5

I am a student with an MSc in Physics who is supposed to start a PhD next month. The reason I am writing is the bad psychological situation I ended up after a hard choice between grad programs. I will try to go straight to the point omitting details on how frustrating the whole application period was. After many rejections last year and the year before, I was in the initially pleasant position to receive four offers. After long thought I reduced them to two, which ended up turning the whole thing into a nightmare.

Place A: The school that I did my MSc. I would continue in similar topics with a different and very young supervisor in the same research group as my MSc (it's a bit more complicated than that but anyway...). I left and now I regret it.

Place B: The place that I accepted to do my PhD even though I haven't visited it yet. Not sure about the exact topic, but it is supposed to be similar to A. It is slightly more well known as a name and the supervisor is widely considered as one of the top researchers in his field.

None of the schools are top-10 super prestigious but the Prof. in B can be regarded at this level, if not better.

I admit I made mistakes in the decision process but that's not important since I cannot turn back time. I was never 100% confident with my choice and when I rejected A it felt bad. But I had the same buyer's remorse feeling when I rejected the rest of the schools too, so I thought it is going to pass in a week or so. Here I am, four months later, feeling MUCH worse! I lost all motivation to work, let my father make all the arrangements for B (accommodation etc.), and did not even help him, I am constantly procrastinating everything related and even started having bad habits, like wasting time in computer games, unhealthy eating and sleeping every day after 4am. Starting a PhD this way is probably not going to have the best outcome.

To be fair, the whole thing is indeed partly in my mind, but there are also some facts that changed recently and made A look better now. It has to do with location - I had personal reasons to prefer B's location which do not exist anymore (no, not girlfriend). Moreover, I would definitely prefer A's location for a job (after graduation), hence staying in A for PhD could help career-wise.

I should also note that the offer from A is not officially on the table anymore, so one might think the whole thing is pointless. On the other hand, I had good relations and they seemed satisfied with me during the MSc, so with a bit of luck I might be able to get an offer for next year, if I try. Of course the whole wrong decision/regret story could hurt my chances, so nothing is certain in this direction.

The way I see it, now there are a few options now:

YOLO approach:

Drop out from B prior starting and try to get an offer from A for next year (or as early as possible). This is going to piss off B but it is still better than starting, wasting their time and funding and not giving my 100% self because of my problems. It is also possible that A might stop being interested anymore, but I will get in touch with them and explain the situation before letting the other option. I also get an unexplainable gap year in my CV which might hurt in future job search.

HONEST approach:

Be honest with everyone. Tell A that I want to go to them but I am commited to B and discuss with B why I don't feel very excited starting there. This can have a bunch of different outcomes, from managing to go back to A with everyone happy, staying to B with everyone happy or even losing both options. In any case, it is probably morally correct to follow this route but also tough. Telling to my new supervisor "I chose you but I feel that I don't want to be here" is not the optimal way to start a relation.

EVIL approach:

Start normally at B and pretend everything is ok. Since I have never been to the place there is a possibility that I'll like it and get better with time. This sounds very unlikely now but things might change with time. On the other hand, things can get worse and depending on how bad, it might be possible to continue half hearted (hardly to do a PhD this way) or eventually drop out. In this case nobody knows whether it will be possible to get readmitted to A or anywhere else as dropping out of a program definitely raises questions.

Anyway, if you read everything and reached this line, thank you very much. Honestly, I don't expect the forum to solve my internet as I probably need professional assistance, but writing things down helps me in any case. Since, I spent the time to do it, I thought it would be great to share, for people who have been in a similar position, others that are just interested in such stories or even someone who might have a piece of advice, which is of course very welcome.


UPDATE:

First I would like to thank the people who read my message, particularly the people who answered for the effort they put without having anything to gain. I really appreciate that.

I am adding this update to give some more details related to Allure's great questions. I did not analyze the reasons for my choice because my message was already long and I tried to focus on my current problem.

