On Graduate School

In September, I made the decision to leave my PhD program in biology. I have known countless others who have started and quit a PhD., and I now realize that it is not “quitting” or a “failure” it is a decision to do something else.

My exit was not smooth, and not professional, which I will explain. It was hard to figure out the right way to go about leaving. My resources for figuring out how to handle it were my friends and colleagues, but I was afraid to discuss it with them because I felt somehow like it was a secret and that I might be harshly judged or gossiped about if they knew I was planning to quit. Due to my lack of tact in handling the situation, I wanted to write about it for others to learn from my mistakes.

First, some background-

I entered graduate school straight out of undergrad, where I worked in a lab for three years, but mostly did a lot of field work, and very little else. Furthermore, it was a lab with a lot of students, and a heavy focus on one particular study system and one particular field site, so most people did a project revolving around that system and that site. My lab in graduate school was very different from what I was used to, but I thought that would be ok.

Additionally, I was a student athlete, running track and cross country. I was and am more or less obsessed with running. I need my daily fix or I lose it. I also love to compete.

When I entered graduate school, I had one remaining year of athletic eligibility left. I had known several other track athletes that used up their athletic eligibility during graduate school, so I considered doing the same. The way I saw it, I knew that I would continue to run in my free time just as much as I previously did because it is something that is very important to me, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything, so why not join the team at my graduate school? Here I would have people to run with, get my shoes paid for, have opportunities to compete for free, and be a part of a community that I love.

I had an understanding with the coach that I was here for grad school, and I would be involved with the team as much as I could. In a lot of ways, this wasn’t a problem at all, I got up at 6:30 am for workouts, and was either in class, in my office, or somewhere more comfortable on my laptop by 9.

In my first year most of what I had to do was read read read scientific articles and think about potential projects, as well as write proposals for funding. Therefore, I spent a decent amount of time in my office, but I also spent a lot of time in coffee shops, at home, etc just working on my laptop. I was also on a research assistantship, so I was supposed to be doing research for the lab. I frequently asked what I should be working on, and I was given a few tasks, but mostly just directed to focus on doing more reading and writing, and thinking about my future research. There was one task that I was given, measuring x-rays, which I downloaded to my laptop, and worked on regularly. Honestly, I wasn’t all that busy, and I could only read and write and think about projects for so many hours before my brain wouldn’t work. Going to track practices and meets was normally not a problem, I would measure x-rays, read, work on proposals any time I was on the road, basically everything I had to work on was just done on my laptop. I truly think that, for that first year, I did just as much work as I would have done had I not committed to running on the track team.

There were definitely a few times that I missed graduate school events because there was a big race that I wanted to go to. On those occasions, I had made running my priority over school. Later on, this difference in priorities led me to realize that I truly cared more about running than graduate school/science/the career path that I was on, and if that was how I felt, then I needed to make a change in what I was pursuing, to be fair to everyone involved- myself, my colleagues, my friends. Ultimately, you get out what you put into grad school, so if your priorities are not in grad school, it is hard to make it far.

In time, I found that I was just not happy doing graduate school.

