Phuck this
September 1, 2008 6:47 PM   Subscribe

I’m starting my sixth year of grad school in microbiology, and I’m miserable.

I always planned to be a scientist: I thought I’d go to grad school, do a post-doc, and have a fulfilling career in research, but everything went off the rails a couple of years ago. I did well in my courses, I won awards, but after my first couple of years, my project has stagnated. I haven’t published anything and it looks like I never will (at least in terms of this project). My advisor is retiring and doesn’t care about my project, and my committee is concerned that my work isn’t “Ph.D. caliber.” Basically, it comes down to the fact that while I like science and I’m good at it, I don’t love it and I’m not exceptional at it. I feel like crap about myself and I cry all the time, and I fantasize about walking away from it all, taking another job, moving to a new country, whatever. But if I quit, it means that I’ll have nothing to show for years of hard work and mental anguish. I don’t mean to sound so dramatic about it, but when it comes down to it, this Ph.D. has been the focus of my life for the past few years, and it a difficult to imagine it ending in failure. However, the longer I keep telling myself to stick it out, the more unhappy I feel and the farther away the endpoint gets.

My questions are these: Did you get a Ph.D. in science and was it worth it? Should I stick it out and finish? Should I give science another shot, or am I really not cut out to be a scientist? Taking a leave of absence is not an option, and yes, I just started seeing a therapist.
posted by emd3737 to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Andrew Norton weighs up the empirical effects here.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:03 PM on September 1, 2008

I am not the best person to answer this question, but it sounds like you need a new advisor, at the least, and a mentor to help you with your project. Have a heart to heart with a professor you trust about how to proceed.
posted by xammerboy at 7:08 PM on September 1, 2008

2.5 years into a materials chemistry ph.d i felt pretty much the same way. apathy from my soon-to-retire advisor, little in the way of meaningful results, no publications, really down on myself. i bailed and took a masters, which still required a thesis, so i picked some area of my research that hadn't totally sucked and wrote it up. this was only last year, so i can't say whether or not i'm long-run better off having done so, but i'm far, far happier now anyway.

6 years in, you have probably passed your quals, taken all the required coursework, and so on, right? all that's left is the dissertation and defense? if you are in this stage i would say you should just get it over with and finish as quickly and efficiently as possible. forget about papers and conferences, forget worrying about your future. pick something you've worked on. the most promising one thing. write it up. do whatever extra experimental work you have to do to fill in the gaps, but remember, dissertations don't have to be 300 pages.

if you really have literally nothing in the way of results, you should probably just quit. but please don't let yourself think that you have nothing without a second opinion. it's really easy, when you're in the headspace you're in, to feel like all your work is crap and you have nothing to show, when it may not be true.

i felt this way about a project i was working on, where i got some "meh" results but nothing really impressive, and didn't know where to go, so i shelved it. six months later a paper appeared on exactly the subject i was working on, with exactly the same results i thought were worthless. so, before you do anything, sit down with someone outside your committee and go through the things you have. seeing your work through fresh eyes can really help you see that there is, in fact, some value in what you've done so far. so, please, before you decide to bail out, talk to someone else in your department first.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 7:24 PM on September 1, 2008

Seconding xammerboy and sergeant sandwich. You've put a lot of time, sweat and angst into this. Don't bail without fully considering your options for continuing. Seek a better advocate within your department, and don't be afraid to jettison obstructionist committee members if alternatives are available. Remember, you're in this for yourself. If you're not meeting the expectations of some of your committee members, get rid of them if you can. Just because you don't pass someone's muster doesn't mean you aren't a scientist. Everybody's human, and academics can get some serious bugs up their arse which can cloud their assessment of others, especially students.

As someone who's just about done with their Ph.D., and has followed an embarrassingly convoluted path to get there, I can say that periodic assessments of whether grad school is working for you can make you a better person and professional in the end. I'll also say that you shouldn't be afraid to leave if it you determine that you will not be able to redirect your current situation into a successful outcome (i.e. a successfully defended dissertation) in a year or two. Bailing on a grad program isn't the end of the world, and opportunities may arise that you can't even imagine right now. Just be sure you explore all the options for finishing at your current institution before you decide to leave behind six years of work.

