Graduate school is hell; what is a job an ex-grad-student can possibly get?
January 7, 2010 1:51 PM   Subscribe

Help me out here -- who will hire grad-school dropouts to work for them after they have royally screwed over their chances of having an academic career, what are they likely to pay said grad-school dropouts, and how do I convince them that they want to hire me against their better judgement?

I'm in the second half of my fifth year of a Ph.D. program in a biomedical field. I started to feel completely burned-out and sick of grad school immediately after completing comps, in my third year.

Two years later, things are only getting worse. I hate my thesis project, which has completely derailed to the point where even the data that looked so awesome in my second year are coming into question (methodological problems that I didn't know were problematic when I started running these experiments). My committee isn't happy with me, my advisor isn't happy with me, I'm not happy with me, my program isn't happy with me for not making fast enough progress (I have to submit a report next week about my research progress, which will probably end up saying that I may have actually made *negative* progress, given that I just realized that I did half my thesis experiments wrong). I don't care about getting a Ph.D. anymore, I hate benchwork, and at this point the only question is whether I will quit before getting thrown out for my epic research failure. Probably I'll end up availing myself of the terminal master's option.

I really don't have any idea what I could get a job doing, particularly a job that would compensate me anywhere near my graduate student stipend (about $24k/year plus free health insurance for me -- I pay for my husband's). This is especially crucial because my husband has been laid off for over a month now, and both of our health insurance coverage is obtained through my university. We're already completely broke, and we both have a lot of student loan debt, so I need to make some money immediately upon leaving the hallowed halls of academe. (Borrowing from family until I find something is not an option -- the family members who would be inclined to lend us some money don't have any money themselves, and the family members who have money will be inclined to view my grad-school tribulations as not only an unforgivable fuck-up on my part, but also a personal betrayal. Trust me on this one -- it may seem histrionic, but I know my family and they're less-than-functional.)

I know I'm kind of a fuckup for fucking up my research so badly, and I can't really fathom who would hire me after this. But I also don't want to end up eating my dog and living under a bridge, having doomed myself and my husband to a life of abject poverty culminating in Sallie Mae sending agents to repossess the pine boxes at our funerals.

(I really don't want to work in a lab anymore, because I absolutely loathe running experiments. I don't really have any other work experience, except for a broad cross-section of food-service jobs. I'm not under any delusion that my failed education is actually worth anything in the current economic climate, so I'll take what I can get, but waitressing is not going to pay off my husband's and my combined loan debts of $50k. I really don't want a job that would involve my spending any more time or money in school, because I simply can't afford it. I can move pretty much anywhere in the US, since neither me nor my husband has anything keeping us in our current city such as, you know, a job or prospects of a hopeful future.)
posted by kataclysm to Education (40 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
What about looking for a receptionist or admin job at an academic institution? Your background in science makes you tangentially-related to the institution's mission, and all you would probably need is a BA and a working knowledge of Word, Excel, etc.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:55 PM on January 7, 2010


who will hire grad-school dropouts
People who value your lab skills, but don't want you to run experiments. Things you might consider right away are technical sales ($! especially with a technical background instead of a sales background), field service technician posts, lab management, or health/safety/environment work in a related field.

how do I convince them
This is related to the point above.

At a most general level, you need to find a good story, and stick with it. Find supporting evidence in your past, and tell that story until YOU believe it, and then until everyone ELSE believes it.

It will be different from the story you told here (I am a fuck-up who fucked up my fucking experiments which I fucking hate, and got kicked out by the motherfucking department).

It will sound more like "I realized, after making an experimental plan, doing the experiments, going through the analysis, and then making new plans to test a developing hypothesis" (we thought we were doing well, but really, it was fucked up) ... "that though I love the science, and being on the cutting edge, I..." (what?) really want to have more time working with other people, prefer working with a fast-changing market-based organization instead of an academic lab, etc. "I know this move is right for me because of my exposure to clients in an internship position, or being the go-to person who knew all the machines in our lab, etc." The details vary depending on who you are selling this idea to (see above).
posted by whatzit at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2010 [11 favorites]


I don't have any answers for you, but I'm in the exact same position, minus the husband. I'm very curious as to what people have to say. Also, want to form a support group? memail me.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I could have written pretty much your exact question a few decades ago, except for the slight detail that I was in another field and the all-important difference that I had no dependents and thus could take minimum-wage jobs in bookstores till I got my act together. Greg Nog's suggestion sounds like a good one; if you have good English skills you might also consider proofreading/editing (which is what I did when I got my act together).

