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I earned my B.A. in the U.S. but felt unprepared to go right into a PhD program due to the (extremely) limited math courses offered at my undergrad institution so I went into a masters program. I ended up doing really well (3.9GPA) and gained a lot of confidence and expanded my knowledge. A couple years later I decided I wanted to apply to programs for my PhD. I ended up selecting a foreign university where it is assumed you already possess a masters degree, which originally I though was great since it saved me a couple years of additional schooling that I though would be redundant. Now that I am about 6 months in however I am seriously questioning the quality of the master's program I was part of. It seems that others in the program are much more advanced than I am and I seem to struggle with everything, which is a brand new experience for me. I spend hours and hours spinning my wheels reading and trying to understand papers, feeling like I just don't know the background I need to. I feel as though after 6 months I have learned nothing and have wasted a lot of time on things that ultimately never became clear before I had to move on to the next task. I have somewhat discussed these concerns with my advisor but they seem confident that everything is fine.

I also find that now that I am here the project I am part of is much more applied than I had anticipated and I am unsure about if this will evolve to more closely match my interests over time or if this is just another indication of a poor match.

I am not sure what to do. Is this a normal experience? If it truly is not a fit for me at my current level of knowledge, what are my options?

Any advice is appreciated.


EDIT: I have not discussed this as bluntly with my advisor as I am speaking about it here, primarily because it is just over the last couple weeks that it has become much more problematic. I do intend to speak to them about this more explicitly at our next meeting.

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    It is important to not compare yourself to your peers so harshly and to not look back on your masters for what its faults might have been. The only thing that you can do right now is focus on what you need to do to be moving forward. If that means that you need to retool your understanding of what you thought you knew then that is the task that lies ahead of you. If your supervisor feels that you are doing just fine, then you should have some faith in their experience. I don't believe you have convinced yourself that you need to drop out, so all you can do is learn and practice resilience. – GrayLiterature Mar 31 at 13:28
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    Start a PhD, learn as you go along. – user2768 Mar 31 at 13:28
  • Every time I look around and I'm not the dumbest person in the room, I know it's time to find a better room. If you aren't struggling with the work, you're working on something too easy. – user120011 Mar 31 at 17:32
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    @CJR: I disagree. One does not have to be the dumbest person in a room to get use from the room. Moreover, I (and many other.people) have been in rooms where I was definitely too dumb to get something useful out of it. – user111388 Mar 31 at 19:22
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    Comparing yourself to others during your PhD can be seriously harming for your mental health. Do your best, trust yourself and your adviser, and have good communication with them. A PhD is (ideally) more of a discovery journey, not a race, let alone one against other people. Try to enjoy it the most you can. – user347489 Apr 1 at 2:02
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I agree that you may be suffering from Imposter syndrome. That is, reading your post I see no evidence that you aren't prepared, and in fact, I see several pieces of evidence that you are prepared. Despite your accomplishments, you are underconfident and do not realize that many of your peers are going through the same struggles as you are; you see these as failures when they are perfectly normal even for someone with a high level of preparation.

I went into a masters program. I ended up doing really well (3.9GPA) and gained a lot of confidence and expanded my knowledge.

This is a good sign that you are a strong candidate, and well-fit for a PhD.

I ended up selecting a foreign university

Not only did you select it, the admissions committee selected you. Admissions committees are usually very good at what they do, and they will not admit a candidate who they believe is underprepared. They are aware of your background, including the master's program you went through, and they believe you are an ideal candidate for their program.

Now that I am about 6 months in however I am seriously questioning the quality of the master's program I was part of.

Different programs do vary in what material they cover, but the far more important factor in a PhD is not your specific set of knowledge, but your ability to learn, your ability to deal with unfamiliar material, and your motivation, creativity, and insight. It is possible your master's program didn't cover some things that others' covered; but it is also possible you are imagining at least part of it. Regardless, you shouldn't be surprised if it takes a lot of difficult work to learn all the new material!

