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Unhappy with program fit. Now what?


labayadere

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Hi all,

 

I am a first year PhD student, and I think I made a terrible mistake in selecting my program. I ultimately chose my program because of my advisor and geographical location. I really, really like my advisor and am happy with the line of research I am doing with that person. However, I am realizing that the program as a whole is not a good fit for me. This is mainly due to a disproportionate emphasis on an area of the field that I am simply not really interested in; I'll use a culinary school analogy and say that while I decided to go to culinary school (grad school) to become a specialist in French cooking, the program as a whole (the coursework, majority of faculty, invited speakers, general attitude in the department, etc.) focuses on Chinese cooking. I of course see the merits in becoming a well-rounded cook (researcher), but that's not why I decided to dedicate my life to this line of work. Don't people get PhDs to become specialists, not generalists? The thought of spending five years in a department with this kind of atmosphere really depresses me, and I am terrified that because of the way the program is organized, I won't get the training and expertise I need to be competitive on the academic job market. Other students who think of themselves as French cooks in the program feel the same way as me. We have met with a few of the French cooking faculty, and unfortunately they did not share our view that we needed more training specific and relevant to French cooking. This, however, is not the prevailing attitude in the field; our faculty are unique in their perspective.

 

I feel paralyzed, and don't know what to do. Going to a different university would be complicated, as my current institution was also my BA institution (there was a gap in between. However, in many ways I feel that ultimately I would be happier, more productive, and better trained in a different program.

 

FWIW I'm in a scientific discipline and had already secured my own funding before starting my program.

 

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The most important thing, I think, is that you like the advisor you work with. You could be in the best "French cooking" program in the country, but if you would be stuck with a bad advisor, then that would really be a problem. I have heard many times that, advisor-wise, "the person is more important than the project". Now you seem to like both the advisor and the project, so that's definitely a plus!

 

I am sure that you can find opportunities to get a better training while at your current program. Can you take extra classes in other departments and at other institutions? Network and collaborate with other researchers? Maybe it will take a little bit of work but I am sure it is possible.

Try to talk to older grad students that have been in the program for a while, or to alumni. 

Maybe the way you feel is also part of a natural phase of adjusting to something new that has just started; sometimes things turn out to be different from what we expected, but that does not necessarily mean they are not good. 

I wish I could also give you advice about different options. Can you transfer elsewhere and bring your funding with you? Can you transfer after a master? Again, look for people you can trust that are knowledgeable about the situation and talk to them to better understand all your options. 

Finally, the most important thing is to focus on your work, your project and the things you like to do. Maybe the invited speakers are not so interesting, but if you have your own project, and you are working with someone you like, who cares? If you are working on something you are passionate about and you are productive I am sure you will be competitive.

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One semester really isn't enough time to decide anything. If the faculty feel like you don't need more specific training in French cooking, it would be to your benefit to find out why that is. They may know more about what you need to learn than you do, especially at this point.

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Don't people get PhDs to become specialists, not generalists? 

 

 

Sure, but before they are allowed to work on their PhDs, they're usually required to take general, not specialist, exams. 

 

For what it's worth, It sounds like you may have a bit of a feedback loop going with the complaints from your cohort. Relax and take a step back.

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One semester really isn't enough time to decide anything. If the faculty feel like you don't need more specific training in French cooking, it would be to your benefit to find out why that is. They may know more about what you need to learn than you do, especially at this point.

 

If in the 1st semester they announce that you don't get RAships until end of 2nd year, might have to teach all years, have 50% heavier teaching job loads than comparable institutions, don't get to do the project you came here to do, lost a major interdisciplinary funding source and on top of that, don't even have social events for graduate students what do you do?

