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I graduated from my undergrad with a B.S. in math and cellular/molecular biology in 2017. Shortly after, I started a fully funded Ph.D. program in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics. I spent a year there and did very well. However, I felt as if something was missing. At the time, I thought it was the fact that I wanted to have more math in my studies. One thing led to another, and I was able to get funding and a transfer into the math Ph.D. program within the same college of science. I thought this was the right decision at the time but I feel as if I rushed into it too quickly.

This upcoming May, I will have spent a year in the math program, as a fully funded student. I did okay my first semester, and I chalked up not doing as well as I am used to due to it being a while since I had done this upper level math. However, now I am realizing it’s mainly because I don’t actually enjoy this anymore. I thought I would enjoy upper level math but I don’t seem to have the passion I used to. At times I feel absolutely miserable. I have no motivation because I don’t enjoy any of this anymore. I can’t see myself doing this for another year let alone 4 to finish my phd. My grades have fallen drastically. I’m not doing well.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I believe I made a mistake. I want to go back to more biologically based research mainly and apply some mathematics to it when able. Not the other way around. So I’ve applied to transfer to a biological sciences Ph.D. in the same college that will be able to take some of my credits. I’ve looked deeply into it and I believe that is where I would be most happy. I truly believe it. It took me 2 years, but I think this is the right choice.

However, the transfer has been difficult. I need to get my departments approval to transfer to the other department. I thought my transfer would be guaranteed according to the new department’s head, but after some emails back and forth she has to “consider my application” and so now I’m not sure if I’ll definitely get in. The issue is I need this paperwork done before she can consider it. If I get it done, I’m out of my math program. And if she doesn’t allow me in to her program, I’ll be stuck not enrolled in anything. This is a major issue as most of the jobs and internships I’ve been applying to require me to be an enrolled student. I’ll lose these possibilities (I’ve applied to 18 positions all requiring student status).

To top it off, I feel so disheartened by all of this. I feel like I’ve set myself so behind, and that I’ve really screwed myself. I feel like I can’t climb out of this. Funding is near a 0 chance in this new program and I’m even willing to take that chance because of how miserable I am in my current program. I’d rather go unfunded than stay here. But it feels so hopeless. Can I recover from this? Is it even worth the risk of losing it all? My grades have gone from perfect to below average and I’m worried this will also be a huge stain in my records putting people off. I don’t even know how I’ll tell my current advisor who helped me transfer in that I’m leaving. It feels as if I’m letting her down after she helped me so much to get in. This past year my mental health has deteriorated exponentially. I have 0 motivation. I’m barely able to get the minimum done. I used to be a near perfect student. But I’m so unhappy with what I’m doing that I’m suffering. I’m trying to make a change and do something I’d enjoy but I’m not sure if I can make it happen.

My main questions -

  1. Is it worth giving up most of my credits to transfer to a program to be happier even though I would be setting myself behind and losing funding most likely?
  2. How do I attempt to explain to my current advisor that has done a lot for me to get into my current program that I’ll be leaving?
  3. I’m not sure what I can do if somehow I leave and my transfer isn’t accepted and I’m stuck without being enrolled in anything, losing the possibility of a lot of paid internships I’ve applied to.
  4. Is this situation salvageable? I’ve done poorly these past two semesters and I feel like it will be a major stain on my records.

My biggest concern right now is the fact that I'm doing horribly right now. I have fallen very behind. I do not think I can pass my courses this semester at this rate and I will most likely fail out. The first year in my biology based program I got a 4.0. This year, I will most likely do very, very badly. I'm hoping that when I apply to the new biology based program they consider how well I did in that field, and not how badly I did in the math field.

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    What's the actual question here? – Olorun Mar 11 at 13:47
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    @Olorun I will edit it to be more clear – H5159 Mar 11 at 13:48
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    Does the program you are in actually affect the lab you can participate in? My husband was in a computational lab with applied mathematicians, physicists, biologists, and engineers. – Dawn Mar 11 at 14:16
  • @dawn Yes. I was under the impression I’d be more in an applied math program but it doesn’t seem to be so. I want to do actual lab work and write a biologically based research thesis eventually that has mathematics in it. On my current path, my thesis would need to be a math based thesis, which I could apply to some biological system but I wouldn’t be doing that sort of lab work. It is not as interdisciplinary as I thought. I used to think I wanted to do math modeling of infectious disease but I want to study the disease more in depth than the math component if that makes sense. – H5159 Mar 11 at 14:19
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    I think the most important think is to finish something. Sometimes you get stuck, because you think you know what you want, but than you realize you don't. Sometimes a sense of responsibilty or usefullnes can help - do what you find usefull and later you can get another chance to do what you enjoy. Sometimes you cannot have both. – user3624251 Mar 11 at 22:25
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What is your long-term goal? I think that's the question you really need to try to work out. That could point you to either of these programs or a third path entirely.

