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I am a 1st year physical chemistry graduate student in an American University. I was admitted in September 2020, but I actually started the program in April 2021 due to the visa and pandemic issues. For this reason, I started my lab rotations in April and I found that a lot of groups which I am interested to join can no longer take new students before the start of the new academic year (Fall 2021). However, the department office wants me to join a group before that, so that I can be separated from the incoming 1st year students in fall 2021. I feel quite stressful and anxious, because I am reaching out different faculty members in the department, but I still cannot find a group that can take a new student before fall. I even tried to reach out groups which were my 4th or 5th choices, some of them still did not reply or they cannot take me.

I started to lose my passion. I can see I may end up joining a group which does not work in physical chemistry, if I persist to fulfil the requirement from the department. I am not rejecting other fields in chemistry, but the scenario is just totally not what I expected, and I have not even started to work on my own research project yet! I am feeling myself being unproductive, and a bit worthless due to this.

Should I continue to explore the department? Or just wait until fall to see if I can start over again? I would be grateful to hear any kinds of advice.

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    Are you definitely being pressured to join the group that you will stay with through graduation? Or is it just a matter of finding a group that can support you for a few months?
    – cag51
    Jul 15, 2021 at 1:02
  • I am not sure, but I think it would be the later, since the program allows student to change their PI if they find that they do not really suit the group. But I do not think it is not a good idea to just choose a group to stay for a few months.
    – tb30624700
    Jul 15, 2021 at 2:12
  • @tb30624700 I think that's wise. I assume from your question that you are in a model where the typical path is for your first year to be covered by some loose "new student funding" that is explicitly or implicitly designated for students to have some freedom while choosing a lab, but the assumption is that once you choose a lab this is where you complete your primary thesis research and also receive funding for the remainder of your studies. In that model, changes later aren't impossible, but they should be for very good reason.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 15, 2021 at 2:21
  • What I'm getting at is that the department may be concerned about your progress, or they may be concerned that they are paying your stipend from overhead rather than from a grant. The advice will probably be different depending on which of these is the case -- in the former case, it makes sense for you to wait until Fall when your preferred groups have openings (which is only a few months away); in the latter case, it makes sense for you to find a group that can delegate a project in exchange for a few months of funding, regardless of your long-term plans.
    – cag51
    Jul 15, 2021 at 2:24
  • I think the department indeed concerns both of them, my admission was deferred and the office is directly paying my stipend this summer. I will talk to my graduate program coordinator and my academic advisor more to see how to resolve this, though I am somehow getting more exhausted mentally and perplexed. Thank you all for your great advice.
    – tb30624700
    Jul 15, 2021 at 2:47

1 Answer 1

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I've known people to be in similar circumstances, though due to funding crunches rather than the pandemic.

You should be able to work with your graduate program to find a suitable resolution, either with office staff or the chair of the graduate program or someone they designate. There may also be something like a "first year advisory committee" that serves students before they assemble a formal thesis committee.

They may be able to bend rules, pressure faculty, access temporary funds to let you continue rotations into the fall or start in a lab, or at least help connect you with a position that makes the best sense for you. You do have a bit of responsibility to make some decisions and take actions for yourself, but in these difficult circumstances in particular you shouldn't be alone in doing so.

Of course, if your interests are more narrow than the opportunities, there might not be anything that can be done. It's not really a responsibility for a graduate program to match every student with exactly the lab they want. Ultimately you'll have to decide for yourself whether you can rediscover some passion in an area you didn't expect to be working in, no one else can make that decision for you. Good luck.

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