I have a full-time job, and am a part-time PhD student who is experiencing tremendous struggles throughout the first year, compared to my previous schooling which was extremely easy. I want to know if I'm psyching myself out / over-thinking things, or if I'm being rational or not, given all the circumstances.

My academic career began with a degree in Computer Science, but I took as many side courses in Mathematics as I could. I did very well, loved it, and thought to do graduate studies. A couple of my professors thought it was a great idea, considering how well I did in their classes, and suggested going for a Ph.D., part-time as I have a full-time job, in the same school. They wrote me stellar recommendation letters and I got in without any issues, whatsoever (unfunded, but that was not a concern to me).

I am nearing the end of my first year in the program, and it has been an unbelievable struggle. A family/personal emergency caused me to have to withdraw from my classes for the first semester; despite how embarrassed I was, my professors told me it was okay and that things happen, and that they still had complete faith in me. Now it's the second semester, and I am struggling to keep up in my classes. I have always approached math via my intuition, but now I feel I am able to follow my professors in lectures and participate, but when it comes to studying or applying it that's when I struggle. Self-study takes so long and is very arduous and as I'm not used to it; I get extremely distracted.

Compounded with this, is that I want to discuss this with others, but I find it almost impossible to face my professors that recommended me, anymore. I haven't spoken to them since the winter due to shame. They had so much faith and confidence in me (and probably still do), but I feel that as a PhD I should do better, but I'm not. My performance is shocking and appalling to me, considering what I was used to doing. Talking to my adviser is out of the question as well, as when I discussed my last-semester withdrawal situation with him, he made a loose implication that "he wasn't necessarily sure he would've admitted me, in hindsight," and he wondered aloud who was the one that did admit me.

I am still in a position where I feel that I would not be happy unless pursuing graduate study in mathematics, as I want to learn this subject inside and out, be surrounded by a community that I find interesting and exciting, and researching and publishing new ideas. I just have no idea if my struggle is either completely normal, if I'm horribly under-qualified, or if I am just psyching myself out. How can I figure out whether I should stick with my program or not?

  • 13
    Welcome to Academia.SE! I'm afraid your question is overly verbose, which may preclude people from trying to answer. If you could pare it down to the parts directly relevant to your immediate question, you are likely to recieve more answers.
    – eykanal
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 18:13
  • 3
    I can't find a single question in your post. Saying, Any thoughts, support, or criticism is appreciated is off-topic on Stack Exchange sites. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 18:44
  • 2
    @ConcernedOne It doesn't mean that the underlying question is bad. You just have to make it more general and to the point. Something more like "How to handle a bumpy first year in PhD program? Supporting details here, ect." Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 18:58
  • 5
    Just to be clear, you are studying for a PhD part-time, with a full-time job? If so, that sounds rough. No wonder you are having a difficult time. In any case, it sounds to me like you are being too hard on yourself. Try to relax a little. Also, try to find pleasant ways to pass the time when you are not working. Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 20:16
  • 2
    @AustinHenley, it seems pretty clear to me that the question is "what should I do in this situation?"
    – mako
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 16:02

3 Answers 3


I'll keep this answer fairly general, because what you describe sounds like a fairly general situation.

The transition from undergraduate to Ph.D work is difficult because you're going from a very structured environment (take classes; get grades) to a very unstructured one (take classes, but focus on learning rather than grades; deal with material that's more cutting-edge and therefore open-ended; start getting into research, which is really open-ended).

This is hard, and it's normal to expect a period of transition where things seem out of whack.

Coupled with that is the shame: people going to grad school are usually the ones who do well in undergraduate and have done well all their life in school. You've received praise from your teachers throughout, and have received constant encouragement.

Now you're in grad school. Everyone there is like you, so the competition is more fierce. There are no pseudo-objective measures like grades so there's no way to compare yourself to others (which for high achievers often means that you compare yourself negatively). And above all, all those nice professors who used to encourage you have turned into scowly curmudgeons who expect more and more and more...

It's a wonder everyone isn't depressed. And on top of that you have a full-time job !!

The recommendation that I will give, and that everyone here is giving you, is to ease up on yourself and try separate out your feelings of shame and inadequacy from the reality. You should find a support network of friends, hang out in study groups, do extracurricular stuff. The friends you make in grad school will be friends for life - such is the nature of this crucible. Since you're working full time this is going to be even harder, but maybe you can find others who also work full time and are in a similar position. Also see if you can find senior grad students who are part-time: their experience will be very valuable.

