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Bad spot after everything that could go wrong in graduate school happened. Asking for advice


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Hey everyone,

I'm an upcoming 4.5 year Ph.D student who is ABD in their Experimental Psychology program. Prior to this, I did a Master's also in Experimental Psychology. My background going into this is not that of the usual graduate student (see the next two paragraph for more detail. Skip them if you have no interest at all).

I did my undergrad at a "no name state school" despite working in a neuroscience lab at Ohio State. I did this because I got into the Honors College at the no name state school and my merit scholarships put me at near full tuition (I was a few hundred off at the time). I was consistently told that an Honors Thesis and graduating with honors was important for graduate school as well as getting a BS in Psychology instead of a BA. I would've also had to take 10 credit hours of remedial math at Ohio State if I enrolled and I didn't need to at the school I attended in the end. Despite a 29 ACT, 3.71 high school GPA, and 27 credit hours from a small liberal arts college for dual enrolled credit (my high school did not offer AP, IB, honors courses, or a foreign language at all), I got my butt handed to me academically. I graduated with a 3.1 GPA from the no name state school and dropped from their Honors College because I had below a 3.0 GPA my first two years in undergrad. I was on the "wrong side of the achievement gap" by graduating from a small high school (with a graduating class of 😎 the entire time and have always had poor emotional control that affected my academic performance.

I apply for Ph.D and Master's programs my senior year of undergrad (keep in mind my undergrad doesn't require a senior project, capstone project, or even an internship) and do not get in since my GPA and GRE scores (at the time) were extremely low as well as not preparing my applications well. My parents hire a coach who helps me with personal statements, emails to reach out to faculty, etc. and connected me with others who could help with my graduate school application materials. This managed to pay off as I got offers to 6/8 Master's programs I applied to in this case.

After I explained the reason for my undergrad performance as well as that I am first generation and neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD-I, 3rd percentile processing speed. I also have a ton of psychiatric conditions like generalized anxiety, social anxiety, MDD - Moderate. I did not mention the psychiatric conditions in my application at all), I managed to get accepted to 6/8 Master's programs in Experimental Psychology that I applied to in my case. I did this because I knew I had no shot at going straight to Ph.D right away with my academic record and lukewarm references (at the time anyway).

I get into graduate school (2018-2020) and I don't do nearly as well as my peers. I graduated with a 3.48 GPA with a C+ in Research Methods, which is a core course. I was also the only one in my cohort who had a 10 hour assistantship (with no tuition waiver sadly) for both years I did my Master's too. There was an optional 1 credit hour course I could take but didn't do so because I was told it was to prep students for full blown teaching. Turns out that the majority of students taught a lab component of a course in the end. I also never worked on any additional research projects with other faculty to get consistent research output. I also did not do any work related to my program over the summer other than my Master's thesis proposal work. Instead, I continued working retail (I did that for 9 hours a week outside of my program). The only non-classroom work I ever did was train undergraduate research assistants, work on a pilot study for my Master's thesis, and then set up the Master's thesis myself before COVID hit and I had to defend data from my pilot study for my thesis defense instead. It turns out that everyone else was not only involved on multiple research projects, but also taught or did something for another 10 hours that was research project related in some capacity. I was the one and only one who didn't take another 10 hour gig that would've built up my CV more for Ph.D program applications. Despite the faculty in my Master's program telling me I should have a "Plan B," I manage to get into Ph.D programs anyway thanks to the help of the coach I brought back in to help me with my application and the Master's program director.

I get into my Ph.D program and do fine in my remaining courses my first year (I didn't need to do as many because my previous Master's was accepted in full). However, I have a fallout with my advisor my second year of the program. I asked if I could go back to my hometown to receive urgent medical treatment. Thinking this was somehow program related, she checks the lab and finds that it is messy but other expectations were violated. However, all of these mistakes other than one I made were all based on how her previous graduate student who got their Ph.D trained me in this case. Despite trying to salvage the situation with the help of the program chair (who is now my current advisor) and ombudsman, she remained steadfast on her no longer advising me. Notably, she was going to a different program and get a tenured position there anyway so I'm not sure if she tried to find a reason to drop advising me from a distance or not. Regardless, she signed off me passing my quals (it's an empirical project instead of a bunch of open note and open book exams) on August 12th, which was three days before the date her contract was over (August 15th).

So far, I have had the following happen to me: A Master's thesis project that was shut down after COVID happened in this case, Master's advisor who does not stay in touch with his prior advisees at all, two other dropped projects under my first Ph.D advisor, and my quals project that my first Ph.D advisor said would not be publishable without an additional follow up study.

