phd fit?
August 9, 2017 1:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting a humanities PhD program this fall, which is awesome, except my research interests have changed big-time from what I described in my statement of purpose and the program (though really wonderful) is no longer a super great fit. I'm extremely sad and worried about this. Plus other stuff.

My research interests have shifted so radically in six months because I had an advisor in undergrad who gave me a lot of cool opportunities but also actively shaped my interests after their own and had really poor boundaries. I don't want to get into the details, but it was a mess, the extent to which I'm only really processing after the fact. Since committing to a PhD program in February, I've asserted serious boundaries with this mentor and kind of had a come-to-Jesus moment with myself and what interests me; these interests are very peripheral in my past research and being explored in really fascinating ways at another institution I applied to, where my advisor did not submit their recommendation on time for my application's consideration (...??? they went MIA for a couple months during application season and it caused Many Problems, but mentor is also a person with stuff going on despite our complicated relationship and I'm trying to keep that in mind).

So I'm starting this other PhD program, fully funded, pretty highly ranking. It is an incredible privilege. I feel like I'm wasting their time/money/resources; I know that I want to pursue this level of work in my field, but I'm extremely sad that I've committed myself to a program that doesn't fit as well as other departments (specifically two other departments) in my interests, which feel right in a way that past interests/work does not. I hate that I've realized what I actually want to do after committing. I'm going to start it and see how it goes, but part of me is hardcore mourning the fact that I will not be able to bail if it's not good and have a chance to apply to programs that fit better because of the stigma/seeming really flaky (according to my mentor? and I guess I am flaky). Added complications: The school is in a location that is kind of freaking me out now that the dust of my extremely tumultuous senior year has settled, so there's another layer of anxiety.

The fact that I'm even having these thoughts and asking you all about them also freaks me out and makes me think I'm too immature to even be entering this program. I feel like I don't deserve it. I'm really mad at myself. I feel like such a piece of shit for not being excited; instead, I just feel stressed, envious of friends just beginning to think about applying to grad school, envious of people in the better-fitting programs, and extremely sorry to the really great program that I'm entering and not excited about.

I do think my concerns about fit seem valid, fwiw; this program is fine for my interests, but the other places are like "lakjdfkljasdflomg I'm overwhelmed by the work being done there" good, in addition to being located in places that are better cultural fits for me. All of this wasn't apparent to me with my mentor licking at my heels, telling me where to go, telling me places I liked were the wrong fit, etc, while dealing with personal loss, thesis, etc etc. I'm pretty hungover from a really awful year, and that is certainly a contributing factor to my feelings right now (and feeds into me feeling like a young stupid child).

How do I calm down? How do I shift my thinking from dread to excitement? Is dropping out because of fit and applying to different programs a thing (after trying to make it work in this program)? I feel like an idiot. I'm so so so excited to do the academic work that interests me, but moving to City and not being sure how my research will fit in the department makes me feel kinda sick. Part of this, I'm sure, is also that I just don't know enough information about my program, about how grad school works, etc to try to logic myself out of my anxiety.

I really appreciate your advice. Sorry for whininess. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you are wise to give yourself more time by starting the program you've already been accepted into. You have funding, and it's high ranking, so there's definitely value in giving that a chance. Once you've actually been there for a while you will have a better sense of the realities of the program. You may be able to spin your original proposal a little towards your current interests, or you may be able to engage with those interests on the side of your PhD - make some contacts - there may well be people in the field that can help you. You can build that up while you work and then look to pivot after you have the PhD.
Worst case, you'll realise you are now in completely the wrong program and have to leave and start over, but I don't think you'll be worse off for doing that in 6 months to a year from now vs jumping ship now without a clear plan of how to get onto another program.
I'm not sure you can get to excitement directly from where you are, but you can see it as a smart choice that you've consciously made and that may help quell your anxieties.
posted by crocomancer at 5:00 AM on August 9, 2017

Regarding switching topics: a huge number of people in my program didn’t choose their research areas until they had been in coursework for at least a year. People who started off as Americanists switched to British lit. People who started off as Victorianists switched to 20th century. People who started off in composition theory ended up writing about queer theory and 21st century poetic narrative. People who started of wanting to work on Shakespeare switched to eco-crit.

