I worked as an undergraduate volunteer researcher, and then worked in an industry laboratory before returning to school. And my program did not have have rotations. I am starting to wonder what I got myself into because it seems like I was thrown into the deep end on my first day of swim lessons. I thought there would be training and community work to get us to the point where we could be independent by the end of our graduate career, not at the beginning. I basically feel like my boss wanted a postdoc and expected a graduate student to know what to do.

Originally, I thought it was me, but based on the following list of evidences maybe it is not.

  1. My advisor told me that she only talked with her advisor a couple of times a year during her PHD.

  2. I am the first graduate student she has had and she constantly refers to how underprepared American grad students are.

  3. Our program has since offered rotations, some of the students rotated through our laboratory and they had skills far below me when I started. They all said they did not want to work for her because she expected too much and provided no direction. Some of them did not know how to run gels or do transformations for instance.

  4. Even undergraduate students have a short lifespan in her laboratory. Many claiming it stressed them out.

  5. My project has nothing to do with anything else in the lab, and to answer the questions in my project, I have to do techniques that no one in the lab knows. Each one takes months to get working right and has resulted in slow progress. I asked if I could be involved in her main project, which she has NIH funding for, and she said that I will just be seen as a helper unless I have my own idea that is completely separate from hers. She says that my troubleshooting needs to improve if I cant do these techniques quickly.

I really thought I was just not good enough, but I’m starting to think not. I have participated in journal clubs with other graduate students at the university, and I can tell they are way less knowledgable about the experiments and the purpose of each step in the paper.

Can someone give me some guidance on what to do? I have started running out of motivation, to be honest. I honestly want to see if she will let me leave with a master’s, so I can just leave science all together. My passion is gone she has ruined my love of science and the community. If I ask to leave with a master’s, she may just fire me, though. I really need a master’s to get a specific job, I want after this, but I don’t know what to do. The only thing I still like is bioinformatics, because there are a lot of self-teaching tools for that, and she can’t hold me back from exploring questions in programs.

Can I switch to another advisor for a year and leave with a master’s?

  • Are you in the US?
    – Emilie
    Apr 11, 2019 at 12:41
  • Would a biology tag be appropriate?
    – Tommi
    Apr 12, 2019 at 12:16
  • 1
    Just because other students are even more clueless doesn't mean she's wrong. Honestly that depends how competitive your school is. But it sounds like a bad fit. You were accepted into the program by the school, not the advisor. She probably can't just "fire you", but she can tell you to find another advisor and source of funding by the end of the current term. Something you are always free to do. Apr 14, 2019 at 19:54
  • Yes i am in the USA. Apr 15, 2019 at 18:49

1 Answer 1


In short, it is normal that you feel like you were thrown in the deep end it is not normal for your adviser to act like she expected a post-doc.

You feel overwhelmed, which is to be expected when first appearing on any new job (in my experience, it is easier to consider yourself as employed, rather than a student – puts things into a different perspective). Doubly so for rather unstructured working environments, like a research lab. There are many novelties you have to get accustomed to, even before the primary one: doing research and publishing papers.

My advice for you is to think in small steps. Think about achieving the next small goal, rather than: “at this pace, I will never publish anything, let alone write a dissertation that will be approved and I can graduate”. Dwelling on that distant future and perceiving the present through that lens is overwhelming and discouraging. You are there to learn. And that includes all ropes of academia, not just research and papers, but to fully immerse yourself in the environment. Paper deadlines, multitasking, helping other students and post-docs, teaching, presenting, being independent (i.e. your adviser is not expected to hold your hand) are all part of the experience and by graduating you are expected to have a feel for life in academia.

Take your time to achieve something, working twenty hours a day will rarely bring you closer to your goal, it will sooner lead to burnout, even more stress, and perhaps even health issues. Being pressured (by the adviser, other colleagues, or even the competing environment) is also part of the experience and the correct response is not to yield to the pressure at any cost, but to learn how to manage it. If something takes five days to complete, the argument that you could get it done in two, if you don’t sleep, is moot. What I also found is that people pressure you as a test, if you yield, great, you'll get something done sooner, with no cost to them (it's you who won't get sleep), and if not, they'll probably be really really sad/upset, but in the end, they just let it go. In the end, imposter syndrome is prevalent on all steps of the academic ladder – you'll often get the feeling that your work is not up to standards, but so will all of your colleagues including your adviser.

As for your adviser, again, don't perceive her as your teacher. Her purpose is not to be familiar with every aspect of your work. She also doesn't know the solution to every problem you might come with, figuring that out is an essential part of research. The adviser provides guidelines and nudges you in the right direction not due to absolute certainty, but with the best reasonable course of action provided through her experience. You shouldn't expect to have meetings every day, or every week in some cases. You should focus on doing work independently – again, think of yourself as an employee. Your Point 5 greatly illustrates that.

As to whether or not you can switch advisers, sure you can, you can even leave the whole program if you feel so inclined. My point is that based on your description, I see nothing really atypical with your experience or adviser. In other words, I see nothing that you could expect to dramatically change, if you switched institutions or advisers.


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