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.