How to deal with grad school woes
February 11, 2015 9:49 AM   Subscribe

2nd year student in a PhD program and I'm hitting some major roadbumps. Questioning my academic career, research plans falling apart, and absentee advisor(s) are all contributing to the problem. Would quit in an instant, but some complications recently arose.

I went right from college to my top-choice grad school(in a science-y field). There were a few red flags thrown up along the way("hands off" advisor, grad students who mysteriously left the lab) but hey, dream school and dream project.

Things went OK at first, but now I'm about 1.5 years in and everything has just piled up. My advisor gave me a project that was not in his field of expertise, and little information about how to actually proceed on this front. I'm the only student in our lab and I'm extremely removed from the rest of our department. Also turns out that my advisor has some negative relations with various people in the department, which I'm starting to feel being taken out on me.

I've essentially made 0 progress on this project for the past 6 months and am struggling pretty hard with depression right now. Seeing a therapist, eating right, exercising etc., but still just struggling with my program and the various dreams of what I could be doing with my life right now.

If I heard this from someone else, I would tell them to quit in a heartbeat(and I was about to), but some complicating issues arose. I received external funding that would bring me closer to a quantitative field(Data Analysis / Programming) and allow me to take classes in these areas.

A resume with coursework in my current field wouldn't exactly be an advantage and I think that this experience would make me a lot more competitive in my future job search. It's also a field that I'm extremely interested in and is in high demand right now. However, the mental burden of being in my program is extremely tough to deal with, and I'm not sure if I can last it out to take the classes I need to.

Kind of a unique situation, so I was just curious what other's experiences in this realm have been. Not sure whether I should stick it out to help pad my resume or just leave and try to find any work I can. FWIW, I'm currently reliant on my funding to live on and would have to get a job ASAP after leaving to cover rent / currently deferred student loans.
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
External funding means not connected to this professor, right? I would seriously consider taking my money and going to another advisor. Do some shopping around and find a lab that suits your working style in terms of level of advice and management given.

If you've got the time and mental energy (a big "if"), play all the fronts. How well do you reall yknow your job market? Make a resume and start getting it out there. Scrounge through job listings and see if there are niche options you hadn't thought of. Science academia can be very isolated from corporate R&D, maybe there's somebody who needs you and you just haven't realized it.
posted by aimedwander at 9:58 AM on February 11, 2015 [10 favorites]

Yeah, shop around for a new advisor. A huge factor in your quality-of-life as a graduate student is good fit with your advisor, and 1.5 years is not that much time invested... you can throw away this project and start fresh.
posted by BrashTech at 10:10 AM on February 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

Agreed that you should strongly look into switching advisors. In the realm of PhD research, 6 months wasted on a project that doesn't pan out is minimal -- there is plenty of time to change paths here. The key thing for me would be switching to someone who is more hands on AND who has an active lab. I absolutely could not have survived grad school without the support and friendship of my fellow grad students. It's already isolating enough without the added issue of being the only one in your lab and dealing with internal politics that's creating distance between you and other students.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:13 AM on February 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

From someone coming from a different field/context but very similar situation:

Don't underestimate the (very negative) impact of an absentee advisor - seconding everyone that you should look for another one.

When I read your question, your problems divide neatly into problems and symptoms; your depression, stress/anxiety about your project, mental burden are all symptoms of a problem: your advisor that's hands-off, imposing his negative relations onto you, giving little to no guidance, not guiding you/advising enough to help you be productive, nor leaving you independent to pursue your interests.

I'm sure you're internalizing issues ('what could I do to change this scenario?', 'how can I change things?'), but take a cue for the other grad students who left the lab - it's not your problem. It sounds like the new field is really interesting. Good luck and pre-emptive congrats on finding a new advisor that works for you!
posted by suedehead at 10:15 AM on February 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Sounds like a lot of this is about poor advisor fit. (Maybe just a poor advisor, but things will go much better if you treat this as a problem with "fit.") The first thing to do is to find another faculty member in the department that you can talk to about this. If you have a faculty committee, you should try talking to someone on the committee. Otherwise look for a faculty graduate coordinator or some other faculty member you know. If you don't know who a faculty member you can trust is, you should ask the other students.

If people don't get along with your advisor you probably don't have to worry as much about them ratting you out. From your description, it seems likely other faculty know that this is a problem advisor. And many people will think crappy student results from a problem advisor mainly reflects on the advisor rather than the student.

You may have a number of options ranging from trying to finish a PhD with your current advisor, acquiring a co-advisor, switching advisors completely, finishing with a master's, taking the extra coursework and quitting then, searching for a new job and quitting once you get it, or just quitting right away. But it's best to talk to someone who has a full understanding of the environment.

