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randomrando

Should I panic about my new program?

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Hi all,

I started in my *physical science* PhD program a couple of weeks ago, and I am really concerned about both the program and my potential advisor.

Since I have arrived, I have heard nothing but negative things about competition within the department. Professors do not collaborate at all, and faculty have even been fired over petty squabbles. Coming from my old school, which was much smaller and more low key, this is a huge surprise for me. I am worried that this environment will translate to the student level.

As for the advisor, she has been at conferences for much of the past month, and the current students in the lab have described her as a poor mentor and unwilling to listen to her students. A lot of the older graduate students were really successful in terms of publications, but the newer graduate students have struggled quite a lot. There is also a huge divide between international students and domestic students in the lab. While I have a couple of other potential advisors at this school, I was by far the most excited about this one. I found her work to be a perfect fit, and this advisor was also the deciding factor between my second choice school.

I know that graduate school visits are a sales pitch, but I feel blindsided by a lot of this, since all of the students I talked to during the visit had nothing but positive things to say. I guess my question is whether I should be panicked about these revelations? Is there any way I can be proactive about these issues and come up with a contingency plan if needed?

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4 hours ago, randomrando said:

I guess my question is whether I should be panicked about these revelations? Is there any way I can be proactive about these issues and come up with a contingency plan if needed?

The short answer is no. Unfortunately, competition always exists, and negative things do happen with competition. Let's forget about the issues between professors. From what I see, you are concerned that your advisor is like her other students describe. I would suggest that you wait until you get to meet her to know more about her. Based on that, you will have better ideas to communicate with her more effectively. 

I am giving my own example of my PhD advisors, *Cecilia and *Andy. Many students describe *Cecilia as demanding, uncaring, and someone difficult to work with. I do agree in part that she is a harsh advisor, but she is actually very dedicated to help students succeed. She is the one advisor who bothers to read and re-read students' drafts, and she always gets back to students in a timely manner. On the other hand, almost everyone describes *Andy as a "nice gentleman". However, when I brought up to him that I wanted to finish my dissertation before working on more experiments, he stopped reading my drafts. He yelled at me whenever I asked for feedback. He even refused to sign off my PhD until my other advisors stepped in. However, he asked his other student to finish her dissertation before working on more experiments to publish her paper. So, you will never know. 

Be confident in your choice that she is the advisor whose interest/expertise fits with yours. This is very important for any grad program. 

All the best!

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4 hours ago, randomrando said:

I guess my question is whether I should be panicked about these revelations? Is there any way I can be proactive about these issues and come up with a contingency plan if needed?

It is never time to panic. As stressful as graduate school will be, the worst case scenario is that you go on with your life. You don't have a gun pointed at your head as someone wants to take something that you're not going to let him have. You're not living though a natural catastrophe. You're not going through a once in a century global economic meltdown.

4 hours ago, Picketfence said:

You are worried over what people are saying and not what you have experienced. You need to find out the lay of the land yourself.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend that when listening to the grousing of graduate students that one ask bluntly, "Have you spoken to Professor Xavier about your concerns?" More often than not, the answer is "no." 

I also recommend that one considers where a graduate student is in a program. The cares and conceits of a graduate student who is pre-quals can be vastly different than those of a student who has been around longer.

The age and life experiences of a graduate student can also be important. A "non traditional" graduate student may have perspectives that are vastly different than a traditional graduate student who is heavily invested in a program. As an example, when it was my turn to hand off information about writing qualifying exams for a particularly difficult professor (read: POS/#NOTBITTER), the recipient of that information, a retired USAF pilot with combat experience, laughed as I ranted. (Later, this gravel-voiced warrior shrugged as talked about having terminal cancer.)

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Wow, thank you all for the reassuring words. I will definitely chill out and just see how the rest of this rotation goes before jumping to any conclusions. It is definitely nerve-racking to hear all of the negative feedback from the current grad students, but grad students I guess are pretty jaded in the first place, so maybe it is just their personalities :)

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I second what everyone said above. What matters is YOUR relationship with your advisor.

I have an absolutely wonderful relationship with my former advisor ❤️ He's my biggest cheerleader and has helped me so so so much, he taught me how to write, gave extensive feedback, he wanted to help me with presenting, really everything. Sometimes he even was a bit of a mental health coach lol. He even sometimes just dropped by my office for some feedback on things he was working on or for coffee and to discuss some ideas.

That said, lots of people have a tough time with him. He has no filter when it comes to criticism (it's HARSH, but I know he means well, and it is generally helpful) and he has zero-tolerance for people who are slacking or not prepared. Especially when they 'fake' they prepared for meetings and the like and obviously didn't or were waiting for him to keep things going. Then yeah, he's gonna give you a hard time because well.. he feels like you're wasting his time. However, if you bring ideas, are well-prepared and show you're invested, then he's an absolute blessing. 

Don't worry. Plus, my former department had a general 'complaining' culture. Basically what everyone did was just constantly complain about everything and everyone. So you never know what is really going on. I felt the majority of complaints were not justified, because most of the times students could just step up to fix the issues, but OK.

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45 minutes ago, Psygeek said:

I second what everyone said above. What matters is YOUR relationship with your advisor.

 

At the same time, one should not ignore entirely the relationships an advisor has with others, including undergraduates.

If you're the only person with whom the individual does not get along with or gets along with, it may be beneficial to perform a self assessment and some asking around. It may well be that an advisor picks a different chew toy and/or "favorite" each academic year to be discarded the following year.

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8 hours ago, Sigaba said:

At the same time, one should not ignore entirely the relationships an advisor has with others, including undergraduates.

If you're the only person with whom the individual does not get along with or gets along with, it may be beneficial to perform a self assessment and some asking around. It may well be that an advisor picks a different chew toy and/or "favorite" each academic year to be discarded the following year.

never ignore, but also assume not everyone is reliable, people have different needs in supervision, and advisors are also people (meaning you can TALK with them).

I mean, I know this guy who ended up doing his PhD with an advisor who is literally never available or even concerned about what his student is doing, but that guy still enjoys working with his advisor because he can simply brag about working with a big name and how awesome it is to work with him. You want to ask around what is 'normal' for that person, and then assess whether it fits to you and what you care about (in my case, yes he was nice to other students too, as long as they at least put some effort in and asked for help when needed rather than assume he would come to them). There's also a prof in my department who everyone loves, but he's way too micromanage-y for me, so I know I'd just be pretty annoyed by that.

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4 hours ago, Psygeek said:

never ignore, but also assume not everyone is reliable, people have different needs in supervision, and advisors are also people (meaning you can TALK with them).

I mean, I know this guy who ended up doing his PhD with an advisor who is literally never available or even concerned about what his student is doing, but that guy still enjoys working with his advisor because he can simply brag about working with a big name and how awesome it is to work with him. You want to ask around what is 'normal' for that person, and then assess whether it fits to you and what you care about (in my case, yes he was nice to other students too, as long as they at least put some effort in and asked for help when needed rather than assume he would come to them). There's also a prof in my department who everyone loves, but he's way too micromanage-y for me, so I know I'd just be pretty annoyed by that.

I think we're on the same page.

 

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