alion24

HELP mom sick with cancer, unhappy in PhD program (first year), possible to transfer?

Recommended Posts

Sorry this is SO long, but I REALLY appreciate anyone who takes the time to read this!!

I am a first year Molecular Biology PhD student in California, and I am amazingly unhappy with how my program has been going so far (ie, I have been miserable and often anxious/depressed). I keep trying to keep a positive attitude, but it feels like no matter how hard I work, things still aren't working out (and I don't feel very supported or valued by my department). I'm trying to be proactive about my anxiety, and I regularly see a therapist. There have been a string of events in my personal life–had I known at the time of choosing at a PhD program–I would have NEVER chosen my current school/program.

The biggest event was in October when my mom was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, across the country, in the rural midwest. She has gone through a great deal of chemo and multiple surgeries, and it has been difficult to put a handle on the metastasis. I have been traveling home for every holiday (spending an entire month between December-Jan as well as spring break), and I have gone home for each surgery (for long weekends). I have done this with the blessings/permission of my rotation professors/department head, but it has been truly exhausting. Because of my family's specific situation, I do not have any other family members that can care for my mom 24-7, when she is doing very poorly/right after a surgery (thus part of the reason I want to visit home). My parents tell me upfront that they don't want me to sacrifice my career opportunities (I am a first generation college student), but I know in my heart that they need me (and I need to be with them). I always have such a heavy heart, knowing that my mom and my family is suffering on the other side of the country; I hate being so far away from home. One of my close friends also committed suicide during my first rotation (and he sent me a package in the mail right before he passed away; which I never got a chance to thank him for, since I was "so busy" working in lab), which also gave been a heavy heart. 

If these personal-life issues were the only issues, I would consider taking a medical leave. I chose not to, however, because I thought it might complicate my NSF GRFP funding/I didn't have the money to keep paying rent in my apartment, without being paid. I powered through, and now that it is the time where we are supposed to "choose" thesis labs, I am finding out that none of the three professors who I rotated with want me to join their lab. It is very distressing to me, because I have tried *SO HARD* to keep everything together, slap on a happy face, and try my best. Despite everything, I still worked 8-16 hours in the lab every day, and I had data for each rotation. When I would go home for short trips, I would work extra hours in the night and entire weekends (getting only a few hours of sleep), to make up for lost time. I was extremely passionate about the topics of research in the labs I rotated in, in I would have been happy to join any three of them. I was extremely thoughtful in choosing my rotation labs. If nothing else, I hoped at least one of the 3 professors would have noticed and appreciated my grit and determination. But I got feedback from the department head that I should "seriously start looking for 4th rotation labs, because none of my first 3 rotation professors 'want' me in their lab." 

After meeting with each of the three professors, I confirmed what the department head said to be true (they either told me that they didn't think their labs were "where my interests truly lied" or that they thought I should go somewhere were I could get more mentorship). I don't really understand their comments; since I was very enthusiastic about their work and I was increasingly independent, especially towards the end of my rotations (once I had been trained–able to design, carry out, and analyze my own experiments, from scratch). I understand, however, that these are just nice ways of telling me they don't want me in their lab.

Adding to this, I even had one professor called me "slow" (in regards the way I think and reflect on problems) towards the end of my rotation (which was a bit offensive, she I am registered with the disability office for being dyslexic–which honestly, I don't feel like greatly effects my work). I have NEVER been called "slow" before in my life. As a different scenario (but equally bothering), a PhD student in the last lab I worked in went out of her way to tell me that she strongly advises me NOT to join the lab, that I would have a very hard time being successful there, and that the professor doesn't even know or care that I exist (harsh!). She told me not to take it personally, because the professor is very busy and has nothing invested in any of her rotation students (in addition to not knowing who they are). She even encouraged me to not give a final lab meeting, because it would save everyone time (of not having to listen to me present); and of course this PhD student is the person who schedules lab meetings for everyone. The professor of course knows who I am, because I had met with her several times one-on-one, and I am still planning on presenting my data in lab meeting. I was so humiliated, however, that I cried in front of this PhD student (mind you this was a few days before my mom was due for another surgery, so I was already extra emotionally vulnerable). I tried my best to be hard-working in this lab, I would ask for help when I needed it, and I got some interesting data–I honestly have no idea what I did to deserve those comments from this PhD student (I didn't even ask for her opinion or indicate that I hoped to join the lab!). Of course, I did not want to join this final lab (especially after these comments/experience).

