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I studied humanities in undergrad but am a first-year PhD student in a STEM field. Until recently, I was very proud of teaching myself the requisite background material to be competitive for a top-tier research program. But now that I am in the program, I realize just how much catching up I need to do and am feeling overwhelmed.

For example, I am only taking two courses this semester with the expectation that I explore research project ideas and secure a research advisor within my first year—I have an academic advisor who may become my research advisor, but that is not required. But one of these courses is taking up all of my time. The last two homework assignments have taken me 30–40 hours each to complete. I know other students also find the course hard, but even undergraduates who seem to struggle the most—those who are at office hours with me every single time—say the assignments take closer to 20–30 hours for them.

I am embarrassed to say anything. I have an academic advisor who seems very helpful, but I worry that she'll think less of me if she knows how hard this is. The alternative is to not really meet with her this semester and hope that I can get started on a research project next semester.

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    I would say yes, be honest with your advisor. – GEdgar Oct 27 '16 at 23:48
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    Absolutely be honest - the graduate program knew they were taking a bit of a risk in letting you in, but almost certainly would expect you to (1) work hard to catch up, and (2) let them know if you are having difficulties. I believe they would work with you to figure out avenues for help. – Jon Custer Oct 28 '16 at 0:46
  • Fantastic work, gwg! Do let your advisor know. Try to keep the emotions out of it, just give a neutral account of the time you're putting in. Hang in there! – aparente001 Oct 28 '16 at 2:01
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Had this exact problem last year as a first-year direct-Ph.D. student -- and that was as a STEM undergrad going into a STEM field. I took 2 courses, not knowing at the time that both were considered some of the toughest courses in the department, and ended up failing at one of them so miserably that I had to withdraw from the course.

So backstory out of the way, here's my advice (in no particular order):

  • DO be honest with your academic adviser. Their job is to give you honest feedback and advice on what your options are (course-wise, at least). It may be possible for you to withdraw from a course without it affecting your GPA (though it may still show up on your transcript. That's how it worked for me -- but it was an acceptable trade in my opinion).
  • DO NOT expect your academic adviser to necessarily be "sympathetic". That's not to say that they're going to be a cold-hearted jerk, but they likely aren't going to be willing to comfort you (learned this the hard way unfortunately).
  • DO seek out counseling services if you're feeling overwhelmed and need that sympathetic ear. They can give you strategies for better managing your time and efforts, as well as reassuring you that you are not alone. Friends and family are great to lean on here as well.
  • DO NOT try to strike out on your own. Project? Make it a group project (if you can). Homework? Round up a few others in the class, find a whiteboard, and do it together. Exams? Order pizza and start studying (at least a week ahead of time, even if only for an hour a day).
  • DO take care of yourself. That means getting a good night's sleep -- even if you're not going to have everything done for your research tomorrow. And eat a good meal -- don't starve yourself to ink out an extra hour of work. I can't stress this one enough. Your mind (and body) is your greatest tool as a grad student. Take care of it.
  • DO NOT give up. It gets better. I promise.

None of that is particular to non-STEM students working in STEM fields (major kudos to you for that), so I hope someone who has been in that situation can get back to you too!

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    I definitely second Seek out counseling services, but I'd caution you against leaning too heavily on friends and family. Of course you should reach out to them for sympathy and even advice, but if you were to start treating them as counselors it would seriously strain the relationship and also probably not result in good counseling, since most people aren't counselors. – MissMonicaE Oct 28 '16 at 18:30
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    Another reason why getting in touch with fellow students may help is: the method of study that you are using might be good for the humanities, but a bad fit for STEM subjects. The goals and the methods of STEM are completely different, and they call for a different way to work. You might need to retrain yourself. – Federico Poloni Oct 30 '16 at 7:12

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