On leaving grad school.

In the fall of 2010, I started a graduate program in biology at UCLA. I’d spent the better part of the previous year securing places in and then deciding on graduate schools, then moving from the midwest to Los Angeles. And in truth, I spent a lot longer than that preparing to pursue my Phd–I joined my first lab at my undergraduate institution, Purdue University, in my freshman year of college. I worked in labs almost every semester and every summer.  I was dead set on this idea of being a researcher, even after several different labs worth of bitter graduate students and early experience with funding woes had dimmed the shine of the idea considerably.

And so in 2010 I began the actual PhD, something I think I’d been aiming for most of my life. That’s what the smart kids DO, right? If you’re really brilliant, you go to graduate school.  (Try telling that to ANY 3rd year PhD student and enjoy their hysterical laughter and/or tears.) And I LOVED science, and to be a ‘scientist’ these days, you generally need a graduate degree. So I went.

And it went well, for about the first year and a half. Coursework, check, choosing a lab, check, even beginning TAing went reasonably well. There were plenty of rough times, of course, but they were roughly in line with what I’d been led to expect from grad school, so I wasn’t too worried. In fact, I was ahead of schedule submitting a thesis project proposal, appeared to be on track to publish my first research paper within the year, and my professor and I had even talked about writing a review article together. {Side note: That review did actually happen, it can be found here, but it’s on a pretty narrow area and it’s not a thrilling read} I was, I thought, a Good Grad Student, generally.

But about a year ago, things started going downhill. Some of it was just science–my project, that had been going along so nicely, suddenly hit a wall. That’s to be expected in the lab, being ‘stuck’ on one piece of a project for months or years is a relatively common experience. Sometimes things just don’t work, for no apparent reason. Eventually, you find your way around or through or you change directions. Knowing that doesn’t make the feeling that you’re banging your head against a wall much easier to tolerate, but it does mean that the project issues alone would have never ended my PhD on their own–they just certainly didn’t help the situation.

The rest of it, I won’t go into here, as it is somewhat personal and messy.  Let’s just say that through an unfortunate series of events, during which many mistakes were made to extend the mess, some of them mine… I reached a place where I had to make the decision that it was no longer in my best interest to stay in the PhD program. No, this is not code for some big scandal involving anything juicy/criminal/dangerous.  All of the professors I’ve worked with (including my PI) have volunteered recommendations regarding my intellectual abilities as a scientist, my teaching skills, my writing, etc.  My scientific abilities were not and are not in question.

The problem was more one of a shift in priorities.  The situation I was in–a project stalled for going on 9 months, with some messy personal issues layered on top, was simply sapping all my energy and happiness. I was such an anxious, miserable mess that by the end I was all but useless at benchwork–a problem that was misattributed to carelessness or laziness.  Staying in my lab and my PhD program was a fight every day, just to survive. And it just wasn’t worth it anymore.

You see, outside of the lab, my life was going pretty well. I had good solid relationships, and a satisfying social life, much richer than anything I had experienced in college. I was a pretty decent TA, and despite hating grading papers and dealing with grade-grubbing premeds, I got a lot out of my experience teaching, and I felt I was accomplishing something worthwhile.  I wrote that review article–an optional project that I invented and volunteered for  BECAUSE I’M CRAZY  because I thought it was something missing in the literature and I thought it would be a nice way to get my first publication–even though it took away from the most important thing, research. And I enjoyed writing the review a lot more than I was enjoying research.

I was praised on a regular basis for my writing and my teaching and my ideas. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was getting the damn data, and I couldn’t do it, and the harder I tried the more I made mistakes at the bench. The misery of lab was consuming my life, and why should I let it? I was good at other things, people liked me, I had a good life. So why was I treading water in a situation that was making me miserable and showing no sign of getting better? And for what? The bright shiny idea of being a scientist, that through the jaded eyes of a 3rd year graduate student in the crappiest funding climate ever, was no longer all that shiny?* WHY?

So I was done.

In October this year I filed the necessary paperwork to begin the process of leaving my PhD program with a master’s degree. This is a sort-of common process–students that have made significant progress towards a PhD and then decided to quit the program are offered the opportunity to earn a master’s degree instead, largely on the basis of the work they had already completed. In fact, this practice was referenced in the latest PhD comic–see the guy in the very bottom right corner. In my case, my research so far is considered worthy of a master’s thesis, and I just have one more quarter to finish a few credits worth of seminars and write my thesis. If I manage those things, I will receive a master’s degree in March 2013.

