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Too soon to call it quits?


little ny
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Hey all,

I'm nearing the end of my first semester as a PhD student at a top university. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to attend, but I feel completely lost. I left all of my friends and family to come here. My good friend from high school goes to school nearby, but with my work load I find it hard to see her. I haven't made any friends here and my program is tiny so I don't even have anyone to study with. It breaks my heart when I go home because I see my friends who have graduated and have jobs really coming into themselves and enjoying life. I'm a really social person but I'm very independent as well so I thought I would be able to handle isolation. Not the case. As far as research goes, I enjoyed it in undergrad because my advisor was awesome and I didn't have to spend every waking minute working on it. I applied because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do so my advisor suggested I try grad school. I decided to skip my masters for financial reasons and now I find myself completely overwhelmed. I do homework and study constantly and I'm barely getting the grades I need to get. I've never struggled at school or quit anything in my life so I feel completely confused. I don't even recognize myself anymore. I used to be able to keep my chin up no matter what and now I find myself completely depressed. I know it's normal to feel homesick and overwhelmed at first, but I'm finding everything to be unbearable to the point that I've lost motivation to do my work and find no enjoyment in research. I'm scared that I rushed into this just because I didn't know any other possible careers that I could look into. Does anyone have any advice? I would really hate to walk away at this point but I don't know if I can handle another semester.

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I think that a lot of people find themselves in this position after first term.

When I did my MA, first term was really hard. I realize it's a PhD program, and 10 times more work, but don't loose heart.

I didn't meet my best friend ever until second term of my first year. First term is hard because of the work load and people are just getting to know one another. Try talking to some other people in your program; I'm sure they feel the same way.

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I should have mentioned- I have been seeing a therapist who works at the health center. Our sessions help for a few days but I usually find myself right back where I started. I do think sticking it out for a year is good advice, I'm just scared I'll go insane before I can finish next semester.

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It is very normal to feel overwhelmed in the first semester of a graduate program. That was my experience in my M.A. studies, as peppermint wrote. The following semesters usually become progressively smoother as one gains experience with the program, people, and flow of projects.

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I think this is a fairly common response to starting grad school. In my case (a PhD program in the UK), I'd moved across the ocean from all my friends, family, and boyfriend to a tiny isolated town. I definitely spent the first semester feeling isolated and overworked, but things changed sometime during my 2nd semester. Finding a new social life wasn't an easy task and kind of happened by accident - I moved desks from one communal grad student office to another, and magically found myself with people I enjoyed hanging out with. The workload also became more manageable and interesting as time went on, partly just because I got used to it and was able to finish stuff faster. And research definitely got better once I was past the reading/planning stage and into the doing/getting-results stage. I think moving straight from undergrad to a PhD is a really big jump and one that takes some getting used to. It takes a while to forge a new identity as a researcher rather than a student and you can feel incompetent at the beginning. But in my case it was worth giving it some time, as things definitely got better!

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Rule #1 for hard times: Don't feel sorry for yourself. Most of the situation is partially within your control, so go and do something about it.

I am not a social person, but I've learned to make friends. In fact, I made my first friend during grad student orientation--I was lost looking for the room I needed to be in, and I looked around and saw another person who looked lost, so I went up and introduced myself. We started chatting as we wandered around, made snide remarks to each other during the boring meetings, had lunch together...and were friends. By pure coincidence, my new friend was in the same department as I was and we ended up being assigned to the same office...pure luck!! But even if that hadn't been the case, I would have had a friend.

If you don't like this approach, go join a club.

Having trouble with homework? Go to office hours. (Don't scoff at me!! It's a very good idea!) Get the help you need, then chat with the professor afterwards. It's a good way to network. And trust me, you'll need the academic network to survive in grad school.

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I think a lot of that too, is just growing pains. Growing out of our teenage years wasn't easy either. I can never make friends from the getgo, and I always find that the closest friends that I make are always well into what I'm doing.

Doing stuff now takes forever, but I think what the previous poster said before--you'll start doing things faster (finding references, reading, forming ideas) and that will make your work a ton more manageable, but to get to that point, it takes a lot of practice and patience. There is just no way around the suckiness. It only gets better gradually, little by little. So hang in there and don't quit yet.

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Hey little ny,

I am in my first semester (though it's MA, not PhD) and I TOTALLY HEAR YOU. Every single day I have to convince myself all over again to keep reading, keep writing, keep jumping through the hoops. Thank goodness I am NOT alone and far away from everyone, as you are--I'm still at my undergrad. It's weird because I forged an identity, a relationship with the department, based on being an undergrad. Now I have to resituate myself, and it's sometimes really hard. I feel like I'm in the twilight zone--everything is familiar, but warped and uncanny. Most of my undergrad friends and acquaintances have picked up and moved on, my undergrad roommate is now in business school here, so we still live together. However, we're both so busy that we only really talk every couple of days, when we pass in the kitchen with dazed looks in our eyes. Even with her still here, I feel very alone without my fiance--he got into a very prestigious PhD program across the country. He and I talk about eloping to Vegas and then running away to Japan. We probably have this conversation five times a week, and sometimes we get halfway through booking our plane tickets on expedia before we resign ourselves to continuing to try and get through the years of academia. Every day I ask myself "Why am I here? Did I come to grad school just because my profs told me I could? Am I getting anything out of this? Can anything be worth all this time and effort and misery?"

