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I recently left a PhD program after finishing my first year. I think one of the biggest driving factors in my decision to leave was the uncomfortable department atmosphere. To add more context, I was the only American in my cohort and the vast majority of the other graduate students in the department (PhD + Masters) were international Chinese students. A situation I found ironic since I was attending a well respected U.S university. My general question is: has anyone else ever found themselves in a similar situation? If so, how did you feel about it and how did grad school turn out for you?

I ask these questions because I am considering reapplying to other PhD programs sometime in the future (maybe a year or two out after trying industry a bit). However I have found it difficult to decide whether or not my experiences are a general trend among other departments or specific to the one I attended. Or maybe the PhD life just isn't for me.

It is hard to describe the problems I had at my program without coming across as xenophobic. The international students were some of the nicest people I knew (and damn smart!). I think everyone I met there deserved to be in the program.

However, having such a predominately Chinese department make up has its pros and cons. For the Chinese students I think this is great. Coming to a new country with a totally different culture is hard and having support makes a huge difference. It probably helps that they also have a very strong cultural connection. But on the flip side, if you weren't Chinese you were excluded from this community. For example, I found it very difficult to join in on most conversations because they were in chinese. It's just super uncomfortable since I pretty much have to go up to a group, ask them what they're talking about and then kind of "force" them to speak english since I'm the only one that doesn't know chinese. And in general the Chinese students only hung out with other Chinese students, with few exceptions.

Perhaps to some, this language/culture barrier might come across as a silly reason to leave, but I liken it to water torture. For me, the feeling of never connecting to any of my peers over the ensuing days, weeks, and months really added up. By the end I was an absolute wreck and I'm pretty sure I saved at least 10 years of my life span by leaving. Though the decision to leave was not easy. A great deal of the turmoil I experience came from my desire to continue my studies and the equally great desire to get out. I had hoped the PhD life was more than just test, classes, and research. It was really important to me that I make lasting personal relationships within my department.

My field of study was in statistics and a quick google look up shows many other departments in the field have the same problem. However mine was on the small side and I was thinking maybe a (much) bigger program would work. My reasoning being along the lines of being 10% of the population of 10 people is quite different from being 10% out of a 100. Plus bigger departments generally have more diverse research opportunities.

This is just a really strange situation. I feel like the problems I had are typical of a student studying at a foreign university. Except I wasn't.

--Other Thoughts--

I've spoken with a fair number of people and have heard their suggestion/comments. Two very common ones are:

S1: If you can't find friends in your department go make friends else where / go pick up a time consuming hobby.

I agree making friends outside of work is definitely important for stress relief and change of pace. But the department would be a place where I would be spending 5+ years of my life! To not really be part of the community after that amount of time seems .... unfulfilling to me. I don't want to stress over ways to "escape" my department. Granted I never stayed till the end so I'll never know for sure if I could've made it work out, but given how things were going for me I saw it as a very! small possibility.

S2: Grad life is hard and isolating, it's going to be the same everywhere else.

Still trying to decide whether this is true. I was expecting the isolation that may result from long hours of research but not the isolation that is the result of being a cultural misfit.

  • I upvoted the question because I have some concern about your problem. I myself am a Chinese so I understand what happened there even though I wasn't there. I just didn't know the problem is that serious, Serious enough to cause someone leave the PhD program? Out of curiosity, are all the Chinese students in the department from China? Or some of them are actually second generation immigrant Chinese ? You can tell that by their English accent. – scaaahu Oct 14 '16 at 4:33
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    This is more of a personal essay than a question. Could you rewrite it as a question? – Anonymous Physicist Oct 14 '16 at 5:27
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    I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but have you considered that your stated reason for dropping out of your PhD program is, in fact, not the real reason you chose to do so? (Personally, I'm finding it hard to believe ... and it almost seems like a troll post.) – Mad Jack Oct 14 '16 at 12:03
  • While at work, the spoken language should be English. This is something you could bring up with either your PI or the administration. That doesn't mean that the students can't speak to each other their respective language though, just that work related language is in English. – Hobbes Oct 14 '16 at 13:25
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    I have to agree with @MadJack. Lots of people go through PhD programs as cultural outsiders, particularly when they decide to study abroad, but even outside of that. In my (American school) cohort one (American) guy had a kid the first semester, and we basically never saw him except for class time. Another girl had a boyfriend not at the school and trained for marathons, so again, hardly ever saw her. In short, it feels like a good possibility that there's more to it, even if you're not fully aware of it. – Jeff Oct 14 '16 at 17:03
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In the universe of grad schools, you have one data point. Not enough to draw any general conclusions about, regarding your potential performance or enjoyment of grad school!

I suggest you take at least one class you're interested in, as a non-matriculated student, before deciding whether to re-apply, and before choosing schools to apply to.


On the subject of classmates being (a) foreign students, and (b) nice but intimidating by virtue of being incredibly strong students, I have certainly experienced this, in a variety of environments, as a music student, as a computer science student, and as an applied math student. My experiences were a little different from yours, in that my fellow students were not as culturally and linguistically homogeneous as yours were, but still, based on my experience and what you wrote, I can appreciate that you felt left out and disconnected.

Your idea of attending a larger, more diverse department sounds promising. Also, in the interests of brainstorming, I will offer a few ideas for how to get more connected with international students, with a special focus on Chinese students. (I don't mean that you should have done any of these things. I'm just trying to give you some creative ideas for the future.)

  • Start a weekly Eurogames club (many of these games can be enjoyed by people who don't share the same language).

  • Learn to play Mahjong (ask a fellow student to teach you).

  • Start a weekly potluck supper club. This could lead to learning new ways of cooking, and teaching a fellow student new ways of cooking.

  • Put a flyer on a bulletin board offering yourself as a practice partner for English conversation. If you help out a recent arrival with weak English conversational skills in this way, chances are that person will be incredibly grateful for your help, and will go out of his way to help you make personal connections with other Chinese students in your department.

  • Offer your services (again, via a bulletin board) as an occasional babysitter for a fellow student with a small child. Again, the gratitude you'll earn will take you far.

  • Volunteer to interview a different student each month for a department website or internal newsletter.

I hope others will offer additional ideas in the comments, to add to this list.

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I have not been in your situation, but I totally understand it. I think I'm reasonably good at my job, but what makes my job (and the jobs I have had before) truly enjoyable is that I have personal contact with my colleagues: I can go ask them questions, we go out for lunch, we have coffee together. Not feeling like you belong would take a great deal of enjoyment out of it. In other words, I totally get what it was that frustrated you.

Your post does not contain any concrete question. I read between the lines that you're asking whether you were crazy for leaving. I don't think so -- we're social beings and need to interact with others. Of course you could have just joined a club of some kind, but ultimately, where you will learn the most is in conversations with your fellow students: They have time to discuss, and they are closer to the questions you have not figured out yourself; they also allow you to practice your own thoughts when it's your turn to explain something to others.

I think it is reasonable to think that there are departments that are more diverse. The higher up you go on the rankings scale, the more international applicants universities get. You may have to climb down a step or two, but there will certainly be departments in which one nationality will not be so dominant. But don't climb too far: Interacting with people from around the world is an incredibly enriching experience!

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