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I'm coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student and I feel like I'm doing a bad job at research and school. I've felt behind my peers from the get-go, at least partly because I made a major field switch between my undergrad and graduate program. I'll explain my coursework troubles and research concerns separately.

Coursework:

I'm taking 3 classes this semester, which I realize is a lot. I have the same professor for two of the classes. After taking our last exam of the semester, this professor released a list of our names and ranks in his classes. I'm doing slightly below average even though it's my field of study. I received As on all the homeworks and Bs on the final exams. I know my grades are good,  but now I feel like I'm underperforming and not cut out for a PhD.

Research:

I'm on an RA-ship this semester and getting almost no direction on the project I'm working on. As I mentioned before, I am completely new to this field of study. I don't feel that I know enough to be in charge of arranging and executing all of our measurements, but that is what I'm tasked with. I have weekly meetings with my advisor, and I know I should be grateful to at least have that. I prepare extensively beforehand, usually writing out a list of questions I have and putting together figures to explain what I did that week, but our meetings are never productive. He never seems to be listening to me and sometimes even plays guitar or grinds coffee beans while I'm speaking. I find it so incredibly rude and I leave the meetings feeling defeated and like I don't even know enough to be asking the right questions. I'm really shy, I take anxiety meds before our meetings to help me speak up, but even when I go in feeling confident I leave feeling like an idiot. Since I feel like I'm not making enough progress, I've resorted to ending the meetings by asking "Is there anything you think I should do this week?" I didn't think there was anything wrong with asking that until last week when we hosted a potential PhD recruit and my advisor mentioned that the screening exam was "to weed out grad students who need hand holding and weekly tasks to get any work done." I'm probably overthinking it, but it seemed like a slight at me.

I realize some of this might be from self confidence issues I struggle with. I feel like I'm off to a bad start and I don't know what to do from here. Do I power through and pretend nothing's wrong? Do I drop out because I'm not cut out for it? I don't want to talk to my cohorts about it because my advisor is a very likeable guy and everyone seems to love him. It just feels like I'm behind the curve and not doing anything right.

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1 hour ago, 1PhDplz said:

I'm on an RA-ship this semester and getting almost no direction on the project I'm working on. As I mentioned before, I am completely new to this field of study. I don't feel that I know enough to be in charge of arranging and executing all of our measurements, but that is what I'm tasked with. I have weekly meetings with my advisor, and I know I should be grateful to at least have that. I prepare extensively beforehand, usually writing out a list of questions I have and putting together figures to explain what I did that week, but our meetings are never productive. He never seems to be listening to me and sometimes even plays guitar or grinds coffee beans while I'm speaking. I find it so incredibly rude and I leave the meetings feeling defeated and like I don't even know enough to be asking the right questions. I'm really shy, I take anxiety meds before our meetings to help me speak up, but even when I go in feeling confident I leave feeling like an idiot. Since I feel like I'm not making enough progress, I've resorted to ending the meetings by asking "Is there anything you think I should do this week?" I didn't think there was anything wrong with asking that until last week when we hosted a potential PhD recruit and my advisor mentioned that the screening exam was "to weed out grad students who need hand holding and weekly tasks to get any work done." I'm probably overthinking it, but it seemed like a slight at me.

I realize some of this might be from self confidence issues I struggle with. I feel like I'm off to a bad start and I don't know what to do from here. Do I power through and pretend nothing's wrong? Do I drop out because I'm not cut out for it? I don't want to talk to my cohorts about it because my advisor is a very likeable guy and everyone seems to love him. It just feels like I'm behind the curve and not doing anything right.

4

the toxicity level is VERY HIGH in this PI... I don't think this is healthy behavior from your advisor, to say the least, and it's totally understandable that you feel like this in this case - because it is beyond rude. Even if others think he's likable, he's acting like a total jerk to you tbh. 

Nonetheless, you may want to go to counseling for a bit and find a solution for this PI situation.. 

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4 hours ago, 1PhDplz said:

I realize some of this might be from self confidence issues I struggle with. I feel like I'm off to a bad start and I don't know what to do from here. Do I power through and pretend nothing's wrong? Do I drop out because I'm not cut out for it? I don't want to talk to my cohorts about it because my advisor is a very likeable guy and everyone seems to love him. It just feels like I'm behind the curve and not doing anything right.

First of all, you are not doing a bad job.

Re coursework: It is a big no to compare yourself with others in grad school, as there are many students being more outstanding than you and comparison just makes you feel bad all the time. You are getting As and Bs for your coursework. Yes, there are students who get all As, but from a factual point of view, you are doing well. 

Research: It is beyond your control and not your fault that you get paired up with an unsupportive advisor. Just because he seems to be likeable does not mean he is a good advisor. It is not uncommon to change field between undergrad and postgrad. It just means you need to catch up a bit more at the beginning to understand the background of your project. Your advisor should have been the one to give you guidance. Note that giving guidance does not equal to hand holding. It's an active process in which your advisor gives you a direction for your research. Hand holding is more like throwing a to-do list without any discussion. In my opinion, setting weekly tasks to get work done is actually very helpful in terms of productivity. I am doing my postdoc now and I still set weekly tasks with my supervisor to get the project moving. I don't get why your advisor made such a comment.

Anyway, you definitely should not pretend as if nothing has happened. You are still early on in your PhD, and you can do a lot about the situation. A bad start does not mean a bad end. If that is at all possible, try to talk to your advisor and agree on expectations between both parties. If that's not possible, then go to a co-advisor or anyone in charge of grad student matters. It's perfectly okay to change advisor if you can't work with your current one. Regarding your stress/anxiety, please go and see a school counsellor. They can be helpful with navigating the stress of grad school.

Wish you all the best! 

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I'd like to add that grades are NOT indicative of your ability to succeed as a researcher. I've seen students struggle through coursework only to end up published sooner and with better job offers than their 4.0 peers. I also struggled my first year and have made huge strides since. You need your grades to be good enough to be in good standing (I mean objective standing where you're not on academic probation), but I wouldn't spend loads more time shooting for the 4.0 or highest ranking if you could instead put that time toward improving your research skills and making headway on your projects. I also find it really odd that your professor ranks students. I've not heard of this before and like I said, ranking based on grades is not indicative of your success in the program or potential career success.

As for the advising situation; I seem to hear similar concerns quite often. I think most students feel ill-prepared, even if they haven't changed fields, and don't feel like they're getting enough direction. It may help to know you're not alone and that some of these feelings are normal and will pass with time and experience. I agree that the guitar-playing is pretty disrespectful, unless he struggles with some kind of attention-deficit or anxiety and needs it to stay focused (I would consider whether he acts like that with everyone or if it's just you). What I recommend is speaking with other students who have worked with him to get a better idea of what he expects and how you can better approach a project you don't know a lot about. If you have a good peer group that is not super competitive, they can be a great source of support and learning. I would ignore his comment about hand-holding students since you don't know what was meant by it and it doesn't seem like he's given you negative performance feedback at this point.

I agree with seeing a school counselor to help you work through your situation and find effective coping strategies. If changing advisors is an option, you might want to explore that - but be sure to do your research first, as you could end up in the same (or worse) situation with another advisor. Talk to your peers, observe the faculty's interaction with students if you can, and decide how much of a personality vs. research fit you need to be successful.

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