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I'm sure you've seen a dozen variations on this question in this forum, but here's mine:

I've just finished my first year in a top US PhD program in the physical sciences, which I never dreamed I would be admitted to (ok, that's not true; I dreamed about it quite a lot!). It's gone all right, I guess--I wrote some code for my lab, got As in classes (although grades are utterly beside the point). But I'm not sure it's working out, or that I can make it work out. I'm not sure I have what it takes.

I mean, I can hold my own in technical conversations with senior coworkers--even (tactfully) point out flaws in their methods, suggest new approaches, pitch new experiments, and things like that. I've often heard "yeah, good idea!", only for nothing to ever come of it. What's that about? Are they being merely polite? Or am I supposed to be more "enterprising," somehow (whatever that means)? Is it my personality? I'm sometimes told that I need to be more aggressive or self-assured or something like that, but I don't really know what that means (other than "act like more of a jerk"), and don't feel comfortable trying to artificially change my personality in that way. What's wrong with saying "sorry?"

It seems like I'm missing something fundamental, maybe socially. It's been extraordinarily hard for me to get into the flow and be part of the team. Some other students walk into a room where people are discussing a project, make some goofy offhand comment, and get a coauthorship. On the other hand, I'm somehow having a hard time even figuring out who I report to, or if I have a me-project, or how to answer my questions about things like reporting and project ownership. There is something going on that I'm deaf to. I don't get it. Students at $PRESTIGIOUS_INSTITUTION aren't supposed to have this problem.

I also haven't really made any friends here. I'm on the shy side, but this isn't like me. I never knew I was so socially inept. If I'd been able to make friends, I wouldn't be bothering you kind people.

On top of it all, I'm no longer very sure that I believe in my subfield. It's not what I want to think about anymore when I go home. But I'm too old now to throw away the last couple years and start over.

I feel like I've wasted my year. Like I'll never, ever, ever be able to get a thesis together. Is all this the "bad fit" that people talk about when it comes to picking a lab? Am I just incompetent? Do I like reading about science more than I like doing it? Who do I even talk to about this? What do I say, and how do I get answers? Am I just completely trounced? Why don't I go take a job in industry and >quadruple my salary?

Maybe it's as simple as "you're fine; this is normal. Get some sleep and go join a club to find friends. Then you'll get less unhappy, and your work situation will improve." I just don't know.

I know there are no clear answers here, but maybe others have had similar experiences. Sorry if this is the wrong place to ask this kind of question, or if there are rules around asking imprecise questions or ones that are similar to previous ones. I also know that it's borderline impossible to infer my actual experiences or mental state from this kind of limited view, so there's no easy way for you to judge what's really going on. But I thought I'd try. Thanks.

closed as off-topic by Richard Erickson, scaaahu, user3209815, Jon Custer, Flyto Jun 13 at 18:48

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On the other hand, I'm somehow having a hard time even figuring out who I report to, or if I have a me-project, or how to answer my questions about things like reporting and project ownership.

This seems like the real problem. If you don't have a well-defined goal, it's natural that you would feel like you're floundering. Advisors are busy; if you don't tell them you need guidance, they will assume everything is working out (until they realize that it isn't, at which point they'll blame you). So, I would recommend asking for a meeting with your advisor (or whoever is in charge of your lab) and try to better define your research goals.

I think everything else you describe comes from this. Once you have a good project and are getting interesting results, you will feel more like a part of the lab and some of the other angst will disappear. Your lab might never be a perfect match for you, but I suspect it will suffice in terms of giving you a PhD and a chance to figure out what's important to you when you choose your next position.

Maybe it's as simple as "you're fine; this is normal. Get some sleep and go join a club to find friends. Then you'll get less unhappy, and your work situation will improve." I just don't know.

Pretty much. I would be aggressive in terms of finding a tractable project as described above. But I suspect the lack of sleep and friends are exaggerating the issue, and this is indeed very normal (as you say, there are dozens of posts here about it).

On top of it all, I'm no longer very sure that I believe in my subfield. It's not what I want to think about anymore when I go home.

This is perhaps the secondary problem -- after you get into a rhythm in your current lab/subfield, you may be able to pivot your projects towards areas you are more interested in.

  • Thanks for your feedback. I agree that this is probably the central problem, but unfortunately that doesn't make it much clearer how to proceed. I have managed to work up the courage to have that conversation with various postdocs, but it's one of those situations where everyone agrees "yes, must find a project. Sounds great," and everyone nods and smiles, but nothing happens. It looks like it would if they didn't want me there... But they insist that they do. I have to conclude that I'm not doing something I should be, but don't know what. Anyway, thanks again. – lostgradstudent Jun 13 at 14:06
  • that doesn't make it much clearer how to proceed — Let me say it more directly: Ask your advisor for guidance. Specifically, ask your advisor to give you (or better: to help you develop) specific, concrete research projects/goals. – JeffE Jun 13 at 14:34
  • Oh geez, sorry if I seem like I'm being dense or something. Of course, you're right. I'm sorry. I'm such an idiot for bothering everybody when the answer is so obvious. I'm just chronically diffident and have a hard time doing it in practice. Sorry again. – lostgradstudent Jun 13 at 14:40
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  1. "I'm sure you've seen a dozen variations on this question in this forum, but here's mine:"

Agreed. Hope you have read the others. But no worries on doing yours.

