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Program Dilemma

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I am in a bit of a pickle and would like your advice. I feel like a horrible human, and need to find clarity. Hence, I am turning to strangers on the internet. 

I have an MS in Crop Science. I took a time off from academia to work in the industry for financial reasons. I wanted to save some money and see life outside the lab. I'd done a accelerated UG program and accelerated my masters. I don't know why I was in such a hurry. Perhaps if I had waited, and reflected, I would have developed some clarity.  During my time in a non-academic setting, I determined that I wanted to do another masters. I literally said to someone, "It will be nice to talk about crop science again." when referencing my present program. Why that didn't set off alarm bells, I don't know.  

However, now that I'm here and have a semester under my belt in community health, I realize now that community health has less to do with my long-term than I'd been advised and had sussed out based on talking and doing research. I made connections to CH based on CS, and now that I'm in it, I see that they are chalk and cheese, at least in the classroom. It is possible that this is simply the orientation of the program I chose. I made the decision with the best of intentions thinking it would make me a better crop scientist to be able to communicate about issues within crop science more broadly and better understand how they impact human health. While in a sense it has, I own that I made an error in judgement that belongs to no one but myself. 

It has always been my intention to return to my field (literally!) for PhD studies. I feel as though I am off on a tangent and that what I am doing now is not for me. I don't want to just leave. I'm committed to doing the responsible thing, whatever I can figure that out to comprise.

I have a future in academia, not the health professions. I don't want to be here, doing this work. I suppose I thought I could develop competencies, explore other areas, and trot back home to crop science, which I see now was not the best way to undertake what is a professional degree. It isn't an emotional/burn out issue. I've talked to a therapist and really thought about the root of my perspective. I just want to go back to my field, because I feel that's where I belong as a professional, and as an academic. I value the work I have done here, but I don't see a future for myself in the area of community health, though the skill sets I have developed are of value. I miss, however, my research, and so much about what I did then that I think now the better choice would have been to keep going, rather than undertake another program. 

Am I wrong to consider the certificate program my department offers? If I did, I would be done at the end of this Spring semester. I don't want to 'use' the department. I am not on stipend, and have student loans for this program. 

I need to figure out how to move forward ethically, reasonably, and sensibly. While my current programs knows of my intentions to try to go towards CS for my PhD, they do not know of my doubts and concerns at the present moment. I don't know how to have that kind of a conversation. 

I keep thinking about both my goals for my future and my present guilt of taking up a seat in a good program that could be used by a student who has every intention of working in community health. Do I stick it out, and work for another year and a half on this degree, knowing that my heart and mind are not here? Do I look into the certificate program, having entered with the intention of completing the CH program? 

Thank you for taking the time to read, and offering your opinions. I know I have the potential to really mess things up here, to trample on the goodwill of the department in which I find myself, and to shoot myself in the foot. It's not an easy place to find oneself. I appreciate any insights you may offer. 

Thank you for letting me post. I apologize if I've violated any of the rules in doing so, and will move or delete this post without complaint if required. 

Edited by MatildaWormwood
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Plans change. As long as you went in with the right intentions, I think you need to stop it with the guilt and self-doubt about having changed your mind. You thought you wanted X, you tried it out, and you've realized it's not for you and really your passion is in Y. That's a perfectly common and sensible course of affairs. Stop worrying about taking up someone else's spot. You went into the program in good faith and the spot is yours. You don't owe anyone else anything -- you have to give yourself the best shot at what you want (at any given time). So, that's the first thing I want to say. I'd have said this if you were funded by the department, and certainly if you've taken out loans to do it.

Now, the next step in your decision process has several moving parts to it. I assume that it's too late to apply for PhD programs this year, unless you can find programs with January deadlines and really push it. So we're likely talking applying next fall for a start time of two years from now. While you get ready to apply and start over, the question is what you want to accomplish where you are now, with the ultimate goal in mind of eventually returning to your CS route. It's possible that the certificate is the wiser choice, if you don't feel like there's more that you can/want to take from your current program, or actually since you'll have the time to finish the two-year degree, if you can still see the reasons you went into it in the first place and you can make it work, maybe there are reasons to stay through. Either way, one very important point is that you'll need LORs from your current program, so it'd be advantageous to do things in consultation with them, so you have their support. They might have their own opinions about what's the better choice. Another very relevant factor is your mental health. If your current program is making you unhappy, in my book that'd be a very good reason to leave with the certificate and find another thing to do while you apply next year that makes you happier. You might also look into requirements for the PhD applications; for example, maybe there's a writing sample requirement, in which case you'll want to make sure you have one of those before you leave, which you can get some feedback on. There's also the question of tuition vs perhaps working and earning some money next year.. I think it's time for some strategizing. 

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Thank you, @fuzzylogician. I have had trouble accepting that my plans have changed as simple fact, and not attaching self-blame to it. I've been very concerned about the feelings of others that I've been neglecting my own desires. 

I have yet to discuss things with my advisor. I was planning to do it after Christmas. I think what I most want to do is leave with the certificate, but will seriously consider their input. I've registered for classes this semester that would satisfy it. I have the opportunity to work when not in school, and see benefits to doing that while I prepare for the PhD admissions cycle, especially given that I am on loans in this program. 

Do you think it's best to simply say to them what I've said here? At what point should I broach the conversation? I want to be transparent and to express that, for lack of a better term, it's me, not them.  I want to part from my department on good terms. I think, on the basis of my work in the classes, that I have a context for positive LORs. I don't want to place that in jeopardy because I changed my mind. 

Thank you again for being a voice of reason. I do appreciate it. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

I think discussing this with your advisor after winter break makes sense. FWIW, I wouldn't say all of what you've said here. I would say something about how you've thought about your career goals and future plans and realized that, at this point in time, leaving with a certificate rather than a degree makes the most sense for you. I don't think your advisor or anyone else will be offended or upset by that, nor do I think it would jeopardize your future LORs. I hope this helps!

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