Feel free to email me if you'd like to talk about this more.
posted by mollweide at 7:31 PM on September 1, 2008

The advice above is good. Seeing a therapist is good. Stick it out if you can. Those three letters after your name will open a lot of doors to you.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:40 PM on September 1, 2008

I'm 2 years into a Humanities PhD, so can't answer your science question specifically. But I feel for you, because I consider quitting on a very regular basis & wonder if I may be in your situation in a few years.

Not sure if this helps - but I have resolved to try and be pragmatic and only quit if and when I have something better lined up. I'm lucky enough to have good funding, a good supervisor, good resources and a genuinely interesting, do-able project - and I still hate it and feel depressed about it on a regular basis. The very nature of research feels like pulling teeth to me, but I love teaching. I have reasoned that, as isolating and overwhelming and god-awful as the research can be, it's better than my other employment options right now, and I will only quit if I have a good alternative lined up.
In your case, what are your other alternatives to finishing? You say you don't love science - is there anything in particular you DO love? Do you have funding at the moment? Do you have the money to pack up and go overseas? Do you have another job in mind that would be a viable alternative? Obviously, there are a lot of options that are better than crying all day and feeling like crap. The important thing (imho) is to understand there is no "wrong" or "right" decision - whether you choose to quit or choose to finish, there is (in a broad, life-perspective sense) an equal chance of things working out okay, life WILL present you with other options. If you're smart and hard-working, then you will be probably be just fine. This is a bit cheesy, but it helps me to remember that "there are no guarantees in life, only opportunities".

On the other hand, maybe it would be equally sensible to quit with not a clue of where to go next - sometimes when I have been thrown in those kinds of situations, it is my most spontaneous, "truest" self that seems to respond and intuitively I feel like trying things and taking chances I might not have logically planned for. If that makes sense!

Anyway good luck! and there's a good thread here.
posted by Weng at 7:58 PM on September 1, 2008

follow-up from someone who would prefer to reamin anonymous.
Wow. I could have written this exact question one month ago (though I am in slightly a different scientific field)! I too have an ambivalent advisor, and my committee is worried my work is not "PhD calibre." I've been in the program three years but did a masters before that, so have been in academia for a while. After a month of very hard thinking I have recently decided to leave the program and am in the midst of job hunting. I'll be officially "dropping out" in early September.

Here are the questions I asked myself when I was making my decision, and the conclusions I came to...

1. Could I power through with my current topic (with some major revisions based on my committees concerns)?
How badly do you want it? I loathe my current topic and couldn't fathom another 2-3 years of working on it, especially with all the major revisions my committee wanted.

2. Could I switch topics?
I didn't have any brilliant ideas for other topics to pursue, and the prospect of starting from scratch was extremely daunting. But maybe you have some cool ideas for alternative projects? Are you willing to invest the time it would take to start over?

3. Could I switch advisors?
Depending on your department this could be difficult politically. However you might be able to at least find someone willing to be an unofficial "advisor" that could act as a sounding board for your ideas. There definitely would have been political repercussions if I switched advisors, and I'm not sure anyone else in my area would have taken me on, but I was lucky to have an understanding group of fellow PhD students and postdocs with whom I could frankly discuss my research struggles.

4. What are my job prospects if I don't complete the PhD? Could I be happy outside academia?
I feel much like you - I am good at science but not great at it. I ended up in grad school because I've always been good at school, and it seemed like an easy path to take. However, there are lots of job opportunities for someone with a masters in my field (or even an undergraduate degree). Academia is not the only option. And given my ambivalent feelings towards grad school, I wasn't even sure I *wanted* to work in academia.

One other thing... I already had a masters in my field so it didn't apply to me but...
5. Is it possible to finish quickly and get out with a masters?
You say, "if I quit, it means that I'll have nothing to show for years of hard work and mental anguish." But if you can invest another semester or two and get a Masters it might be worth it.

Anyhow, my advice to you it to think long and hard about your answers to the above questions.

