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Quit or stay
June 13, 2012 1:05 PM   Subscribe

Another Ph.D quit-or-stay question: I'm really unhappy in my particular lab, and maybe unhappy with the whole idea of the Ph.D. I still like the idea of research - just want to work on a project that I'm interested in. What is the best way for me to be able to work on things that I like, possibly outside of a Ph.D degree program, but still in an academic lab? Looong snowflake details inside, summary at end.

I'm a 2nd year Ph.D student in a technical field at a mid-level prestige institution. I'm very unhappy with both my project and my advisor. I have always been interested in research, and wanted to get a Ph.D so that I could work in industrial R&D positions (biotech). When I chose my current institution, there were 3 advisors that had projects I was interested in, but the year that I came, 2 of them left abruptly, and 1 of them was not taking students because of funding issues. I ended up with a project that is nowhere near what I wanted to do, a project that I find difficult, frustrating, and boring. My advisor is universally recognized in my department as being flakey, unmotivated, and uninspired. She is also having funding issues now.

Recently my advisor and another PI that I work on a project with told me that they're unhappy with my progress and want to have a meeting with my committee at the end of the summer if I don't make adequate progress over the next few months. I work about 40 hours per week. The main reason that I've made little to no progress is that the experimental system I work with dies at the drop of a hat, and results are variable. It's really hard to do good science on a system that might change over a 6 month period for reasons that are totally unknown. Other students in my lab (1-2 years ahead of me) have published no papers because everything they try doesn't work. I admit that these other students do work harder than me, but it begs the question of what the point of working harder is when everything they do doesn't work anyway? We all end up in the same position - with no publishable results.

I don't want to work in this lab anymore. I find it incredibly demoralizing. I've accomplished more in the 6 month internships I did as an undergrad than I have in a year of research here. I hate it. It makes me feel stupid and worthless to be here. My advisor is stuck in an experimental system that is horrible and she can't get funding for it anymore because no one else works in it and it is totally irrelevant. She won't let go of it and find a new research avenue. I think she needs to reinvent herself, but this would require her to do actual inspired work, and she does not like working. I still love the idea of doing research on a system that I'm interested in, and one that has the possibility of doing anything useful. I read literature all the time (sometimes instead of reading literature on MY system, like I should) on the things I'm interested in. I know that I have good lab skills in other areas, and that I can write good code. I know that I could be useful if I was interested in what I was doing.

I see my main options as being like this:

1) Finish up my current project over the next few months, defend a Masters thesis, get an OK job at a Masters level, stay in industry. The pros of this are that I could make much better money than a graduate student, and I could choose a city to live in where I could have an actual life (dating, restaurants etc... the college town that I'm now is sucky). Part of the issue with this is that the job market isn't great, and there are skills that I don't have yet for the types of jobs that I want, jobs that are kind of interdisciplinary between engineering and biology. I know that I could pick these skills up very quickly given the opportunity, but I'm at a loss for how to get into a job where I could LEARN these skills, since the people hiring are looking for people who already know them and can directly apply them. The jobs that I want most are a little out of reach, but I know that I can get slightly less attractive jobs without too much trouble, because I have an engineering degree and a fair amount of contacts. I could always just get a job at an oil refinery if I needed to, but I know I would hate that more than the Ph.D.

2) Drop out as above, but try to get into another Ph.D program. I don't think this is a good option because it would take a very long time to get into another program (applying, acceptance, doing the coursework) and I might end up in the exact same situation that I'm in now - bad advisor, bad project. I don't see myself as very likely to do this unless I had prior experience with the type of research I would be doing (and knew that I liked it) and had a solid idea of what lab I would be working in. I don't really want to invest another 5 years on top of the 2 that I seem to have wasted in my current program.

3) Drop out as above, but try to get a temporary Research Associate position / internship in a lab that I like, so I can learn new skills and maybe work on research that I'm really into and would be good at. Getting a position like this seems difficult though. I might have to aggressively network and try to create such a position, and my initial idea is that there's no reason for a successful professor to pay a random person with a Masters degree to work in their lab when they can just get a Ph.D student or post-doc to do the same work. I guess what I really want is a post-doc without a Ph.D. There's a really established infrastructure for Post-Docs, but not so much for Post-Masters. This is actually what I would consider the possible best option if everything fell into place. After getting into such a position I would be better able to either get back into a Ph.D program, or maybe transition to a better industry job than I could get now with the new skills that I would have learned.

