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hlsny

Very unhappy in the program I am in, but enjoy my field, what should I do?

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I am a first year and am very unhappy in my current PhD program. The pay is barely above food stamps in a very expensive city, the expectations of TAs are far beyond what I have seen in other schools, I am not connecting with my cohort, and I am feeling lukewarm towards the research group I am with. I am living 45 minutes to an hour away from campus and still spending more than 50% of my income on rent. I can barely get 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night because between homework, the very long classes (classes are in two to two and half hour blocks twice a week and often run overtime,) and my extensive TA duties, I spend upwards of 14 hours at school each day. I guess I've even been outwardly unhappy enough (even though so far my work has been submitted on time and I've gotten good grades) that I found out someone reported me to the university counseling center.

But, here's the thing--I really like my field of study, and I can't see myself doing anything else. I think I would feel better in a lower cost of living area, or somewhere with a better stipend, or more reasonable expectations for TAs. (To put it in perspective, my program is in Washington DC and pays the exact same as the program in my field at Michigan State.) Should I make steps to transfer somewhere else? How would I even go about that? Or should I try to make the best of it here? I am trying to help organize a union to at least advocate for better conditions, but has anyone in a similar situation found other ways to make the best out of things?

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If you are a first year like me, then you have been in your current program a month or less. That is not enough time to evaluate the program at all. How many credits are these 4-5 hour classes? A 3-credit course usually runs about 2.5-3 hours per week in the semester system (16 weeks). If you are on a quarter system (10-11 weeks), I could see the classes running for longer periods of time in order to be the equivalent of semester classes. My academic classes meet for 2.5 hours once a week for the semester. All of the GTAs I have ever known work 20 hours per week. If you are teaching, that is 150 minutes per week, per course. Of course, that 150 minutes is purely teaching and doesn't allow for creating lesson plans, doing admin stuff and grading papers, which is way more time consuming than teaching. The only thing I have to be on campus for are my own academic classes, and teaching, which is about 12 hours per week. The other can be done at home and, unless I want to get a study carrel at the library, must be done at home, as I don't have an office on campus. I get about the same amount of sleep (6-7 hours per night). I did a masters program (traveling 45 minutes each way) prior to entering this PhD, so I knew what I was in for. I was very stressed during the teaching orientation I had to attend before classes began. Once classes began, and I started teaching and attending my own academic classes, I settled down pretty quickly and have gotten in the groove of my work.

Did you do any research about the cities where you applied for programs? DC is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Even saying that, I would also note that I am in one of the lowest (if not the lowest) paid fields. I spend 71% of my pre-tax stipend on housing because I refuse to live with others. Luckily, I have other income that gets me through. I believe each PhD program is autonomous from every other program and that there is no such thing as transference. You must apply all over again.

Edited by cowgirlsdontcry

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Concretely, two things: 

One: First year is often the hardest. It takes time to get used to juggling coursework and TAing along with research. The second semester is likely to be better, and second year will probably improve again because you'll likely have less coursework and you'll get better at managing your time. Have you tried talking to more advanced students about their experiences and how they handled the adjustment? Talk, specifically, to other international students who also had to handle adjusting to a new culture, climate, language, etc. This all takes time. It took me about a semester to start feeling acclimated into my PhD program and about a year before I actually understood what all was happening around me. I really started to enjoy myself some time in the second year, I would say. I can't promise that you'll be the same, but it might just be a matter of time for you, too, before you feel better adjusted and figure out how to make things work. At the very least, the few weeks you've been there couldn't possibly be enough to really have a sense of what your life might be like if you stay. Again, talking to more experienced students about how they make their situations work might help. 

Second: transferring is not usually that simple in grad school. More often than not, you'll essentially be reapplying and starting over from scratch. Many programs won't accept prior coursework, so you may have to redo that, too. That's something to look into. Also worth looking into -- is there a way to Master out of your current program? One way to leave without burning bridges is to get a Masters and reapply for a PhD at another school, stating fit as the reason you didn't stay in your current program. You'd be in a stronger position if you apply next year with one successful year under your belt and with letters from your current school, as opposed to this year, with just a few weeks into your program and presumably no support from your current school. It would, however, mean staying there longer (which I independently think you should do, by the way, as I stated above, to give it a real shot), so either way I think you need to start seeking help to learn to handle the stress. 