I spend hours and hours spinning my wheels reading and trying to understand papers, feeling like I just don't know the background I need to.

This is what doing a PhD is like for everyone. The reality of academic life is that you often are thrust into new areas that you have no experience in; you have to learn to swim over and over again, every time you take a new class, every time you start working on a new research problem. Contrary to what you think, this doesn't sound like a red flag that you are underprepared.

I have somewhat discussed these concerns with my advisor but they seem confident that everything is fine.

This is the biggest sign (to me) that you have imposter syndrome: your advisor is still confident in your progress, but you aren't. Your advisor has seen a lot of students and they should be able to tell better than you about the situation.

I also find that now that I am here the project I am part of is much more applied than I had anticipated and I am unsure about if this will evolve to more closely match my interests over time or if this is just another indication of a poor match.

I am not sure how this could be an indication of poor match. You should talk to your advisor about this, though; your interests are important. See if you can figure out what aspects of the project you would be more interested in pursuing (maybe the less applied aspects). Recognize that it is common for people who join a new program, working on learning new ideas, to feel that everything is unfamiliar and to have a negative reaction to that.

I am not sure what to do. Is this a normal experience?

Yes, it is normal: I have heard the same things from many very strong students.

If it truly is not a fit for me at my current level of knowledge, what are my options?

You have been admitted, your advisor is confident you are doing well, and you have a strong background, so reconsider why you think it is not a fit. If there are things you are not prepared for, then you should consider taking the time to slow down, relax, and learn those things. It may take some time; don't worry.

Also, take some time for yourself. Make sure to look for a social group that you can find a sense of belonging in; it makes a world of difference. Consider seeing a therapist to discuss your fears of not belonging and not being ready.

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The fact that your adviser thinks you're doing fine, in particular, suggests to me that you may be dealing with some impostor syndrome.

I think when most of us start out in PhD programs, we feel like everyone around us is doing much better. Like they all belong here, but we don't. This is usually accompanied with a feeling of "I had better keep my head down and stay quiet, so no one notices I don't belong here and kicks me out."

You don't say much about your conversation with your adviser. Hopefully it was an honest conversation about why you're concerned. As long as it was, consider trusting that they know what normal looks like. You might also want to talk with some of your classmates more - you may be surprised to find that the ones who seem to be endlessly more successful than you are feeling identically.

PhD work is usually a whole new level of difficult, so it's not necessarily a warning sign that you feel like you have to study for hours to get anywhere.

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What you have learned, I hope not too late, is that the undergraduate program in many places (Europe...) is very different from that in the US. The undergrad program in the US is a generalist degree, not one of high specialization as it is other places. Your description of your own undergraduate program may be unfair, for the US, but programs just don't compare in the degree of specialization.

But what you can do is find someone on the local faculty that you trust and ask them for advice on finding a successful path. Review what you have studied (and know well) and get advice on what steps you can take to fill in any gaps. You will need not just the advice of some local faculty but their support as well. You don't want to get left behind and then ignored by the faculty.

But all is not lost. Mathematics is a very balkanized field. You can be an expert in some small area while having little insight into other areas. One problem will be the likely need to pass some comprehensive exams to earn a doctorate, but even those cover only a few areas. And if you can be successful in the short term in a subfield, then you will be able to broaden your knowledge later as you please.

Mathematics is broad, but most mathematicians are quite narrow.


Personal note: I had good insight into Real Analysis and General Topology. I struggled with many parts of Algebra and even Algebraic Topology.

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    Your use of "even" in "even Algebraic Topology" differs from me, as I found general topology (have done quite a bit of work with this) and algebra (includes 3 semesters out of Hungerford's book, Lambek's "Lectures on Rings and Modules", and Atiyah/Macdonad's "Introduction to Commutative Algebra") rather agreeable, but algebraic topology was totally unagreeable (after two attempts). See the comments to Hatcher Algebraic Topology: I have all the prereqs, so why is this book unreadable for me? – Dave L Renfro Mar 31 at 16:29

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