I don't know, but I'm still hanging in there, at least for now, and I'm determined to reach at least the end of this year (I say that now. Give it a week when I'm in the middle of trying to finish up all my semester's projects and maybe I'll change my tune...). I'm hoping next semester will be *better,* somehow. Everyone seems to say things get better in the second semester. We're so close--we can do it! (For another couple weeks...? Maybe...????) Good luck, I hope things get better soon!!

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I'm in the week-before-last of the first semester of a very intensive PhD program and I totally understand where you're coming from. I moved from Europe and left my family, boyfriend, friends, cats and most of my belongings behind. I didn't know a single person in town when I came here and I'm not exactly the most sociable person in the world. Luckily I have an absolutely wonderful cohort, or else I'd be totally lost. The workload is hard, but you slowly learn to cope. You also learn it's OK not to produce your best work every week. I've decided to prioritize having a life above being perfect, and since I've come to this realization I think I've become a happier person. I think you should first of all get through this semester and use the break to go back home and see the people you love. The second semester should be much better, because you've already become familiar with your surroundings, you know the people, the expectations, things are becoming more or less predictable. As others have said, you're also learning to adapt to the requirements, so there should be some improvement there as well. You should at least give it a full year before you decide it's not for you.

I can give you two pieces of practical advice that work for me, do with them what you will.

Academically, use all the resources available to you. Make appointments with your TAs and visit your professors during office hours. Ask your classmates for help, even if you don't study with them now. Is there anything stopping you from sitting with them after class and talking about your work? I'm sure everybody is having a hard time even if they're not saying so, and all it takes is one friendly person to let you into the group. Have you made friends with any students from other years? You could try asking some of them for help or advice about their first year--the advice I've gotten has been invaluable. The one thing many have said and I'll repeat is - don't work too hard! No one will hire you because you got all As in your first year classes, it's the dissertation that counts. Plow through the courses and do enough to get by, but don't do everything perfectly. The interesting parts come later, you just have to hang on til then.

Socially, make the time to go out, even if that means spending a few hours less on an assignment. Be active about going out and making friends, from your department or otherwise. If you're unhappy you're not going to do good work anyway. I seriously think that taking an evening off and doing something unrelated once in a while can improve your work. You need to remind yourself to take a break and relax when you start feeling overwhelmed. I'm sure it's a common feeling in your department, so that'll be a good time to find someone who shares the feeling, go out for a drink and complain.. I've found it very useful to work in coffeeshops. It gives me an internet free environment that I really need to concentrate on my work, and once I became a regular, I started noticing the same people sitting at the booths next to me. We got to talking, and so I met some people who say hi when they see me and ask how I've been. Not great friends yet, but it's a nice start. So I guess the point is be active and go out there even if you have to make yourself in the beginning. It gets easier with time, I promise you.

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Thank you all so much for your advice and words of encouragement. I feel much better already just knowing that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Up to this point, I've been able to put pressure on myself and get the results that I want. Being in a situation where working my hardest doesn't get me A's is pretty scary. I just need to get out of my head so I can relax and enjoy this as much as I can.

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Thank you all so much for your advice and words of encouragement. I feel much better already just knowing that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Up to this point, I've been able to put pressure on myself and get the results that I want. Being in a situation where working my hardest doesn't get me A's is pretty scary. I just need to get out of my head so I can relax and enjoy this as much as I can.

I think you'd have been better off had you experienced some of this in your undergrad. I experienced some of it during mine and so was somewhat prepared when I came to the US to do a PhD. I find that though I get the scores that I deserve when I work hard enough for some of the courses, there are others where it just doesn't happen. In fact, there is this 5 credit course (which can screw the GPA real bad) that I work my ass off on and still end up with 75-80% scores on the homework while most others get 90-100. This is a syntax course and I needed it for background information. So what do I do? I don't fret because I don't get the scores that I think I deserve.. it just isn't as important as we think it is. Fuzzylogician is right..these grades won't matter at all in the end. Focus on the courses that are directly relevant to your line of work and do just enough to keep the professors of the remaining courses from getting pissed off at you. This last line of advice was given to me directly by a professor in my area and I decided to take his advice. I also make sure that I spend time during the weekends doing nothing..or listening to music, chatting with friends, take my wife out to dinner, etc.. So I don't study a whole lot during the weekends. It helps.

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