And please do NOT stay in the PhD just because you've already invested some time. If all other signs point to leaving don't stick around. Some people will say to you, "You've already spent so much time... shouldn't you just stick it out and finish?" Ultimately, though, I decided that "sticking it out" would not be beneficial for me emotionally or professionally. I was looking at another 2 to 3 years (probably closer to 3) of misery and that was just not worth it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:08 PM on September 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

When faced with a similar situation, I found that talking to the chair of my committee and the thesis committee members on an individual basis was an enormous help. I know other people who this worked well for, too. I was honest about how I felt regarding my project/situation, and asked for specific steps/guidance along the way. They were remarkably receptive, and helpful. Remember to discuss specifics: examples: "I plan to do X,Y,Z experiments to complete aim II of my project -- does that seem reasonable to you?" "I can't get X to work, so instead I propose trying Y. Does that answer (question which is point of contention)?" or maybe for starters... "My advisor and I are having difficulty working out what experiments will round out this manuscript, and the lab is really empty since he/she is retiring. This really makes it difficult to get feedback -- can I get your suggestions on how to elevate and wrap up this project?"

Restrain yourself from using these sessions to bash/backstab your advisor, unless you're already at the all-out-war point with him/her (doesnt sound like it, which is good...) You can also tell your adviser that you're meeting with committee members so he/she doesn't feel like you're "sneaking around" his/her opinions.

Also, try to schedule regular (weekly? biweekly?) appts with your advisor to stay in his/her focus, if you haven't yet.

Those are just a few tips, although now on preview I realise I didn't answer your question. So, yes, I did it, and while it's difficult to say not knowing the specifics of your project, going on the "6 years" bit, and the fact that you do like science, I think you should try to stick it out. Of course, you'll be fine, and still a smart, educated, experienced scientist if you leave... but it sounds like if you leave now you're going to have a lot of lingering nagging doubts.

Remember, that if you decide to leave, you didn't fail -- your advisor and committee failed as mentors, and your graduate program failed to support you in the training process they promised to provide, complicit with hard work on your behalf (which it sounds like you are doing).

A bit of a ramble, sorry, but I sympathize. Feel free to mefi mail, and good luck!
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:12 PM on September 1, 2008

Thirteen years ago(!!) you were helping me survive freshman year biology, and I'm so sorry that I can't repay the favor by giving you any good advice now. (But know that if you can beg, borrow, or steal enough cash to fly to Sydney, there's always a guest room waiting for you.) Hang in there, RT...
posted by web-goddess at 8:16 PM on September 1, 2008

"I cry all the time..." --> talk to a therapist

They will help you clear your head and help you make your decision.
posted by JakeLL at 8:21 PM on September 1, 2008

One question worth considering: are you ok with working in industry when you get out? If so, then it might be worth your while to get the letters and get out as fast as possible, because there's enough jobs for PhD biologists out there that lack of papers shouldn't hurt too badly, and the decency and respect with which you get treated by management is often tenfold better (a certain startup not too far from the Hub, I'm looking at you).

If you've had a taste of that well and don't want to go back, and aren't well positioned for academic jobs (which would certainly sound to be the case), then the question becomes: what are you trying to get out of it? The day that I realized that I just don't care 75 hours of lab work a week worth anymore because I don't even want an academic or top-of-the-heap industry job was the happiest day of my graduate career; I'm doing it for my own betterment now, and if I quit it's because it's not worth it anymore.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:31 PM on September 1, 2008

Can you take a semester off or something? I'm not sure how it works in the phd world, but maybe a little break would help you power through it when you get back.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 8:32 PM on September 1, 2008

-dont cry, its not worth it.
-dont listen to those who say you should finish just because you've invested time. Time means nothing.
-If you want to bail, start looking for a job. Having a job offer in hand will do wonders for your psyche and your pocketbook and you can leave with some confidence and pride.
-people leave ALL the time, in various stages of the grad program. Why on earth do you think this is strange or a 'failure' or some kind? Good god man, dont you talk to your colleageues? Every single one of them has considered bailing on a daily or weekly basis. Its the nature of grad school. (And every one of them thought they were alone in thinking so and thought that represented some kind of existential 'failure').
-Entering or leaving grad school should be thought of as no more different than getting or quitting a new job. Its not a judgement on you; there is SO much more to the context of grad school than your particular self worth, just like with any particular job you get. If you no longer have or want to do anything interesting in academe, then leave! Its a job and an investment like any other - there is a time when it might be worthwhile for you and a time when it may not be worthwhile for you. Move on to greener pastures. For god's sake, dont cry! its so not worth it and so not worth beating your self worth up over.
-At least 2/3 of my grad colleagues left before finishing - and are extremely happy about it in their jobs/marraiges/travels. Some took a lot longer than 6 years before NOT finishing and bailing instead. It happens *all* the time, in *all* grad programs (science programs and humanities programs, both).