Tangential to your immediate question but vitally important for your mental health: please do not consider yourself a fuckup. I had the same reaction to dropping out of grad school—I've let myself and my family down, I have no prospects, I've wasted time and money and gotten myself in debt—and I assure you it's counterproductive and useless. You got out of a bad situation; yeah, you acquired some debt but you also learned a lot of stuff, and now you're starting on a new path. You have no idea what's around the corner, but I'm pretty sure it'll wind up being a lot better than you think. Feel free to write me if you want to let off steam or try out ideas; I've been there and I know what it's like.
posted by languagehat at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Go into healthcare consulting. Hit up insurance agencies, etc. health consultancies -- I think you can just tell them that you didn't want an academic career and you want real world experience instead of being in the academic bubble.
posted by anniecat at 2:05 PM on January 7, 2010


You are highly qualified to teach science, especially at the high school and junior college level.
posted by nestor_makhno at 2:07 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


It would help to know what your undergrad degree is in, but the point is: you have one. You're not less employable than anyone else with a BA or BS.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:08 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Knowing several people going through this I would say that what you call "negative research" could be brought against a positive light. The process of going through a bad methodology and not getting anywhere is an acceptable research result, even if it won't make *you* feel good about it.

Also the fact that you've made it this far is by itself a major achievement. Try for a short moment to not think about what your family thinks or says; think instead that you managed to go through higher education (bachelor, master, grad school) relatively successfully, otherwise you wouldn't be so far in a PhD in the first place. The fact you arrived so far indicates that your past progress was worth something in the eye of the people you have been working until now.

That is to say that regardless of whether you will finish your PhD or not, there are likely several aspects of your life that you managed to not "fuck up", and that would be seen quite positively with an outsider's eye. Try to recognize that, or ask your husband / friends to tell you about what they like in you. This will be a welcome ego boost to overcome the temporary "down feeling".

Finally I would suggest you try to reconnect with people you have been studying with and who went into different directions you did. Approach them and try to be genuinely curious about what choices they made, how they got where they are, etc. That could inspire you, and you could possibly project yourself more easily with what they do because you have a shared background.

As for money, you could file for bankrupcy straight away. Since you've not started "active life yet" it would allow for a clean start.
posted by knz at 2:10 PM on January 7, 2010


Seconding nestor_makhno-- community/junior college faculties are full of ABD/M.A.s with stories similar to yours, and that route would allow you to capitalize on your existing skills to a much greater degree than, say, waitressing or editing would. Most such institutions aren't very research-oriented, so instead of telling the "I fucked up my fucking research" story, you could just say that you realized that you found the classroom so much more rewarding than the lab, etc. etc. If you don't currently have much in the way of teaching chops, perhaps consider adjuncting in the interim until you find a permanent position?
posted by Bardolph at 2:11 PM on January 7, 2010


Is there any way you can walk away with a "5-year Masters degree", as some of my friends call it? Because a Masters degree with lab experience, albeit unsuccessful lab experience, will look much more impressive than a Bachelor's degree and a huge gap.
posted by muddgirl at 2:11 PM on January 7, 2010


Probably I'll end up availing myself of the terminal master's option.

Ugh, just saw this. I am apparently bad at reading.

If you do this, you will have a master's degree with lab experience. This is nothing to sneeze at. Polish up your resume, write it in POSITIVE terms rather than the negative ones you've used here, and see if there's any interest NOW before you decide to leave the program. I know it's hard to frame unsuccessful projects in a positive light, but it is possible to do.
posted by muddgirl at 2:13 PM on January 7, 2010


If you're this far in, you've got an MS, right? Was that part of your grad program?

I think you'd make a great lab manager.
posted by availablelight at 2:17 PM on January 7, 2010


Don't think of yourself as a "grad-school dropout." Think of yourself as a "college graduate." If you're in a Ph.D. program, presumably you got a bachelor's degree at some point. And there's nothing in your post which suggests to me you'd be worth any less than any other college graduate, and your years in graduate school are worthwhile experience even if they didn't lead to a Ph.D. You're at least as well qualified as anyone fresh out of college with a bachelor's degree looking for a job, and more qualified than most of them. What are they looking at? I won't pretend it's easy for anyone to find a job in this economy, but it's not hopeless either.