Edited by SymmetryOfImperfection
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Hi all,

 

I am a first year PhD student, and I think I made a terrible mistake in selecting my program. I ultimately chose my program because of my advisor and geographical location. I really, really like my advisor and am happy with the line of research I am doing with that person. However, I am realizing that the program as a whole is not a good fit for me. This is mainly due to a disproportionate emphasis on an area of the field that I am simply not really interested in; I'll use a culinary school analogy and say that while I decided to go to culinary school (grad school) to become a specialist in French cooking, the program as a whole (the coursework, majority of faculty, invited speakers, general attitude in the department, etc.) focuses on Chinese cooking. I of course see the merits in becoming a well-rounded cook (researcher), but that's not why I decided to dedicate my life to this line of work. Don't people get PhDs to become specialists, not generalists? The thought of spending five years in a department with this kind of atmosphere really depresses me, and I am terrified that because of the way the program is organized, I won't get the training and expertise I need to be competitive on the academic job market. Other students who think of themselves as French cooks in the program feel the same way as me. We have met with a few of the French cooking faculty, and unfortunately they did not share our view that we needed more training specific and relevant to French cooking. This, however, is not the prevailing attitude in the field; our faculty are unique in their perspective.

 

I feel paralyzed, and don't know what to do. Going to a different university would be complicated, as my current institution was also my BA institution (there was a gap in between. However, in many ways I feel that ultimately I would be happier, more productive, and better trained in a different program.

 

FWIW I'm in a scientific discipline and had already secured my own funding before starting my program.

Your own funding or not, the bottom line is they brought you into their program and are ultimately going to use you for their own needs:  that is, to do the research that they see as most beneficial.  If you want to cook French, and they want you to cook Chinese, well, you're just going to have to cook Chinese if you want to work for them (which ultimately is what you are doing even if you are funding yourself).  

 

Would it really be that bad, to learn to cook the Chinese way?  And what if you do not get into academia (which, as you should know, is highly likely)?  What you are going to learn in a Ph.D. program is to become in expert to a niche idea.  Great for academia, bad for everything else.  You will learn to use one piece of equipment to study one niche topic.  Hardly transferable at all.  If you can manage to generalize through a Ph.D. you are ultimately setting yourself up for success as you will have more of a transferable skill-set to offer non-academic employers. Seriously, google that shtiz. 

 

Outside of my own experiences, the Missus works at NIH, and has for many years.  The numbers of Ph.D. grads and post-Docs who come in with virtually no math or basic lab skills blows my mind; and these are people coming from top institutions. 

 

Here is another reason why it is a bad idea to specialize:  not that long ago gene sequencing used to be something that was only done by Ph.D.s.  Now, it is something that is done by machines that are run by techs who only possess BA/BS.  To those who specialized in gene sequencing during grad school, barely even ten years ago, now have a specialty that is obsolete. 

 

I am not trying to sound harsh, but instead to help illustrate that you may be in a better program than you realize. 

Edited by Crucial BBQ
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I think rising_star and telkanru have given good advice. A PhD is a long process, and sometimes doesn't start the way we want it to. 

 

However, if you wanted to do your PhD in french cooking and they want you to research in chinese, that details a fit problem. However, if they make you take classes in Chinese cooking, but you still get to do french cooking for your dissertation, then it appears you had misguided expectations for what kind of structured training you were going to receive.

 

I'll give you my own example. I'm a computational geodynamist, I took 9 classes for my masters, but still, my new PhD program wants me to take 6 more (a full PhD here starting from a BS is 8 classes, so only 2 less). These courses include petrology, sedimentology, minerology, all the courses that have some tangential relevance to my dissertation, but I could easily finish the dissertation without ever taking those courses. Courses suck. Every time I go to one, i feel the hot breath of hell breathing down my neck. I'm so over it. I have 5 more quarters of this. What up with that? Well, thats the price I have to pay for getting to do the research I want with the person advising me that I want. Its a compromise. Perhaps you realized that the compromise is too big, but I warn you, almost every PhD program requires you to take classes you do not want to take. Thats just graduate school. Perhaps your expectations of fit is too high ?

 

On the other hand, if you are not doing the research you want to do, then that does represent a fit problem, and you should probably talk to your advisor about this. 