You should definitely do something, though. It's not going to get better without something changing. I know people who had advisor fit problems and decided to stick it out because they had put in too much work to start over, and then several years later it became apparent to the student and committee that they really had to start on a new project. They wish they had lost only 1.5 years instead of 4 years working on a dead-end project with a bad advisor.

I also wouldn't consider quitting immediately. While it may seem satisfying to quit, you should be able to leave with either a credential or a job.
posted by grouse at 10:21 AM on February 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Two things, first, take the money and move to a different advisor. That's fine.

Secondly, get evaluated for depression. Husbunny started having serious depressive episodes while he was a doctoral candidate and he dropped out after finishing his coursework, the cliche ABD. What really turned it around for him was a sleep study that revealed severe sleep issues due to apnea. He got a CPAP and now his depression is under control.

Depression runs in his family, and it's only with him, were they able to see how crippling it has been for them. Now they're on meds too!

So change your situation, and get your brain under control.

I've been in shitty jobs and shitty relationships for 1.5 years. It feels really good when you leave them behind.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:31 AM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Chiming in with the "find a new advisor!" consensus. I have a good fit with mine, but I know two people who changed after starting with a bad fit. Both of them are way happier in the new labs without the personality conflict. This is one of those things where the sooner you go the better, but 1.5 years in is not too late to move your PhD in a new direction.

One other thing I'd like to bring to the table is this. How much contact do you have with other grad students outside of your lab? Are there department outreach activities you could join, or do you remember anyone fondly from the courses you took first year? If you've TAed, did you have any co-TAs you enjoyed chatting with? Are there mixers you could attend, or weekly department seminars? There are often things you can do to strengthen your relationships with other students in the department who aren't necessarily your labmates. One of the things I did which I'm really GLAD I did when I was a first-year is make a Facebook page for my grad student cohort--it's nice because it gives us a way to organize cohort-wide parties and gatherings sometimes, or contact people we know from our first year core course but haven't seen in a while. Look into stuff like that.

You don't have to just be friends with students in your lab--actually, my two closest friends in my program are in a totally different "group" in the department from me--and other students in your department might be great sources of gossip or advice about potential new advisers. The more you get out and about in the department, also, the more clear it will be to faculty and other students that you are not the same person as your adviser and that you're not going to cause the same issues that they do. Even if you did get on well with your adviser, based on your comment that he has negative relationships with a lot of people in the department I would encourage you to get out, socialize, and show other people that you are not him and don't want to continue his vendettas. Grad students are generally easier to do this than faculty. As a bonus, grad students will be better suited to give you an esteem boost and remind you that this feeling of floundering and isolation is REALLY common, especially about the point you're at in your career. Getting that reminder will help you feel less isolated and lonely.

Also, re the data analysis/programming stuff: dude, jump on that shit. If you stay in academia, it's marketable, but it's also really marketable if you leave. No matter what you decide re your program, that experience will be really professionally valuable to you right now.
posted by sciatrix at 10:42 AM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think there's this very common mental trap a lot of grad students fall into, where you go, "Oh, I spent 4 years in college and this time is X% of college and I don't want to waste all that time!!!" but the truth is that none of it is that much compared to the rest of your academic career.

When I was in grad school, there were some faculty infamous for mistreating their grad students/postdocs. There was one guy in particular who used to throw paperweights, ashtrays, beakers, etc, at his students while screaming at them and so we would always joke, no matter how shitty my advisor is, at least he hasn't thrown anything at my head yet.

I am not saying that you should work for someone like that, because it is a horrible environment to work in. But I would say that advisor neglect is also a terrible, terrible thing which can be just as bad to work under. I had several friends under "hands off" advisors who went into year 9+ before defending, because the advisor never told them that Y and Z were rookie experimental mistakes and by the way they'd done their data analyses completely wrong because the advisor didn't know or care, and the fundamental premise of their project was a mistake and so they'd wasted the last 5 years of their lives and had to start over. That's one of the worst possible situations to be in, and six months is nothing compared to that.

Anyway, grad school is rough, even if you have a great advisor, so I suppose what I am saying is, it sounds like (as other people here have said), most of your problems are due to your advisor. It's totally ok to switch. Having external funding gives you a lot of options for a brand new advisor, and it's not as uncommon as you think for people to switch labs or to pick up a co-advisor in the first 1-3 years. I would try out a new advisor for a couple months at the very least before making decisions about grad school in general, though, as advisor quality can make a huge difference in the grad school experience. Feel free to memail me if you'd like to chat more.
posted by angst at 8:35 AM on February 12, 2015

Mmm, yeah, ditto on being welcome to memail me if you want to privately chat about stuff. There's a couple of things in your OP that make me think you might be somewhere around my field (evolution/ecology), and whether or not I'm right or wrong I'd definitely be happy to chat to you more about things like how my department responded to students who left labs.
posted by sciatrix at 9:33 AM on February 12, 2015

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