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1PhDplz

Totally unprepared for a class- what do I do now?

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Hi everyone,

This is the first semester of my PhD, which is in a different field than my undergrad (science to engineering). I'm taking an upper division elective that my undergrad completely neglected to prepare me for. Basically, the physics courses you take for a science major at my old university don't use calculus or derive equations and this course is 100% deriving equations for calc-based physics. I thought I would be fine because I have a strong math background, but I guess I was wrong. I'm totally lost every lecture and the professor never shows up to his office hours and has been at least thirty minutes late to every meeting I've set up with him. When I do get to ask questions, his general attitude is "you should know that already" and I feel more and more defeated after every meeting.

I don't feel like I have an appropriate background to be successful in this course. I'm afraid to drop the course because the program requirements for "making satisfactory progress towards your PhD" are unclear. I realize I should talk to my graduate advisor about this, but I'm not sure how. I feel like I'm just starting to form a relationship with him and that this will make a bad impression. On top of that, I'm totally embarrassed to be struggling so much.

What do I do? How do I bring this up to my advisor without him thinking I'm a lazy/unmotivated student? I keep spiraling to the worst case scenario of being kicked out of the program.

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5 hours ago, 1PhDplz said:

What do I do? How do I bring this up to my advisor without him thinking I'm a lazy/unmotivated student? I keep spiraling to the worst case scenario of being kicked out of the program.

It is common to have problems settling in for the very first semester. No need to feel embarrassed. You are definitely not the only one, even if you feel this way. You will not be the first student who has ever gone to the graduate advisor for matter like this. He has seen that enough to not think you less of it. So basically, tell him what you wrote here, that you are struggling to catch up with your physics course. Tell him that you have tried meeting with the professor to clarify but you lack the background to understand the lectures. He should be able to point you in the right direction, e.g. drop the course, do a course that equips you with the necessary background. 

Please be reassured that you are not lazy/unmotivated by taking this step to consult your graduate advisor. In fact, it is the opposite. You are proactively trying to make satisfactory progress towards your PhD. It is also not a bad idea to clarify how satisfactory progress is monitored in your program, so you are aware what is expected. 

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@1PhDplz ugh, I'm sorry you have to deal with that professor's attitude. It's unfortunate that some think their job is to gatekeep, not to teach. I second Hope.for.the.best, but in addition is there tutoring on campus? And definitely don't feel ashamed to ask your department head or advisor to clarify "satisfactory progress" requirements. They're often deliberately vague in print to encompass a variety of situations.

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