  • Realism is important -- becoming a professor might be a nice "dream job", but there are so many applicants and so few jobs that you might want to reconsider if this is the only acceptable outcome.
  • Also consider the job market as a whole. PhDs in math (particularly those with good technical and soft skills, such as coding and presenting) can find lots of good jobs in the US right now, for example.

Anyway....

Is it worth giving up most of my credits to transfer to a program to be happier even though I would be setting myself behind and losing funding most likely?

From what you describe, you will not be able to slog through another ~5 years to finish your PhD in your current department. So, you should transfer at any cost. (But, consider what I wrote above -- there are options besides "PhD A" and "PhD B". With a solid goal in mind, you could also recommit to your current program.)

How do I attempt to explain to my current advisor that has done a lot for me to get into my current program that I’ll be leaving?

He'll get over it. It's annoying when we put time into training a subordinate who leaves right as he's becoming useful. But that sort of thing happens. Further, if he has been tracking your difficulties, he may be glad you've identified and fixed the problem early before he had to get involved. Changing the course of your life for this guy is not a good idea.

I’m not sure what I can do if somehow I leave and my transfer isn’t accepted and I’m stuck without being enrolled in anything, losing the possibility of a lot of paid internships I’ve applied to.

Again, this is not something that should change the direction of your life. I realize this is a serious short-term practical problem for you, but it's a second-order problem; the first-order problem is figuring out what the goal is and how you're going to achieve it.

Is this situation salvageable? I’ve done poorly these past two semesters and I feel like it will be a major stain on my records.

After the PhD, the only thing people care about is: (a) did you get a PhD, and (b) what was your research about? Maybe also: (c) what skills did you acquire? [for jobs] or (d) what do your letters of rec say [for post-docs]. Absolutely no one cares about grades or whether you transferred schools. In that sense, it's much better to have problems like this as a grad student than an undergrad.

Now this stain will be a larger problem in the short term: once you decide what the goal is, you may have difficulty with admission to a new grad program (indeed, you indicated that this may already be a problem). But you'll find something. Further, there's a very nice "story" here that is easy to tell: I was great at subject A, thought I might prefer subject B, but I was wrong and I'm now 100% committed to subject A. That's a straightforward enough story that it should be easy to tell, if that's the direction you decide to go.

  • I believe that that is the direction I want to go. However, this semester has been very bad. I’m not sure if I’ll even be able to pass all my classes this semester. I’ve fallen behind, and I’m struggling. I’m afraid that my new program will be turned off by this. However, it can easily be seen that I got a 4.0 in my biology based program initially, and then when I moved to this math based program, I did very poorly. And so going to another biology based program, I hope that my math grades won’t affect me too much in the new biology program admittance. I worry a lot about this aspect. – H5159 Mar 11 at 21:30
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Without analyzing your post deeply or even in detail, the answer should really be obvious if you step back. Life is short and you don't get a do-over. There is little worse than continuing on a path that you think is wrong for you no matter how much you already have invested in it.

Hopefully you will live long enough to enjoy retirement (as I have). You want to be able to look back on what you have done with pride and satisfaction, not with regret.

It is good, actually, that you explored something that you thought might be good. You did so with imperfect information, as we all do. It hasn't worked out.

People in general understand these kind of things and that people's goals change. The hole is only filled by time and effort. Digging deeper won't improve your life. Do watcha gotta do. ("Do what you've got to do" in case you aren't from NYC).

  • This is the main factor pushing me towards all of this. I don’t particularly like uncertainty as many don’t, but normally I’d err on the side of certainty. However this feeling, that you’ve summed up in your post, is the main driving force pushing those thoughts aside and moving me forward. – H5159 Mar 11 at 14:28

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