I could not find a PhD advisor and the person in charge of my PhD program suggested that I leave with a master's degree. He said that I was good at carrying out tasks but I did not have the motivation to advance the state of the art in my field. Some time later I found an advisor in a different department, and he seems to like me. But I still cannot get over what the graduate coordinator said, and now I hate visiting the building because I feel I do not belong and I don't want to talk to anyone I know. What should I do?

After I found an advisor the graduate coordinator said something like "I knew you had it in you, I just wanted to see how much you wanted it." But I don't know if he really means it, and if he did, I think that's kind of a mean thing to do.

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    It seems like a big leap from "one person said something discouraging" to "the entire department hates me". – Nate Eldredge Dec 29 '14 at 2:13
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    Believe me, if the coordinator thought that you would likely never graduate, the mean thing to do would be to keep on encouraging you to waste your time. Don't be mad that he had this opinion of you, be glad that you could prove him wrong. – xLeitix Dec 29 '14 at 4:47
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    Grad coordinator's a jerk. – JeffE Dec 29 '14 at 14:46
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    It almost sounds like you're expecting to punish the advisor because of what he said, instead of finding ways to deal with it internally. If you had asked him for his opinion and he gave it to your frankly, I don't see anything wrong. – TankorSmash Dec 29 '14 at 20:39

You mentioned that your new advisor is in a new department. So, can you cut the losses with the old department?

But, although the comment stings, and your feelings are understandable, being able to handle it is part of completing Ph.D. To complete a Ph.D., you need (within a reason) to go against the grain, latch onto something, not listen when you are told it can't be done, and pursue it against the odds. In the process you grow a thicker skin and not let doubtful comments get and define you.

So, it is possible that your advisor meant to test you, and see how determined you are to continue the process. I am not saying that it is the best approach, but I have seen this happen.

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    And even if the grad co-ordinator didn't mean to test you, it did test you, and you carried on and passed the test. Either way, you're on top! – user56reinstatemonica8 Dec 29 '14 at 16:43
  • Sports coaches use the technique of criticism to test athletes all the time. The best coaches know who they can use it on and who needs a different approach. The motivation is usually to take someone to a different level. It's a reverse psychology thing. You have someone who can obviously do better (at least in the coach's eyes) and you challenge them. Will it work? The ones who really want it will step up, those who don't won't. – Chris Leary Dec 29 '14 at 19:56

Well, all you can really do is to clench your teeth and work. It may take a few months to a few years before you get to the point when you'll be certain that you are worth something and then a few more years before you finally realize that your brain is ridiculously slow, blind, and malfunctioning and you slide into the normal stable depression state any working mathematician lives in (I'm not so sure about other sciences but do not see why it should be any different there) :-).

The point is that what people see is what you produce: above a certain level, you are judged by your output, not by your working habits and other "test" criteria. On the other hand, above the same level, you spend the rest of your life walking a narrow path between being dissatisfied with yourself to the extent of quitting and being not enough dissatisfied with yourself to strive for improvement. You just have veered too much to the left, that's all.

As to the graduate coordinator, the second phrase puzzles me way more than the first (the first one makes sense and I can easily say it myself when I see that the things just do not work out after a few years, the second one looks more like a lame excuse for saying the first). Well, who cares? If you can do something, you'll see it yourself. If not, some other people will take care of showing it to you.

As to the feeling of "not belonging", the internet won't help here. Either talk to your psychiatrist (if you believe in psychiatry), of just take time out and do some physical activities on fresh air.

Above all, remember that we have all been there at the beginning of our careers: stupid worthless students struggling with the most routine homework and learning that the first problem of solving which they were proud was actually put on the test just to console those who cannot figure out anything interesting.

So, veer a bit to the right (not too much though) and continue walking forward (and, of course, as it was said in the final song of Monty Python's "Life of Brian", always look at the bright side of life...)

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    you spend the rest of your life walking a narrow path between being dissatisfied with yourself to the extent of quitting and being not enough dissatisfied with yourself to strive for improvement That is horribly accurate, did you come up with that? – Cape Code Dec 29 '14 at 15:12
  • That's an upbeat take on research. "the normal stable depression state any working mathematician lives in". Did you do a survey? :-) – Faheem Mitha Dec 29 '14 at 18:39

In many departments, the ability to match up to a source of funding is a de facto qualifying exam. If no adviser is stipending you, and the department needs to cover your stipend, you are a burden on the department. In current funding environments, departments often need that money for other things -- especially carrying faculty salary during funding lapses.

This creates a funny situation for students who can't find an adviser. They haven't failed a formal qualifier. Is there something "wrong" about the student such that no adviser accepted them? Maybe, maybe not. Could be the research interests didn't match up. Programs do their best to try to match the research areas of accepted students to those of faculty who can support students-- but sometimes they miss. Could just also be that such a student isn't the best student, and that potential advisers feel that there will be too much work in dragging them through to a degree. Could also just be that there were better students in the group who attracted the offers from advisers, and no one with funding was left to pick them up.

In any case, I recommend trying to be a little introspective about how you could have made yourself even more appealing to potential advisers such that you could have paired up earlier. In the career path you've chosen, you'll perpetually be selling yourself. Use this as an opportunity to figure out how to sell yourself better. If you want to feel more welcome, publish as much as you can, and early. Apply for every funding opportunity you can reasonably apply for. Take your teaching responsibilities seriously. Show your department that you're the opposite of a burden.

  • Was kind of a weird story actually. I originally worked in Field A with Prof A. When I asked, he said he would like to be my advisor, and also that Field A was a good field for me (he's basically the only person in my department who works in Field A). But he said I should work with other people first. So I worked with Prof B in Field B. In retrospect I was not very good at Field B and did not particularly like it. But for silly reasons, I felt I did not belong in Field A, and I thought Prof B was more likely to accept me than Prof A. So I asked Prof B to be my advisor. – user27109 Dec 29 '14 at 16:17
  • Prof B said he was optimistic but he didn't have funding so he would ask for money from the department. I didn't want to embarrass Prof B in front of the department by choosing Prof A, so I waited several weeks with no word from Prof B. Eventually I told Prof B I would be looking for other people, but by that time Prof A had already filled all the slots in his lab, so I was left without an advisor. Now I work in a field similar to Field A with Prof C in department Z – user27109 Dec 29 '14 at 16:17

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