I understand the easiest thing would be to find a 4th rotation lab, but so far, I am truly not interested/passionate in any other labs at the university (and this department makes me feel very horrible about myself). It is a huge source of anxiety for me to be so far away from my family at this time. I have my own NSF GRFP funding, in addition to 2 years of an NIH training grant (I really can't understand why none of the three professors will take a chance on me; they don't even have to pay for me!). I don't feel wanted or respected in my department now, and I feel so misunderstood. I don't expect to be liked by everybody, but I can't understand why I am liked by seemingly no one. I went to a good university for undergrad, worked in several research labs (with publications and good rec letters), did an international research fellowship, and I try to have good people skills/be very respectful, humble and polite (I know it must not seem like it in this post haha, forgive me; I'm just trying to give context to me situation). I have a new publication that will be coming out next year, for a project that I worked on as a senior in college. I don't brag/ever bring up these accomplishments here in my program; I'm just disclosing it here, because I am having such a hard time understanding why I went from being so well-received in my past research experiences to being so-poorly received here. 

Originally, in addition to this school in California, I was accepted into: UChicago, UWash Seattle (Genomics), Harvard, UNC, and Princeton. I am really kicking myself now, because had I gone to UChicago or Princeton, it would have either been a 2 hour direct flight home or a 3 hour train ride (whereas traveling to/from California takes at least 7-12 hours and is expensive, to get to my family).

Is it possible to try to transfer another school (such as UChicago or Princeton)? Honestly, if it weren't for NSF (and the fact that I've dreamed of being a scientist since I was 14), I might consider leaving the PhD path altogether. But I'm not ready to ENTIRELY give up; it seems so stupid to do that, just because I am having such a hard time in my current program (and I don't entirely understand why). I don't want to do a PhD on a topic I'm not passionate about (or in a department where I feel not supported/not wanted), but I have hope that there might be other options. I wouldn't mind having to start entirely from scratch at a new school, since I'm only a first year now. I don't expect my PhD experience to be magically better at a new school, but at least I were to struggle, I would be struggling closer to home. If I were to attempt transferring, would I need to reapply in December, or is it at all possible to contact the department and somehow explain my situation (to transfer)?

And out of curiosity: Has anyone had the experience before, where they had NSF, but had a horrible time finding a lab that wanted to take them? 

What are peoples thoughts? Thank you so much!

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

First step - find out if you can take medical leave on the NSF grant. The admin folk in your Dept will know (you don't need to go into the details of why you need to take the leave with them, and they shouldn't even ask). Sure it would complicate things, but apartments can be sub-let and I think family/your mental health comes first.

Transferring sounds like a valid option, but I also want to point out that (i) you don't need a PhD to get a good job (ii) there's nothing wrong with quitting a PhD program if it's a bad fit for you, or if other life stuff happens. Sometimes, walking away is the most courageous thing you can do. Also, the more you can understand about why things went wrong in this program, the better-prepared you will be for any future programs and labs. If it was just a case of the Dept being toxic, then you can learn how to better screen for toxic PIs and Depts. If there was an issue of fit between you and those labs, then you can learn more about the best type of lab environment for you and how to tell what it is a PI is looking for in their rotation students. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

1) I would contact someone at the graduate school who has experience with the NSF GRFPs about the possibility of taking a medical leave. See if it is allowed.

2) If it's not AND you still want to do a PhD, I would seek out specific professors/labs at other institutions and talk to them via phone about the possibility of transferring to their program. If they indicate that it's a possibility, even this late in the game, it will probably be because you do have your own funding. Only if they say it's possible would I talk to the department head. 