Fast forward to working with my new advisor and budget issues officially set in with my new university. My stipend got cut in half (albeit I still had the 24 credit hour tuition waiver thankfully) so I worked at a retail store for 15 hours over every weekend during Fall 2022. I eventually manage to find an open adjunct position at a local community college near me and actually get it. I worked on the materials on my own, but I also consulted the coach for help with them as well as my advisor. Despite my busier schedule and making enough income to live and stay Medicaid eligible (my Ph.D program doesn't offer health insurance), I manage to propose my dissertation in 9 months because I used an old idea from the beginning of my Ph.D that my first advisor didn't want me to do but my current advisor was ok with in this case. I also applied to a visiting instructor position at a local small liberal arts college near me and get it! I also got a fellowship sponsored by my Ph.D program's state and fulfilled service for it via the visiting instructor position.

Based on all of that information, all's well right? Nope. I come into the visiting instructor position with preps that were not my own because I had no time to make any at all for both semesters. I ended up dealing with severe health issues that landed me in the hospital twice that academic year (once for the flu and another was partial hospitalization for behavioral health) and sleep apnea I was eventually diagnosed with later that year. CPAP has been life changing for me! My course evaluations are also poor and my Spring 2024 evaluations were all averages of high 1s out of 5 (1 is poor and 2 is fair). The Spring 2024 ones I had to ask the coach to read in full for me because I almost cried from the mean comments. I get consistently behind on grading and dropped the ball on a couple of important parts related to data collection (e.g., giving participants copies of the consent form, which wasn't a big deal in the end according to my advisor. I got lucky in a lot of ways), but not enough that it would cost the data I collected in this instance.

Fortunately, I got one reference from the visiting position and another from the community college I taught at as my second and third references (first one is my current advisor) and landed an internship at a top 10 children's hospital in the country with a PI who has an h-index in the mid 90s. He said he took me because I taught statistics before. To be clear, I taught statistics in my Research Methods classes (e.g., one-way ANOVA, two-way ANOVA, etc.) even though my statistics background is weak to the point I don't know how to do a chi-square at all. It also didn't help that the materials were ones my advisor prepped for me to teach at this small liberal arts college and I did not make any at all. So far, I have not gained anything from this internship at all and everyone has brought some sort of transferable skill to the table that I do not have at all. My PI has no complaints about my work at all when I give work updates at our evening meetings at the end of every work day, but I notice that I contribute WAY, WAY less compared to my peers.

The last sentence in the last paragraph also reflects my lack of research output since I would only ever work on the main projects I had to do at the time and no other research at all. The only exception to this is when I did my quals project as my first Ph.D advisor did not want me to work on additional research projects. Here is all I have to my name right now from this Ph.D program:

Three conference posters (2019, 2023, 2024)

Instructor of record for two online classes where I did my Ph.D, one semester of adjunct experience at a community college, and a full year of teaching as a full time instructor at a small liberal arts college

Fellowship sponsored by the state where I'm doing my Ph.D for diverse applicants with future faculty and/or staff potential

10 week internship at one of the top 10 children's hospitals in the country that's only 20 minutes away from my hometown (and am still struggling to adjust to the responsibilities. My boss wants to discuss authorship with me and says he's happy with my updates, but I'm far behind compared to the other interns for sure).

My rocky experience (e.g., Master's program advisor ghosting me and prior advisees, first PhD advisor dropping me since she thought I wouldn't make it through the program) has certainly illustrated the cracks in my training and severe lack of experience in domains where I'd be expected to adapt quickly otherwise (e.g., learning R Studio). It's to the point where, should my boss at this internship secure the funding to hire two of the interns close to graduating (me being one of those two), I'm not sure if I'm in a position to take it at all. I'm also fumbling a fair amount in SPSS and my advisor has corrected some careless mistakes I've made with the variables.

I know I can't quit because my advisor will never write a letter of recommendation for anything again if I do. I'm considering taking a break from working as I simultaneously work with vocational rehabilitation in my home state (I'm neurodivergent and autistic so I qualify) to finish my dissertation and graduate since I'm convinced I'm dealing with burnout from all of the responsiveness I've juggled in the past two years as well as still recovering from the abuse I experienced from my first PhD advisor.

Even though my advisor wants me to graduate soon, I'm not confident in my skills or what I've learned to feel like I should be in a position to graduate. What should I do to get myself out of this hole? I am seriously considering a possible career change because of professionally underdeveloped I am at this point.

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