As for what you might do specifically (I assume your undergrad degree is in a science), you can Google around "nontraditional science careers" or similar terms, which is seekrit kode for "people with science degrees who don't want to do lab work."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:17 PM on January 7, 2010


Wow. I was not expecting so many people to have answered so quickly.

DarlingBri -- my bachelor's is in neuroscience, as will be my master's.

knz -- filing for bankruptcy wouldn't help me. Our debts are in the form of student loans, which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy (otherwise everyone would declare bankruptcy immediately upon graduation -- I mean, what's the current average indebtedness of a college grad, $20,000?)
posted by kataclysm at 2:19 PM on January 7, 2010


You should really speak to your advisor about this. No, you really should really speak to your advisor about this. I am speaking as an advisor of PhD students here.

You don't go into many details about whether your advisor is a reasonable person and in what ways he or she isn't happy with you, but I think 98.7% of the time, the student perceives the situation to be much more dire than it really is, and themselves to be much more of a fuckup than they really are. What they interpret as their advisor being super-upset with them is often no more than mild displeasure, or being upset at things that can be fixed somewhat easily, or being upset with the situation but not the student. It does depend a lot on the details, but all scientists know that the progress of science isn't a straight line, and so it seems unlikely to me that your advisor or committee thinks you're a complete fuckup over some methodological problems that you couldn't have known were problems when you started them. I've seen some truly incredible situations -- for instance, one in which a student did literally no work for a year because their depression and stress about the situation were so debilitating -- and when they finally gained the courage to speak to their advisor, the advisor was just so happy to know what was going wrong that there were no recriminations. And the situation got resolved, the person graduated eventually, and moved on to something a little personally more satisfying than grad school.

I say all of this because your question, to me, reads like somebody who is in the throes of grad school depression and has lost a bit of perspective about what they can and can't do based on their progress so far. I don't know you, so maybe this is a completely accurate summary, but what you write to me doesn't scream "grad school fuckup" at all... it seems consistent with what 50% of grad students feel about their progress at any one time. Which is why I suggest a very, very frank talk with your advisor about this. Not one in which you try to put the best spin on things, and not one in which you don't talk about your fears and worries -- one in which you bring those to the table and discuss frankly how it's been going, what you perceive as being a complete fuckup, and your uncertainty about how to rectify it. Speaking as an advisor, I would much rather have this conversation than have conversations where I realise there are problems going on with the student and the research but they are still in "stonewalling" mode, as if petrified about what I will do to them if I realise they don't actually like their job or are not sure what they are doing. nybody who has gotten to the point of being an advisor will realise this sort of situation happens. And unless they are completely unreasonable, they will want to work with you to make sure that your five years of work are not completely wasted.

None of this so far has been a direct answer to your question, but that's because your advisor and committee are waaay better placed to answer your direct question than random strangers on the internet. Depending on your precise field, I am sure there are many options open for people who did not complete the PhD -- it happens all the time. If you don't want to go on to academia, your advisor or committee might also have suggestions about what is minimally necessary to wrap up the PhD. I had a friend who was in very much the same boat as you, but hadn't told her advisor that she didn't want to go into academia because she thought he would think she was a loser or not serious or something, and when she finally broached the subject he was happy to finally have a clear sense of what she wanted. And together they were able to come up with a PhD thesis that was a little less ambitious (if you're not trying to get hired on the strength of the research, it often doesn't have to be so big and overwhelming). And she was out in a year, PhD in hand. Even if she hadn't finished it, her advisor gave her lots of advice about non-academic job options to pursue.

So -- unless they are Unreasonable McMeany, talk to your advisor. Be frank. Say what you said here (maybe slightly more tactfully, but don't sugarcoat it). It's fucking scary, I realise that, but that will be the best thing you can do. They will have suggestions, either for how you can salvage a PhD out of what you have, or for what options you have on the job market. And they will be much better than anything I or a stranger who doesn't know your particular field and strengths and situation can come up with.
posted by forza at 2:21 PM on January 7, 2010 [37 favorites]


I'm sorry you are having a hard time. It's not your fault. You were in an environment where you could not thrive.

I really like the job searching guide on Hillary Rettig's website. I found it very helpful in getting back on my feet when I was flailing around.

