leaving [science] graduate school part 1: should I stay or should I go?

One of the greatest things about this blog is that, fairly frequently, I get to help/inspire people. I get the most lovely messages thanking me for ideas for dealing with jerkbrain, and for general openness/honesty about my mental health issues, being un/underemployed, etc. I appreciate all of them, and to a large extent they keep me writing here. I do, of course, also write for myself, but knowing that I’m connecting with people makes it all that much sweeter.

One group of people that I hear from, though, surprised me. Fairly frequently, I hear from other graduate students–some that I know personally, some that find me with the google machine–who tell me that I give them hope. Which is weird, right? I effectively dropped out of a PhD program (though I had the good fortune to be able to snag a master’s on the way out), I’m entirely disenchanted with the field I once wanted to spend my life in, I’m sometimes bitter and often frustrated, and all these months out of school I’m still less-employed and less employable than I’d hoped to be by this point. What in the fuck about that is hopeful?

But rather than throw that stream of negativity in people’s faces, I listened, and I learned that a) people were glad to hear that they weren’t alone–that they weren’t the only ones feeling like grad school was crushing them and b) people were heartened to know that IF THEY DID HAVE TO LEAVE…. the world wouldn’t end. Watching me pick up the pieces, in my almost-but-not-quite-worst-case-scenario, gave them some confidence that they could do it too if they had to.

And while a tiny part of my ego is hurt to know that a significant reason why people find my work valuable is because they can look at me and go “see, if I fail, it won’t be SO bad”… mostly I’m really happy about this. Frankly, recovering from this whole mess has been a long and frustrating process, and I’m glad that all my efforts have some value for other people.

All that said… this morning I got another one of those emails, and I realized that a lot of those people are coming to my blog looking for ADVICE… and at this point, I actually have some things to say on that front, but I haven’t said them. Honestly, if I could go back and do it over again, I would have done a lot of things very differently, and I might be in a more secure place by now. Basically, I’m glad my meager recovery can people hope, but I want to give you more than that. If you decide to master out, for whatever reason, you can do it BETTER than I did.

So without further ado, thus begins my multi-part guide to leaving graduate school. For the record, this will be most applicable to people leaving STEM programs, as that’s where my experience lies. Today, we’ll focus on what to consider in making your decision to leave.

Before I get too deep into this, I should tell you my general bias regarding this issue: My personal opinion is that if you are miserable in grad school, you should get out sooner rather than later, before the misery destroys your mental health/physical health, devours your soul/etc. I think you should do so in a controlled/planned fashion if that option is available to you, but you should do it.

First things first: SHOULD you “master out” of your PhD program?

Obviously, this is a very personal decision that I can’t make for you. That said, there are some important things to think through in making this decision, and I can give you my thoughts on those.

    • Do you absolutely need a PhD to pursue the career you want?

Think hard on this one. There are relatively few jobs that actually absolutely require doctorates, and most of them are in academic science. If you are absolutely dead-set on being on the tenure track, or filling some type of research/teaching position where PhDs are non-negotiable, you can still leave your PhD program if it’s making you miserable, but you’ll obviously have to go back at some point. Think about that. Are you actually likely to go back once you leave? What can you change the second time around? If you need to leave to deal with a personal issue or because your program/advisor/project is a soul-sucking-waste-of-time-black-hole, make a plan for when you intend to come back/how to find a better program/advisor/project next time around.

In my case, I started out my PhD career really hoping to be an academic. I loved research, I love education, and I was a big fan of that whole “life of the mind” thing that was supposedly what life was all about in the academy. But by my second year I’d had the statistics (At best, 1 in 10 PhD grads gets a tenure-track job) and the horrific funding realities rubbed in my face long enough that I was pretty sure that was a pipe dream, at least for me. The competition is just SO BRUTAL for tenure track jobs, and I was fairly certain that even if my intellect was up to the challenge, I couldn’t physically or emotionally take the complete and total devotion and long-term sacrifice necessary to make it to the top. (This is, in my opinion, a fucking insane situation–we shouldn’t be building a system that only allows the most single-minded candidates a place at the research table… but that’s a topic for another day.) I was also increasingly frustrated with the University system as an education system–the incentives for professors at research schools are all in favor of research to the detriment of teaching, even as tuition costs soar, and that seems fundamentally broken to me.

