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Disappointing first year in graduate school and now want to transfer

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I am writing this post to share some experiences of my first year of graduate school and see if anyone here has experienced similar things and/or if anyone here has advice. (I apologize that this is such a long post!)
 
I just finished my first year of graduate school in mathematics and...I feel very disappointed in my program. I was very excited to attend this university because the campus visit to this university blew all the other campus visits out of the water. I picked my university mostly because of the small department; it felt like a very collaborative and positive environment. However, once my first year started I realized that everything felt different.
 
First off, let me say that my program is out of state. I don't have any friends here. I am married so I do have my husband to talk to. I was expecting to have somewhat of a social life during graduate school. What I mean is that I would bond with other students in the program through studying. I have done a few summer programs in math/physics where I made friends with amazing people, and I was expecting graduate school to be the same thing. I have always heard that you make lifelong friendships with people in graduate school. Anyway, it wasn't the case. I didn't connect with anyone for most of my first semester. I was really struggling in one of my courses and was looking for people to study with, all the first years said "no" and when I asked a second years if they wanted to study together they said "Oh, we don't do that here." That took me a little bit by surprise. My officemate and I worked a little bit together when we were in the office together but that was all. I did eventually find a study buddy for my one difficult class (who is actually quitting the program), and my officemate and I are pretty close now, however out of several incoming students and several second year students (at least 30 people), I only made connections with two people. While I consider the two connections I made good friends, we don't talk to each other outside of school. Later during the year I found that everyone had formed their little cliques and would study together...so that made me very depressed because it wasn't that anyone didn't want to study in groups, it was that they didn't want to study in groups with me :( I thought perhaps maybe my social expectations of graduate school were too high, but other friends at other programs have informed me that they have made great relationships and have study groups often.
 
Another thing that was disappointing was that the positive environment wasn't so positive. During my campus visit I thought everyone was very friendly and everyone seemed to have positive vibes. The professors seemed very approachable. However, I have found that the graduate students and professors here are condescending and rude. Whenever I have small conversations with other graduate students, they always put down what I say and always feel the need to correct me. The program isn't competitive yet I feel everyone tries to compete with each other, even outside of math. Now I just keep to myself and don't talk much to others. Graduate students are always talking negatively about their students and the professors in the department. We have cubicles so everyone can hear everything. It's not a very happy environment and it is difficult to study in. The professors are not very approachable, which I'm not surprised by, but I have been yelled at several times to get out of the copy room or tea room or mail room because they think I am not a graduate student. I also feel like the professors here give me the cold shoulder - they are happy and laughing with their favorite students but as soon as I show up to office hours or want to ask a question their disposition completely changes and they shrug me off pretty quickly. I also felt that their favoritism came through in grading. I have also been worked to the bone as a TA with some professors. When I go to the department to complain I am being overworked, they say there is nothing they can do. That is also a turn off.
 
The biggest reason why I am transferring is because of my research interest. I am most interested in applied and computational mathematics, but the applied math group here is very small (5 people). I didn't think this would be a problem when I decided to attend here, but now that I have decided on my specific area of interest, all the applied professors have said they are not interested in that area. There are also not many courses here in applied math; other professors from other departments end up teaching them due to a lack of professors in applied math. I have found someone in another department that does research in my area of interest, but there would be a lot of hoops to go through and I am already turned off by the program anyway.
 
My mental health has also declined rapidly. I have a history of anxiety and depression and it has only worsened since starting graduate school. I knew I would be stressed with the workload, but the social aspects and other stresses have pushed me overboard on some days. In January I was in my office sobbing because I had realized I chose the wrong university. This decision constantly eats at me and I haven't been able to sleep. I dread going to campus and have no desire to study. I have seen a psychologist on campus, but they do not do counseling on campus (which I think is a little strange, do you?) so I have a referral to see an outside therapist. I still have not visited an outside therapist.
 
I have only shared my desire to transer with my two connections here and my husband. I have not told my advisor and I am worried that when I do transfer the whole situation will blow up in my face; I am worried I will burn many bridges with the university. 
 
