Quitters Sometimes Win- Why I Quit My PhD

So it’s been a long long time since I wrote a real blog post (February to be exact).  I meant to write this post back in August when I had time off but never got around to it.

Long story short, I quit my PhD and have no regrets.  The long story goes as follows:

Back in August 2012 I moved to a new city to pursue a PhD in some sort of bioscience program (I entered through an umbrella program which meant I didn’t have to choose my specific program until April of that school year).  I was looking at the world of scientific research through rose colored lenses.  Everything was awesome and intriguing, I was going to learn amazing new techniques, and maybe get a paper published in Science or Nature!  I would make a difference in the world through research.  Then I was going to do a Post-Doc in Europe and finally get a job back at my Alma Mater so I could be close to my family.  Ahhh, the naivety of a recent college graduate.  I had been constantly praised by my research adviser in undergraduate which only contributed further to my belief that I was special.  In short I was showing all the signs of being part of the Millennial Generation.

This was my face in the lab half the time

Time went on and scientific research and graduate classes did not go as expected.  During my second laboratory rotation, nothing I did went well and I was in the middle of a class where the teachers didn’t teach.  The bombarded us with information in the hopes that something would stick to us like Nerf Gun darts.  By my second year of graduate school the refrain “Maybe I should quit” became more and more common (but only in the presence of one of my coworkers).  It wasn’t that the work was too hard, though.  At that point I was becoming disillusioned with graduate training in the sciences in general.  Somehow the professors expected us to come from undergrad where our #1 job was to memorize and regurgitate facts and somehow become stellar at critically analyzing journal articles, critiquing our peers, and learn how to write grants.  The program I was in fortunately focused a lot on critically examining research articles.  However, not once was I required to take a course on how to write a grant (an absolutely essential skill for scientists in academia) or how to write an article.  Instead we were expected to learn on the job from faculty members who were far too busy writing grants to give us the run-down for how the process works.  Outside courses, such as the writing course I took, were often discouraged because they would take time away from research.  However, quitting is hard.  It’s hard to realize that what you thought you loved might not be the right fit for you.  It’s hard to face the future and realize you don’t know exactly where you’re headed.

This was my face while teaching

And that is exactly what happened!  My comprehensive exam was a bit of a train wreck.  My topic was too broad, I was under-prepared, and my committee chair told me afterwards that they were disappointed in how the exam had gone but would pass me anyway because of how well I had done in past classes.  Wait… what??  Somehow I had passed but I shouldn’t have… I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about that, but the relief of being done with my comprehensive exam allowed me to think clearly and critically about what I wanted out of life.  Two days later, without too much back-and-forth I decided it was time to throw in the towel and switch to a Master’s in Microbiology so I could leave with dignity, but also move on with my life.  The program and I simply didn’t fit together and it was time to admit that.What eventually  gave me direction as I contemplated quitting was actually my biggest pet peeve with science graduate programs: the way teaching is treated.  Science graduate programs are training their students to become academic researchers, yet many programs and many departments treat TAing as a chore despite the fact that it is often the ONLY training a graduate student gets in how to teach.  Teaching is one of my biggest passions and I felt so discouraged by the attitude of various faculty members towards it despite the fact that they were working in a University who’s major focus, in my mind, should be teaching!  Fortunately the first time I was a teaching assistant I worked with a professor’s whose main focus was teaching.  I found I was enjoying my time far more working with students than I was in the lab.  It didn’t help that I was working on my comprehensive exam research proposal.  Again, the idea of “Maybe I should quit” kept playing through my mind.  I loved the teaching, but I was hating the research and the process of writing my comprehensive exam which should have, in theory, been preparing me for grant writing.  During that time I moseyed over to the College of Education’s page to see what else I could do with a love for teaching.  Lo and behold there was a Master’s program in Student Affairs!  I didn’t even know that existed!  The possibilities began to run around in my mind.  I suddenly saw myself becoming an academic adviser, teaching seminars, helping guide students who were interested in scientific research!  But it might just be the stress of the comprehensive exam that was making me hate science so I decided to wait until after my comprehensive exam was done to make a decision.

I knew I had about an additional year left if I was going to complete a Master’s so I spent the next month gradually telling people in my lab about my plan to leave with my Master’s of Science and then pursue a Master’s of Arts of Student Affairs.  What tells you a lot about the awesome lab I worked in (because I loved all of my coworkers, I really did.  I just couldn’t stand the science anymore) was that everyone celebrated for me.  They were all excited that I had made that discovery sooner than later and that I was going to pursue something I really loved, working with students.  My research adviser was the most difficult person to tell because it felt like I was breaking up with him.  I told him (in person) the day before I would be gone to have my wisdom teeth out and he couldn’t have been more supportive.  Ironically the next spring when it came time to set my thesis defense date, he set it for exactly 1 year after I told him I was leaving the program with a Master’s instead of a PhD.

Now I am working on my Master’s in Student Affairs and I have no regrets.  It’s an extremely busy program with tons of homework (something I was no longer used to doing as a PhD student who mainly did research), but I’m learning a ton.  I love my assistantship which gives me the opportunity to teach and work with students one-on-one.

My biggest advice to anyone considering quitting ANYTHING major like a job or program is:

  1. Know yourself.  Do you want to quit because the work is too hard (in which case it might actually be the perfect learning environment) or is it because the situation isn’t the right fit for you?
  2. Have a concrete plan B before quitting.   Unless your health is at risk, try to stick it out.  Figure out what is or isn’t working for you and use that to figure out where you want to go next.  We grow so much when faced with adversity so take advantage of those moments when you have them, even if they’re horrible when you’re in the midst of them.
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