My plan was to make what contribution to science I could in my 7ish years as a student, and then get out and go into educating people about science in some capacity, with the vague hope that I may at least push the world in the right direction (through increasing public understanding of/appreciation for science) for people like me to be viable professorship candidates someday. It’s just that, I was planning to get my PhD first, mostly because I wanted a few more years to cherish my identity as “scientist” before giving it up. Honestly, I’m still mourning the loss of that role… but keeping it wasn’t worth the misery I was putting myself through.

Kinda got off point there.

TL;DR: rethink whether you NEED a PhD. If you do and you still want out, either make a plan for coming back or do some serious thinking about your career goals. If you don’t, start planning alternate ways to get where you want to be.

      • How many years do you have left to get your doctorate?

This is the right question. The wrong question, the life-destroying terrible question, that a lot of people ask themselves instead, is “how many years have I already spent?” It isn’t your fault if you’re asking that question, it’s an annoying stupid quirk of the human psyche to taint our decision making process by factoring in heavily our sense of previous investment in a goal–but you need to do your best to kill it. The germane question here is not “wouldn’t I have wasted the last X years if I give up now?”, it’s “Is getting ‘Dr’ in front of my name worth the Y more years of unpleasantness it would take to do so?”

Now, if the end is in sight for you–if you can realistically say that you’ll defend within the year–it’s probably worth pushing through and doing it unless the surrounding circumstances are really, really extreme. Because from deciding to master out to actually graduating will likely take you anywhere from 3-9 months, depending on how the process works in your department, whether you need to take more classes/write a thesis, etc. But if you have a lot longer to go, or if there is no end in sight–then your decision ultimately needs to be made based on your post-grad goals and your current state of misery.

      • How is your PhD program currently impacting your mental and physical health?

In my mind, this is the big one, and it factors in whether the stress/lifestyle of grad school has left you with a diagnosable condition (or two, or three…) or just frazzled. I’ve heard my share of horror stories about graduate students experiencing constant panic attacks, suicidal ideation, repeat ER visits due to aggravations of chronic physical conditions–fuck, I lived through some of them. But those aren’t the only things that “count” either.

Have you gained weight/gotten uncomfortably out of shape due  to stress eating/poor diet/lack of exercise? Do you have chronic headaches or digestive issues related to stress? Do you spend a lot of your time on edge or hating yourself or feeling worthless? Do you spend a lot more time sick with infections than you did before grad school, either because you get them more often or take longer to recover?

If ANY of that sounds like you, this is your wakeup call. I don’t give a fuck what your program or advisor have to say about “the sacrifices necessary for science”; your health MATTERS. You get one body, you have to live in it, and even “minor” things can add up to make that a pretty miserable prospect. And not all of this shit is easily reversible. I’m still dealing with the blow grad school dealt to my mental health, and my hellish experience with kidney infections really changed me.

I’m not trying to scare you or guilt you. Being a little less healthy for a few years is not the end of the world, and ultimately it’s your body and you get to decide what sacrifices you are willing to make. But I do think that as grad students, we’re told far too often to “tough it out”, and I’m here to tell you that that’s the academy’s line of self-serving bullshit. If grad school is damaging your health, that should either be a sign to start making plans to leave, or to start proactively fighting against that.

If you leave in part because of health problems, don’t let anyone tell you that that makes you weak. Again, you get one body–who is anyone to tell you that you can’t prioritize taking proper care of it?