So I have a couple of questions:
  • Were my expectations of graduate school to high? Is there any hope that I will be able to find a graduate program that has a somewhat decent social environment?
  • I am using letters of recommendation from my undergraduate university as I made no connection with any professors here to write a letter. Will the universities I apply to find this odd? I am worried that they will contact my university to ask about me, and then the department will find out and get mad at me.
  • When is the right time to announce I am transferring? When I get accepted into another program?
  • If you have seen a therapist/counselor/psychologist, do you feel like it has improved your mental state of well-being? I am battling with myself about seeing a therapist. I don't have anyone to talk to now so it seems nice, but I afraid they won't "get it" and it won't be helpful. It is also expensive even with health insurance and I do not have a car to get me there.
Any other advice is appreciated too. Thank you.

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Very sorry to hear that you are having a rough year!

It is generally better to have at least 1 reference from the latest school. Are you sure there is absolutely nobody there who could write you a strong letter? Perhaps you are forgetting someone because of the overall experience? Maybe from another department?

Imo it is better to tell the department that you re transferring not too late. A good friend was in STEM field and transferred from one program to another. Once she stopped hiding that she will leave, everyone s attitude changed because they no longer considered her a contender. She said it got nicer. You can also shape your narrative in a positive and controlled way if you reveal your decision not at the last minute because otherwise you won t be around to dispel assumptions which will be negative by default.

If I may comment in regards to seeing a therapist: it can make a huge difference. I ve heard people saying that sometimes you just don t connect but from what friends told me different therapists each have their own strength and it is totally worth it. Go see one sooner rather than later! Consider also reading this book: Mind over mood.

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In terms of socialising - maybe "bonding through studying" was an unrealistic expectation. In the romanticised world of academia then yes, you and other budding scholars would spend hours poring over the literature and engage in deep intellectual discussions, connecting through your shared appreciation of your field. In reality, what I've seem is that people in grad school usually bond over lunch/coffee/dinner. Or they go to the bar. Or they play some kind of sport with a gang of friends. In fact, most of the shared activities don't involve studying! 

 

Personally, I'd not necessarily be receptive to somebody I didn't know well asking me to form a study group with them. I guess it's a distrust that the relationship would be one-way (i.e., they're going to mooch homework answers of me). Other folk I know wouldn't always see that as a problem - but it might explain the resistance you encountered to the idea, and why other members of your cohort were perhaps more keen to study with the people they'd already established friendships with.

 

Also, don't limit yourself to just making friends in your cohort! Try to find friends outside of grad school through your hobbies/interests (Meetup has saved my (social) life in several countries over the years - I'd urge everybody to use it). There will certainly be university-wide clubs that you can join. 

 

For transferring: just be polite and diplomatic, talk about poor alignment of the school with your research interests, rather than the social environment. Thank everybody for their assistance.

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I think to some extent, your expectations were over the top. 

 

You've come out of your first year with two good friends- that's about as many as I've mad win 7 years at  my program. Having a ton of people that are acquaintances isn't all it's cracked up to be. 

 

As to studying together- we did a bit my first year, but it was maybe one evening a month, or half an hour in the morning before a test. Most people in grad school know how they study best, and it's rarely as a group. 

 

One thing I did find (that I'm sure you've experienced) was that coming in to grad school married did close off one major avenue people connected through: roommates. I already had one (and a great one, to be sure), but I noticed lots of the other people in my cohort (and others since) have gotten a house with 1-3 other graduate students. Sometimes it makes them hate each other, but a lot of time they end up pretty tight. 

 

I'll also echo not limiting yourself to people in your program for friendships- while I lucked out and have two great friends from my cohort, most of my other friends are from other programs, some in the sciences and some in the humanities and other applied areas. I got involved in the graduate student government early on, and met a lot of people that way. 

 

That said, it sounds like you're mainly transferring for other reasons (research interests), so I'd take the suggestions here as a guide to your next school. 

 

For transferring, you need to be a bit careful, as it's rarely a "transfer", and more of a "leave and re-apply elsewhere" situation. Chances are, you won't find a program that will allow you to get credit for much, if any, of the last years work and you need to be OK with that. Additionally, you will probably be spending at least another year either at your current school or working somewhere, since the next opening for applications will likely be Fall 2016. 