3) In all honesty, were I in your situation, I probably wouldn't care about whether a medical leave were permitted because I would put my family first, take a leave, and find a different way to fund PhD studies in the future if I still wanted to get the degree.

Good luck to you!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A couple things:

I'm so sorry about your mother. I wish her all the best, and you, too.

You can take leave while on an NSF - it's called Medical Deferral status. If an immediate family member (including a parent) experiences a serious illness, you can be granted a Medical Deferral. You can then use the deferred months of your fellowship later on. You have to contact the administrator (coordinating official) of the NSF on your campus and get an approved medical leave from your university, and then submit a request for medical deferral. If you look at the NSF Administrative Guide it's all laid out there. (http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2011/nsf11031/nsf11031.pdf). This sounds like exactly the kind of situation a medical deferral was invented for.

You may need to spend some time thinking about whether your anxiety and depression is due to PhD studies in general, to your specific program, or to the very difficult period you are going through in your life. That should help you determine what to do here. A leave of absence is a really good time to do that, even if you are spending most of it caring for your mother and getting treatment of your own. First of all, I think regardless of whether you stay or go, put yourself and your family first. You need to care for your mom and you need to care for yourself. That seems to signal getting out quick and getting back home to the Midwest. You aren't sacrificing your career opportunities. You are clearly a bright, intelligent, driven person who managed to get two independent forms of funding AND into a PhD program. You'll be able to achieve in your career. If your program is so terrible as to not be understanding during this very stressful time in your life, forget about them - it may be best to move on. Either way, focus on taking the time to care for your mom if you know in your heart that's what you should do.

But after you get that squared away, then the idea is to reflect some and think about whether it's your department or the program that's stressing you out. Before your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, how were you doing? Were you enjoying your work and were your professors responding to you in a different way than they are now? Or were you unhappy from the start? Think about the sources of your happiness, and think about your work. Imagine if you were in a lab with your favorite professor at this program, and they were supportive and you were doing interesting research. Would you still love graduate school? Would you still want a PhD? These questions are difficult to answer; I had a difficult time answering them myself until after I had finished my PhD.

One recurring thing I see in your post is that your own perception of your work doesn't seem to match up with outside perceptions of your work. For example, three separate professors have said that they don't want to take you on in their lab because it appears that your interests lie elsewhere (which is a nice way of saying they don't feel you were engaged enough in the lab) and/or because it appears you need more mentorship (which is a nice way of saying that they don't think you are independent enough ). The fact that they don't even want to take you on even though they don't have to pay a dime for you is very telling - but telling of what is the question. Is it just that your mom's illness affected your work in ways that you didn't see or realize from the outside? Or is there a kernel of truth independent of your mom's illness? You say you don't understand their comments. Have you asked them what they meant or for concrete examples of this? What about the PhD student who advised you not to join her lab? Was her advice given in a constructive way or a petty way? Are you comfortable enough with her to go back and have a chat about what she thinks you need to improve? Is your mind open enough to hear some constructive criticism about yourself?

Quite frankly, grit and determination are not enough. 16-hour days in the lab sounds very stressful, and if you were doing this for days on end while also dealing with your mom's sickness and traveling back and forth, the quality of your work may not have held up. Also - different labs are different, but in most labs you shouldn't have to work 16 hours in the lab to be productive on a regular basis (maybe occasionally, but not forever). Days longer than about 10 hours really aren't sustainable by humans for long periods of time, as studies show that really we can only do about 6-8 hours of productive work before our brain starts switching to other things and we lose productivity. When you're in the lab for a long time, are your days really productive or are you actually spending several of those hours procrastinating? And besides all that, what is the quality of the work that you turn out? 12 hours in the lab won't be important to your PIs if you don't have good work to show for it. I'm not saying you do or don't - I'm just saying examine these as potential reasons they don't want you in their labs.

