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.
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.