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I'm a Ph. D. student just entering my third year. Last winter, I submitted a proposal for a major fellowship/grant in my field, and last Friday my advisor told me that I had been offered funding. However, for quite a long while, I've been debating with myself about mastering out, and haven't yet brought it up with my advisor.

I have until this Thursday (and preferably sooner) to accept or decline the funding.

The grant is extremely competitive - only about 10% of proposals are accepted. It would be three years worth of funding guaranteed, and (if things go according to plan), I would get three papers out of it - enough for most or all of my dissertation. My advisor has never even heard of someone turning it down. However, there are several concerns making it a very difficult decision.

First, I based the proposal in part on experience I planned to gain from the project I was working on at the time - what was originally intended to be my candidacy project. (Candidacy at my school is basically "Write a paper, submit it to a journal, and give a talk on your research to your committee.") However, I was struggling with the project, priorities changed, and that project was moved to the back burner while a different one, intended to get me to a paper and candidacy much faster, became my primary focus. The feedback on the proposal is only available to the PI currently, so my advisor can see it but I can't, and according to her the proposal was accepted in part because of this experience that I fully intended to have, but now still don't. (I was completely transparent that the work was still very much in progress, but still...) So I'd essentially have to start off delayed and make up for lost time.

Second, my advisor has concerns about my productivity and ability to stay on schedule, and If I'm being honest, her concerns are entirely justified. Ideally, I would already have scheduled or even finished my candidacy exam by now. However, due to schedule slip on my part, that hasn't happened yet. My advisor wants a first draft of my paper by mid-August, a deadline I'm worried I can't make, and has set a hard deadline for the exam of December this year. (To further complicate things, my department's grad student handbook says the candidacy exam can happen any time in the first three years, but my advisor claims that the handbook is incorrect - the deadline is two and a half years unless extenuating circumstances justify an extension.)

I've really been struggling to make progress on my work - I have to struggle against some kind of mental barrier to even start working, have a hard time staying focused, and when I do manage to get work done, I tunnel-vision on certain tasks while neglecting others. I've been going to the university counseling center, but it hasn't helped much, and if anything I've been getting worse recently. So if I don't find a way to improve, there's a real risk that I miss the candidacy deadline, or make that deadline but run out of time for the Ph. D. If that happens, the grant money would basically end up wasted when it could have gone to someone else.

Furthermore, I honestly don't even really like my proposal in the first place. It was a rewrite and improvement of a proposal I submitted elsewhere, and while it's a big improvement over that version, I really only wrote and submitted it because I couldn't think of a better idea to propose instead, and my advisor wanted me to submit something. A part of me was honestly hoping for it to be rejected.

In large part because of these issues, I've been thinking for a while about mastering out. (I'm not sure how long, really, but at least 6 months). However, I don't have any sort of plan B (I often feel like I never even had a plan A) and don't know if there are any careers in my field that aren't either research or teaching. I also worry I won't really be able to transfer my skills to another field - I'm not a good programmer, just a barely adequate one, and my field is pretty much pure research. Since the work on my candidacy project would probably become a large part of my master's degree anyway, I've been trying to focus on getting the work done while I learn enough to make a decision - but declining the fellowship while staying in the Ph. D. program would be pure insanity.

In short, I now have to make a decision I haven't felt comfortable even discussing with my advisor by this Thursday. I have no idea what to do; please give me advice.

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    What prevents you from leaving later if you accept the fellowship and then decide you don't want to continue? Jul 17, 2023 at 21:29
  • FWIW, you're making EXACTLY the same decision that you were before being awarded the support. Your timetable for making this decision has shrank a bit, unless you're willing to accept the position knowing you may resign later. Jul 17, 2023 at 22:02

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What worries me is that, based on what you wrote, you don't seem particularly interested in the proposed project anymore, and you are lacking some technical skills/knowledge to successfully carry it out. You seem to be struggling a lot with your current workload (and I'm not blaming you, graduate school is draining and though. One needs to have the right mindset, enough motivation and a lot of endurance to go through it) and, based on what you describe about having mental barriers and problems focusing, probably you've reached a "burnout state". Accepting being paid for working in a project you don't slightly like anymore and for which you are not prepared enough is, in my opinion, a bad idea. My honest advice would be not pursuing a major project you don't like, taking it just because you have the chance to do so. You will be wasting your time and money (as well as other people's time and money). If you are seriously thinking about accepting the grant, write down the positive aspects it would have in your life; maybe you are indeed interested in the topic, just tired because of all the work you've had? Do you think you will have time enough to learn what you were supposed to learn during this time?

I would also recommend you to try to calm down (even if you don't have enough time to think about the situation with the deepness and thoughtfulness it deserves), and to talk about it with your advisor. She has way more experience than you in the field, more details about your situation and she can give you honest feedback about the matter. Anyway, you need to talk with her about your plans of leaving your PhD program with a master's degree. Indeed, I'm surprised you haven't talked about this plan with her sooner. She can give you important advice not only for finishing your degree, but also for figuring out possible jobs for you out there.