To answer the first question: the truth is that I was never sure (even now), in the sense that even if I stayed at A it is likely that I would still be in a similar situation about not choosing B. Or it could be easier since there would be less uncertainty as I already have experience with A, nobody knows. So I admit that I did not have the courage to handle the situation properly, but I cannot erase the second thoughts I have now either.

I am not the most outgoing person but still asked people for advice, probably not as much as I should have done, though. Most of the answers were pretty much like Allure's comment, that both seem good choices. Even my A supervisor who would probably like me to stay there spoke highly for B, too.

I should also mention that my supervisor at A would be different from my MSc supervisor and I would be his first PhD student. I would also be in a different nearby institute but I would be possible to work closely with the old group too. For Buffy's thought, being supervisor's first student (A) vs super-star supervisor (B - 80k citations, more than 20 students in his group, etc) is another open question with many different answers, even in the current website. I searched a lot about that and nothing really convinced me.

I wouldn't say there is a material change like Brexit. Probably the most accurate answer is that I made the wrong choice with the info I had. However things happened during the summer too, which made me reconsider. To explain the timing, I accepted/rejected the offers in May, my second thoughts started end of June and they aggravated during summer. When I chose B, my project in A wasn't going very well - I had some good numerical results that my supervisor liked but I lacked deep understanding. Also, the supervisor did not spend much time on this. All this, combined with the fame of B supervisor, as well as the fact that B is geographically closer to my home were the reasons for the initial choice.

What changed: When I arrived back home, the feeling of being close to home (one of B's pros) became much less important. My ties with my parents don't feel as strong as before for personal and work reasons and I think it was very immature and remnant from my undergrad that I even considered distance for the PhD choice. Without the distance fact, I would prefer A's location because of the language (English). B is in Europe and I do not speak the country's language (not need for work, though). But more importantly than that there's research. I said it wasn't going well until early May, but the situation changed drastically in the last 1.5 month. The supervisor showed interest, the project went much better and I really enjoyed my final presentation. In fact we were even preparing a publication, something that was put on hold since I left. To sum up:

  • When I decided I felt lost in A anyway, so I would have to start over no matter where I went. So I thought of trying in a new place closer to home (B).

  • Now I know that if I stayed in A I would already have something to start working on and even get a paper out quickly. B seems like starting from scratch again and in a location (environment outside the institute) that might be not very friendly, considering the language problem. Of course, I will never know if I don't go, but I have trouble being positive about it and that's not good.

closed as off-topic by Ben Crowell, Fábio Dias, Fomite, Buzz, D.W. Aug 12 '18 at 3:44

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "The answer to this question strongly depends on individual factors such as a certain person’s preferences, a given institution’s regulations, the exact contents of your work or your personal values. Thus only someone familiar can answer this question and it cannot be generalised to apply to others. (See this discussion for more info.)" – Ben Crowell, Fábio Dias, Fomite, Buzz, D.W.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 2
    Hello Stealth, when I feel like similar to you, I generally find the root of the bad feeling as "an apprehension of climbing the career ladder", or simply leaving the comfort zone. Rather than choosing one or the other, consider also this. If so, you need to overcome this feeling somehow, if not I hope someone in this community will share an accurate answer for you. – user91300 Aug 11 '18 at 10:53
  • 1
    have actually started your phd at uni B? – Fábio Dias Aug 11 '18 at 14:39
  • Hi Güray and thank you for your message. I agree with both things. I believe that with a positive perspective it could go well in both places, it is just that I feel more comfortable in A since I've been there and currently I feel it fits my career goals a bit better so it could possibly help to climb the ladder faster. Unfortunatelly being in academia is challenging and causes these feelings. – Stealth Aug 11 '18 at 15:50
  • For Fábio, not yet but I am supposed to start in the first week of September and I already arranged accomondation for the first few months. So unless I go with a super crazy plan, I will start almost for sure. – Stealth Aug 11 '18 at 15:53
  • what "committed" exactly mean? did you sign a contract? Is A completely off the table for this year (as in "they had X seats, all are taken and none will be open for me in any circumstances"?). I would still go for A in your case, having been in a slightly similar (but way less dramatic) situation. – WoJ Aug 11 '18 at 16:03
19

You're experiencing anxiety, which is a normal response to an upcoming major life change. If it's severe enough to be causing physical symptoms, e.g., panic attacks, please see a physician as there are medications like Valium and Xanax that work well to control them.

I think you're pretty much committed to doing your PhD at B and that there'd be a lot of breakage in your life trying to change that. But I also don't think you've given any reason to think this won't be a great new chapter in your life. And, frankly, if your real long term life objective is to be back at A, perhaps as faculty there, then you definitely should prefer doing your PhD at B. (Most schools won't hire their own PhDs into tenure-track positions.)

Here's what I think will happen to you. You will experience about a year of upheaval in your life, making your new home really home, finding new friends, figuring out where to buy groceries and how your new department and new supervisor work. It will be hard on you. But it will challenge and grow you in new and unexpected ways and a year from now, you will feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at having made the change and made it a success.

When I've moved (and let me tell you, I hate moving and I experience all the anxiety you're describing every time) the good things that always seem to happen are that I discover new opportunities I had never dreamed of and I meet new people that change my life. Who knows. If you don't have a girlfriend now, perhaps you will meet her there. (If she was in your circle at A, wouldn't you have already met her?) Perhaps you will find your soulmate, create a family, and move back to A, where you'll both be tenure-track. Anything can happen.

Good luck.

Added in response to OP's added remarks: Okay, the language and family issues definitely complicate the question and help explain your anxiety. But if you don't follow through on what you'd expected was a move that would put you closer to family while doing your PhD because the relationship has cooled, this could be a decision you might later regret given that your parents won't be around forever. The language issue is a harder call but apparently you thought you were up to it, so I'm going to bet that way as well. Not having learned another language is a common regret.

  • Yes, please see other answers on this forum about not making major academic decisions when you are in the thrall of anxiety and depression. Try to get therapy and/or medication before deciding. – Dawn Aug 11 '18 at 17:45
  • thanks for sharing your own experiences with anxiety. It's relieving to hear that people in this situation are not alone – user1993 Aug 11 '18 at 19:13
  • 1
    @user1993 Oof! I'm 67. It still happens. Last summer, I was days away from backing out of moving to Ann Arbor, MI after 15 years in Redmond, WA when it seemed like I was running out of time to find a place to live from 2000 miles away. This summer, I decided I was happy enough that I bought the place I rented last year over the internet but still struggled with more anxiety just days before closing. Such is life. – Nicole Hamilton Aug 11 '18 at 22:13
  • Thank you very much for the response and for the encouraging words. Indeed I haven't been to B yet and the uncertainty of change (all the things in your 3rd paragraph) make it worse. I know that there is some sort of psychological problem in my situation and I plan to seek professional help but avoid medication for now. What I don't know is what percentage of my preference towards A now is due to this anxiety issue or because there are real reasons that make it a better choice. It is interesting that there are people here who found some logic in this choice. – Stealth Aug 11 '18 at 23:10
  • @Stealth If you gave it careful, diligent consideration and thought B was the smart choice before all the anxiety set in, there's a good chance it's still the smart choice. – Nicole Hamilton Aug 11 '18 at 23:17
7

First, calm down. Your life is not going to end because you attended the "wrong" graduate school. Second, in life, we make lots of decisions in uncertain circumstances. You'll never know what might happen if you go to another university, but since you can only choose one option, you should make a decision and stick with it.

With that out of the way, a few things to think about before deciding what to do next:

Which university do you actually want to go to? By your description, you actually want to go to University A. What made you decide to accept B's offer then? Did something materially change that makes B the inferior choice? For example, if B is in the UK and you find you don't even want to set foot in the country after the Brexit referendum, then that's a real change in circumstances that should be taken into account. If nothing materially changed, then why are the reasons that made you choose university A no longer convincing? Did you just make the wrong choice? You must have the courage to make a decision and stick with it - you'll meet this situation again in life (e.g. buying a house, getting married ...), and cannot regret your decision forever.