It would be nice to leave with a masters if its honestly doable (if its not, then fine, just go to greener pastures without it). It would be nice if your dept, instead of only criticizing your work, took an active interest in it and helped you finish it. (But since when were academic depts known to have a heart?). If they wont, fine, move on to greener pastures.

Every year that you're miserable (over academe?! Academe has no heart; its a job like any other; whatever value comes out of it for individuals is strictly personal). Every year that you're miserable is another year that you're not happy. Think about it.
posted by jak68 at 8:41 PM on September 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Man, I also could have written your post myself. Many times in fact.

My suggestion:

Take 3 months off. I don't mean just switch projects or even go home, I mean I buy a plane ticket to Europe, a Eurail pass, and a backpacking bag.

Your real problem is a lack of perspective. Six years in a PhD program produces a TON of mental baggage and this prevents any clear thinking / decision making. All the stress and crap you have dealt with for six years has piled up without any release.

You need to go far far far away from everything PhD and Microbiology for awhile. Long enough that you find yourself stop introducing yourself as a PhD student. Then, after two months of bumming around Europe, when you are working part time as a waitress in Bratislava or as a au pair in Crete while taking guitar lessons from a attractive Australian you will FINALLY be able to look back at the PhD program with clear thinking.

You need to get out in the world and remember that THE REAL WORLD EXISTS. Everyone (most even) do not put in 12 hours days AND then feel guilty for not working for the remaining 12. People have hobbies! There are topics of conversation other than recombinant Salmonella typhimurium vaccine strain. Really! There are! I am not trying to be funny, PhD programs are like cults, they suck you in (I am not implying that they are necessary bad, but the analogy fits). You need some time to de-program yourself so you can decide what you want to do.

Don't have the money to do this? Take out student loans. I am dead serious. Continuing in or quitting a PhD program simply because you did not want to spend the $4-6k to get some perspective and make an informed, rational decision is sheer stupidity. It will be the best student loan you ever took out.

**Disclosure: I am in a PhD program, so do not take this post as some rant against them. But being in PhD programs have major negatives and I bet any phd student reading this will agree with most of what I have said.

Good luck with whatever you decide!
posted by Spurious at 8:57 PM on September 1, 2008

I'm also in a doctoral program, and in your situation (6 years in and despairing), I would seriously consider the advice Spurious gives you. In my own case (3 years in and sometimes despairing), I've kind of contrived to stay ensconced in the cult to keep me going.

I noticed that you said this:

Taking a leave of absence is not an option.

posted by Beardman at 9:06 PM on September 1, 2008

Regarding the "Taking a leave of absence is not an option." comment.

If the alternative to taking a leave of absence is likely quitting or chronic debilitating depression... then it IS A VERY REAL OPTION. In fact, it is likely the only viable option.
posted by Spurious at 9:15 PM on September 1, 2008

Agree with Spurious - the only leave I could get half a year into starting my PhD was "sick leave". I would imagine this is available in most universities, even when all other leave is out of the question. As I was exhibiting all the symptoms of major depression at the time of taking leave - even though I didn't realise it at the time - the doctor had no problem signing off on the paperwork.

Think of it as a necessary investment in your mental health.
posted by Weng at 9:28 PM on September 1, 2008

Good for you on the therapist.

NikitaNikita has good advice.

One thing I can say for sure - a lot of this sounds like the fault of your adviser (although it is your fault for picking this person and staying with them). If you have a good work ethic and did well in your coursework you shouldn't be having trouble getting some publishable sets of experiments completed given sufficient guidance. You aren't a shouldn't have to carry the whole intellectual burden at this point in your career, although you should by now be showing signs of independence.