 

For your case, you have an easier time with leaving amicably- there aren't good matches for your developing research interests. You still need to decide how you want to go about leaving and applying elsewhere, however. The cleanest break would be to give notice at your current school and leave now, then find work for the next year while you apply again. Alternatively, if your current school offers a MS route, you could swap to that, finish the MS in the next year while applying elsewhere for a PhD. 

 

Less clean is applying (quietly, secretly) while staying at your current school. This has it's own hazards, as you really need letters of recommendation from your current school to move on. Especially since you're saying the reason you are leaving is changing interests, which means a new school will want to see that you've done well, and ideally hear from the school that they don't think your research interests match well. 

 

Some programs might be fine with you TAing and taking classes while you apply out, and some will not- none of us can judge that for you. 

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I'll echo others and say your expectations might have been unrealistic. I have... 2-3 good friends from my cohort and then another 2-3 from other cohorts. I was in a big department (~85 grad students) and my advisor had I think 12 students when I started, so there were lots of folks around for me to meet. I also met people by participating in group activities that I enjoyed. Those friends are actually some of the people I talk to more. Oh, and I volunteered with a dog rescue group and met people through that. Getting involved in activities has been key for having friendships in my experience, which also applied to the married or partnered in my program. (BTW, if you think it was hard to meet people as someone in a couple, try being one of the only single people in a department full of people who are coupled off!)

 

Going to another program for academic reasons is totally valid. But, as Eigen said, it's unlikely that you'll be able to count more than 2-4 courses that you've taken at your current institution. If there's a way for you to leave with a master's (MA/MS/MPhil) that might make your exit smoother. You really do need to find someone write you a rec letter otherwise people might assume that you're transferring for less than ideal/positive reasons.

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Thank you everyone for your replies, it means a lot to me.

 

It is generally better to have at least 1 reference from the latest school. Are you sure there is absolutely nobody there who could write you a strong letter? Perhaps you are forgetting someone because of the overall experience? Maybe from another department?

 

...

If I may comment in regards to seeing a therapist: it can make a huge difference. I ve heard people saying that sometimes you just don t connect but from what friends told me different therapists each have their own strength and it is totally worth it. Go see one sooner rather than later! Consider also reading this book: Mind over mood.

 

I don't think I can get a strong letter out of any professors here. There is one professor who could maybe write something like "She was in my class and did okay", but that is probably all. I have three exceptional letters from undergrad so I don't know if I should give one up for a mediocre letter. Should I try to send in four letters (three undergrad letters and an additional one from my current university)?

 

I am definitely going to look into a therapist, and thank you for the book recommendation.

 

In terms of socialising - maybe "bonding through studying" was an unrealistic expectation. In the romanticised world of academia then yes, you and other budding scholars would spend hours poring over the literature and engage in deep intellectual discussions, connecting through your shared appreciation of your field. In reality, what I've seem is that people in grad school usually bond over lunch/coffee/dinner. Or they go to the bar. Or they play some kind of sport with a gang of friends. In fact, most of the shared activities don't involve studying! 

 

Personally, I'd not necessarily be receptive to somebody I didn't know well asking me to form a study group with them. I guess it's a distrust that the relationship would be one-way (i.e., they're going to mooch homework answers of me). Other folk I know wouldn't always see that as a problem - but it might explain the resistance you encountered to the idea, and why other members of your cohort were perhaps more keen to study with the people they'd already established friendships with.

 

Also, don't limit yourself to just making friends in your cohort! Try to find friends outside of grad school through your hobbies/interests (Meetup has saved my (social) life in several countries over the years - I'd urge everybody to use it). There will certainly be university-wide clubs that you can join. 

 

For transferring: just be polite and diplomatic, talk about poor alignment of the school with your research interests, rather than the social environment. Thank everybody for their assistance.

 

I see your point on group studying, I hadn't really thought of that aspect before. I did go to barbecues, lunches, dinners, seminars, tea/coffee time, colloquia, etc. hosted by the department or other grad students but it may have not been enough. I haven't heard of Meetup before so I will look into that.