If you chose not to leave despite health problems, consider at least making the commitment to doing at least one thing for your health. If you’ve been having a chronic physical problem and put off seeing a doctor? Make a fucking appointment. If you feel like shit because you never exercise? Go join a class at the school gym, or commit to going for a walk around campus on your lunch break. If you’re suffering mentally, for the love of god, go to your school’s counseling center. Please.

      • How is your PhD program currently affecting your relationships and general quality of life?

You don’t have to be physically falling apart for continuing grad school to be the wrong choice. Do you ever enjoy your work anymore, or is it 100% misery? Or hell, is it 90% or 80% misery or whatever the fuck YOU decide is too much? Has your social life devolved to a point where you generally feel deprived of friendly contact, or are your friends/family/significant others worried about you or upset because they never see/hear from you? Have you dropped all of your hobbies?

Are you happy?

Again, you don’t HAVE to drop out if you’re currently not super happy. You get to draw your own lines. But again, regardless of what the academic culture around you says, having an unfulfilling social life and no fulfilling/pleasurable activities outside of work/school is no fucking way to live, and not even remotely sustainable. If it hasn’t impacted your mental/physical health much yet, it will.

So again, if you choose to stay in grad school, that’s fine. But I highly suggest building social time and fun time back into your life, if only on a small scale. Make a standing lunch date or skype date with a friend, or dinner date with a partner. Pick an old hobby back up, or find a new one. You can be 95% committed to school/work if that’s what works for you, but even a 5% commitment to fun and self-care can go a long way. Give yourself that, at least.

On the leaving side, quitting a PhD program because “you just aren’t happy” is probably one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever make. People might give you shit that they wouldn’t give someone who quit because of an abusive advisor or health problems. But it’s just as valid a reason as all the rest.

And I can tell you, in at least one case, I’ve seen it work out brilliantly. Not long after I decided to leave my program, I spoke with an acquaintance who was really disenchanted with grad school. Unlike me, she got along fine with her advisor and her project, while not the most exciting thing in the world, was working out okay. She was stressed, like every graduate student, but as far as I know her health was mostly okay. But she wasn’t happy, she had at least a solid two years to go, and she could see that her dissatisfaction with what she spent most of her life doing was making her into someone she didn’t like. I encouraged her to quit, and pointed out that, being on good terms with her advisor and a bit further along with her project, she was actually in a much better position to make the leap than I was.

She ended up graduating just one quarter after me, and last week she started her new job at a large biotech that is known for being a great place to work. And all of her grad school friends are thrilled for her, if a little jealous. See? Happy ending.

 

 

———-
So yea. Those are the questions I would ask myself, if I had to make the decision all over again. Notice that NOT on that list is “but what would I do next?” That obviously matters, especially if you don’t have the option of leaning on savings or supportive friends/family for awhile when your stipend evaporates, but I’d argue that it shouldn’t be part of your frontline decision making process. Yes, the job market is miserable and being out “in the real world” is scary…. but is it really scarier than spending the next 2, 3, 4+ years miserable?

So first, decide whether grad school really makes you miserable, and whether you really want out. Then, we can talk about what comes next. Remember, deciding you want out is the first step of many–in the vast majority of cases, anyway, you won’t be just hitting “eject” and finding yourself out on the street tomorrow.

I originally wanted to make this whole guide one post, but I can’t help myself… I’m hopelessly longwinded. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the practicalities of leaving your program (and hopefully wrangling a masters out of the deal) and some pointers on how to figure out what comes next.

34 thoughts on “leaving [science] graduate school part 1: should I stay or should I go?

  1. Thank you for writing something like this. I’m in undergrad right now, and totally in love with my research job. I love the idea of devoting as many years as I can to science and research but the horror stories scare me. Point is, I’m just really glad your blog exists and I can read these sorts of things BEFORE I start down this path.

  2. I’m glad you’re writing these, and look forward to the next one(s). If you had written this during my first year, I might not be writing the same kind of blog I am now… (Whether that would be better or worse than the real situation, I don’t know.)