After six years it's triage time. You need one first author paper at minimum to move on. I have a lot of friends who had a single-paper PhD and then a home-run postdoc and got the jobs that they wanted, so you aren't out of the game as of yet.

There are some missing bits to your post that would help: are you close to having a thesis to defend, or is the end still out of sight? Is it that things you have tried haven't worked or that your experiments haven't had focus?

If you can see, within a year or two, a pathway to a publication, talk to your advisor, tell them that you want to zero in on this and then graduate and act accordingly, meaning drop all of the side projects.

If you don't see it, talk to your advisor about it. If they can't come up with somewhat of a sure thing for you in that time frame I'd look to someone else in the department. Changing labs at or near the end sucks, but it isn't all that unusual. Find someone whose lab is doing something that is working and ask if you can finish off a small, publishable piece of it. Let them know in no uncertain terms that you have a two year time frame at most.

You need to decide if you want to do this....your situation is not optimal, but many people recover from it with hard work and focus.

Memail me if you'd like to talk. Good luck.
posted by overhauser at 9:50 PM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Currently stagnating. As a post-doc. Physics. Know exactly what you're talking about.

I say stick with it through the Ph.D., if only in name rather than spirit. Right now: write a few background chapters of the thesis. Gather the literature and do some bibliography busy work. Start drawing intricate figures that you know should end up in the thesis. Attend lots of seminars.

Build up a big picture viewpoint of your field: What are the important problems? What techniques are on the leading edge? What ought to be answerable in 10 years? Then, with these issues in mind, talk to your committee members. Let them see your perspective of the larger scope, and then ask for their assistance in rounding out your specific project. It is a vital part of their job.

As for the future? I know it doesn't feel like it...ever...but you're smarter and more persistent than damn near everybody. You have the option of doing whatever you love for a living. If that is academics, then take time to pick the right post-doc. Realize that some of the best post-Ph.D. opportunities, especially in your field, might be outside of US universities: national labs, private research institutes, overseas.

Sound like you've got plenty of mefimail pity-partners above, but add me to the list if you need.
posted by fatllama at 1:31 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone, for the responses. In order to answer a couple of questions- yes, I'm done with qualifiers and all that and I would estimate that I have less than a year left. I'm fully funded for another two years. I've come to terms with the fact that I may not get a publication from my project, and I'm perfectly open to a future career in industry or outside of traditional academia. I do like my project and it's interesting, but in hindsight, it was far too open-ended and not the best choice for a graduate thesis. (For the science-y folks, I'm investigating the mechanism of action of an antimicrobial peptide. When I started, my advisor was basically like "here's a petide that kills bacteria. Find out how.") My advisor is very hands-off, and my project is outside of the lab's primary research areas, so basically, I've been puttering along on my own for the past few years, designing my experiments based on my own data and the literature. Things moved along fine for a while, but I hit a wall a couple of years ago, and my last thesis committee meeting was a train wreck. Theoretically, I could change labs, but it would mean starting over from scratch, and I just don't think I have it in me to do so. I originally said that I couldn't do a leave of absence because my advisor is planning to close down the lab in six months or so, and has been very vocal about the fact that time is of the essence. But when it comes down to it, if I might quit anyways, taking a month or two off is a risk worth taking, and I could always pull the "medical reasons" card.

My next thesis committee meeting is in October, so that should give me an indication if there is a light at the end of the tunnel or not.

Thanks again for the responses and the memails. Either way, I'm sure I'll be fine in the long run, but damn, grad school sucks right now.
posted by emd3737 at 6:10 AM on September 2, 2008

Like others, I feel your pain (I'm a 3rd-year humanities PhD and think about quitting almost every day). If you've got only a year left (and funding for two), I'd say stick it out and keep going to get your piece of paper. Maybe give yourself a timeline -- "if I'm not done by X, I leave the PhD." It'll probably make you work faster, depending on how much you want the degree. Absolutely you need to find good advisors -- maybe not switch out of your lab (though, given that you've been independent there for the past few year, it might not matter), but at least find some faculty support somewhere to fire you up and keep you going. Best of luck.
posted by pised at 6:27 AM on September 2, 2008

Nothing publishable? Have you looked at the junk that gets published? I am half-joking, but do be careful you are not setting your threshold too high. I am seriously amazed at people successfully publishing papers on stuff I would consider too trivial.

Notice also that it is one of the burdens of science that a huge number of investigation results are disappointing. That is the way science is, you don't get the results you hoped for, or get the "wrong" ones or 3 months of experiment turn out to have been contaminated or.... So, the system is built to accommodate that fact. Plenty of people have got a PhD on a side-branch after their main theme turned out to be a flop. Your department should be able to help you get things together.

What does it take to be "exceptional" at science? My experience around some high-award holders is that mostly they don't think they are head-and-shoulders above their compatriots, just they were in the right place at the right time, and worked hard. Surely you have met some senior professors who are profoundly dumb?

Listen to NikitaNikita.

My take on the "don't count the time you have already spent" brigade is that they have a point. In general, you should not make decisions based on sunk costs -- on what you have already spent, which is irrecoverable. Make decisions based on what something will cost you in the future. But from where you stand, presumably you can have a PhD with 18 months or two years of work (or less? how bad is it really?). The rest of us should be so lucky! You have this huge asset, and should not lightly toss it away.

A PhD is very useful whatever direction your life later takes. So you need to take a hard look at how you can get one from where you are now. Asking the senior person on your committee for advice is a good step. Changing your supervisor sounds very sensible. It is your department's problem as well as yours.

At the same time, doing something about the crying is important -- therapy or a long holiday or whatever. If you have been staying rolled up in a small ball, unroll yourself and take some steps in a forward direction -- if it is really bad, just as far as a doctor and some sick leave, but hopefully into the department and making some new plans for a new attack on your problems.

It can be the sensible rational decision to walk away. If that is what you decide on, go without looking back. You can hold your head up high about what you have achieved -- you have learned new skills, and gained valuable experience, in fact you have received the benefits of PhD training anyway.
posted by Idcoytco at 6:45 AM on September 2, 2008

Another "endless graduate school" survivor here. I'd say stick it out and get the Ph.D., since you've already invested this much time in it. An "exit master's" never looks good unless you've got some spectacular alternative lined up (a classmate bailed out with a master's because he wanted to get into NASA's astronaut training program!) A Ph.D. is a ticket to a lot of jobs you'd never be considered for with a master's. (With a master's you're overqualified for a lot of stuff just as much as with a Ph.D., so either drop out altogether or stick it out for the doctorate.)

Anyway, find another advisor and try to wring something out of the work you've done so far. "Ph.D. caliber" is extremely subjective and another advisor, perhaps in a different department, might feel differently about your work. Are you at a big school where there are other departments, perhaps in other divisions, where you could work? F'rinstance: Biology Department at the undergraduate campus, Microbiology Dept at the Medical School, Epidemiology Dept at the School of Public Health, that sort of thing?

It took me 6 years to finish my Ph.D. and the odd thing was that it all came together in the last 6 or 8 months. Shortly before that I was actually considering dropping out and joining the Navy, of all the crazy ideas (WTF was I thinking?) so hang in there, your big break may be just around the corner.

Graduate school sucks bigtime and you have my heartfelt sympathies. Good luck!
posted by Quietgal at 7:40 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

After 6 years I dropped out of grad school in computer science. I went to work as an engineer in Silicon Valley. I loved the work, and felt like everything was much better as a hokey hacker than as an academic. However, the guilt and shame I felt about leaving the Ph.D. unfinished was enormous. So, I went back after four years of being out of school, and after a lot of confusion and bad luck ended up finishing my degree. I even taught for a few years in a University in Boston, but I hated it. Now I'm back roughly doing the kind of thing I was doing before I finished my degree, and I don't even put the Ph.D. on my business card. But the sense of release I felt when I finished and did my dissertation defence was palable, and worth every minute of the agony of finishing it.

I would stick it out. It builds character.