4) Stick out the Ph.D for the next 3-4 years, possibly hate my life the whole time, possibly my advisor runs out of funding, possibly I remain stuck and never graduate, possibly I graduate and can't find an interesting job anyway. This option actually seems like the most reasonable, and when I have talked to some other grad students about it, ti's the one they assume is the best. I feel at least 85% sure that I don't want to do this. Part of my reasoning is that I feel like I'm wasting my young adulthood here and not actually advancing my skills or my career.

Tl;dr: I think I want to quit my particular lab and this Ph.D, but I don't know if I want to give up on academic research. I'd like the opportunity to work on research that I find inspiring, but I don't know how to make that happen. The common consensus among other students is that you sometimes (often?) end up working on stuff you hate in the Ph.D, but when you graduate you can choose the work you like. This seems like a really stupid deal to me. I'm not getting paid well, I work as many hours as people at regular jobs (and still get in trouble for not working hard enough), and there's no guarantee that if I stick it out for the next three years that I would ever get to do the kind of research I like anyway. How can I get to work on the research I want now? Should I just give up and get a "boring real job"?
posted by permiechickie to Work & Money (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sounds like mastering out is a decent option.

It's fairly common at some institutions to actually enter the PhD program with an adviser already picked out. This speeds up the application process if that adviser is already batting for you. If you really did like one of those other two people who left your school, I would suggest mastering out of your current program and initiating contact with these two (or someone entirely new that you look up to at another institution) to see if one of them would help you get into a new program with them.

I'm doing a post-doc right now (in math) and it's actually very, very similar to the last couple years of my phd. (Except that I'm in a new city without all those great friends I made back in California...) I expect that the phd-posdoc similarity is true in bio as well; a friend that works with hummingbirds has had a pretty similar experience. You're still going to be vying for lab time, and that's dependent on making nice in one way or another with a PI who will end up being either your faculty mentor or similar.

The basic thing to know is that academia feels like hell; that sense of never working hard enough or never being quite on top of things never goes away. It's just the shape of the work, loneliness of the long distance runner and all that. It's important to recognize that, but also to structure your life and work so that it's survivable for you. In the long run, it's most important to not burn out.

Good luck!
posted by kaibutsu at 1:23 PM on June 13, 2012


Other students in my lab (1-2 years ahead of me) have published no papers because everything they try doesn't work. I admit that these other students do work harder than me, but it begs the question of what the point of working harder is when everything they do doesn't work anyway? We all end up in the same position - with no publishable results.

Your advisor is not competent and wasting the time of his students. There is no reason to assume that you will have a better future than the other students. Switch advisors if possible.

You're in biotech and sound like you're in the very beginning of your career, so med school is an option-- you still get to do research if you go that route.

No all jobs outside of research are a "boring real job." Plenty of law firms want biotech specialists to deal with patent issues-- you could go to law school now or have them pay for you to go to law school while you work there. There are management-track career paths in the biotech industry. There are a large number of consulting companies that need people with good quantitative skills and knowledge of biotech.
posted by deanc at 1:23 PM on June 13, 2012


I just finished a PhD in materials science with a bio slant. I would just say that it is common for research to be "difficult, frustrating," and, after a succession of poor results, "boring." Many advisors seem "flaky," and concerns about funding are the rule. I've also thought that my advisor had unwise, outdated, or ill-considered research plans. So I caution you that changing advisors or programs will not necessarily remove these problems. They're pretty universal.

The only reason to continue getting a PhD is if you can't visualize your future self without one. The PhD is simply the professional certification that you can attack any problem, educate yourself about the details, construct a research plan, and complete that plan and report the results, even in the face of overwhelming setbacks and skepticism. It is not fun. And completion does not even guarantee success (news flash: postdocs complain as much as grad students). But it does offer the occasional breakthroughs or insights into Nature that some can't live without. If you need more than this, dropping out now will save you several more years of this unpleasantness.
posted by Mapes at 1:27 PM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I caution you that changing advisors or programs will not necessarily remove these problems. They're pretty universal. ... The only reason to continue getting a PhD is if you can't visualize your future self without one.