Intellectually, I know that I made the right decision. First, it was definitely the best decision for my general well-being. I also know that now that I probably intend to focus my career on science education or science communication (play to your strengths/interests, right?), not getting the PhD is not necessarily a huge loss. A PhD would be helpful in some contexts, but in many cases a master’s works just as well. Basically, given what directions I’m headed in, the 3-4 more years of my life I would have spent chasing that PhD may not have been a worthy investment even if grad school wasn’t completely miserable.

But emotionally? I’ve struggled. It feels like such a shameful thing, quitting an academic program. Failure. All of my friends and family have been nothing but supportive, but I still feel like I’m letting people down. I was supposed to be the smart one, the scientist, and what am I now? I reassure myself that there is no shame in a master’s, that that still means something… but that doesn’t help much.  I’m mourning the loss of one potential future for myself that I invested a lot of energy in working towards, and I have a brain that is extra good at being sad.  Things were just really rough for awhile, in my head.  Sometimes things are still rough, but on the whole I think I’m close to climbing out of the muck.

The good news is, outside of my own head, many things have gone my way since I decided to leave. As I’ve mentioned previously, everyone has been lovely and supportive. I’ve talked to a lot of people about career options, I’ve polished my resume, I’m working on getting some science writing experience, and I’m trying to start a proper science blog–I just put the project on hold at the end of the semester because I had too much going on. I even secured an internship for my winter quarter at a very cool edtech non-profit, where I will be working on curriculum development and getting some insight into that part of the education world.  I really admire this organization–they’re a crazy little start-up but they are amazingly well funded and are actually trying to make good educational video games, along with running their experimental school.  I also am working on some freelance writing things, and my thesis writing is already started and doesn’t look to be too intimidating a project. Generally, all signs  point to “it’s early yet, but I think things will work out okay”.



So overall, where do things stand now? Well, the master’s looks like all but a forgone conclusion, which is good. I have some time to job hunt, and a number of opportunities that could go exciting places. In January and February I will be working at GameDesk and going to seminars and writing my thesis and trying to write and job hunt in my free time.

I’m okay financially through the end of March 2013, and I’m very hopeful about my odds of finding something to at least support myself by April.

I’m planning on staying in Los Angeles at least for awhile.  I am still figuring out exactly where I want to go next, in the long term. My plans may eventually involve going back to school in some way, or they may not. There are science writing graduate programs that are tempting, but they are expensive and I’d have to be sure that science journalism was what I wanted to do.  Right now, I’m undecided, but I’m finding my way.


If you read this far, or even just skimmed all the way through, thanks for sticking with me through this absurdly long post.  I needed to get it all down at once.  In the future I’ll try to update you more often and in more reasonably-long posts.

*I actually have reasons for my disenchantment with academic science, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

13 thoughts on “On leaving grad school.

    1. Yea, that would be because I haven’t written it yet. I’ve been putting it off because I have overly-ambitious goals for what I want to say there. Basically, I need to write a good half-dozen posts, some about my personal experience, some about academic culture, some about research funding (sigh…). Unfortunately I only ever seem to be inspired when I REALLY need to be focusing on something not-my-blog, like the big exam I have Tuesday. Sadly, as much as I’m ready to BE A WRITER RIGHT THIS INSTANT, I do still want to get my master’s degree, which requires finishing up a last few bullshit credits. So, hopefully it will be up soon… doing the best I can.

      1. Don’t worry about it – I didn’t mean to make you feel like a bad writer! Of course getting the Master’s comes first, and you should write whatever you feel like writing. I just meant that if you are considering writing on the topic, I would be eager to read what you have to say. I’ll probably be in grad school at least another three years so you’ve got plenty of time to get around to writing about it 🙂
        And good luck on the exam!

        1. Thanks for the luck, I may need it. This exam is on cardiovascular disease and it’s a little outside my wheelhouse.

          Don’t feel like you’re pressuring me, I didn’t mean to imply that. I really want to write about this stuff! It’s just frustrating: my department requires a set number of course credits for a master’s degree, which I had to fulfill, but I’ve already fulfilled all of the content requirements… meaning they literally did not care what I took, so long as it was a letter-graded graduate level course that I could claim was related to my academic interests/career goals. So I’m spending all these hours of my life doing work for classes that even the people giving me my degree don’t actually care if I learn anything from, just so that the numbers look nice when they hand me my diploma. Yay bureaucracy!