    I do think “What do I do next?” is a pretty big scary thing to de-prioritize, especially if your grad program, however miserable, provides funding. But then I’m kind of a scaredy-cat/pessimist when it comes to life after school – I half expect to find myself out on the street even after I get my PhD.

    1. Oh believe me, I was scared about supporting myself too. Still am, honestly. And I’m sure the guarantee of pay might be enough to make it worth staying under some circumstances. I just think that a lot of people refuse to even consider the option of leaving because of the FEAR of not being able to support themselves, and that’s a shitty situation to be in.

      Honestly, if I was in a better lab (with an advisor who wanted me) I’d probably still be in graduate school. I know I don’t NEED the PhD, but I wanted it, and I wanted to get paid (however poorly…) to learn stuff for 6-7 years. But it didn’t work out, and the world didn’t end. And yea, I’m scraping together an income and I still don’t know where I’m going to end up. But I don’t have my boss and labmate constantly guilting me for needing sleep and exercise and a social life and to fucking stay home for a few days when I’m really sick… and for me, that’s worth it. I can’t speak for anyone else…everyone needs to weighs those pros/cons for themselves.

  3. Thank you. This is really helpful. I’m currently trying to figure out if grad school is right for me.. I’ve spent one year in a Ph.D. program, taking a semester off right now (not entirely of my own free will.. but that’s another story..), but because of some stupid mistakes I’m still looking at probably 3 years for a master’s. I feel a lot of pressure from basically everyone I know except for a couple friends who went into industry to stick with it. But the truth is I applied to grad school as a backup plan if I didn’t get a job (yep, I didn’t) and because I thought some things were cool that I hadn’t been able to learn about yet in undergrad. Now I’ve had a chance to learn about that stuff, I still think it’s okay but I feel very alone and incompetent and I’m not sure if I want to spend all this time if I think I’d be happier in a job that I could get with just my undergrad degrees.

    .. okay that was long and irrelevant BUT the point was: hearing that it’s okay to quit if grad school is not good for your physical OR mental health, or if you really don’t like it, or if you don’t actually need a graduate degree is something I wish more people said. thank you. I really appreciate your perspective on this.

    1. If you’re only a year in and you don’t need a PhD to find something you enjoy, and it was a back-up plan in the first place, do your best not to listen to those that pressure you to stay.

      They don’t really know what you’re going through and they don’t know what’s best for you. What they do know is that a PhD carries a LOT of prestige and that in the past this was a gateway to an interesting career path. It’s even worse if you’re going to be the first person in your family with the potential to be a Doctor.

      I listened to all the people who said ‘Oh, it can’t be *that* bad’ and consequently added another three years of generalised hell on top of the first year of hell. Grad school is generally not supportive of mental health issues and you’re expected to power through on the basis of the sunk costs fallacy and eh, that’s not good for a lot of people. It certainly wasn’t for me.

      Jedi hugs, and may the force be with you.

      Oh and talk lots with those friends in Industry and anyone they know in the business who might be able to give you some perspective on things.

    2. I’m in graduate school, currently sixth year and hoping to be done soon. II wanted to quit graduate school a year in and the program director talked me out of it. I decided to stick with it not for my sake but for the sake of all those who helped me get to this point. I’m totally unhappy and I hate it. Now that I am looking for a post doctoral position I find that I don’t want any of this. I don’t want/need a PhD. I wish that I didn’t let the program director convince me to stay because it was a bad decision. I don’t want to be PI and I don’t want all the responsibility that comes with a PhD. I love science and I love working in the lab and a PhD seems to just making me hate it altogether.

      I’m forced now to finish this and get a degree I don’t really want. I owe it to my supporters but I am not happy about any of this.

  4. This is so much excellence. Grad school has been horrible for my mental health, I hate the work, and I’m damn sure not working in academia afterwards…BOOM – I should almost certainly leave. Thank you for everything.