And then in a year you'll be back year asking about how to avoid discouragement in research, and how to avoid procrastinating, without realizing that this is a sign you've made it through the first year successfully :)

  • 1
    That's very reassuring - thank you. My only question is - if it's normal to struggle at first, is it normal to struggle this much? "This much" may be difficult to quantify, but I may just be overreacting, which is my concern.
    – user133846
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 18:20
  • 4
    I don't know what "this much" means. as you say, perception of struggle is a very subjective thing. That's why I recommend finding some friends going through similar experiences: you'd be surprised to see how much of what you're feeling is shared. Also look up the 'Imposter Syndrome' and the many answers on this forum that talk about it.
    – Suresh
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 18:34
  • Separate out your feelings of shame and inadequacy from the reality... Great advice, one question though. How?
    – kleineg
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 18:57

A PhD is an apprenticeship - you need to be on the same page as your advisor always. If he was making comments like that you need to know if it was his poor attempt at motivating, or if you don't get along. If you don't get along you need to find someone whom you can get along with. This is a long process. You should have no "shame" with your former professors either. And you should definitely go back and talk to them, as well as current students, especially the more senior ones.

As Suresh points out, everything is about to change. Classes in a PhD program are more to complete any breadth you are missing at the foundation from your earlier program. Then they are to start filling in a stronger foundation for your specialty. And then they are supposed to give you a taste of the depth in even more specific subfields. Also to help you understand what professors are available, what they study, and how they work, so that you can find an advisor and a committee.

After that you start doing research - and it becomes a much more self-motivated and often self-directed endeavor that builds on these foundations. A PhD is about vetting you as a researcher from start-to-finish. And putting you on an initial research trajectory. No one will ever ask your GPA from graduate school once you have your degree. Although it's expected you get good grades by your program (many require A/B's - C's are often failing in grad school - but you're only taking "in major" classes now so C's weren't really great for "in major" classes in your earlier degree programs). Again though the grade isn't what's important. But how hard you have to work for them is a potential indication of how hare you'll have to push yourself later in the less directed portions of the program. But you'll have much more freedom as to what to research.

I have found your problem is not unique. Many (/Most?/All?) students struggle with what exactly is grad school, and why are they there, and time management. It sounds like time management is something you will have to work on too. Not necessarily because you are bad at it, but because you have a lot of constraints on your time. Holding a job at the same time means you will be a little more removed from your fellow students. You will want to talk to them and get to know them if you can. It will help to know that you aren't in it alone.

In addition to your peers, a good book to help you know that this isn't your own personal hell is: Getting What You Came For. Very affordable survey of grad school. Honestly most school "handbooks" should be thrown away and replaced with this. Another good book is A PhD is Not Enough it's a shorter version of the first, but also talks about how your goals and "the systems" goals are not 100% in line with each other and you need to be aware of that and how to navigate that.


PhD can be extremely tough, for many reasons. I finished the comprehensive exam prep (1st year), at 6 am in the morning, to start my presentation at 9:00. Needless to say it was less than stellar. So, most, if not all PhD candidates went through what you are going through right now. To put salt on the wound, your first article is a pregnancy that seems to last forever. And I'm not even talking about writing the thesis. There will be a point, in this journey, where you're not sure of why you started all this in the first place, where you are on the map, and most painfully where the hell this boat is going. Don't worry, that's normal.

There are a few important points from what I see in your narrative. You're feeling bad because you think your performances are suboptimal, and because you don't want to look bad in front of your advisor, you won't bring up the topic with him/them. He's not really helping either. You're then left with little advice as to how to improve. Then you feel worse, and the situation worsens.

Congratulations, you are now in tail spin. How do you get out of it ?

The beast AKA the PhD topic: It is very much up to you, that's the point of the first year, you can actually decide and then explain why it would benefit from a re-focus. It is the hardest part of the whole stuff. There's no magic recipe, you need to understand, and to accept that what you managed to explore during the first year, is the only material you have to start digging on the right spot. Discussions with your advisor, and with your peers are very important.

The first Year: It's the toughest one. You have graduate courses AND the comprehensive exam. Basically, the only bright spot are the two weeks vacations coming after that. Keep it in mind.

Health (mental and body) It's draining. So you have to take care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well, practice sports, and above all you MUST hang out at least once a week. A patient girl/boy friend is a great asset to have.

Kill the father: A much unexplored aspect of the PhD is the relationship student/advisor. The sooner he doesn't act as a father any more, the better.

Finally, you: PhD is by nature unstructured. That's what it is, that's what it is for. It's your job to keep the bearings aligned, and to foster great discussions with your peers. If you made it here, it's because your brain functions are what it takes to get through it. So, if you are in trouble at the moment, it's not because you have become dumb overnight.

brain candy, in case you didn't see it : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FnXgprKgSE A. Wiles journey through Fermat's last theorem. 7 years.

A great advice from a peer at the time. "Always start the day with something you can achieve". So it comes down to your ability to set yourself meaningful targets, which results will accumulate over time. Good Luck !

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .