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I'm at the end of my second year in a top chemistry Ph.D. program in the US. Unfortunately, I've been struggling a lot with depression and low energy: I'm having a lot of personal issues, no support system, barely any family/friends, my home country is at war, and to make things even worse, I picked a terrible project. I’ve even started seeing a therapist even though normally, I’d never do something like that. I feel like my mental struggles contributed to this situation…

Anyway, I've been working on this project for 2 years, and almost all the results I have are either negative or not quite what we wanted. Frankly, I think my PI is chasing research goals that are not feasible and that this project is a fool’s errand, which is basically what my candidacy committee said too.

My PI talked with me recently and said that he doesn't see a path forward and that not all people are meant to get a Ph.D. He only casually talked to me about the things he wanted me to improve before, but he never communicated it was THAT serious. I was trying to fix the things he wanted me to fix, but with everything that was going on, it was problematic. It came as a shock also because he said that he knows this project is hard, that I’d been working hard, and that my research progress is fine. The issue is not my research progress though, but rather a combination of other things - both minor and not. For instance, I spilled a liter of solvent once, and I forgot about a one-on-one meeting once or twice over these 2 years (because I was focused on the labwork or writing something up). But his major concern apparently, is how I prepared my research prospectus (for the qualifying exam) and some of the internal research presentations (each member of his research group prepares a research presentation every couple months). With how I’ve been feeling and with how the project is going, I didn’t have enough energy to streamline them. So my last internal presentation for the group meeting was pretty bad (although in my mind, 0 results is 0 results regardless of how nice my presentation looks). And my prospectus…Well, I had to redo it. This is my 2nd time fixing it. I had to retake my candidacy exam and got a conditional pass after the second attempt. The committee didn’t like the project, and here, I 100% agree with them. They said I have a stellar GPA and told me I’m super smart and all, but none of that matters here since this doesn’t help. I should submit the prospectus (proposal basically) this week, but I’m kicked out of the group regardless.

What now? If they do pass me, I can try to find another lab at this university, but should I? And if I have to apply to another Ph.D. program, it creates visa issues: I can’t go back to my home country while applying. Any advice?

I apologize if this is incoherent: I’m still kinda shell-shocked.

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    Sorry about your situation. Came here to say that seeing a therapist is completely normal! You did the right thing by getting help. Your mental health is at least as important as your physical health.
    – derptank
    Jun 27, 2023 at 1:29
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    @derptank thanks. I’m just not sure about what to do…
    – user172802
    Jun 27, 2023 at 1:32
  • @Xxx I had to go through some of these difficulties during my first postdoc. It was tough. I very much hope that you manage to stay at your present university, because I understand that an attempt to switch schools may cause visa issues. As a last resort, are you considering PhD studies in a different country? (Say, if you are in the US, can't you apply for PhD studies in Canada -- and wait for a Canadian visa while still working in the US?) Jun 28, 2023 at 1:16
  • @Xxx If, hypothetically, a good opportunity emerges, would you consider changing fields? (To, say, nanomaterials for biomedical purposes.) Jun 28, 2023 at 2:22

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I'm sorry to hear that you're going through such a challenging time. Dealing with depression, personal issues, and a difficult project can harm your overall well-being and academic performance.

Here are some suggestions to help you navigate your next steps:

  1. Openly communicate with your PI: Have a sincere conversation with your PI about your situation, including your mental health struggles and the feedback you received from the candidacy committee. Discuss the possibility of continuing in the lab or potential alternative projects or arrangements.

  2. Explore other options within the university: If continuing in your current lab is not feasible, consider exploring other research groups within your university. Reach out to other PIs and inquire about available positions to continue your PhD within the same institution.

  3. Consider transferring to another institution: If you feel that starting fresh in a different institution or different PhD program would make sense, you can explore the possibility of transferring to another institution. (about the visa implications seek guidance from your university's international student office.)

  4. Consider transferring to a masters program in the same institution if it is possible. Some universities allow this. After completeing the MS, you can get an MS and look for a new position either in acdemia or industry.