  5. As someone who left a prestigious biology program almost 9 years ago, in a similar situation, I can tell you it gets better. For me the first two years of school were stressful, but what I expected. However, right after passing my quals, the depression hit hard, my body’s indicator that I didn’t want to be there in the first place. That last year was the worst in my life, as my body started to fall apart, and my program/advisor was not helpful at all. Fortunately, I have parents I could still rely on for both financial and emotional support. I ended up in corporate America doing nothing directly related to science, yet my critical thinking skills from graduate school, continue to prove to be useful. I wish someone told me when I was an undergrad that studying and liking a subject, is very different from making a career in that subject.

  6. The scientific community has gotten very brutally competitive and that’s because the government cut the funding. Now PIs are more concerned with being funded rather than helping shape student’s grow as scientists. Honestly not all PIs should be allowed to mentor people but grad students don’t get to evaluate PIs. Word of advice for other grad students know who you are and if your not strong independently dont get a fresh PhD PI. Fresh PhD are just a little better than post docs. It’s better to know what your priority is in life when your in your sophmore year in undergrad. That’s why so many grad students have it hard because they realize too late what their priorities are (family or career).

  7. Excellent and well-thought-out post. Many of these ideas are the same ideas I’ve been having for the past few months. I’m in a highly-ranked applied math PhD program and to be honest, I hate my lifestyle. I hate studying math for nearly 12+ hours a day just to keep up, I hate not having the time to cultivate a life and personality outside the department (I’ve become a real asshole lately when I used to be pretty nice), I hate getting very little in return for so much effort, I hate feeling like my life is in the hands of the professors here instead of taking charge of it myself. I realized that I don’t NEED a PhD, I just WANTED one and perhaps that’s not enough. But that’s fine. A PhD guarantees you nothing in life: it doesn’t protect you against death, disease, or divorce. Hell, it might even accelerate you towards all 3. Only your own actions determine what happens in life and even then they are no guarantees. Now, I’m only at the end of my first year and it might be early to be thinking of this but why not? I should listen to myself after being buried in work for so many years. To be honest, I always have hesitations whenever I had to answer “Why do want to go to grad school/go into research?” I’m always hesitant to answer because I feel like I can’t be honest and I’m a terrible liar. Doubts were in my head while I was applying and accepting grad school but I pushed them aside with the reasoning that it’s better to do than to not do. I don’t regret coming to grad school but I may regret staying.

    Granted, I have not had to do any research yet. My program has us do a full year of classes and then qualifying exams (which I failed miserably. Hard work in math is not nearly as helpful as raw, inborn ability) and will be starting research in the fall. It might be a saving grace or I may hate it even more. Regardless, I don’t like having my work speak for me. I want to speak for me. Whether or not that will cause friction with my advisor in the future, I’ll have to wait and see. I’m confident I can still get a master’s though since it is guaranteed by my department and it’s still free so long as I finish the master’s thesis so no debt has been accumulated by my decisions.

    Thank you, your article has renewed some faith in me and made me more comfortable with some of my thoughts (yeah, like I’m gonna talk to people in my department who would try and talk me out of this train of thought instead of listening to me).

  8. I’m finishing up my first year in a microbiology phd program. I have no desire to get a phd since my career goals have changed and I’ve since learned about the bleak job market. My question is if I should stick it out another 15 months in order to leave with a masters degree?

    1. Totally depends on you. Will the masters be useful in your career? Are you miserable in your program, or is it not too bad?

      1. It’s not too bad. Considering changing directions and going into winemaking so the degree may not be useful. Debating whether I want to go the wine route or wait and see if I like the biotech industry. Have you worked in biotech?