The department accepted you, not a future dissertation that does not yet exist even in theory. Part of the reason a lot of people switch topics/disciplines is because the process of coursework teaches them that their original ideas were untrue, or done to death, or not ideal for the job market, or not good for their mental health. A lot of seasoned professors will even caution against having a set project in mind until you’ve gone through at least some coursework, because it can calcify.

The only problem would be if you want to switch to a field that no one in your department works on— but even that can be solved with independent study and outside committee members.

Also, please know that the current state of affairs in academia means that a long of previously accepted wisdom (and probably a lot of stuff your mentor told you) is no longer true. Leaving a program is not failure. Switching to another program is a thing people do for all sorts of reasons, including fit & faculty. Things that were presented as “fact” even five years ago are no longer applicable to new grad students.

Taking your first year as a test run is fine. Asking the department if you can defer acceptance for a year is fine, if you need more time (no guarantee they will say yes, but you can ask if that is a thing!).

Does your program have anything set up where you can visit and talk to current students? That was a big help for me.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:16 AM on August 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

I would consider deferring your entrance into the program you were accepted into for a year. This is quite common and not at all a big deal. That will give you more time to work through the many feelings you are having about your undergrad advisor and give you the confidence of living in the "outside world" for a little while.

In a few months, you might decide to apply for the better fit program or you might decide to go to the one you were accepted into. Either way, grad school is what you make of it and there are no perfect fits for anyone, so try to gently let go of your envy and your self abnegation.

Many of your anxieties are common to everyone starting grad school -- not to deny your feelings, just to remind you that all of your peers are struggling alongside you and to try to build a community to help you when you get there. And in the end, research direction fit is not the most important thing in how well a program works for you, it's more about your relationship with your peers and your advisor and other intangibles.

You sound like a thoughtful and passionate person, you will do well wherever you end up!
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:22 AM on August 9, 2017

I'm with the people saying to stick it out for at least a semester to a year. My understanding is that the first few years of a PhD program are coursework rather than research per se, and that knowledge should serve you anywhere, whether you stay at your current program or go elsewhere.

From a logistical angle, you'd be starting in like a month, right? Is that even enough time to ask for a deferral? What would you do during this upcoming year, both to advance your understanding of your field of study, and to pay the bills? Unpacking your relationship to your former advisor (I would not call this person a mentor, based on your description) is worthwhile to avoid making those mistakes again, but that likely doesn't need to be 24/7 for an entire year.

As a datapoint, I went to medical school at a Prestigious Place you have probably heard of. I chose it based on persuasion by some key figures in my life, rather than my own interests. It was in a city I never really felt comfortable in, and there were definitely times, including right before I started, that I wanted to drop out and start over at a place with a "better fit." However, even at that stodgy ol place, I found some great mentors, I certainly learned a lot about how academia works, and having that name on my resume has opened doors, even years later. More to the point, I grew up a lot in those years, and my interests became more refined as I learned more. I had MD/PhD friends whose interests morphed, and it was literally never a problem. One guy took an extra year, and that was only because he realized in the middle of his dissertation that he was more interested in mouse models than C elegans. I imagine any grad program worth its salt anticipates that its incoming students will grow and learn and sometimes change direction, and they should have a procedure for that.
posted by basalganglia at 6:51 AM on August 9, 2017

The fact that I'm even having these thoughts and asking you all about them also freaks me out and makes me think I'm too immature to even be entering this program.

Well this stranger on the internet is here to tell you there is nothing immature about what you are thinking. Quite the opposite - it's very easy to find yourself in a Ph.D. program just because that's what you've been planning for so long, without doing this sort of self-examination to make sure what you are doing is still what you want to be doing. Which can bite you hard after you've already started - ask me how I know.

Part of this, I'm sure, is also that I just don't know enough information about my program, about how grad school works, etc to try to logic myself out of my anxiety.

Which means, conversely, that you don't really have enough information to logically have this anxiety to begin with. I don't think logic is the way to go here. It's ok to feel what you are feeling. Try accepting that rather than fighting it and demeaning yourself for feeling it, and I think your way forward will seem a lot clearer. Just a guess, but I'd bet even money (though maybe not any more than that) that in a few years you'll realize that some of your other anxieties, like worrying about the location and your sudden reversal to feel more interest in other schools' programs, are less independent worries that are contributing to how you are feeling and more extensions of your fundamental worry, that you're scared of the commitment you made.