Less concretely, I've seen students get involved in unionizing; I am definitely not telling you not to, but the ones I've seen invested a whole lot of time into it, with not as many results, at least not for themselves and not immediately. If you do it, do it because you think it's the right thing to do in general, but it may not be the way to solve your own problems in the short run. 

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On 9/20/2017 at 6:13 PM, cowgirlsdontcry said:

If you are a first year like me, then you have been in your current program a month or less. That is not enough time to evaluate the program at all. How many credits are these 4-5 hour classes? A 3-credit course usually runs about 2.5-3 hours per week in the semester system (16 weeks).

I am in a semester system, they are three credits each. At my undergraduate school (I also took graduate courses there) a typical three-credit course was an hour and fifteen minutes twice a week.

I knew that DC was expensive (went to undergrad in NYC, so I pretty much knew that I was going to be spending 50% of my income on rent in such a place,) however, we don't always get that much choice in which programs we get into, or which ones have our research topics.

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On 9/20/2017 at 8:49 PM, fuzzylogician said:

Concretely, two things: 

One: First year is often the hardest. It takes time to get used to juggling coursework and TAing along with research. The second semester is likely to be better, and second year will probably improve again because you'll likely have less coursework and you'll get better at managing your time. Have you tried talking to more advanced students about their experiences and how they handled the adjustment? Talk, specifically, to other international students who also had to handle adjusting to a new culture, climate, language, etc. This all takes time. It took me about a semester to start feeling acclimated into my PhD program and about a year before I actually understood what all was happening around me. I really started to enjoy myself some time in the second year, I would say. I can't promise that you'll be the same, but it might just be a matter of time for you, too, before you feel better adjusted and figure out how to make things work. At the very least, the few weeks you've been there couldn't possibly be enough to really have a sense of what your life might be like if you stay. Again, talking to more experienced students about how they make their situations work might help. 

Second: transferring is not usually that simple in grad school. More often than not, you'll essentially be reapplying and starting over from scratch. Many programs won't accept prior coursework, so you may have to redo that, too. That's something to look into. Also worth looking into -- is there a way to Master out of your current program? One way to leave without burning bridges is to get a Masters and reapply for a PhD at another school, stating fit as the reason you didn't stay in your current program. You'd be in a stronger position if you apply next year with one successful year under your belt and with letters from your current school, as opposed to this year, with just a few weeks into your program and presumably no support from your current school. It would, however, mean staying there longer (which I independently think you should do, by the way, as I stated above, to give it a real shot), so either way I think you need to start seeking help to learn to handle the stress. 

Less concretely, I've seen students get involved in unionizing; I am definitely not telling you not to, but the ones I've seen invested a whole lot of time into it, with not as many results, at least not for themselves and not immediately. If you do it, do it because you think it's the right thing to do in general, but it may not be the way to solve your own problems in the short run. 

So, I've spoken to a few older students, and honestly, from what they say, the future sounds just as bleak. I definitely wouldn't try to reapply anywhere this year, but I would hate getting a Masters just to have to redo all of the Masters coursework somewhere else.

I definitely don't think unionizing will be a magical solution to my problems, but it does at least feel like it might make a difference for someone else down the line.

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1 hour ago, hlsny said:

So, I've spoken to a few older students, and honestly, from what they say, the future sounds just as bleak. I definitely wouldn't try to reapply anywhere this year, but I would hate getting a Masters just to have to redo all of the Masters coursework somewhere else.

I definitely don't think unionizing will be a magical solution to my problems, but it does at least feel like it might make a difference for someone else down the line.

I came into my PhD with a master's. they will transfer 18 hours of the master's for application onto my PhD, leaving me with 30 academic hours to complete. I will finish in about 4 years which adds up to 6 years total, about the same time if I had done a PhD only. I still believe you should give it some time and see how things go. No we don't always get to choose, but I knew what I wanted and simply refused to apply to universities outside of the places I wanted to live in. Quality of life is just as important to me as the education. While I'm very busy (to put it mildly), I do really love both the university and the city I ended up in. 

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2 hours ago, hlsny said:

I definitely wouldn't try to reapply anywhere this year, but I would hate getting a Masters just to have to redo all of the Masters coursework somewhere else.

As @cowgirlsdontcry has said, most PhD programs will give you credit for some of the coursework you did for your master's. Often this is in the form of a reduction in the total number of hours needed to complete the PhD. So I wouldn't view the master's as something you'd have to completely redo. Instead, why not think of it in terms of the valuable experience you'd gain by doing one?

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