Somebody told me that a Ph.D. dissertation doesn't need to be the most important work of your career. In fact, if it is that's a bad thing generally. Figure out what the minimum standard is, and produce that. That's my advice.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 9:27 AM on September 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a fifth-year grad student, and can really really relate to a lot of your feelings. And things are made so much more difficult by the current funding situation - other labs are going to be less likely to take a new 6th year student if they're already having trouble supporting their current students.

Do you have any idea what you might want to do for a living after grad school? In my department, students who want to exit bench science (and go on to work for the FDA, a consulting firm, or the more paper-pushing side of the pharmaceutical industry instead of doing a traditional postdoc) are generally let pass with less complete theses. If you're interested in going this route, try making some contacts. If you can mention a job opportunity at your next thesis meeting, tell them what deadline you'd like to meet and have them tell you the minimum experiments they need to see from you in order to get a barebones dissertation together.

And definitely in the meantime start writing a chapter or two of your thesis - getting something tangible done will make you feel a lot better.
posted by twoporedomain at 11:34 AM on September 2, 2008

I was in grad school for 4 years (PhD program in cell biology) and dropped out. I was working on a leftover project and I was absolutely hating bench work. Also, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after grad school but I was certain I did not want to work for industry or the government, and I wasn't exactly thrilled with having to deal with the politics of academia for a living (it seemed that my adviser was caught up in this battle day in and day out). I was an excellent student and did well in my classes, but I wasn't cut out to be a PhD.

I do not regret my decision to leave one bit - the grad school gave me a master's degree as a consolation prize. I didn't consider my leaving grad school a failure - I just considered it a "change of plans" - and I had never quit anything before in my life! If I had a different advisor or a different project - maybe I would have stuck it out. But the right thing for me to do, given my circumstances, was to get out.

That said, it doesn't really sound like you really want to quit. You sound frustrated because you're on a deadline you can't do anything about, for an advisor who isn't giving you any help, and your project is treading water. If this is the case, what you need is a game plan - overhauser's advice seems pretty solid. Good luck!
posted by wearyaswater at 1:58 PM on September 2, 2008

Did you get a Ph.D. in science and was it worth it? Yes I did. I'm not sure it was worth it yet. "Worth it" is a pretty darn flexible term, and relies a lot on what else I would have done with my time.

Should I stick it out and finish? That's the big question isn't it. A key thing to ask yourself is what skills are you getting. When the phd is done and you're looking for jobs there are two things you'll need, skills and/or connections. Your advisor sounds useless on the later, so you must look to yourself for the former. Do you have technical identifiable transferable skills? Because without them you'll be in for a world of hurt. A skillless phd is less employable than a skillless master's degree. And if anyone has an opinion to the contrary, please, please email me with details.

Should I give science another shot, or am I really not cut out to be a scientist? If you can find a way to enjoy it, you should give it another shot. You may not be cut out to be a scientist, in terms of temperment not capability, but the experience and feelings in your question are not in and of themselves unusual. Sadly.
posted by Shutter at 12:05 PM on September 3, 2008

I went through something like this around the same point in my grad program (mol. biol.) Fortunately my advisor was supportive enough (in a "tough love" sort of way) to push me forward to finish my thesis and move on to a post-doc. (As he expressed it at the time, "I'm tired of seeing you around here. Finish up and get out of here already!")

I had thought I was burned out on my research topic; about 9 months into my post-doc it became clear I was burned out on science in general. Having the Ph.D. was a big big help in the transition into "normal" work -- for a lot of people without heavy academic backgrounds, the doctorate is a *big* deal, even if you end up in a completely unrelated field. It still sort of boggles me, ~8 years later, how impressed people get just because of those letters after my name.

So, sticking it out has some value -- it has been well worth it to me to have finished it up, and even though I'm in something not terribly related to my Ph.D. work (IT work) I still use the critical thinking and presentation skills that I had drilled into me during gradual school, basically every day.

The "take some time off" advice is good. The getting some therapy is good. The "reach out to your committee members" advice is very good. Depending on how the departmental politics work, you may also have some luck reaching out to the department chairperson. I think the key insight and the thing most people don't realize until after they complete their thesis is that a whole lot of the process is under your direct control -- way, way more than you realize right now.

Good luck!
posted by genehack at 6:27 PM on September 3, 2008

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