I'm a first-year at a top-ranked institution in a PhD program that I have not had a formal background in. My PI is really great. The only real flaw I've seen so far is that his students take a while to graduate (most seem to have taken 6-6.5 years...). But I enjoy the research, even though I've just barely started.

The problem is more with the department and classes. I'm truly uncertain if I will be able to pass (i.e. >= B) one of the required classes I'm in, and another class I'm taking I'm pretty much certain I will have to drop (before the deadline) because I just don't have the background necessary for it even though I was told I would. I've been studying for the upcoming exam for weeks, but I still feel very behind where I need to be. The fact that if I get below a B I have to wait a year to retake it is also off-putting. I don't think I could wait a year knowing my future hinges on one exam.

I really want to do a PhD though, both for my personal and career-related goals. I love research and being involved in that community. I don't love this stressful environment where professors seem to have no issue kicking you out.

If things don't go well, is it possible to leave this program to start anew at another program? I know this would burn all bridges here, but I'm just trying to brainstorm my options. I'm just not really sure what to do.

Of course, I will wait and see how I do on my upcoming exam, but I just frankly don't think it will go well. Does anyone have any advice? This all makes for a very stressful situation. I'll just keep studying for now.

  • 12
    You wanted to go to this top university, knowing that the competition will be fierce. But dropping out although you like the research and your advisor because you find coursework difficult? This is absurd. Dedicate fully to studying and pass the courses with the minimum required grades and then see what you want to do.
    – Alexandros
    Oct 22, 2015 at 18:23
  • Thanks for the feedback. I realize it may be a bit premature or unfounded. I will continue to put my time in and aim for the best I can do. My classes are graded just based on one exam, so it's an all-or-nothing approach, really. Oct 22, 2015 at 18:31
  • 5
    Doing a PhD at a top university is hard. Courses are really a tiny part of it. Just study hard and you will pass it. But more importantly: research is usually much more difficult than courses - if you think about dropping out because of a couple of tough courses what will happen when you reach the really difficult parts of the PhD? Maybe that is what you should ask yourself.
    – Bitwise
    Oct 22, 2015 at 19:09
  • 4
    If you like your PI, and feel overwhelmed (which isn't necessarily uncommon during course work), talk to him/her. Say exactly that, express your enthusiasm but that it is harder than you expected, and ask for recommendations. Switching school is difficult anyway; don't run at the first obstacle. Oct 22, 2015 at 19:40
  • 3
    Just to share one quote that has helped me a lot. By Earnest Hemingway: "There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self." Do not compare yourself with other students in the program, that is a recipe for being demoralized. Instead constantly think about how being in the PhD program has increased your knowledge and benefited yourself in various ways. Good luck!
    – yoyostein
    Oct 23, 2015 at 0:14

1 Answer 1


Right around the first midterm of every course I feel like just throwing it all away (I have multiple degrees and working on another one right now). It's the same feeling I have right before I go out to a party that I want to go to but will have a lot of people. I think it's just anxiety. What's the worst case? You have to take the course again? You're concerned that you don't have enough background? Think instead of all the cool stuff you still get to learn. I had a CS professor who asked the class, "who has heard of 3-SAT?" No one raised their hand. You could tell the excitement in her voice. "I get to be the person who teaches you 3-SAT!" Think of it that way. Someday you will learn 3-SAT, and a million other great things. Now go study!

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