That's true, but since the OP's fellow graduate students with the same advisor are not in any better position than she is, it is fair to suspect that the advisor is the problem, here.
posted by deanc at 1:30 PM on June 13, 2012


3) Drop out as above, but try to get a temporary Research Associate position / internship in a lab that I like, so I can learn new skills and maybe work on research that I'm really into and would be good at.

I have had success with this option since graduating with a Masters and opting out of the PhD due to similar reasons as yours.

The pay isn't great, but it's a significant upgrade from my grad school funding. I'm learning lots of new skills that I'm pretty sure will make me an attractive private sector employee in a couple years. And I have the luxury of being an employee instead of a student, which is substantial (9 to 5!!!).

Essentially, I'm treating it as if I'm doing PhD quality work with better pay than being a PhD student, and though there's no diploma at the end for me I'll come out with a similar skill set to the post-docs in my lab.

Another upside is that I get to try out this lab for a little while and maybe when my contract's up I'll decide to go for my doctorate here.

There are obviously lots of reasons to stick it out with the doctorate, but I don't regret my decision at all.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:31 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here is my opinion of your options, as an academic scientist.

1) Finish up my current project over the next few months, defend a Masters thesis, get an OK job at a Masters level, stay in industry.

This is a good option, and something you should look into. Knowing concretely what kind of job you could get - or even having some specific job offers - would really help you make this decision.

2) Drop out as above, but try to get into another Ph.D program.

I would not recommend this unless you already know that the research project and advisor are a good fit for you. I would consider this as a possible future option if you pursue #3.

3) Drop out as above, but try to get a temporary Research Associate position / internship in a lab that I like, so I can learn new skills and maybe work on research that I'm really into and would be good at.

Honestly, I think this is your best option if you might want to continue in research, because this will give you a way to try out a research environment with relatively little commitment. I completely disagree with you that such jobs are hard to find. In bio-related fields, most labs have at least one technician/research associate, and these are often people who start with only undergrad lab skills/research experience. It should not be hard to find such a job in a lab you are interested in.

4) Stick out the Ph.D for the next 3-4 years, possibly hate my life the whole time, possibly my advisor runs out of funding, possibly I remain stuck and never graduate, possibly I graduate and can't find an interesting job anyway. This option actually seems like the most reasonable.

You absolutely should not do this. It's completely not worth doing a PhD unless you love or very strongly like the work you are doing. A PhD takes a long time, requires hard work (40 hours a week is way too little, by the way), gives you shit pay, leaves you stuck for years as a low-status drone, and is generally a nightmare. You should only do a PhD if the work is rewarding enough to make it worth it. This doesn't mean that it's easy - research is hard and frustrating, it's not all rainbows and unicorns even if you do like your work - but it's clear from your question that you are not interested in your current project. Therefore you should not continue.

What about option 5) switch to a different lab in your current institution? Is there anyone else you would rather work with?
posted by medusa at 1:52 PM on June 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was in a similar situation to you about half a year ago, the results just weren't good (well, they were quality but of the how-many-ways-can-this-not-work variety) and my prof wanted to call a thesis committee meeting to address the lack of progress. Working more than 40 hours a week, having gone over the MSc thesis time by a few months, not having enough data for a thesis, having had a terrible former employee leave garbage constructs and data for me to sift through... it was a mess.

I stuck it out for a few months and managed to get my prof into a corner with new it-aint-working data where he kinda had to approve the experiments I had suggested (months and months) earlier but that he thought were a waste of time (EM for a project that was all about crystallization and structural analysis). Turns out, backing him into a corner was a great thing, the EM turned all the 'bad' data into 'well damn, our assumptions were wrong' data.