I once talked to a dean about making grad school choices. He said that when he was doing his PhD, he also had two attractive options, and he discussed them with his advisor. His advisor said that whichever option he chose would be the right one. Sage advice.

About the YOLO option: there're two problems with this. First is that you'll have a year's worth of time to fill. What are you going to do in that year? If the answer is "nothing", then you'll just be a burden on your caregivers, which is not responsible behavior. If you're thinking of getting a job, then that's fair, but it's not easy to find a job for only one year. I suggest you discuss this with your parents first, see if they have any suggestions for what you can do in that year. If you can't find anything constructive, this option becomes very unattractive to me (don't forget that empty years in your CV also makes your application next year less competitive).

The other problem is that you're assuming you'll get admitted at university A next year. Unless you have some kind of reassurance from them, I would not take this for granted. Remember, you were rejected at many places two years in a row.

About the honest option: there's a chance that A will be able to admit you even though you rejected the offer before. It depends on the program. If they have a freestyle start date (i.e. you can begin whenever you want), then there's a good chance it'll work; on the other hand if they have an official start date in August like most universities in the US, it's unlikely they'll be able to admit you. Still, you won't know unless you ask.

As for university B, nobody wants an unhappy graduate student. If you genuinely believe you'll be miserable at university B, then you should have no qualms rejecting the offer. They'll simply call up someone from their wait list.

tl; dr:

  • Think carefully about where you want to go, make a decision, and have the courage to stick with it.
  • If you choose A, ask A if they can still admit you this year. If they can, you're gold. If not, figure out if you have something to do if you reject B's offer.
  • If you have something to do, ask A if they will admit you next year. If they say yes, you're gold. If not, go to B.
  • If you have nothing to do, go to B.
  • Thank you very much for responding and for looking at all options. These are great questions and I could write even more details about why the decision but I am afraid it will end up boring. About the gap year, I can do military service to not hurt CV (hopefully, as it is mandatory here), but it's a waste of time as it can be postponed when living abroad until the age that can be bought. I see that as the last resort choice as going to B is important in helping me answer questions like whether it was the correct choice or no. If no, I'm in trouble but I don't see any better solution. – Stealth Aug 11 '18 at 23:42
5

I'm going to leave the question of the psychological and subjective factors to others here. For example, the answer of Allure seems about right to me.

However, on an objective basis, I'd suggest that in choosing B, for whatever reasons and by whatever path, you have made the best decision for yourself. It is simply that working with a more experienced advisor, rather than a newcomer works in your favor, provided that you build a good relationship with him/her. The experienced professor will have more and better ideas. That professor will not need to be as mindful of their own advancement and can (though not all do, of course) help you with your academic advancement. I've had both kinds of advisors and I'd take the senior professor any day.

Some junior professors are an exception and have many ideas that they have no time for themselves, but they are also too involved in such things as tenure portfolios and such. The senior professor will have much less pressure to perform in the short term. Your association with a senior professor can also help you kick start your own advancement.

However, you have put yourself into a very stressful situation. You need to find ways to reduce that stress. Stress reduction has been discussed elsewhere in relation to different issues. For example: https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/114723/75368

Also, making a clean break with your current institution may help you with your fairly obvious burn-out symptoms. If the world looks new you may not be as tempted to fall back on non-productive activities.

  • Thanks for the response. As I said in my update it looks like the young vs old advisor causes disagreements among people with PhDs and unfortunatelly I do not have the experience to form my own opinion. I would say that in my case it is mostly the fact that I would be the first student of A advisor - this could cause some problems. Still not sure but someone with history is a safer choice. Despite being young, though, his ideas seem to have potential in my area. – Stealth Aug 12 '18 at 0:12

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.