Yes, there is life without a Ph.D. My husband quit grad school after 3 years and considers it the best decision of his life.
posted by metaseeker at 2:28 PM on January 7, 2010


If you can stand to stay in an academic environment, you may want to get a job at a university. Pursuing grad school studies means you're at least qualified to be a research assistant, but you could also consider entry-level administrative jobs, if you can find them. I say this because many universities will pay for some or most of the cost of you taking classes with them, and also because a research assistant job is probably the thing you are most qualified for right now.

At the university I work at, I make more than half again as much as the grad students, and can take up to two classes at the extension school for $40 each, or classes at the university itself for 90% off. It's a sweet deal and a good way to get a nearly-free masters. I know many people who have done just that. I know a secretary who got herself a business degree, an RA who got a masters in creative writing, etc.

An RA is not like being a graduate student. It takes the burden of designing successful experiments and coming up with provable hypotheses off of you (depending on your PI, some encourage independence in RAs, but many don't) which is a loss to many but it sounds like that's part of what's got you so burned out on grad school. You could also focus on doing more support or tech work (being the person who recruits subjects or who keeps stock of supplies).
posted by shaun uh at 2:37 PM on January 7, 2010


OK, so wait - you have (or will have - I'm confused here, European graduate degrees don't seem to work the same way) a masters and you seriously think you're unemployable to the tune of 24K a year?

Likely: Pharma Sales. Less likely but possibly spinable: Neuroscience Coordinator. In between: about a million jobs. Adjust for your location.

Because you see yourself as being a failure, I can tell you right now the CV you initially construct for yourself is going to suck. Please, please get professional help from a CV pro experienced in your field.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:50 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


:applauds forza:

I don't know if you have an M. Sc. already, maybe you have enough good data to write a thesis for one. Something to bring up with your advisor as an option... I've known people who have done this. Rare and disappointing, but true.
posted by lizbunny at 2:51 PM on January 7, 2010


"I can't really fathom who would hire me after this"

Repeat after me: The Real World (tm) is nothing like academia. People who are great in academia sometimes do poorly in the real world, and vice versa. You have successfully completed your classes; it's just a single experiment that came apart. In the real world, that happens, and your entire life isn't defined by it.

As for people who might hire you: Laboratories. Medical Sales. Corporations that do sciencey things that need someone to translate from SciNerd to English for clients. Law firms that prosecute or defend medical malpractice often look for paralegals with a medical science background, which probably isn't a terminal career option, but will typically come with a decent salary, benefits, and medical malpractice suits don't really slow down that much during recessions. There's also a certain amount of demand for paralegals in patent cases and other technical lawsuits, people who can understand the science.

If you like teaching, there is a dire shortage of qualified science teachers right now. While the pay starts low, it often climbs quickly, the benefits are typically good, and you get tenure before too long. However, you might need to search a little to find a state that lets you direct-enter without doing Ed courses ... or, if you do a program like Teach for America or Alliance for Catholic Education, they get you those courses and there's often loan forgiveness for prior loans.

I mean, really, you should DECIDE what you want to do and then start looking. Or go to your school's career services (for the undergrads, but they usually help grad students too and sometimes alumni) and get some free career counseling.

Frankly when you say "I have to make more than $24,000 with benefits" and "I have a science degree and can get a terminal masters' stat," my question is really, "Where CAN'T you work?" The economy is rough right now, I know, so you'll have to look a while, but I am fairly confident that a BS with communication skills is easily worth more than $24k. (Starting pay for a paralegal, for example, averages around $30,000, although that takes into account averaging places like NYC with places like Boise. Sometimes specialized paralegals with medical, science, technical, etc., backgrounds make more.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:55 PM on January 7, 2010


What I would say is: yes, be a Research Assistant. It will give you time to cool off and you may be able to continue your PhD part-time. Maybe even for nothing, depending on your employers' rules and the possibility of massaging your thesis to merge with the nature of your job.

I'm an RA, I haven't started my PhD yet. So forza is the one giving you the best specific advice here. But I would like to add that I have experienced miniature versions of what you're going through, with my Master's program and with other things throughout my life generally. The fact that you haven't had a job outside academia suggests to me that you're relatively young. So maybe you haven't had this experience enough times yet to realize that you can usually salvage the project, and that if you can't you still have more options than you think. I mean, a Master's does not make you an unqualified thicko, otherwise I'd be an unqualified thicko.