Point is, IF you want to stay and finish an MSc and IF you see a way of moving forward that your prof won't let you take, do the experiments that leave him/her no other option but your method and then run with that method as fast as you can.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:01 PM on June 13, 2012


(40 hours a week is way too little, by the way)

This is absolutely not true, and not very helpful. PhD students who work very long hours usually have to do so because they spend a lot of time not working and being disorganized (my past self included). It is possible to do a '9-to-5' PhD if you're motivated and well organized. permiechickie, it absolutely sounds to me like your lack of progress is due to factors outside your control, not because you're lazy.
posted by firesine at 2:08 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm motivated and well organized and there is no way that I could be a 9-5 academic.
posted by k8t at 3:09 PM on June 13, 2012


As someone who spent 4-plus years with a terrible advisor and a very difficult experimental system before mastering out and finding a better option that works for me, I say bail. Bail now. At least find yourself an advocate and a new advisor. People switch advisors fairly regularly, for all kinds of reasons. Second year is not too late to do so. Start contacting people tomorrow.
posted by rockindata at 5:04 PM on June 13, 2012


Don't finish your PhD in this lab. You might want to find another lab that might work better for you. Or you can try to get the master's.

If you take the master's, I wouldn't apply to a PhD program next. Get a job.
posted by grouse at 6:43 PM on June 13, 2012


If "failing out" with a MSc is an option that won't drag on for more than a year, that is definitely viable. I find that you will have a greater variety and number of job positions available than if you're a brand new PhD.

I kind of regret doing just that and then joining a much better lab for my PhD, instead of being satisfied working up the research associate ladder (as opposed to the research scientist ladder, now that I've given up on academia). How important is it to you to earn a terminal degree? My MSc ended up being 3 and change - completely out of my control -, and this PhD is pushing 6. That's a lot of time making grad student pay (and paying tuition, all in one of the more expensive cities in NA).

Your project has stalled because the model either isn't any good, the answer to your research question is "no" or "irrelevant," or your 'hands' aren't practiced well enough. I think taking a break from doing experiments will do more good than harm, unless you really have been actually just putzing about.

If the model isn't any good, you need to convince your supervisor of that - and provide an alternative and back up why you think the alternative will work, preferably by citing quality literature or from networking knowledge. Sometimes the model is just not feasible to do with the technology on hand. One of the three projects that I started and abandoned at the beginning of my PhD didn't work out. Technology limitation. As of about a year ago, I figured out how to get one of those projects to be viable with the technology that had been developed in our lab since then on a tangential project. Sometimes, The Stars Just Aren't Aligned.

If what you're working on isn't going to pan out, do the MSc thing and don't look back. I know someone who's MSc thesis was about 60 pages with references, and 3 figures; all of which had massive standard error bars and no clear results other than "possibly." If you can convince your supervisor to let you go, odds are that you'll graduate unless you're absolutely rubbish at the exam, if your school even has them.

Hands, it sounds like no-one else in your lab can get reliable results. Is it possible to get outside expert advice? Is there a lab who does the same/similar thing, but successfully? Is it possible to visit the lab(s) to learn their technique?

I know that some (most?) PIs can be stubborn about whether something should work or not. You need to step back from "generating data" and go into full on troubleshooting mode. Yes, we all claim "inexplicable" reasons for "random" failures, but if the model/system is fundamentally sound, there are systematic ways to go about troubleshooting the problem. Or trying completely different protocols. I've solved chronic experiment-halting "inexplicable" problems with one-word solutions so many times. Seek out a(n) expert(s).

Sometimes You have to make things happen for yourself.

As for a "post-doc" without doing a PhD - it's possible, as long as you have a particularly useful and particularly rare skill (set). The hours are a hell of a lot better than a post-doc, but renumeration depends on that skillset. Working with prions and advanced mathetmatica skills in relation to biology are a couple of examples that come to mind right away. Maybe experience working with mammalian viruses like adeno- or lenti-.
posted by porpoise at 8:15 PM on June 13, 2012


On reflection, sorry for being so negative.

On the bright side; most successful senior PhD students have gone through, at least a version of, what you're going through right now and are more successful because of it (and figuring out how to break past this barrier).

If you have been working your ass off and haven't had a real break in a while, take a break. Get out of town. Get a bit of different scenery, then come back and tackle the problems with better enthusiasm (like, take care of this and get the hell out of here with a degree, pronto).
posted by porpoise at 8:25 PM on June 13, 2012


I think a year isn't a lot of time. And I mean that in relation to almost any outcome you could choose here. It isn't a lot of time to have spent trying to make things work. It also isn't a lot of time to have sunk into the project if you want to just cut your losses and leave. It took me three years of my PhD before I started to get the real results I needed and even think about publishing. However, the fact that some of the more senior students aren't seeing much in the way of progress either isn't a good sign. But if their projects aren't that close to yours, there isn't much to be taken from that. What is your supervisor's track record? Do students usually graduate within a reasonable time frame?

