I am five weeks into a two-year MS program in statistics at a public university in the US. To be honest, I do not think my graduate program was the right choice for me. I am struggling a lot with the work. I do not find my instructors helpful in class or in office hours; what is taught in class is difficult to relate to the homework and is often a different focus than what's in our textbook.

Although I want to do more data science/research analysis work as a career, I picked a program that included both applied and theoretical courses because I thought the theory was good to know. But now the theoretical side feels like a burden. I still like stats, and I'm not sure if my unhappiness is my particular graduate program or being in grad school at all.

The question is, how soon is "too soon" to know to quit, and is there any way to tell if I would be happy or not in another, more applied program? I have spoken with my parents (who are funding my graduate education) and we are all agreed that I should at least finish out this semester. Do I quit then and look for jobs? Do I wait until the end of next semester and see if different professors make a difference, and if not, go to a different program or get a job? Or is it silly to do half of it and not finish the MS?

5 Answers 5


I think that it really depends on how much you're struggling. Are you failing your problem sets? Are you merely unhappy with the courses?

I expect that there will be huge variations with the answers, but personally I would advise you to finish out your MS. The reason being that there actually is a huge difference in terms of your career (salary, promotions etc) when you have an advanced degree, so usually an MS is a worthy investment (as an aside, there are studies that suggest that having a PhD does not offer a lot of extra advantages compared to an MS, so if you are already unsure of your MS, I could advise against a PhD).

Another reason is that it would not look too good to your employers to show that you dropped out after just a semester in your program. Perseverance is a very strong quality that is appreciated by many people.

Furthermore, your experience depends largely on your professors. I would talk to other students to see if there are particularly popular professors who teach courses that you are interested in, and try to take those classes next semester (and while you are talking to your fellow grad students, you might as well ask them about your current feelings and ask if this is common).

That being said, I suggest that you talk to your program director, because maybe your program is notoriously hard, and there are many students feeling this way. You may walk out of that meeting feeling reassured, or maybe that meeting will give you a very strong and concrete reason to drop out of your MS. Or maybe the program director could suggest an alternative MS program that can still credit this semester towards the degree (for example, it sounds like an MS in computer science might have been a better fit than an MS in statistics, but I can easily imagine an MS in computer science requiring some statistics courses).

  • Sadly, the program director in statistics is also one of my instructors this semester, so obviously it would be uncomfortable to bring concerns like "finding my instructors unhelpful" to him. I may consider my university's Data Science program, which I just found out about recently. It wouldn't be weird to contact that program director to ask about fit, right?
    – Alex
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 5:01
  • 4
    It doesn't have to be as uncomfortable as you are imagining. You can bring out specific concerns, such as "material X is not in my background, but your class seems to assume this, and I am having trouble catching up or getting help" is a perfectly valid thing to discuss with your professor. In general, generic complaints are not constructive.
    – Sana
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 5:07

There is no right answer. In my university, most drop-outs simply have a job and no time or energy to finish their studies. Though their workplaces sometimes make effort to speed up their employees graduation, with less work, but some just encourage the students to become full time workers.

In my university one can change their subject. Many of the completed classes are valid for other programs. It could be that if there is CS-department, you could become machine learning expert, which is basically the same, but not as rigor as pure stat-math.

  • Yes, that is why I might look into Data Science.
    – Alex
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 21:08

"how soon is "too soon" to know to quit"

It really depends on your personal convictions-what did you major in for your undergrad? You have to be sure you've given it your best shot-it seems like you still enjoy the stats but lack the support you need with your coursework, etc. Graduate studies can be very difficult initially especially if you're not used to that style of learning. Stats can be difficult if you haven't majored in a quantitative field. Why not get extra help from your tutors? Perhaps watch online lectures from other "better" lecturers about the topics you're struggling with (MIT, harvard, etc all have free youtube videos). You may also wish to get a private tutor who may be of some assistance.

Back to your question of "when to quit" All in all, I think you have to be careful not to allow too much unexplained gaps in your resume. If having put in 100% effort, you still don't think this is the right course for you, leave early and find something else to do. Besides, a masters degree is not a strict requirement for a data science career and there are many paths into this field.