Finally, to expand on one of forza's points: if a project is floundering, better to assess the situation and bring it to your superiors as soon as you think there could be a problem. The worst thing you can do is go "ohnoes, ohnoes" and start skulking around evasively with a hoodie and no explanations. The latter approach guarantees failure and distrust, the former approach virtually guarantees damage limitation and respect at the very least. This will happen often, so start learning to deal with it now.
posted by tel3path at 2:58 PM on January 7, 2010


Here's what you need to do (sorry if I'm repeating anything above - don't feel like reading all of these long answers):

Contact scientific temp agencies, like Kelly Scientific. These places have access to a whole world of jobs that you wouldn't imagine and might like. You can also generally get hired fairly quickly.

When I decided to take a leave of absence during my first attempt at a PhD (ended up leaving with a terminal MS and am in another PhD program now, but that is a whole different story) I had only my BS to go on and a wishy-washy story about taking a break from grad school. I got hired within a few weeks to be a technical writer for Baxter Pharmaceuticals (writing manuals for the machinery there). Here's the even better part: my starting salary was 48k. There are also many, many options in pharmaceutical sales if you think you can be a salesperson (and you need to get in the frame of mind to start selling yourself, woman!).

When I decided to leave grad school with my MS my job search was much harder, but at that point I was specifically looking at getting an academic job to pave the way for going back to grad school. I ended up working at Whole Foods for 2 months until a job fell into place. Was it enough money to pay all our bills? No. Did it fucking blow and completely shit on my self esteem? Yep. But we had a lot more money than if I had sat around doing nothing at all and it's not a distant memory.

In summary: temp agency to test your feet in new waters and if it's taking a while just work any shitty job you can get. Make it part time if you want enough time to keep going on interviews/etc.

I know life feels like a black, black depression right now. When I was going through my similar phase I got myself through it by reminding myself that I really have no way at all to predict what my life is going to be like 12 months from now. Sure, it could suck even worse, but hell maybe I'll win the lottery. Embrace the possibilities that are before you. Anyone can get through 12 measly months of B.S., especially you, who got through 5 years of it.

Best of luck to you - memail me if you want support.
posted by sickinthehead at 3:05 PM on January 7, 2010


These things happen. You are not a failure. Your time at grad school has not been wasted, even if it ends without a PhD. There is a big world outside of academia and I am sure you can leverage your knowledge and skills into a successful and fulfilling career, with or without those letters after your name.

LOTs of people go through this. I know more PhD drop-outs than PhDs. My husband, after five years in a biochem PhD program, ended up walking away without any graduate degree at all, and I am so very glad that he did. He's now pursuing a career as a high school science teacher and is much, much happier.

Other people will have more specific advice for you - I just wanted to chime in and say, don't be too hard on yourself.
posted by beandip at 3:20 PM on January 7, 2010


Not a failure. I dropped out of grad school, too, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made (even though I liked teaching).

And super-employable, from lab tech jobs to jobs in the pharmaceutical industry to something like tumor registrar at a hospital to teaching school...

You're going to be fine.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:25 PM on January 7, 2010


So you will have a master's degree? I have a master's degree and do not consider myself a fuck-up or a drop-out. What am I missing here?
posted by onepot at 3:27 PM on January 7, 2010


I was in the exact same situation. Was going for a math Ph.D and took my master's after the program turned out to be a bad fit for me. I'm not covering my gf's health (or my own, unfortunately) but the part-time job I got at the local community college pays the other bills for now. In a year or two when my gf graduates I'll either have a fulltime position here, (hopefully) at a university, or maybe another Ph.D program that's better suited to me.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 3:38 PM on January 7, 2010


So you will have a master's degree? I have a master's degree and do not consider myself a fuck-up or a drop-out. What am I missing here?

You're missing the Stockholm Syndrome/tunnel vision that's really easy to get in graduate school. That's why it was smart for the OP to post here because we're the people in recovery, not the people still active in the addiction.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:49 PM on January 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Sidhedevil: I am employed (as faculty) in a graduate program now. I hear about the grad school Stockholm syndrome/tunnel vision on a daily basis. :-)
posted by onepot at 3:58 PM on January 7, 2010


Sorry, onepot, I guess I completely misparsed your comment. IF ONLY I HAD CONTINUED IN GRADUATE SCHOOL!

My point was that she doesn't think you're a fuckup with your MS, she thinks she'd be a fuckup with an MS because she's defining herself by "get Ph.D. get post-doc get teaching job or you're a failure."