I definitely don't think that a 40 hour work-week is always a bad thing, and I know great scientists (post-docs, grad students, etc) who have families and other commitments and work 9-5 most days and do great things. But for me, there have also been plenty of times when I've put in 100 hour weeks and lots of days when I've slept at my desk to babysit experiments. Now, it's hard to get that motivation when things aren't working, but the whole point of a PhD is that you're supposed to make it work. If it was easy to do, someone would already be doing it.

If I were in your position, and felt the way you do, I would very clearly NOT do 4). Those 3-4 years will feel like a hellish eternity. I generally like my research and have been reasonably successful in it. I'm in year 5 of my PhD that should end this fall and there have definitely been times when I've wanted to scream profanities and quit in a huff. If you're already contemplating your exit plan, then this doesn't seem like the place for you.

I think I'd do something like 1), then 3), then maybe 2) if you like what you're doing. I think you should definitely stick around to finish up and get a degree out of your work. Especially since the job options definitely get better when you have an MSc. instead of only a BSc. And like mentioned above, the bar is usually quite a bit lower for graduating with a masters. You might be able to get by with making your current experimental set-up work ("validating methodology") or by establishing a bunch of different things that don't work in answering your question. Negative results are still results after all. Just not usually publishable ones.

After getting a masters, then try to get a job in a lab that you like (one of those original profs who left your school, for example). You may have to be a hybrid lab manager/technician/researcher type, but if you have skills and interest in the material, most PIs will give you a project to investigate to do alongside your more administrative tasks. Then, if you like the lab environment and the work and decide you want to dip back into the grad student lifestyle, that same PI may well be willing to take you on as a student, considering that he or she is already familiar (and hopefully impressed) with you.

Academia is never the shiny beacon that people think it is, and those of us on the inside are often more jaded about it than anyone. I'd be wary of your 85% number, the grass is always greener, after all. Try to leave yourself with as many options as possible until you're sure of the path you want to take.
posted by dnesan at 9:20 PM on June 13, 2012


Thanks for the responses. The consensus here seems to be what I was leaning towards (master out and look for a research assistant job in another lab, and/or transition to industry). I used to think about getting into another lab, but there's not much else in my department, and if I switched departments I'd have to re-take coursework as well. AskMe has been such a huge help - when I've discussed parts of my question with my graduate program advisor, my research advisor, and other graduate students, it was like an echo chamber - if you leave, you're a Quitter, just stick it out.

My research advisor's track record is not good - multiple students mastered out after a couple years in the past (she maintains that they were just incompetent and it was not her fault - this is probably what she'll say about me when I leave), a couple students stayed for >6 years before leaving to get jobs (years later she had them "defend" dissertations - a kangaroo trial, basically - to get her number of graduated students up), and current students ahead of me are not doing well either. I didn't realize when I started how bad it was when I first joined the lab - she was very convincing that I would get to do stuff I was interested in and that I would enjoy the work, but I realize now that she is just a shmoozer - it's her job to convince people of things like that.

Re: number of hours worked, I agree that 40 hours is definitely on the low side, especially for bio work. My constraint is that I need cells to do experiments, and the cells die a lot, so then I can't run experiments that I've planned and have to find something else to do while I wait for them to grow again. I don't mind working long hours when I actually have something to work on.

I think the moral of the story is make sure you understand the lab you're getting into... preferably get the current grad students drunk and find out the hard truth about the research and your advisor before you join. That would have saved me a lot of trouble.
posted by permiechickie at 7:43 AM on June 14, 2012


I used to think about getting into another lab, but there's not much else in my department, and if I switched departments I'd have to re-take coursework as well.

Another possible option is to work in a lab in another department, doing research in that lab with the new supervisor while technically remaining a member of your current department. That way you get the benefit of another advisor in a different department without having to do all the additional coursework that switching departments would entail.
posted by deanc at 4:41 PM on June 14, 2012


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