You may wish to read more about the various paths to data science (Do I need a Masters/Phd to become a data scientist)

Best wishes.

  • 1
    I majored in mathematics in undergrad, but I went to a small LAC that didn't have a huge range of stats offerings (and the CS department was truly abysmal). I know that there are many resources available out there, it is just frustrating to me that the skills needed for the problems are not covered, or sometimes even mentioned, by our professors. I agree with your link–I don't know if I need the MS for skill reasons, but perhaps for job search reasons.
    – Alex
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 21:13

Imagine yourself 20 years from now, a dean in a department. One of the students in your department feels a mismatch with the program of studies, but doesn't tell you or anyone else in the department. The student drops out after one semester. You feel frustrated because you think that some of the problems could have been solved, if only the student had let you know what was going on, before getting past the point of no return.

What I'm getting at here is that you and your parents are putting in huge amounts of time and money. You must inform someone at your university of exactly what you wrote here. If you are not comfortable talking to the person who is normally the point of contact for a problem such as yours, then pick someone else in your department. Or go to someone higher up, who is not in your department. Sometimes it is helpful to ask a nice secretary, or an empathetic fellow student, for a recommendation of whom to talk to.

If it is easier for you to have this needed conversation with an administrator by having a friend or relative participate, then do. You can arrange, for example, for your parents to be part of the meeting, via Skype, for example, if that would be helpful for you.

You have taken the first step -- self awareness. Now, share your self awareness with your university. Give them the opportunity to try to help you figure this out with you.


That is definitely a tough question. Do you think that grad school itself is not for you right now, or do you just want a different program?

First of all, whichever you do, it has to be seated deep within you. If you quit, for instance, and it ends up coming up at a job interview, you're going to have to answer that question with confidence. There are good answers for every choice you can make here--you just have to believe in them enough to defend them without shame.

If it's mainly the program, talk to your advisor and talk to the department chair. That's what they're there for. They had to choose their own fields and they know you do, too. They can explain your options, of which you may have more than you realize. Also, if they're not supportive, that's a great reason to pick a different program. You can also talk to the graduate advisor of record and/or the department chair for a department you are more interested in.

I went to grad school about four years after graduating undergrad, and I quit a few weeks in because I hated it so much. All my anxieties came back, I felt like I was failing miserably, and I was already struggling to make myself do any homework or go to school. It was hard, but I actually had to redefine my self-image in a way that didn't rely on my education level. That sounds obvious, but it turned out I was really wrapped up in that. I had to be okay with hearing myself say, "Maybe I don't actually want a Ph.D." (or Master's, in your case). Until then, I hadn't realized that graduate degrees were something you could want. To me, they were just something you did if you were worth anything.

10 years later, I'm getting my Master's in May and I'm waiting to hear back on a Ph.D. program I'm excited about. A lot of things have changed in the meantime, but mostly, they're very particular to my situation. The important thing that changed is that I realized what I'd always thought I wanted to study wasn't as interesting as I thought. It was close, so it wasn't obvious that it wasn't the right field for me. But I came to peace with that, and I did end up finding something that really was of great interest, and here I am. I was excited when I submitted my application and I was excited when I sat down for my first class, even though I hadn't been in school for 15 years by then and I struggled very much in undergrad. I'm just as excited now--I'm actually having fun. I encourage you to hold your experience to a high standard for what you want in your life.

One last point--if you're really miserable, taking care of yourself is important, and the right decision may be not to wait out the semester. If your parents are worried about the money, consider offering to pay them back over a period of a few months or years depending on how much it is. Consider also that if you wait out the semester, you won't get any credit for those classes in the job market. You may be able to apply them to another program later but it's iffy. The money is already sunk, so it shouldn't weigh too heavily. However, if you're doing okay and just not satisfied, I'd say, finish the semester. Maybe you'll have some insight and change your mind. If the semester ends and you're still not sure if you want to switch or quit, you can apply for a break for one or two semesters, usually.

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