It always makes me think of the Gary Larson cartoon with the performing bears, one of which has his protective muzzle in his paw and he's telling the other bears, "Hey! These things snap right off!"
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:12 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


As someone who was just yesterday begging a former graduate school dropout to come work for me, I want to add to the chorus of people saying that nothing about quitting graduate school makes you unemployable. There is some excellent advice above. Best of luck!
posted by pombe at 4:50 PM on January 7, 2010


who will hire grad-school dropouts to work for them after they have royally screwed over their chances of having an academic career, what are they likely to pay said grad-school dropouts, and how do I convince them that they want to hire me against their better judgment?

People who don't have advanced degrees are often skeptical of people who do. Most people in industry don't have PhDs, many have either dropped out of advanced degree programs or consciously chose not to enter them. I work in the software world, and several of my BS-only co-workers strongly prefer to hire people with no more than a BS.

So -- unless they are Unreasonable McMeany, talk to your advisor. Be frank. Say what you said here (maybe slightly more tactfully, but don't sugarcoat it). It's fucking scary, I realise that, but that will be the best thing you can do. They will have suggestions, either for how you can salvage a PhD out of what you have, or for what options you have on the job market. And they will be much better than anything I or a stranger who doesn't know your particular field and strengths and situation can come up with.

I strongly second this. Your adviser is probably waiting for you to initiate this discussion. Pick up a biography of someone you admire in science. If it is built on even the most minimal truth, it will talk about their many failures. You could say that science is really a way of managing failure. A lot of incredibly successful people advocate that if you never fail, you aren't taking enough risks. Embrace failure and learn to profit from it.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:51 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also dropped out of grad school, but found that my undergrad degree, plus the job experience I got in grad school (teaching, etc). was more than enough to get me an entry level job in a sub-area of insurance (claim handling of certain complex claims) where they were more concerned with basic intelligence and ability to reason and write, than with any specific skills. Some places prefer you to come in as raw talent rather than someone with a lot of ideas about how you want to do things.

If you think about the things that you have learned to do well as a student (such as analysis, writing, teaching or mentoring, presenting information, etc) you can write yourself a very marketable resume. I think they call it a functional resume, where you list skill areas and then reference job experience showing how and where you gained that experience. It worked a lot better for me that just listing my bizarre bunch of TAships and post college jobs chronologically.

My starting salary was significantly better than your grad school stipend, and I do very well (by my standards) 12 years later, in the same job.

So I guess, please don't be discouraged, because you sound much more employable than I thought I was. And remember that large companies (including insurance companies) are complex entities that have great need of people with diverse skills, but not necessarily with a specific "10 years prior experience" type of skill set.
posted by MsElaineous at 6:07 PM on January 7, 2010


What totally caught me by surprise after I left grad school was that the same things that made me an embarrassing failure in academia (the unfinished thesis, the lack of the phd, an uncompleted research project) turned out to be totally impressive out in the real world. At job interviews people are all "Wow, you did all that research? You made it that far through grad school? Cool!"

The only people who ever get snooty and look down their noses at me are people in academia, which used to anger me but now just makes me laugh. You have to remember that in the US only 85% of people finish high school, and just over a quarter have graduated from college; less than ten percent have a graduate degree. So your "failure" in grad school puts you far into the educational elite -- your level of education and the skills it represents are rare commodities once you are outside of the academic bubble.

Assuming you aren't living in a small college town (where even the carpenters and chefs will often have MFAs and PhDs), your degree and lab experience should translate into more than the $12/hr your current stipend represents. Even basic grant writing and program management for a non-profit (ie work that you may well be considered "over qualified" for will, in most places, pay more than that.

(All this assumes that you are serious about quitting. Everyone in grad school has these low moments, sometimes really often; it's ok to have a bad time for a while and not quit on the spot. It's also cool to take the stipend for a semester or a year and use it to support your job search while you do no work on your thesis -- don't feel like you need to quit first and look for work second. Use that support while you have it.)
posted by Forktine at 8:33 PM on January 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


"I know I'm kind of a fuckup for fucking up my research so badly"

Dude, even very smart, talented, successful, experienced scientists fuck up their research sometimes. And you're just a n00b grad student. I think you are holding yourself to a much higher standard than is reasonable or than anyone else is.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:40 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, don't look at it as fucking up badly. Look at it as just a very expensive and time-consuming learning experience. Because all you did was waste some time, money, and lab materials -- it's not like you killed anyone. Now you have learned what not to do and will approach future research (if you decide to stay in research) in a more effective and productive manner.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:45 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


kataclysm, thank you for writing the post I've been thinking about writing myself for the last few weeks. I'm in nearly the same position as you are, and the answers have been very helpful for me as well.

