I started a PhD program recently. I never had any doubts about the fact that I want to do a PhD and I still don't doubt it for a moment. I love working in the area of my interest, but it seems like the department I'm in isn't what I expected. Things are going very poorly for me. I'm losing my confidence, my passion, my self-esteem, my "good reputation", and I think my CV could be destroyed soon. I'm thinking about quitting the program, but I don't know how, and I don't know what the consequences could be. I very much appreciate any help or advice.
First, about the department: It's a small department at a top institution, with excellent faculty, but their approach to research and even the topics in the courses is vastly different from what I imagined. This is in the US, so the program starts without an assigned advisor and with course requirements. The courses are on the topics that my undergrad background is the weakest in, and before starting them, I was kind of happy about it, because I always knew I eventually need to learn them for my research as they are very useful tools, even though not even remotely my area of interest. But now, I can see the approach is very different from what I expected. It also seems to me that this approach represents how the professors in the department approach research problems in general.
I'm also extremely overwhelmed by the expectations. Everyone else in our very small cohort (we're only a handful of PhD student), seems to have a very strong background on the topics. They find the courses to be boring reviews, while I struggle to catch up. I was a very strong undergrad at a top institution, but my plan was to complement my undergraduate education with my graduate education, not to do the same thing again. And given the courses we have now, my strengths don't show themselves at all before I start working on my thesis (where I think I'm going to rely heavily on my undergrad background). This has shattered my confidence into pieces. I'm by far the weakest student of the cohort in the courses, and I need to work so hard to barely catch up with what others find easy and boring.
On the other hand, soon we should choose advisors. The competition for working with the advisor I came here for seems to be unexpectedly tough this year. An unusually high number of us want to work with him, and I think I have the lowest chance for that.
All of these combined, makes me think I chose a wrong program for my PhD. I'm starting to think about a way out, but I'm afraid of talking to the professors here about that, because our financial contract is renewed every year for a year, so I'm afraid I might get into trouble or at least, they may become overly sensitive about my performance and review my exams and assess my academic performance more strictly if I tell them about my struggles, my issues, how their expectations about my background are false, and how my expectation about the program was false. I'm also worried about my alternatives after quitting the program. How can I explain to other schools that I just chose a wrong program?! I just misunderstood what the department expects and what they do! Everyone told me since a a very long time ago, that PhD is flexible, and that a lot of people switch fields even without a proper background for their PhD. Now I entered a program that has very little flexibility, and it seems like everyone has done exactly the same topics for their undergrad!! How can I justify that I just want to start over in a different environment?!