Another possibility, of course, is that this is the kind of program that expects you to sacrifice all personal and family interests in pursuit of Science, and that these professors are part of a culture that embraces that - so they are avoiding you in the lab not because of your work but because you have a sick mom and they don't want a PhD student who has a commitment to caring for her sick mom. It's unlikely this is the case, but it's still a possibility, so examine that as well.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 5/1/2016 at 1:13 AM, juilletmercredi said:

One recurring thing I see in your post is that your own perception of your work doesn't seem to match up with outside perceptions of your work. For example, three separate professors have said that they don't want to take you on in their lab because it appears that your interests lie elsewhere (which is a nice way of saying they don't feel you were engaged enough in the lab) and/or because it appears you need more mentorship (which is a nice way of saying that they don't think you are independent enough ). The fact that they don't even want to take you on even though they don't have to pay a dime for you is very telling - but telling of what is the question. Is it just that your mom's illness affected your work in ways that you didn't see or realize from the outside? Or is there a kernel of truth independent of your mom's illness? You say you don't understand their comments. Have you asked them what they meant or for concrete examples of this? What about the PhD student who advised you not to join her lab? Was her advice given in a constructive way or a petty way? Are you comfortable enough with her to go back and have a chat about what she thinks you need to improve? Is your mind open enough to hear some constructive criticism about yourself?

 

This. Talk to Post-docs in the labs if possible because if you're working as hard as you say you are, then there's no reason that they wouldn't take you especially since they don't have to fund you.

Edit: I guess it's also possible that with all of the stress you haven't been particularly nice/sociable/likable, which is definitely something that is important

Edited by Ignis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you everyone who took the time to respond. I truly appreciate many of your kindness. 

I found a fourth lab to do a rotation with, but I'm lukewarm about whether I will be able to devise a thesis topic that I'm passionate about. It's probably too early to tell, but I am at a crossroads of trying to decide if I want to suffer through it, for the sake of getting a PhD, or try the difficult path of transferring. I'm not ready to give up my goal of research/a PhD however. But I do feel that, in order to be more happy, I need to do something to feel more in control of my life and my career path. 

I originally found a different lab that seemed to be more suited to my interests (and that I was super excited about), but before I could formally join, the department head strangely intervened and told that particular professor that I did not want to work in her lab (which was not true/we never had a conversation about) and she took a different student instead. She went from saying "I would love to have you work in my lab" to "I'm sorry, this is very awkward, but I was told by the department head that you wanted to join a different lab, so I took a different 4th rotation student and I no longer have room." I was about at my wits ends with the seemingly behind the scenes politics of my department, but I have since gotten over worrying about what I cannot control. The whole thing was weird.

To answer some of juilletmercredi's questions (that were probably hypothetical): In two of the three labs that I originally rotated in, the students and post docs that I talked to seemed confused as to why the professors themselves were not more eager to take me. In the lab I most wanted to join, the professor told me that several of the students made very strong arguments to her for why I should join, and that she found it very moving. She simply said she felt I would be happier somewhere else (that was more focused on bigger picture biological problems, rather than the more narrow biophysical work that she did). When I asked her for feedback on areas where I could grow, she said she felt I was very aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The particular PhD student in my third rotation, who suggested that I drop out of grad school entirely, seemed to say it in a petty way (she was frequently suggesting that I don't run controls with experiments, don't do particular experiments and don't even do a lab meeting, because she didn't feel like I should join the lab anyway, and why stress myself with extra work...it felt bizarre). After giving lab meeting for my third rotation however, I got several emails from people in the lab telling me that I did a great job. I never got to have a followup meeting with the professor from my third rotation, presumably because she is constantly traveling (and she never responded to an email asking for a followup meeting), and according to her secretary, her schedule was completely booked for several months. When I had a followup meeting with the first professor, he restated that he felt I was "slow" compared to other students. When I asked him to elaborate, he said he felt I pipetted slow and was too easily distracted by my mom's illness—there's little loss, because I don't feel like we were a good match (I wouldn't want to be judged on those factors anyway, even if they were were true).  

But truth be told, I don't want to join a lab where I don't feel valued or wanted. I appreciate your input Ignis, but I can say with complete certainty that it was not because I was not nice/sociable/likable :) If anything, I was too nice (and thus either seen as a pushover and/or possibly not intellectual enough). 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now