 

For transferring, you need to be a bit careful, as it's rarely a "transfer", and more of a "leave and re-apply elsewhere" situation. Chances are, you won't find a program that will allow you to get credit for much, if any, of the last years work and you need to be OK with that. Additionally, you will probably be spending at least another year either at your current school or working somewhere, since the next opening for applications will likely be Fall 2016. 

 

For your case, you have an easier time with leaving amicably- there aren't good matches for your developing research interests. You still need to decide how you want to go about leaving and applying elsewhere, however. The cleanest break would be to give notice at your current school and leave now, then find work for the next year while you apply again. Alternatively, if your current school offers a MS route, you could swap to that, finish the MS in the next year while applying elsewhere for a PhD. 

 

Less clean is applying (quietly, secretly) while staying at your current school. This has it's own hazards, as you really need letters of recommendation from your current school to move on. Especially since you're saying the reason you are leaving is changing interests, which means a new school will want to see that you've done well, and ideally hear from the school that they don't think your research interests match well. 

 

Going to another program for academic reasons is totally valid. But, as Eigen said, it's unlikely that you'll be able to count more than 2-4 courses that you've taken at your current institution. If there's a way for you to leave with a master's (MA/MS/MPhil) that might make your exit smoother. You really do need to find someone write you a rec letter otherwise people might assume that you're transferring for less than ideal/positive reasons.

 

Unfortunately I can't just quit the program and work. I live in family housing and my stipend is the only thing supporting my husband and I right now. My husband has been unemployed since we moved here. We are in a "bubble"; jobs are scarce and even with degrees you are competing with people with 20+ years experience. I've decided to stay at my university this next year because I will be able to finish my masters by the end of the school year. Having a masters will help me get through some programs a bit quicker (I have talked to other programs about this already), so that is a plus.

 

If were to get a letter from one of my professors here I think it would be very mediocre, nothing spectacular. Would a mediocre letter hurt my application?

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I am a bit confused as to when you will finish your masters as the school year of 14-15 is pretty much over which means that you would need to find work in September anyway; otherwise if you mean that you will finish at the end of 15-16 this leaves you plenty of time to build a relationship with a professor and get a good letter.

Edited by random_grad

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Yea, if you've got another year, then you should definitely be able to get a strong letter from someone, as random_grad has said. And if you can't, then that's on you and it is not going to look good to other schools. You have about 4 months to get it together and work this out. Do whatever it is you need to do to get someone in your current department to write you a strong letter, one that ideally talks about research you have done, the skills and training you've acquired, and your potential to excel in a doctoral program where your research interests can be better supported and nurtured.

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Much of what you're saying is, I think, having too high of an expectation. 

It's school - sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not. Sometimes you click with a lot of people, sometimes you don't. And yes, you're being overworked - you're in grad school, that's par for the course. In this situation my advice would normally be to power through, get your degree, and move on. I don't know how long your program is, but a year or two isn't that much time.
However, this paragraph changed my mind in your specific case:

 

My mental health has also declined rapidly. I have a history of anxiety and depression and it has only worsened since starting graduate school. I knew I would be stressed with the workload, but the social aspects and other stresses have pushed me overboard on some days. In January I was in my office sobbing because I had realized I chose the wrong university. This decision constantly eats at me and I haven't been able to sleep. I dread going to campus and have no desire to study. I have seen a psychologist on campus, but they do not do counseling on campus (which I think is a little strange, do you?) so I have a referral to see an outside therapist. I still have not visited an outside therapist.

 

 

What's the cost of this degree for you, and what's the gain?

It sounds to me like you're losing much more than you're getting.

 

I agree with the comments above that it's going to be difficult for you to transfer, as programs are so specific and credits might not roll to your next school. Not to mention your lack of recs. I don't want to be harsh, but holding onto this idea that there's a perfect school out there that's just a transfer away where you'll have close friends / study buddies and supportive professors isn't realistic. 

I think the big question here is - is grad school right for you right now? 
A year off won't hurt you, and having time to step back and reconsider might be more helpful rather than scrambling to get applications out to schools that may or may not be an improvement on your current situation.