  • There is a culture of “busy”- people talk about not getting much sleep, having a lot to get done, feeling pressure from their advisor, etc.
    • In my first year, I did not have any of that until much later in the year. Like I said, there was not always a lot for me to work on, aside from reading and researching topics. I asked whether there were tasks for me to do in the lab, and was not given a lot. My advisor was just trying to set me up nicely in my first year, and not overwhelm me.
    • Ironically, my lack of being busy often caused me a great deal of stress. The culture of “busy” that many around me had, because they WERE busy since they were either farther along in their program than me, or their advisor gave them a lot of work to do, caused me to constantly worry that I was not doing enough. I got enough sleep, I had time to run, to go on dates, to have a great work life balance, but it scared me that I should be busier.
  • That is not to say that I didn’t have things to do, my main task was to find a research project
    • I struggled horribly with this.
    • My particular program, and lab, was pretty much open to me doing absolutely any project. This sounds amazing at first, but becomes truly daunting. I needed at least a bit of direction.
      • The faculty and other graduate students in my program were very supportive and willing to help. I picked a lot of peoples brains about ideas, and everyone was willing to listen and give feedback, but at the end of the day, it is still on you to figure things out.
    • So I still struggled to come up with a good and original project
      • It takes way more creativity than I ever realized.
      • I found myself in a conundrum of- the only way you can really think up a project is by reading scientific literature to spark ideas, but if another scientist has already done a lot of work on a topic, then you can’t do more work on their topic. Essentially, you must think of a project to do that no one else has done, but the only way to figure out what project to do is to read about what others have done??? Hmm that is a tricky one.
    • In the end, I was trying to force various project topics, and I ultimately felt zero passion for working on any of them.
      • There is absolutely no way you can get through a PhD without a passion for what you are working on.
  • It is an entire lifestyle, not just “school” or a “job”.
    • Overall, my running competitively did not cause too many issues. I was definitely working the equivalent of a 9-5 type job. Just sometimes at different hours. I might go to a practice at 3 pm, then go home or to a coffee shop and work more until I went to sleep, I would work on things for most of the weekend as well.  However, the main problem with my running track was that graduate school is more involved than just working alone for many hours each week, there are a lot of other events, activities, collaborations etc. that you need to be involved in.
      • I was not a complete recluse, I did not miss everything, but I definitely missed a lot of these types of things because I sometimes prioritized running.
      • Another student reached out to me to explain this, and I was honestly pretty upset, because I did work very hard, and spend many many hours working. They definitely had my best interests in mind, but I certainly felted a little attacked and like maybe they were overstepping their boundaries. Also, much like an addict, I immediately felt that someone was trying to take away my drug- running and the whole running community.
      • From the end of the fall onward, I  basically overcompensated, I did not miss a single seminar, I took a board position in the departments club, I went out to eat with any speaker that my advisor was hosting, and I tried to attend any social invitations that arose. Then in the summer I went to a conference for a week, and immediately after that I spent a month doing pretty intensive field work.
        • Often I just had so many other interests and things that I wanted to do, and felt like I couldn’t. I realized that it would continue to be like this for years
        • I was very far from family, so to see them, I needed at least several days free. This got really hard for me.
  • A final note about one of the things that really made me personally feel unhappy- the culture of graduate students is not always the best. The program I was in, was actually pretty great about being supportive of each other and trying to be fairly positive, and the faculty in the program was mostly very reasonable, and definitely truly cared about us. That being said, I was definitely still exposed to a lot of negativity, some from my colleagues, but a lot from the outside- people in other departments, media, friends at other universities, etc.  It is just sort of assumed when communicating with other graduate students that things are very hard, everyone is very stressed out, overworked, underpaid, not appreciated, etc. Constantly just having that stigma surrounding me, was very difficult. This stigma 1. made me feel depressed. 2. made me question whether I didn’t work hard enough, because really, things weren’t so bad, and the pay wasn’t terrible either. 3. made me question why we were all doing this if it was so terrible.

Between a lot of these feelings of unhappiness and the realization that if athletics was my priority than I needed to be pursuing something there rather than science, I began to think I should leave my PhD.

I thought through a cost benefit analysis of working on a PhD versus attaining a Phd. ( for me personally) and this is how it looked-

For me, the ends didn’t justify the means; for some, they definitely do!

The means

  • Work really hard
  • You are basically tied to one location for 5 years  unless you are traveling to do science
  • The pay isn’t great
  • Stress, anxiety, potentially depression
  • Work-life balance can be poor
    • Because there is always SOMETHING you can be working on, I couldn’t relax ever, I just always felt guilty, and like I needed to be working on something. This caused extreme anxiety. Some people are capable of not worrying about a particular task when they are not doing that particular task. I am not one of those people.