A lot of people going into grad school thinking they know exactly what they want to pursue (also, many don't! That's ok too!). Some of them are right. Some aren't. Some that aren't find a way to redirect within their program. Others switch advisers; others switch programs; others switch schools. Nothing's off the table right now.
posted by solotoro at 7:01 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

In my program, we were told that if you ended up doing the dissertation you described in your application, that wasn't good -- it means you didn't grow much as a scholar through your coursework and exams. My advisor also liked to see significant changes between the dissertation prospectus and the actual finished dissertation -- it meant that you seriously engaged with your sources and were open to reinterpretation based on the evidence you actually had to work with.

In other words, don't sweat it. Lots of people change their focus in grad school.
posted by heurtebise at 7:23 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone else. It's really hard to know in advance if a department is a good fit. Often what it means to be successful in a Humanities PhD is interpersonal and has little to do with research area. You need to have a dissertation director you get along with well and you need to be able to weather the immense amount of stress and imposter-syndrome and uncertainty that comes with grad school. The research will be easy part, and what you're going to end up writing on is likely going to be a bit different than what you're currently excited about, and a good department will guide you there.

So, is it still in the field you want to work in? Does the department have good placement? Do you think you'll find mentors there? Is it debt-free? Then it's still a good idea.
posted by dis_integration at 8:09 AM on August 9, 2017

Definitely don't drop out. Either defer a year or give it a chance for a while.

I would strongly advise against "fit perfectionism". Sounds like this place is no longer the number one best possible fit for what you want to do. So what? You are going to learn more and develop as a scholar and your interests will change again. By the end of your PhD those other places might not be the best fit for your interests either.

There is a cost to deferring or transferring. You will lose time and accomplish less. If you realize your university is a bad fit you should carefully consider moving, but don't do it because it is merely a sub-optimal fit. After moving it is easy to discover that things that looked better on paper are worse in reality.
posted by grouse at 8:10 AM on August 9, 2017

For what it's worth, I did a very similar thing, though in the physical sciences rather than the humanities. Partly driven by enthusiasm that turned out to have more to do with my undergrad advisor than the subject matter itself and partly driven by several other concerns both specific and personal, I accepted a program and realized before arriving that I'd made a mistake. I showed up anyway, took a year of classes, and did a tiny bit of research. I re-applied to other programs during the first quarter and switched schools after one year. Looking back from many years later, I had a fantastic grad school experience, I now have an incredibly close working relationship with many people from the institution that I originally quit, and my academic career has been fantastic and not hurt at all by the change.

In hindsight, I'd probably advise my younger self to speak frankly and early with the faculty at the first school and see if we could have made things work. I almost certainly could have saved a year and a boat load of stress by not switching. Objectively, it could have been done pretty easily, and it would have made everything simpler. But, at the time switching seemed terribly important and doing otherwise would have made it hard to put enough effort into doing well in the program.

If a bad fit means, "there are only two faculty here doing work reasonably closely related to what interests me, and the colloquium topics don't look too interesting," or (even more so) "the classes offered don't line up with my incredibly specific interests," then it's worth both giving it a try and pausing to consider what things actually matter in your grad career. Sharing a floor with 8 people working in your subfield rather than 1 is nice, but 98% of your day will be exactly the same either way. If a bad fit means, "there's no place for me here, there's nobody who I genuinely respect as an advisor, and I'd rather jump off a bridge than take a qualifying exam on these required topics," then don't hesitate to make plans to bail. Not quitting before you've actually got an acceptance letter to another program would, however, be prudent. (Just 'cause you got in last time is no guarantee the same will happen this year. It's a different committee, and a different case.)

Also, I'd urge you not to pay too much attention to mentors who say that changing your mind about exactly what you want to do during or before your first year of grad school means you're flakey. They're either practicing tough love to test your convictions, or they're not being very kind or thoughtful. Being sure you actually want to go to grad school and having some idea why you want to go to grad school in August strikes me as a sign of unusual maturity and introspection among incoming students.