 

I don't know the answer. I'm really sorry you're having such a difficult time, and I hope things get better for you, whatever you decide to do.
And please go see that counselor that was recommended. 
Oh, and one note on psychologists since you asked: don't give up if you don't click with one right away. Go to another one, and then another one, and eventually you'll find one that works for you. It's unlikely your first acquaintance will become your best friend, or your first boyfriend will become your husband - it's no less likely that your first counselor will be "the one". If you find one you like I really think it will improve your situation.

 

(edited for hilariously bad misspelling of "acquaintance")

Edited by HookedOnSonnets

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I am a bit confused as to when you will finish your masters as the school year of 14-15 is pretty much over which means that you would need to find work in September anyway; otherwise if you mean that you will finish at the end of 15-16 this leaves you plenty of time to build a relationship with a professor and get a good letter.

 

Yea, if you've got another year, then you should definitely be able to get a strong letter from someone, as random_grad has said. And if you can't, then that's on you and it is not going to look good to other schools. You have about 4 months to get it together and work this out. Do whatever it is you need to do to get someone in your current department to write you a strong letter, one that ideally talks about research you have done, the skills and training you've acquired, and your potential to excel in a doctoral program where your research interests can be better supported and nurtured.

 

I will complete my masters after the 15-16 school year. 4 months isn't that long of a time, but I'll give it my best shot to get a strong letter from someone here.

 

 

I don't want to be harsh, but holding onto this idea that there's a perfect school out there that's just a transfer away where you'll have close friends / study buddies and supportive professors isn't realistic. 

I think the big question here is - is grad school right for you right now? 

 

This is good for me to hear - I need to know that my expectations at the beginning of the year regarding social life, friends, etc. were a bit a high and that they may not be met even if I do transfer to another university. Research is still the biggest reason for me wanting to transfer, but I still need to be cautious with everything.

 

That's the million dollar question right there. I really do want this, but I also need to sit down and do some serious soul searching.

 

---

 

Thank you all again. I needed some perspective on my situation and I'm really grateful that you all took the time to answer my questions and give some advice.

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I'm sorry that the first year of grad school has not gone well. I am also sorry and surprised to hear the lack of resources (especially mental health resources) from your school and your school's insurance plan. My student insurance plan covers the first 25 visits per year to a mental health professional for free (no copay, no deductible) and then after that, it's only a $15 copay. Mental health support is something that students here have lobbied very strongly for. About 20% of students here (also the national average) have seen a mental health professional while in school. I am telling you these things because in addition to the great advice above, I just want to let you know (if you didn't already know) that many graduate students go through similar struggles too. Taking care of your mental health is important and your concerns are valid!

 

For the socialization aspect, I agree with the others that making 2 good friends in one year is awesome. I think the only people that say "you make best friends for life in grad school" are current faculty members who are reflecting on their past with rose tinted glasses. In reality, I think grad school is a tough and grueling experience for you and your loved ones and you'll face a lot of challenges. In the end, when you overcome the challenges, it's much easier to think back on the tough times and feel a stronger connection with your old grad school friends because of the shared experience. 

 

Another related thing is that grad students generally have more diverse backgrounds and experiences than undergrad students. In undergrad, we are more or less starting a brand new phase of our lives and I feel that we tend to try to make friends more easily because we are still gaining independence and finding out who we are. In grad school, we are more developed adults that have a good sense of what we like and don't like. A personal example: In college, I would make an effort to befriend almost everyone I met in my program. But in grad school, I am friendly to everyone but I don't really try to become good friends with many people. I find the people I do enjoy spending time with and spend my time with them. For the rest of the students, we are just "work friends" (i.e. we are friendly to each other and we chat at work, but outside of things like BBQs or gatherings where we invite the whole department, I wouldn't hang out with them). 

 

In both of my previous grad programs, my first year was nothing like the rest of my time there, both in academics and socialization. The first year, for me, was mostly getting to know people and finding the ones I wanted to develop better friendships with. The second year and beyond was when these friendships really developed and I felt like they are my good friends and have that strong connection you are mentioning. I'm the type of person that makes acquaintances/work friends easily but it takes time for me to get to know someone enough to consider them a good friend. Maybe a lot of people in your program are the same way and it will just take more time.