          1. Ouch, what a frustrating situation. It definitely sounds like something a university administration would come up with.
            I’d say, don’t stress out about it too much. You wouldn’t have been in grad school in the first place if you weren’t kind of a perfectionist, but if these courses really aren’t your thing, your grades in them won’t matter that much. Pretty much anyone who cared about your GPA should also be willing to look at a breakdown of it into “relevant courses” and “random other courses” and know that the relevant courses are what matter. Plus at this stage in the game people should care a lot more about what you’ve shown you can do than what grades you got.

  1. Thank you for this, and all your other posts (especially the recent “Bad Nights” one). All of it rings so true for me. In fact, as a depressed 2nd year biology PhD student whose meds haven’t started working right yet and who is pretty miserable in her program right now, I fear that my path through/out of academia may end up mirroring yours. It terrifies me, but seeing that you’ve had all these experiences already, and have survived them, and have hope/prospects for the future is really, really helpful. It’s exactly the sort of thing I need to read, especially on the bad nights.

    1. Oh that sucks. I’m sorry, it’s a horrible place to be. Breathe though, it can still work out. And as you said, even if ‘the worst’ happens (mastering out) you can still end up okay.

      What program are you in/where do you go to school? If you want to talk more about the process of leaving, or how to cope and stay, feel free to contact me on the facebook page or by email.

  2. Hello! I just found your blog today and just wanted to say thank you for writing this post. I also started out as a PhD and have just changed to a master’s for many similar reasons (but I just switched right after my first year). Plus my interests have evolved gradually to more of the design side of things, and if I have alternative interests, then why stick around? So I’m planning on getting training in interactive design after my master’s and would like to work on interactive educational tools for science learning. I actually would love to talk to you about what it’s like to work at a company like GameDesk if you had any time?

    This is my own “leaving science” blog entry if you’d like to check it out 🙂 http://www.parkjisu.com/2014/08/a-soul-search-of-scientist.html

    1. I actually never worked for GameDesk, unfortunately. I was offered an internship there, but it was unpaid and was going to require basically fulltime hours, with the hope of MAYBE getting hired in a few months IF they got more funding. YeaaaaaaaaaaaaNO.

  3. Thank you so much for all the details. I am a undergrad student who is trying to go into the field of bioinformatics, and recently my faculty advisor advised me to get into a phd program and then leave after masters(he told me it is easier this way). I was not sure if this was an ethical thing to do, and how often this actually happens (getting into a phd program with the sole purpose of getting masters), and if this would delay the length of the time to get masters. I would really appreciate your opinion on this. Also, after you changed your status from phd to masters student, what happened to your funding/tuition?

    1. After I switched to the masters, absolutely nothing changed with my funding, because I basically completed all of my requirements as a PhD student, and then switched over officially in my final school term after I was already set up to be paid that term as a PhD student. I can’t guarantee that things would shake out that way at any school, but I think worst case, you get all your requirements done, then switch in your last term and pay full price for that term…. it would still be cheaper than going directly for the masters.

      As for it taking longer…. that is quite possible. Master’s programs have a set timeline, while PhD programs do not. But most people I’ve known to have mastered out have done so sometime during their second or third year. So the question is, a) how long do comparable master’s programs take and b) how much extra time are you willing to put in in order to get the degree for free?

      As for ethical concerns…. sure, it isn’t particularly nice to lead a professor on about your intentions, but at the same time, the whole system is fucking broken and exploits grad student labor by default, so I think it’s really only fair for grad students to start playing the system back. As long as you work hard on your project while you’re there, your PI won’t really have lost anything. If it makes you feel better, think of it this way: there is a possibility that you could fall so in love with your project/being a PhD student that you decide to finish the PhD. Maybe a very, very small one… but no one has to know that.

      Overall, I’d say go for it. Just make sure you do your research on programs to make sure that mastering out is possible and not excessively arduous. If there is both a master’s program and a PhD program in the subject at your school, it should just be a matter of transferring programs. If there is only a PhD program, it may be harder to figure out what the requirements are for mastering out (it’s almost always possible, but it’s not generally advertised on school webpages, because it’s not what you’re SUPPOSED to do), but worth doing if that’s your plan. Probably would want to contact current students via social media, or [very carefully–not in earshot of admissions people/professors] ask questions of students during your interview weekend. I’d put it as “Do you know anyone who has mastered out? If so, how hard was it to do? I want my PhD, but my adviser/grad students I know/whatever has encouraged me to make sure that the school I choose won’t screw me over if something were to happen that wouldn’t allow me to finish.”

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