There's already a lot of good general advice in this thread, and I don't really have anything to add myself. If you'd like more specific advice, I'd recommend posting this question to the Science Careers Forum hosted by Science Magazine.

You probably won't find the same type of warm, sympathetic response there that you get here, but the membership of the forum is a good mix of scientists from industry and academia and they can provide you with a frank assessment of your options at this point, including specific recommendations of types of jobs and careers for which you are qualified.

Keep fighting the good fight, and when you make it through, let me know how you did it, O.K.?
posted by TBAcceptor at 10:04 PM on January 7, 2010


I posted a related question about a year and a half ago.

My grad school experience (in microbiology) made me feel like absolute shit about myself and nearly destroyed my enjoyment of science. However, despite feeling hopeless during years 3, 4, 5, and 6, I did manage to finish in the end and got a Ph.D. out of it. Was it worth the toil and trouble? Maybe not. However, I wasn't quite ready to give up on science completely, and I ended up with a sweet job in the field that I want to move into, so things did turn out well in the end.

My advice? First of all, make sure that dropping out is your best option. Talk to your advisor about your situation, and if you and your advisor don't have a good relationship (this was definitely true in my case), talk to the head of your department or a member of your thesis committee instead. Remember, you are a student and part of responsibility of your training does fall on your advisor and thesis committee. Lots of people have years of negative data and still end up with a Ph.D. You're going to have to write up a thesis even if you go for the M.S., so if it's a matter of a few more months of experiments to get the Ph.D. , you might want to grind it out.

However, if you do decide to leave your program, don't beat yourself up about it! You are not a failure- you found out academia wasn't quite for you, and you have an M.S. in neuroscience, which is pretty darn impressive. As for jobs, science teaching is an obvious choice, as is going into pharma/biotech sales. I would consider biotech as well- even if you're tired of labwork, I found biotech to be a much more enjoyable work environment than academia. 40 hour workweeks and good money with positive instead of negative feedback! you might actually enjoy it lab work in that sort of scenario. I would avoid the whole lab manager gig as it would keep you in the low-paying toxic academic environment.

All I can really say is that I feel your pain, and you are certainly not alone. Grad school shouldn't be so soul-crushing. Oh, also, you may want to talk to a therapist through your institution's student health services- it should be free for you and might help you put things in perspective a bit. Best of luck to you.
posted by emd3737 at 10:07 PM on January 7, 2010


Well, if it makes you feel any better, I can tell you a job that you would almost certainly get an interview for, likely get hired, and double (nearly triple) your 24k. It's not in neuroscience (at all) but that doesn't really matter (to the employer). It's government service, with pretty good health care and retirement benefits.

That's not to offer you a job, but just to point out that you aren't doomed to homelessness because you don't have a Ph.D. I, in fact, know many non-Ph.D's who continue to have food to eat every day. Maybe you were exaggerating your diagnosis of doom, but just in case you really believed that people with only bachelor's degrees may as well report directly to the shelter: not the case.
posted by ctmf at 10:34 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I figured I'd update since it's been a few months since I posted this question.

I took forza's advice, had The Talk With The Advisor, and it actually went much better than I'd expected. My epic failures were not as epic as I had feared, I'm able to scale back my thesis a bit since I really don't want to do academic research after this experience, and I should be able to defend sometime this summer. I'm planning to try to have a career in science policy or science education policy (both of which interest me; what direction I go will depend to some extent on what opportunities come my way). So I'm looking to see what's available at various science-related nonprofits, as well as looking into teaching jobs at the K-12 or junior college level.
posted by kataclysm at 11:02 AM on March 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not sure if this is up your ally, but USAJOBS always has openings for lab techs. It's not really running experiments per se, but it's more loading machines and pressing a button to run them. Then you read the results. With an MA and lab experience you're qualified. It will get you a decent paycheck and health insurance until you figure out what you want next.
posted by 630 at 8:57 AM on November 9, 2010


« Older Please identify this font......   |  I popped the question. He sai... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.