 

I would also like to state that if you have your own funding, then, of course you can work on whatever you want (given the parameters of the funding). Weither you can get good advising on that topic is another matter, but these are issues that should be talked about with your advisor (it sounds like you like him/her). It might be time to recalibrate expectations, and perhaps you will be happier for that. I really want to stress that the problems you might be having might be nonunqiue to your program, but something that many departments do. 

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Would it really be that bad, to learn to cook the Chinese way?  And what if you do not get into academia (which, as you should know, is highly likely)?  What you are going to learn in a Ph.D. program is to become in expert to a niche idea.  Great for academia, bad for everything else.  You will learn to use one piece of equipment to study one niche topic.  Hardly transferable at all.  If you can manage to generalize through a Ph.D. you are ultimately setting yourself up for success as you will have more of a transferable skill-set to offer non-academic employers. Seriously, google that shtiz. 

 

...

 

Here is another reason why it is a bad idea to specialize:  not that long ago gene sequencing used to be something that was only done by Ph.D.s.  Now, it is something that is done by machines that are run by techs who only possess BA/BS.  To those who specialized in gene sequencing during grad school, barely even ten years ago, now have a specialty that is obsolete. 

I think these are both really good points. To share an anecdote of my own I used to work in industrial chemistry and my boss got his PhD by doing inorganic chemistry research. One day he was telling me why he picked that specialization and one part of it was that he hated organic synthesis. Well, the project we were working on at the time was an organic synthesis.

 

You never know where you're going to go and what skills you are going to need. By all means, specialize, but don't be surprised if you need to draw on knowledge from outside of your narrow area. Maybe Chinese cooks have some things they can teach to French cooks.

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First of all, your feelings are absolutely normal.  Everyone questions their fit in their first year.  It's part of cultural adjustment.  It's the letter from your adviser that matter the most so you definitely want to be working with someone who can immediately *get* your ideas and research.

 

I'm in my third year.  I have to cook "international."  I love, love my adviser and the work she does and we're French cooks.  She gives me the outlet that i need for feedback.  Being the only French cook does force me to search out for outside workshops/seminars that do European cooking so I can interact with colleagues closer to my area.  I bring in some Chinese cooking to our conversation and they're richer because I share knowledge and insights from the Chinese cooks.  It's an interesting challenge to be in a mediating position and the rewards are really satisfying.

 

Your dissertation is an area of your PhD career where you get to be a real specialist- you have all that time to read whatever you want.  Your coursework is designed to make you a generalist so you can teach as broadly as possible.

 

Give yourself a full year before deciding whether or not this program is for you.  You'll also want to be conscious of faculty searches that are being planned.  Sometimes it's hard to attract new faculty if there aren't any graduate students for them to work with immediately.

 

Just thoughts off the top of my head.

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I'm the only french cook in my department. 

 

But there are a lot of french cooks in other departments. Being the only french cook in my department has been fantastic in gaining skills applying french cooking to new audiences, as well as learning enough about chinese and german cooking that I can really see the similarities and differences when I look at the big picture. 

 

I can also say that I'm a capable chef in 3-5 different nationalities cooking styles when I apply for jobs, and that's an advantage that I can't overstate (to echo Crucial above). 

 

In addition, it's important to remember that as a PhD in, say, cooking, if you go into academia you should really be able to teach undergraduate to basic graduate courses in any subspecialty of cooking, and your coursework should reflect that. 

 

Similarly, when you apply for jobs, funding, go to seminars and conferences, you'll be largely talking to chefs from all over the world, the majority of whom have the same passing knowledge of French cuisine that you will have of their work. Accordingly, learning how to function in a "multinational" cooking school now will set you up exceptionally well for any future you want to have in that discipline. 

 

On an unrelated tangent, I think sub-cuisines of cooking need to become the new standard to replace basket weaving. It's way more versatile of a metaphor. 

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My lab is the only French cook of my institution. Sometimes I had a hard time communicating my work with other cooks in my department (particularly to my committee since they cook Chinese and Tex-Mex), but I am learning to explain what I do in a broader context. 

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To the OP: I can sympathize with how you feel. At my old school, my supervisor and I were the only French cook. The majority of the department were Chinese cooks and I might see one or two French cooking seminars/visitors but that was it. There were no classes in French cooking, only Chinese cooking.

