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.