related to methodology; in my field, my current school goes about its research in a unique way, and any deviations from this standard are met with derision (nor is any consideration given to the fact that other approaches are worthwhile).

Grad school can be particularly challenging for a certain kind of very strong student who comes in thinking that they know exactly what they want to do, how, and why. Such students can gain the reputation of being unwilling to learn/adapt to the department, and it sounds like this may have happened to you. Graduate programs, and individual professors, want to make students their own. It sounds like you want to do _your_ research using _your_ preferred methodology, but really most advisors will want the students to use the _advisor's_ methodology, and to greater or lesser degrees (cultures very a lot) work on research related to the _advisor's_ work. It is a difficult situation for you if that is really what you want to do, but admission to a PhD program is not a promise to provide an advisor for any and all research in the field. I don't know whether this particular screed is well-founded or not, but I'm afraid it is not practical to believe that if the department feels this strongly about this methodological issue, you will nonetheless find some way to work using the methodology you want. If you want to stay in this program, I think you might have to make some concessions.

On preview:

Your school sounds quite unusual for a research institution—fixed research patterns are characteristic of ideological cadre schools, not universities.

I couldn't quite parse this comment in full (and I have no idea what an ideological cadre school is), but this just isn't true at all. It is extremely common (in fact, probably completely unavoidable) for functional departments to have a particular focus, bent, methodological range, etc that they aren't interested in having students go outside of. Unfortunately most incoming grad students aren't exactly in a postiion to fully understand these parameters.
posted by advil at 6:49 PM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

As the others have said, it would help if we had more details--are you in the humanities, the sciences, social sciences, etc.? (Also, if everyone hates you, how are you getting these scholarships? I can't think of a single scholarship that doesn't multiple require letters of rec.)

I can think of all sorts of things that might anger one or more faculty members, but it's difficult to advise if we don't know what your faculty are angry about. If lots of people are angry at you here, it's possible that lots of people might also get angry at you somewhere else. This is not to say that you're at fault, but there's some important data missing.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:51 PM on August 3, 2009

I'm one of those people who recommend getting out of grad school to most people -- but if you're getting money thrown at you, that's more of a grey area. Your environment at your school now is clearly toxic and I think you need to get out of there any way possible. You say your undergrad profs love you -- any chance you could go back to your undergrad school? Surely there is someone in the country who would be interested in your work, even if it is only tangential related to theirs, and could supervise you properly. (My guess, from clues in your post, is that you're Canadian and holding a super-SSHRC -- if so, it means your options for places to go are more limited than in the States, but there must be someone in Canada who would want to supervise you.) Could you take a year off and defer the award? Did you apply to multiple universities for your PhD? The fact that you have this big award is a huge bargaining chip to take back to other universities you applied to and get in there. (I knew someone who, without an award, change universities for their MA in September by pulling some strings.)

On the other hand, I'd also have to agree with Kwine that if you are doing a humanities PhD, it might not be worth the effort in the long run. Please, please look very carefully at the placement rates in your field and don't simply delude yourself (like most PhDs) that you'll be the one to beat the odds, because you might not. I'm sorry if that's harsh, but it's true.
posted by pised at 6:53 PM on August 3, 2009

Mod note: This is a followup comment from anonymous.
More about my situation:

I am in a humanities program, though not philosophy. I have been doing well enough that, departmental recs aside, I expected to continue my career in academia post-PhD.

Transferring to another school is iffy. Few to no schools in my own country do much work in the field. I have this other option for another country, but, as I said, there's no guarantee for funding.

I received my rec letters for my scholarship before things turned on me here (I also have some undergraduate profs I rely on for letters). Yes, faculty from other schools have supported my ideas. Also, the "screeds" against me include some thinly-veiled personal attacks concerning my conformity to accepted standards.

The problem is that I am having trouble emotionally investing in grad school with such limited prospects. Even if I try for this transfer, it really is becoming a strain on my life dealing with all of this. Part of me just wants to run away and try something new.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:56 PM on August 3, 2009

A lot of grad school is socialization. A lot has been said on AskMe about this... try a search for some helpful hints. The biggest one though - try to fit in until no one notices that you're doing something different.
posted by k8t at 7:20 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're seriously getting piles of money thrown at you, tough it out. That's a huge opportunity to let other people throw away.

You're going to have to work out something. It may involve some concessions on your part. Try to smooth tensions if possible. Figure out what you absolutely will not, cannot, compromise on, and focus on making the other things more acceptable to these people.

Work hard enough so that one day you'll be able to turn one of their grant requests down.
posted by spaltavian at 7:30 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Going by your post, it appears the faculty find that you need their help to become a better researcher. There's nothing in your post to suggest hatred or anything personal. If you're here to get a MeFi group-hug, maybe you need to give us a few facts indicating what has actually happened. Even in your followup you make self-serving complaints about personal attacks, but no facts.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:33 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wonder what you look for in a transfer school, and if changing how you prioritize your needs might be helpful to finding a solution. I am in the social sciences, anthropology specifically. My master's advisor once told us that the way most students choose advisors is by looking for someone with the same "area focus" (for example, mine would be West Africa). This is the most obvious way in which people "do what I do" in anthropology. But, she argued that this is the least important way in which your advisor's work should match yours.