The ends

  • Ultimately, these things could be worth it, if what you truly want is to become an academic or you have a specific job you want to do that requires a PhD. In certain disciplines, the latter is very common, but when you study evolutionary ecology, the job market is limited.
    • I originally wanted to be an academic, but learned that maybe it wasn’t right for me. Why?
      • Jobs are very limited
        • So you have worked your butt off for 5+ years and earned the highest level of education possible.. And it is still a struggle to get a job. A lot of academic jobs are very hard to come by, yet you can’t get hired for a job that requires less than a PhD because you are seen as overqualified.
      • The career path can be long and lonely
        • It looks something like this: 5+ years as a PhD student, potentially 2+ years as a postdoc, 3-7 years as assistant professor, associate professor (may or may not be tenured) for years, and finally a tenured professor.
          • This is if you are lucky enough to get these jobs
          • This means years of rigorous work and little pay
          • Since it is such a long road to actually making any money or having any job security, you will want to start early. Meaning while you are in your 20-30’s, arguably the best years of your life, you are old enough to be independent but young  enough to still do physically demanding things, go on adventures, make an Olympic team, travel, fall in love, what ever it might be, you will rather be strapped to a desk, tied to one city, and in my case having a great deal of anxiety every minute of every day.
            • I have a deep fear of going through life just continually working towards one achievement after another, and putting off doing things I want to do because “I am too busy right now”,  watching my life flash before my eyes without ever doing all of the fun things that I said I was going to do “some day”.
      • Continuing into a career in academia, would mean a continuation of the life style that I discovered I did not like at all, so why would I pull through the Ph.D just to continue into a career that I discovered I did not want? I am not a quitter, nor afraid of working hard, but to continue a 5 year degree that you are not happy doing, so that you can continue into a career that you do not want, makes no sense.

Ultimately the ends did not justify the means. I do believe that if you are passionate enough about your research, the ends can justify the means. For me though, I realized I wanted to pursue a career in athletics, because all along that had been what I was really passionate about, and I couldn’t get myself to walk away from it.

The actual logistics of leaving a PhD program can be really scary. I read a lot of posts from others about how they made their decision, how they went about quitting, how they felt in hindsight etc. to help me figure out what to do. That is why I hoped to write a useful post on the topic now that I have gone through this as well, because the way I left was really bad.

I didn’t have hardly any money saved whatsoever since I started grad school straight out of undergrad. This caused me to make some dumb decisions. I had some confusion as to whether I would end up owing the university a lot of money if I broke my contract, and the contract was not incredibly clear to understand. This made me feel like I was stuck, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford that. I started looking for jobs, before I even mentioned to anyone that I might be leaving, mostly because I was scared and didn’t know what else to do. The problem was, I was then offered a job that I had showed interest in, and it was the perfect thing for me for the time being, so I didn’t want to turn it down, but I was being pressed to accept it.

This was really not smart of me. I should have communicated with my friends, colleagues, advisor, and so forth, but like I said, I was so afraid that everyone with think lesser of me and that I just didn’t care, and probably gossip about it. So I didn’t mention anything to hardly anyone. Which is ironic, because obviously just quitting one day out of the blue without any warning was obviously going to cause a much worse reaction..

Then, I had this new job offer that wanted me to start in the next few weeks, and I knew I would really need the money. I also knew I definitely wanted out of my program. I accepted the job and got them to push my start date back a few weeks, and I planned on talking to my advisor as soon as possible.

I was incredibly distressed and emotional over it all. I kept panicking and being too scared to have that conversation with my advisor, until it was all to close to my starting date at the job.

Fortunately, my former advisor is a kind, and realistic person, and although I sort of threw all of this at them at once without any warning, they handled it very well. In fact, ultimately they told me, “I see this as a career decision, not as a failure, and I want to make sure that you see it that way too”. I cannot say that every advisor will react that way, and I have definitely heard some horror stories, but ultimately, no one can force you to stay in a program no matter how angry or unreasonably they react to you. Try to think of it as a job. People quit jobs every day, and employers merely have to accept it. Additionally, like a job, you should give at least two weeks notice of your departure, which I failed to do. Had I done that, I could have helped get things sorted out, properly tied up lose ends etc.

I have to say, I was very lucky that my advisor was very understanding and easy to talk to, and they have even written letters of recommendation for me since I left graduate school. Furthermore, many others in the department were very kind and understanding, only wanting the best for me. Higher-ups did try to talk things through with me and see if I could work through things, take some time off and come back when I was more emotionally able, or stay a bit longer and get a masters out of it. My mind was very decided, that I just needed out right then and I needed to pursue something completely different. I more or less emotionally shut down, went into fight or flight mode, and took flight.

It is important to remember that this is your life, and you cannot just keep doing something out of the fear of letting anyone else down, or potentially having a confrontation. You will be so much happier by taking control, and doing what is right for you. Although, you do need to handle the situation professionally.

I would love to hear from others who have either left a PhD program, almost left but decided to stay, or perhaps have never had any substantial doubts in their pursuit of a PhD.

Side note, I am now pursuing opportunities coaching track and cross country, and other things that I am really excited about!

I was very lucky to have been part of a supportive department, that truly cared about their graduate students success, health, and happiness!


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