  9. First of all, I’m so happy I found this blog and to know I’m in good company. I am finishing up my first year in a bioengineering phd program.. although my research is much more molecular biology based. I have zero desire to go into academia so I’m considering either completely leaving school or getting a masters (which would be another year). I honestly don’t know if I can stick it out another year though. SO my question for you is if I were to leave grad school, how would I go about applying to jobs? I want to keep my experience on my resume but I don’t want to look like a quitter.

    1. Hmm, that’s a tough one. Honestly, part of the reason I was so glad I could get the master’s was that it’s a lot easier to explain on a resume. I would probably go with listing it as graduate research, and then try to spin it positively in cover letters by putting the focus on the things that you are passionate about that made you confident in leaving?

      I suppose it depends in part on what you want to do next, and what experience you gained in graduate school. If you had done teaching in graduate school, and had decided you wanted to go into something like high school science education, it would be easy enough to draw a line between the two. If you had some specific coursework that is related to your new direction, you could maybe spin that into “I was so interested in area [x], and my program didn’t allow me to pursue it.” You can theoretically stretch the truth a little here in order to tell a positive story–don’t ever lie about what you DID, of course, but spinning your motivations for your choices/your degree of passion for a new direction is pretty much par for the course in job application land.

      All that said, I personally HATE not being honest about my story. I still focus attention on the more positive aspects of it (“I excelled at academic aspects of graduate school, but was less successful at the bench”, followed by highlighting my teaching and writing accomplishments), but I try not to hide the fact the part of the reason I left was that it wasn’t going well on some level. Given that I have this blog, that’s kind of a stupid thing for me to try anyways (employers know how to google), but it’s also just plain stressful for me. And honestly, people are usually going to gather that things weren’t all sunshine and butterflies if you made the choice to quit, so having a solid explanation prepared seems preferable.

      All that said… I don’t hire people and I’ve never been a career adviser, so I may not be the best person to ask. If possible, I would suggest a) going to the career center at your school, and seeing what an adviser there thinks you should do and b) trying to find other people who have done what you are going to do, and ask what they did. If you ask around in your program/department, you may be able to find someone to connect you with a previous student who dropped out early in the program. I know that I get contacted regularly by UCLA science graduate students who are thinking about or going through the process of mastering out, and it’s all thanks to word-of-mouth. (My quitting was also talked about as if it were something of a scandal, as I was considered a strong student by my classmates, and my boss was a young, much-hyped new PI. Juicy gossip.)

      Anyhow, I wish I could be more help! Best of luck.

  10. Hi, I’m really glad to see your blog. I’ve just finished my second year as a PhD student, and I find myself really on death’s door in terms of my preliminary exam.

    In my program, students do rotations their first year and can’t join until the summer, so I’ve only just finished one full year of work. The challenge is that what I’m doing is based of a few months exposure to a post-doc who was busy, disorganized, and not very helpful. It didn’t help that I was learning a completely new process.

    My PI doesn’t like students to do classwork in lab, which has effectively made me hide in the library and other places to work on my prelim. Unfortunately, I procrastinated and chose a very difficult topic, had to change the hypothesis, then realized too much is known in the field (papers kept coming out, two in Nature, while I was working on it). This was extremely stressful to me, and that combined with my PI being irritated by my absence has made me paralyzed in terms of action (I keep fearing he’ll drop me, anyway). It got so bad that I was showing a lot of emotions to the other lab members and really despairing, which is very unusual for me. Finally, one week before the original deadline, I managed to call my department secretary, who arranged for me to cancel the exam and reschedule.

    I have really messed up here and have already contacted the school counseling center because this has been extremely stressful and I want to deal with my consistent problems. Canceling the exam has now irritated my PI even more and the other committee members are not so happy (I was honest to them about the flaws in the proposal, which may come back to bite me). My PI could see the sheer pain in my face as I told him, and he still thinks this is a “good challenge” for me (I haven’t given him the full details of the problem).

