A Cautionary Tale (with a Happy Ending)

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A Cautionary Tale (with a Happy Ending)


Brittney Hauke, PhD Candidate in Materials Science and Engineering, Penn State University

When I started graduate school the first time, I did what the other students in my research group had done their first year—took four classes and did research. That was a mistake. I would never recommend taking four grad classes at once, especially in your first semesters!

Fast-forward a year. I had severe anxiety about meeting with my advisor, struggled to connect with my lab mates, worked all the time with nothing to show for it, and felt like I couldn’t do anything right. During one meeting my advisor suggested that I not get a PhD. A few months later my funding was pulled due to lack of progress. I decided to finish a master’s degree and leave.

Not long after, I decided to pursue a PhD elsewhere in a different field. This time I’m having a totally different experience. I get along really well with my advisor, have a supportive lab group, do research I enjoy, and have a good work–life balance.
I see now that I missed some warning signs in my first go-around. I’m sharing them here so you can learn from my experience:

In a research group:

  • Students take much longer to graduate than average.
  • People work all week and most weekends and holidays.

In a program:

  • Many grad students are weeded out via classes or the qualifying exam.
  • Professors don’t talk, collaborate, or really like one another.
  • The department isn’t receptive to grad student feedback.
  • Grad student funding is inflexible or not guaranteed.

The presence of one or two red flags might be fine, but be on alert if you see several. Graduate school is really hard, but it shouldn’t be traumatic. If you ever feel like it is, take action—there are so many great opportunities out there for you!

This article is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in the 2021 issue of GradSchoolShopper magazine.


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