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.
posted by permiechickie to Work & Money (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
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"?