First, she said, look for theory. Then methods. If these two things are not a good match for your project, you will end up fighting your advisor (and committee) all the way. Last is area focus, if you can.

In Canada, most of the type of government scholarships you talk about can come with you to any university in Canada. I suspect that other governments may work the same way. You say that there is "very little opportunity" for you to transfer, but with such a scholarship, it's likely that you have your pick of universities. So, have you thought about going to a department with a less obvious subject match but a more obvious methods/theory match? It may be a bit of a risk in that people may not be able to guide you as specifically as you'd hoped, but on the other hand: 1) you aren't getting good support from your current department; and 2) you have a wide network of scholars in other departments who you can draw on for subject-specific insights and links to other academics working in your area.

The most important thing in a humanities degree (or one like mine, too) is that your advisor help you find ways of developing and expressing your own ideas and analysis. You're going to be doing a lot of your work alone, and you're going to need someone who can support, nurture, and guide the process of work perhaps moreso than the content of it.
posted by carmen at 7:12 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

The fact that you have been awarded significant funding from external resources is huge, and not something I would walk away from unless I decided that I hated my field and did not want a future career in it. That said, it is never good to feel like your faculty dislikes or does not respect you and your work. Two things to keep in mind:

1. Grad school is partially about toughening you up to face the professional world in your field. You are supposed to be challenged, debated, and scrutinized. Sometimes this sucks, especially when you feel like your faculty looks down upon you and your work. Being able to persevere, however, will teach you a lot, and speak to your professionalism. Also, depending on your approach, their attitudes toward you & your work might change.

2. It sounds like you & your department hold divergent philosophies about your field. That can be a good and a bad thing. Have you tried things "their way" at all? This is key, and if you haven't, then do so, and see what you can learn from it. I would imagine you would have had to explain your methodology in your scholarship applications, and I do not know how much you can stray from your original proposal, but perhaps comparing and contrasting the two different methodologies and examining any disparity in results might be a component you could include in your work.

I honestly don't think you should leave and jeopardize your future career goals, if this is what you love and what you want to pursue. Stick it out for one more semester. If you can't make it work, search for alternatives like transferring (as difficult as you have said it is) or other ways to continue your work which certainly sounds like its respected outside of your department.
posted by katemcd at 7:31 AM on August 4, 2009

I have been doing well enough that, departmental recs aside, I expected to continue my career in academia post-PhD.

You are wrong.

A mildly clinically depressed person accurately accesses how others feel about them, while normal people always overestimate themselves. An average graduate student has zero concept about your future employment prospects, a smart one has even less idea, period.

Few to no schools in my own country do much work in the field.

You need to change your field within what your scholarship allows. Academics are dedicated to their own research, but they must prove their flexibility too.

You're possibly already fucked within your field, even if you change countries. I mean, you may get some PhD grant abroad sure, well even big PhD grants are chump change. But you'll always have opponents within the hiring committee, they'll contact your current department for personality dirt, they'll do this even if forced to admit that you're the strongest candidate.

I'm speaking as a mathematician, mathematics is the "friendliest" science, other sciences are much much worse and care much less about your skill level, and the humanities will be far worse than even I can imagine.

If you do want to stay in your field, you need some soul searching to figure out your problem, ideally talking with your faculty.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:37 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm speaking as a mathematician, mathematics is the "friendliest" science, other sciences are much much worse and care much less about your skill level, and the humanities will be far worse than even I can imagine.

Huh? This is a wildly general statement about a complex topography that varies from institution to institution, as well as subfield to subfield.

I feel like we still don't know enough about this situation. It could be the that department is being horrible, or it could be that you're being insufferable and they're just trying to endure your being impervious to criticism. I don't think we have enough information to assess what's going on here.
posted by umbĂș at 9:15 AM on August 4, 2009

Academics can be like this, I often wonder how people who are professionally involved in the careful expression of complex ideas can be incredibly incapable of expressing themseleves effectivly to their students.

Who really knows what they think or intend with their comments? The kind of criticism that can get chucked at you at graduate school can be very difficult for people who are perfectionists to take. In fact its often the most enthusiastic and interested students who find this hardest to take, because they take it personally. It is highly unlikely that your wholefaculty may have developed an irrational hatred of you - seriously, these things do not happen. However, I know plenty of people in my faculty who are convinced that prof. so and so, really hates them. But they mean they got some criticism that they didn't like.

Now, you don't have to think all criticism is valid, but you need to address it any way, because this is the metric by which your progress is evaluated on a day to day basis. I have had two people give me completly contradictory crits, both of which I personally disagreed with. But in the end it helped me refine exactly what it was I was trying to say.

Finally, have you asked them what they think? Can you not play along methodologically for a bit, also?
posted by munchbunch at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2009

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