  1. "I never dreamed I would be admitted to"

Little bit of a problem. While it is true that there is an inverse Dunning Krueger impact, you also need to consider that there are way too many Ph.D.s created and a tournament system (google it) exists in academia. So to be par, you actually need to be outstanding.

  1. "I got As in classes (although grades are utterly beside the point)."

Don't completely write off grad school grades. I heard the same thing (nobody cares about grades), but getting a 4.0 helped my get into McKinsey, GE, etc. The strange thing is that there's almost an inverse of the inverse where you go from grades mattering to not, to to. A contrarian to the contrarian.

  1. "I mean, I can hold my own in technical conversations with senior coworkers--even (tactfully) point out flaws in their methods, suggest new approaches, pitch new experiments, and things like that. I've often heard "yeah, good idea!", only for nothing to ever come of it. What's that about? Are they being merely polite? Or am I supposed to be more "enterprising," somehow (whatever that means)? Is it my personality? I'm sometimes told that I need to be more aggressive or self-assured or something like that, but I don't really know what that means (other than "act like more of a jerk"), and don't feel comfortable trying to artificially change my personality in that way. What's wrong with saying "sorry?""

Academia, R&D, physical science is all about pulling your own sled. That's great, that you are a smart cookie and give people good feedback. But irrelevant and wrong intuition to cite it. You need to do your own work AND GET PAPERS DONE. That's the scorecard.

  1. "It seems like I'm missing something fundamental, maybe socially. It's been extraordinarily hard for me to get into the flow and be part of the team. Some other students walk into a room where people are discussing a project, make some goofy offhand comment, and get a coauthorship. On the other hand, I'm somehow having a hard time even figuring out who I report to, or if I have a me-project, or how to answer my questions about things like reporting and project ownership. There is something going on that I'm deaf to. I don't get it. Students at $PRESTIGIOUS_INSTITUTION aren't supposed to have this problem."

Do your own stuff. If needed, move to a field where it is easier to do independent work (not reliant on Space Shuttle flights or accelerator time...benchtop stuff). Work world will be even harder in terms of team versus self and getting credit an all that.

  1. "I also haven't really made any friends here. I'm on the shy side, but this isn't like me. I never knew I was so socially inept. If I'd been able to make friends, I wouldn't be bothering you kind people."

It sounds cruel, but you need to be more self directed. Head down, butt up over the lab bench. Get a girl/boy friend for social feedback (feel free to look outside your department). Could you imagine a married person worrying so much about the social support?

  1. "On top of it all, I'm no longer very sure that I believe in my subfield. It's not what I want to think about anymore when I go home. But I'm too old now to throw away the last couple years and start over."

This is a real issue. Maybe getting a computer programming job or the like would be better. What worries me is you're not even suggesting a move to an adjacent or alternate field.

  1. "I feel like I've wasted my year. Like I'll never, ever, ever be able to get a thesis together."

Anyone can get a thesis together. There are a gazillion, forgettable doctorates year after year. Really, this bar is low.


Net, net: I think you are a smart but young type. Who probably did a Ph.D. because it forestalled a decision on what to do, and on getting a real job. (Bad call.) You'd probably be better off either bailing or just buckling down and getting the "union card" in minimum time...and then moving to industry. Kind of your call on how close you are. If less than 2 years, push it through. If more, bail.

I know this will come across as a non Stack Exchange answer. But remember, you see your question as unique. So, look at completely different ways of addressing your situation as well.

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    Some of these assumptions seem really unfounded....OP expressed doubt about his subfield so he should become a computer programmer? In particular, it seems very unfair to assume that OP started working toward a PhD to avoid getting a "real job." "To be par, you actually need to be outstanding" is probably true for future professors within that subfield, but OP's "union card" might allow them to find a different position at which they excel even if their doctorate is "forgettable." – cag51 Jun 13 at 3:05
  • Thanks for the feedback. I agree with cag51 that some of these points are making pretty big assumptions (how do you know I haven't talked with my S.O. about moving into a different field?), but there's no point dispelling them--and I do appreciate your perspective. To make an assumption of my own, it sounds like you're really the hard-driving no-nonsense businessy type. In defiance of all my intuitions, it increasingly seems to me like this kind of attitude is net positive in everything, including academia. How do you develop it? Do you have to have played sports as a kid, like they all said? – lostgradstudent Jun 13 at 14:27

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