Best wishes and sympathy, whatever you decide!
posted by eotvos at 8:55 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Honestly, in the humanities, though there are meaningful exceptions mostly having to do with tech/data projects/those involving large group collaboration, if your advisor is well-placed to get you hired in the field generally and is overall competent to supervise the dissertation and open to the topic, you're not going to be particularly disadvantaged by not being at the place where Prof X is doing something REALLY COOL. I mean...that's her project, not yours. Unless, as I said, this is the kind of work where you're doing Big Data, fiddly tech, or some other sort of big collaboration that means you need to be in a specific place working with specific people, her REALLY COOL work isn't going to involve you. Now, it's certainly exciting and fun to talk to a prof about her REALLY COOL work, but if your work is related, you're going to do that anyway, and, always assuming your own advisor actually is sufficiently capable, you'll be fine with him instead.

I'm not saying you should reject the idea of switching schools, etc., out of hand and forever, but I do think you're not in a situation where you're compelled to act immediately.
posted by praemunire at 9:34 AM on August 9, 2017

It is entirely likely that your research interests will change again during grad school. Mine did, and so did a lot of other people's. Applying to grad school in the humanities is this weird process where you have to act like you have a super well-thought out research program, but you probably don't, and that's fine! Coursework is where you find your actual research interests.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:45 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you're unsure whether a Ph.D. is still a good idea for you, that's a reason to talk to the graduate program director in your program about whether it's possible to defer, so you can think it over. Pros: the opportunity cost of a Ph.D. program is pretty big. Cons: you have to figure out what else to do, starting in a month.

If, however, you're still committed to a Ph.D., but not to the topic you proposed, I'm with everyone else who says to give it a try. When I applied to Ph.D. programs in history, I was planning to work on 18th-century France. By the end of my coursework and exams, I had worked out a research topic focused on the international Republic of Letters from the late 15th through the early 17th century. And my advisor was someone whom my department hired in my second year of the grad program. In my own work on graduate admissions, I look for applicants whose broad interests are a good fit with our program, but I certainly don't expect dissertation topics to remain unchanged, particularly not for applicants who haven't already done an M.A.

And I know several people who started in one Ph.D. program, switched to another after a year or two, and did fine. I also know some who started a Ph.D. program, decided after a year or two that it wasn't for them, and left to pursue something more satisfying. It's important to avoid the fallacy of sunk costs: you don't want to be the person doggedly pursuing the degree, even while hating it, simply because you've already spent so much time on it. That's a waste of human potential.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:13 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think it might be useful to disentangle two issues here (I'm currently DGS for a PhD program in the sciences fwiw):

i) Imposter syndrome + grass is greener. A lot of what you're writing in this question actually seems to me like much more generalized imposter syndrome that is fairly common among phd students (and academics in general). I'd guess that 1mo before the start of a new program is not at all an uncommon time for this to first hit. The first step in dealing with imposter syndrome is recognizing it for what it is.

ii) Is the program a good fit for you? This is something that it would be hard not to rationally worry about at the stage you are at, but honestly, from my vantage point there's no way to know at this point besides just going and seeing. I don't see this as a waste of resources at all. People (on both sides of the recruiting equation) constantly worry about "fit" during admissions processes, but the concept is largely mythical imo and impossible to really solve from a distance -- we try our hardest but it doesn't always work, and that is the cost of doing business. Most undergraduates realistically have no idea what they want to do, and inevitably have a lot of mistaken beliefs about the fields they are entering. Assuming your first year is mostly coursework, it will typically involve a drastic expansion / repatterning of your beliefs about the field anyways. You may well be interested in something completely different by the end of it, or ready to quit it all and go get a tech job.

On deferral: I don't think a deferral now is a great idea. At most places doing it right this instant would be extremely tight for what you could bureaucratically manage before the AY starts, though it's conceivably possible (I'm honestly not sure what we could do if someone asked me this now -- interacts with financial stuff, and also just the simple fact that our academic coordinator is on vacation this week, not to mention me being semi-on-vacation). Also, a deferral (vs a withdrawal) would have to be approved at many places and it's not entirely clear to me what you're going to say that's convincing about your intent to actually enroll after a year. But all that aside, I don't think it's a great idea without a concrete plan for what you're going to do in the interim to clarify your desires and goals. I think actually going will be *much* more informative about that. (I might say something different if the anxiety seemed to be more about whether you wanted to be in a PhD program at all, but it doesn't seem that way.)
posted by advil at 11:44 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

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