    I honestly don’t want to get a Master’s if that means my PI can hold the degree over my head to work one or two more years; though, I also feel an obligation to him to make sure the work I’m doing isn’t completely abandoned. This is my catch-22, should I continue on with the prelim exam knowing almost certain failure, the stress of presenting to my committee (I just don’t have enough time to make a good proposal), having the “parent-teacher” meeting with my PI and committee in the event of a failure, or should I just quit now? The main challenge is this means I have to move back in with my parents, who are already cash-strapped. Thanks for your advice!

    1. Oh man, that sounds rough. I’m sorry you are dealing with this, *hugs*.

      First of all, whatever he may say, you owe your PI nothing here. He gets your work for fairly cheap in part because he is supposed to be mentoring/training you and supporting your education, which he hasn’t been doing if you are afraid to even work on prelims in the lab! And honestly, even if he was an amazing mentor, you would not be obligated to stay and work towards a degree you no longer want

    2. As for the getting-a-masters-or-no… I’d look into what the actual requirements are for that. If you really would have another year or two REQUIRED to get the masters and you aren’t up for it, there is no reason you have to stay. However, I don’t know your program’s requirements. If your department says you are entitled to a masters after passing prelims, then that might be worth going for… You are so close! Of course, that still doesn’t mean you HAVE to do it, just that it may be worth it in order to have something to show for your two years of effort. I know the misery of having to change your prelim topic last minute (I didn’t have it happen, but a friend did), and it seems like an insurmountable challenge, but it is something you can recover from if you want to.

      Alllll of that said… Before you make any more decisions, please go talk to a counselor . You sound really really stressed, and they can help you calm down and sort through your options more rationally.

      1. I really appreciate your advice. I am very stressed and anxious, and I’m unable to focus on my exam and how to make it better.

        Yes, I talked to my secretary, and she was basically toeing the line, saying this is really a PhD-granting institution and that getting a master’s is only a last resort (she didn’t really say if passing the prelim is a prerequisite). I think she is also worried because another second year student just went back to China for a one year leave of absence and is unlikely to come back. I would also still need to do my TA requirement, which would be an additional burden for one semester (likely in the spring).

        The biggest fear is just not knowing what my PI will do. He doesn’t like the idea of me wasting any more time working on prelims, and he wants me to work on the same topic. I’m not sure he would even keep me for the master’s. I think if he found someone else to take my job, he would ask me to leave, which I’m fine with.

        1. God I want to punch your PI in the face, he is such a jackass. Prelims are not “wasting time”, they’re part of your program.

          If you want to leave without bothering with the master’s thing, that’s a thing you can do, certainly. But just for the record, the “we don’t really do master’s here…” thing is a load of crap, and you are entitled to know how that process works. So what if it’s a “last resort”–it’s your job to decide whether it’s “last resort” time, not the goddamn secretary’s.

          Again, I’d recommend putting off decisions until after you talk to a counselor, if at all possible. Not because getting out (degree or no) isn’t the right thing–it very well might be–but because you are in a panic and having someone help you work through this would be a really good thing right now.

  11. I posted this to your FB page, but it may have been unnoticed. I was actually reading your reply when my PI came and sat next to me, giving me advice on choosing a prelim topic. He was not rude, trying to ask if I had other ideas, and I tried to give him some hope, but I’m just in no mood to continue.

    My anxiety is high because I have procrastinated on the exam topic and have already had to cancel it once. I will have a meeting with a counselor tomorrow. I know a lot of people don’t want me to fail (my PI and lab mates have a vested interest in me passing), but they don’t realize how bad things are or that I have longer term worries.

    Earlier in the day, I talked to the department secretary, who knows I’m stalling and not focusing on working on the prelim. She keeps telling me not to throw in the towel. I really wanted to tell my PI when he talked to me today, but I was just not ready.

    1. Just an update, but I talked to the counselor who was frank but honest in appraising the situation. I came to grad school largely due to my grades, and my only work experiences up to that point had been as a research assistant, so I had a large lack of general work skills.