 

Finally, with regards to applying to a new school, it will absolutely hurt your application if you cannot get a supportive letter from someone in your current school. I think you can still get into another school without a letter from your current school, but it will make things harder. Especially since the reason you are giving to the new school for changing school is that there is a lack of research fit. If that's the case, then there should be no problem, in the new school's eyes, for you to get a letter from your advisor at your old school. If you are planning to apply to new schools this fall/winter (For Fall 2016 start), then you do have some time to develop a strong enough relationship with a faculty member here to gain their support in applying to a new school. They can write you a letter to demonstrate to the new school that you are a strong and capable student and they might even be able to help you navigate your current school's procedure for getting out with a Masters.

 

If you don't think you can get this in a few months, then maybe you want to consider waiting another year. Apply in fall/winter 2016 for Fall 2017 start. This will give you another year in order to either: 1) find something at this current school that works for you or 2) prove yourself to at least one faculty member so that you can get a strong letter from them. If you go this route, you might not be in any program for the 2016-2017 school year, which means you might have to move. But a year is a long time away, and a lot of things can change! Maybe another opportunity might appear for you or your husband. Good luck!

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I just want to chime in here to offer a counterexample about making friends/getting really tight with your cohort. I'm in a cohort of nineteen, going into our second year, about fourteen of which have gelled into an awesome set of buddies. We go out to eat together, have potluck parties at each others' houses, host board game nights, go out for happy hour drinks every Wednesday, have holiday parties, eat bag lunches together on campus three or four days per week (of course, not everyone is present for everything every time, but we usually can get ten people together no problem). The other five people in the cohort also participate occasionally, and we have a private cohort Facebook group of which all are members so everyone is invited to cohort events. Most of us spend time in the library together every day and study at large tables together as well.

 

I know we will get busier as time goes on in second and third year and we'll have less time to spend together, especially during oral exams, but we've managed to connect and form a good foundation that will serve us well in the future. OP, I know your expectations were high, but I also want you to know that they were not impossible - my cohort is living proof that a group of grad students can gel well and become great friends. I am very sad to hear that this wasn't your experience, and I hope you have much better luck if you change schools! If it makes you feel better, please know that it IS possible for that kind of thing to happen on this earth.

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Every cohort is different.  My program is huge (~120 students) and does tend attract a fair number of married/serious relationship students and young parents.  Our cohorts (averaging between 18-22) are too large for everyone to mesh outside of required courses (and even so, not everyone takes those at the same time).  I did make some friends within my own cohort but we've drifted as we pursued our particular interests that really engaged us.   I didn't meet my best friend in the program until last year when I was a third year and she was a first year.  We never study together but we had so many common interests that we did other things.

 

It does really, really suck to be in classes with other people and go "oh crap, they seem to know what they're going to say and how the other will respond... I feel so left out!  I feel like I have to fend for myself here!" when you realize that they already talked about assignments beforehand through lunches/drinks/commute/etc and not at a particular time and place when you could have joined them to prepare for the class.  It does.  I totally empathized.  The best I could do was stay positive, fake confidence, and just listen and learn.

 

You could look into seeing whether or not the counseling center has group therapy where you can discuss confidence, social, and academic issues with other graduate students.  I did that for a year and it helped to put things in perspective and improve my own social skills.

 

As for transferring, I'm not in STEM field.  However, you're in a combined MA/PhD program, take the MA and leave.  While you don't need to explicitly explain in your statement of purpose, you will be highlighting the (new) program's strengths in such a fashion that your present program no longer can support you and you need to go somewhere else  If it's a direct PhD program where you pick up the MA along the way, then that's more tricky.  You'll need to sit down with your adviser and the Director of Graduate Studies and explain your unhappiness and feeling the lack of faculty support.  It will be awkward and uncomfortable, no question about it.  But such conversations can be held and things usually do get better, especially if the program is paying you (and not the other way around).

 

It is a bit hard to write a solid letter of recommendation when the professors are still getting to know you.  Are your grade in the A-range?  If they are, then you've done good work and your professors should be able to say some meaningful things.  Without us thereto observe your behavior and interactions with the professors one-on-one, it's hard to make concrete suggestions for fostering better relationships.

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