Lastly, I would like to address this:

I really only wrote and submitted it because I couldn't think of a better idea to propose instead, and my advisor wanted me to submit something. A part of me was honestly hoping for it to be rejected.

Never apply for important things (like major fellowships or job posts) without having a clear idea on why are you doing it or why you want it. Be kind to yourself and don't put yourself in a situation like this anymore. I know it's easier said than done, and that we indeed make a lot of important choices based on what others want or expect from us, but remember that, if you get the opportunity you are asking for, you are the one that needs to do the hard job. And it is something you can do only if you have the motivation and inner convictions to do so.

Best of luck.

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It sounds like you've been really brave to express all of these thoughts here, and you should be proud of yourself for that. I'll slip into therapist mode for a while, if that's okay; what I am about to say may be right on target or completely off. Only you can say.

It sounds like you have a lot of anxiety that, to you, is tied to external decisions you have to make about your future (PhDing on vs mastering out; accepting vs declining the fellowship). However, these anxieties often have their roots in internal uncertainty about who we are and what our story is.

Narrative psychology describes people as always reaching for "the story of my life" to imbue their decisions, big and small, with meaning, and hence to decide which way to go. But learning what life story we are comfortable with takes conscious time and effort that we often neglect, partly because that work draws out negative feelings that we want to avoid (and partly because capitalism wants us busy doing economic activity without being sure just why we're doing it).

When we come to a major decision without deeply grasping our personal story, therefore, we find ourselves deeply anxious and unsure which choice feels more coherent with who we think we are, and then anxiety overwhelms is.

(Stop here. Take a breath. If what I'm writing makes no sense to you, that's perfectly okay; go take a walk or do something you enjoy doing and don't waste any more time reading this stuff. :) )


You can't rewire your internal story in a week, but please reflect deeply on this: you will still be who you are whether you stay in the PhD or master out, and whether you take the grant or not.

Academia, in particular, is extremely toxic about wrapping our identity around our job title, our papers and our grants. We feel like we will be happy if only that paper gets accepted or that grant gets funded. We don't acknowledge narratives like yours, where you applied for a major grant feeling full well that you weren't quite up to it (although you might be; anxiety has a way of devaluing our capabilities).

And yet we are more than our papers or grants. We are also our hobbies, our families, our culture, our neighbourhood, our holidays, our fundamental beliefs, our bodies, our souls. Against all that, decisions about grants or career should feel -- not small, but not seismic; decisions we can make trying to reach a future that best expresses who we are, while making peace with any consequences that are beyond our control or prediction.

So, you absolutely need to talk to your supervisor about this. She will have concrete and objective knowledge about you and your competencies that you don't. But you need to talk to yourself about what you're going through. These difficulties you're facing aren't going to go away if you take up the grant, but they also aren't going to go away if you master out. You owe yourself every chance to face your problems head on, and you should absolutely find better help than your university counsellor.

But I just have a hunch that, ultimately, you need to learn who you are and accept it. I can't tell you how exactly to do that, but if you know that's what you have to do, then that's a start.

All the best!

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It sounds like there are a lot of things that you need to make your mind up about and for many of them you need more information before you can even take a decision one way or another.

First of all, can you take a couple of days of to collect your thoughts? Do you have trusted friends or family or a trusted advisor you can reach out to even if it is not your PhD advisor? I would recommend expressing your doubts at some point, since they cannot help or advise you if they don't know, but I can also see that you may not want to start there.

As for options after 'mastering out': can you contact the career center at your university/institute or alumni from the lab?

This would be the time to take some of those get to know yourself or career tests to see what comes out. Plenty of books out there that might be helpful too, like what color is my parachute. None of those are compatible with rush decisions, though.

Good luck!

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So there are two things I see from this question, the first is are you still interested in doing a PhD, the second is do you have any neuroatypicalities that explain your behaviour.

The first thing is asking yourself if you are still interested in doing the PhD, given what you've described it sound like you may also be suffering burnout (essentially your brain has been run ragged and you need to slow it down). Try taking some time off for the next couple of days, focus on thinking what you want to do long term if there are any alternatives to what you are currently doing (and make sure not to knee jerk reaction and say there are no alternatives). Work out if you are still wanting to do a PhD/get into academia and have just not been taking care of yourself, or if you have realised academia is not where you truly want to be.

The second is to try to work out if you are neuro-atypical in any way. My first thought is that you have ADHD/ADD, lack of focus/periods of hyper focus are standard (I have it as well). If you don't have support it often feels like you are incompetent since you can't finish things (particularly papers or last bits of research). Excluding medication one way of avoiding the hyperfocusing stopping you from realising there are smarter ways to work is to schedule in 30 minutes a day for a walk or a run or some other kind of light workout that makes you lightly sweat, and make sure to treat it as part of your work, otherwise it will be put to the side. For starting focus regularly engaging in heavier exercise and listening to music helps significantly. Exercise that forces you to focus or hurt yourself/others (e.g. martial arts/climbing/parkour) can help you train yourself to focus.

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