      I finally got the courage to speak candidly to my professor about not going through with the exam, explaining that my anxiety had made me procrastinate so much that I was willing to fail to leave the lab. My advisor was not as upset as I anticipated, and he offered for me to stay for either a thesis or non-thesis master’s. I don’t have much data for the thesis option (we’re required to do lab rotations the entire first year, so I’ve really only had one year to really work on things), so I might just have to go with the non-thesis option which would mean only one more semester.

  12. Thanks for writing this. Im getting my Masters in CIS and I hate it with a passion. I dont care at all anymore to study. I just took a final and probably failed. I am working full time, have a side project Im coding and I don’t see the reason to stay. Im taking the semester off to think about it.

  13. First of all, thank you, thank you, thank you- for not being afraid to share, and for writing on such a (potentially) painful topic. It helps to know that there are others out there who have went through the same problems I am and survived. Even if survival right now, at least personally, seems a little…uncertain.
    I know this is strange writing for advice on a 2 year old blog post of a someone I don’t know, but I wanted to share my situation in the hopes that someone can give me an opinion one way or another.
    I’ve been in a science PhD program for 1.5 years now and I do not like it one bit. I don’t like the research, I don’t like the majority of my lab, I’ve never liked writing for scientific publication, and I certainly don’t want to go into academia. I’ve realized (mainly because it’s kind of become my refuge) that I want to eventually do something with writing, either fiction writing or journalism or both but, unfortunately, that’s not the kind of career you can apply for like you can a job at the local walmart.
    Making matters worse, my PhD has affected my health. I’ve put on weight, stopped sleeping well, been so stressed that I hardly feel like leaving the house some days, and legitimately feel ill when I get emails from my advisor or labmates. I don’t even have to open them. Knowing they are there, waiting, and that people are expecting things from me (things that I haven’t done because I can’t find the energy to do past the weight in my chest) makes it hard to breathe. I feel like I’m slowly suffocating, and no one notices.
    I’ve thought about quitting more than once. Sometimes, it’s all I can think about. But there’s no clear path to getting my dream job of writing for a living and making that step- that drop- from doctoral candidate to unemployed 25 year old running home to the parents, is terrifying! On a daily basis, on an HOURLY basis, I swing from thinking, “But you’re absolutely miserable! You can’t stay in school!” to, “What other choice do I have?” and it’s driving me crazy.

    1. Oh hon, I’m so sorry. This sounds like a mess.

      Not having a clear path forward is fucking terrifying, but isn’t continuing on a path you hate pretty terrifying too?

      I think what you need to do is come up with a game plan. Maybe you can’t go directly from graduate school in science to your dream job of writing, but you can plan steps in the right direction.

      What skills do you have that could give you an income in the short term? If writing is your main thing, maybe teaching writing, or editing, or copy writing? If you like labwork okay, but just don’t want to do it forever, maybe you could find a tech position somewhere for the short term, while you plan next steps? Or maybe you have other skills that could help you get an entry-level gig at someplace that doesn’t totally suck, just while you figure things out?

      As for how to get into journalism/fiction writing… the path isn’t super clear cut, but basically there is graduate school for both and there are internships for journalism. Figure out what you need to do to be competitive for one or the other of those, and start working on that. You’re probably going to need to get at least some of your experience by working for free or for very low pay, so you’ll need either a bearable, low-stress day job, or for your parents to be willing to be your main support for awhile.

      Basically, I don’t know what your path is going to be, but it really sounds like you need to stop worrying about the temporary step down it’s going to entail, and start planning your next steps. Yes, dropping out SUCKS. But I’d bet you can snag a master’s on your way out, like I did, in which case, to most of the world you’ll be just another person with a grad degree they decided not to use directly. It isn’t amazing, but it isn’t the worst thing in the world either.

      Honey, it’s scary, but you’re going to be okay. But the longer you keep staying where you are because you are scared, the longer you delay getting started on your new life. So make the decision, and then start making plans.

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