 

Now, I am in a department that works in "European Cooking". I'm one of a few French cooks and the department has Spanish cooks, Italian cooks, Swiss cooks, etc. I have one or two courses in French Cooking, but most of my coursework and seminars I attend are in Spanish, Italian, Swiss, etc. cooking. I am much happier here! Although French cooking is my main research interest, in a PhD, you don't want to be so focussed that you are only exposed to French cooking.

 

I think it's a misconception that a PhD is a specialist in the sense that they will only be a French cook. PhDs need to have foundation and expertise in breadth as well as depth. I would expect a French cook PhD to have strong working knowledge of related cuisines like Italian cooking -- that is, a French cook PhD should be able to sit in an Italian cooking seminar and understand it. 

 

Like Crucial, Eigen, and others said, you want to be able to market yourself in multiple skills once you have your PhD. 

 

So, for your situation, I think it's helpful to re-evaluate your department. Is it really true that you are a French cook and everyone else is a Chinese cook? Or are you a French cook surrounded by other types of European cooks? Sometimes it's hard to tell. I would warn you to be careful about getting into a negative loop with other French cooks. However, I also point out the fact that there exists other French cooks would tell me that it's not so lonesome as you originally made it sound. 

 

If in the 1st semester they announce that you don't get RAships until end of 2nd year, might have to teach all years, have 50% heavier teaching job loads than comparable institutions, don't get to do the project you came here to do, lost a major interdisciplinary funding source and on top of that, don't even have social events for graduate students what do you do?

 

To symmetry: I think this is a fairly different problem! From this post and your other posts on this topic elsewhere, it really doesn't sound like you are happy in your program. I hope you got good advice in your other thread and have an idea of what to do next! 

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I think it's a misconception that a PhD is a specialist in the sense that they will only be a French cook. PhDs need to have foundation and expertise in breadth as well as depth. I would expect a French cook PhD to have strong working knowledge of related cuisines like Italian cooking -- that is, a French cook PhD should be able to sit in an Italian cooking seminar and understand it.

 

I came here to say just this.  The idea that a PhD should be a specialist is a bit overblown - yes, you will be an expert in a specific niche, but that doesn't mean that you won't learn about other things.  The first two years of graduate school are really about forming a broad foundation in your field as a whole so that you can communicate with other scholars in the field.  For example, I was in two departments in grad school.  I'm a social psychologist but I also had to take classes in cognitive psychology and basic neuroscience in graduate school, as well as statistical methods.  In public health, I took classes in history, sociology, and anthropology to learn about the underpinnings of my field; I also had to take a class in qualitative research methods, even though I am pretty much exclusively a quantitative researcher.  But you know what?  When I read a theory paper in public health by an important figure, I can understand it now; and when I read a qual paper that contributes to my area of research, I can understand the methods and know how they got what they got.  I'm a postdoc now and, wouldn't you know, cognitive psychology is starting to find a foothold in my area and I'm actually really interested in using some of it to understand my work, so...useful!

 

Plus, as others have pointed out, you need to be able to teach classes in a variety of subfields.

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 Don't people get PhDs to become specialists, not generalists? The thought of spending five years in a department with this kind of atmosphere really depresses me, and I am terrified that because of the way the program is organized, I won't get the training and expertise I need to be competitive on the academic job market. 

How many academic jobs are there available in your subfield of choice? Reading through the academic job listings should give you an idea of (i) how many tenure-tracks jobs there are opening in French Cooking (compared to Chinese Cooking) this academic year (ii) what the average department is looking for in its new French Cooks (do they want their nominally-French cooks to work at the interface between French and Italian cooking, or do they want French cooks with advanced specialisation in baking pastries?). 

 

The point is, you don't want to specialise too far if there are only going to be 4 job openings for a French cook when you hit the market, and 100 newly-minted PhDs trying to compete for the positions. It might even be in your best career interests to increase your emphasis on Chinese cooking if that's what will get you a job in 5 years. 

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