  5. Reflect on your goals and priorities: Think about your long-term goals and aspirations. See if completing a PhD is still aligned with your interests and career plans. This self-reflection will help you make informed decisions about your future path.

Finally, note that nearly half of PhD students do not graduate, see for example these links: link1, link2, and link3. So, it is not end of the world to drop out of a PhD program, and your health and well-being is much more important than getting a PhD degree.

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  • Thank you! I actually did get an MS from this university on my way to a PhD. So at least, I have that. But I want to do research, and options for doing it without a PhD are limited.
    – user172802
    Jun 27, 2023 at 3:07
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    +1 for your first sentance. This is rarely seen in this forum.
    – user111388
    Jun 27, 2023 at 21:38
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A quick chipping in @Bob excellent suggestions

although in my mind, 0 results is 0 results regardless of how nice my presentation looks

Even when (anticipated) results are zero/negative, being able to and actually explaining the result (from an outcome perspective) is important/insightful in research.
Perhaps, this might not apply to some field/discipline.

Wishing you the best on your rediscovering process. #KeepCalmAndReengage

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  • Yeah, I know I could still talk about about the negative results. And I did. I'm just saying the project overall is problematic, which contributed to my predicament. Thank you.
    – user172802
    Jun 27, 2023 at 14:19
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international PhD student here.

I was in a similar situation (top tier university, bogus R01, and no equipment/account frozen for months because the PI of the grant moved twice in 2 years). I was working odd projects on the side just to maintain my salary and did not have the time to prepare for the qualifying exam. I wanted out so badly, that I failed the second attempt on purpose.

Long story short: I made sure I had enough credits to get a Master, and immediately applied for OPT. Worked for 1 year and then started a PhD in a different institution.

Then the pandemic hit, my new PI took the chance to get a promotion in a different institution, and I was stuck again, forced to TA all-year round just to have a salary. As international, we can't really apply for fellowships, so I started writing grants for a professor that agreed to put his name on them. I wrote 5 grants in 18 months, submitted 3, and won 2.

The situation was über-stressful because I found problems in my new immigration docs that I could not fix on my own, and I was working all the time for a meager stipend, giving my ideas to other people. My wife decided I was a failure and filed for divorce.

However, now that I do the research that I care about, passing the qualifying exam was no sweat. And I used my experience to get a grant writing position. This is way easier that being a researcher, I can do it from home, and the hourly income is about 3.5x what I get as a PhD. And I will likely maintain the position after graduation.

All to say: put in prospective, leaving the first PhD program was a good thing. Don't put up with a toxic environment, especially if it is for a project you don't believe in.

And having a support system is overrated, you never know how friends and family react under stress. Some of them, despite being pleasant people in good times, will gladly kick you while you are on the ground.

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Sorry to hear about your situation but it's not uncommon. My suggestion is that you should consider moving to another phd program preferably in another institution rather than in the same university. You might also want to consider moving to another perhaps related project. Good luck!

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Sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, a lot of professors are horrible bosses. The combination of high expectations, little accountability, and no real business or management training can make a deadly combination. I would suggest a fresh start at an R2 they are often a little more laid back. If I was doing it over again I would have left in a similar fashion. You still get your masters degree. I think the visa is a smaller issue than you think. Find a university and a professor that aligns with your interests and talk to them. The university may be able to FastTrack the visa. Secondly, use the opportunity to talk to the professors students and ask how many alumni from their group still communicate. Asking an alumni about their advisor you will get the most truthful answers. I think a fresh start would do you well and put this behind you even though it feels like you might have wasted two years it is better than four and find an advisor that will pour into you.

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To be honest, PhD (committees) have multiple roles. One of them is to grade your PhD, when it is done, but on more and more university they are taking even more proactive role to advise the students and this way protect them if their supervisor is incompetent. The committee, as I understand, clearly said that the research path is not viable and your supervisor at least should heed this warning and assign you to something else. My advice is to leave the lab and go somewhere else within the rights your visa gives you, because that is extremely bad supervision, if he encouraged you to follow the research goals that are widely considered (obviously by the committee) to be unrealistic. You have no future in that lab and.

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