Help me understand the consequences of dropping out of grad school.
March 10, 2010 11:21 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the consequences of dropping out of grad school.


1. 28 years old. I do not yet have a masters or PhD, even after 4 years, a Master's is about a year off. Coursework is done for an MS.

1a. My department is deeply fragmented, political, and dysfunctional, and I have been used as a political pawn more than once. I have been staff in other departments where this is not the case.

2. My program promised a degree in neuroscience, but it will, in fact, be Psychology. I learned this in year 2.

3. I am not a Psychologist and would never represent myself as one. Rather, I would like to be an engineer working on optical systems, but my math is withered from a background in the humanities.Put myself through Calc 1. Working on 2. Meagre programming abilities.

4. My interest and skills are all technical - optics, cameras, and displays. I spend every last dime and free hour on this stuff, obsessively. I apply what I've learned studying vision.

5. The building I work in is unsafe, it recently partially collapsed. My office was destroyed. I am working in an equipment storage area. This is better than my very first office, which was destroyed by a sewage leak instead of a building collapse.

6. I hate where I live. There is about to be a major flood for the second year in a row. My stipend is not nearly enough to survive. My last health issue caused me to lose my apartment. I am constantly scrounging for money.

7. My university is hostile to my outside activities/projects which are lauded at other universities (I'm giving three talks this month alone).

8. I have no debt, children, or strings to speak of. Just a lot of equipment and a lot of anger that is ruining my mental health.

9. The best possible outcome to my situation seems to be a degree in a field I don't respect and which I will never participate in again.

10. My research in this field is not meaningful and does not make much of a contribution.

My questions, in order of importance:

What are the short and long-term consequences of dropping out?
How will this affect my entrance into future graduate programs (if I pursue any)?
What kind of jobs or paths will I exclude myself from (aside from academic jobs)? Would they have been available with a degree in Psych?

Any other advice would be much appreciated.

I've read _everything_ with the tag "gradschool", including the question that got me in 4 years ago.. There is a small chance I will not drop out -- I haven't yet -- but it is vanishingly small.
posted by fake to Education (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In your giving of talks, I assume you're meeting people at conferences. Are any of these acquaintances associated with healthy academic (neuroscience!) departments which might welcome a dedicated grad-student already halfway along the path? Transferring does happen, and it sounds like it could be a good option for you.

If you know your department is dysfunctional, they might, too, but it's forbidden to mention. As with jobs interviews and former bosses, you make polite reference to "funding in the department wasn't great" and "better opportunities to do neuroscience if I move on" and avoid mention/acknowledgement of politics, bad management, terrible facilities, etc. It will be understood, yet gives if you mention it explicitly gives a bad impression.
posted by aimedwander at 11:30 AM on March 10, 2010

(subtract one "gives" from that last sentance, please)
posted by aimedwander at 11:30 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Networking is a great idea, but my talks are unrelated to my studies (links in profile). I don't want to continue in neuroscience, unless it was in instrumentation.

Good to know that I shouldn't talk about the department politics elsewhere.
posted by fake at 11:35 AM on March 10, 2010

If your side interests are developed to a point where you're giving talks at universities, is there a reason you can't bail out of your current program while switching into one that actually covers the things you want to study?
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:35 AM on March 10, 2010

You may wish to ask the mods to anonymize this, if you care about your current program not finding out about it. (Also, I can't speak to the consequences of doing so, but I think you should run away from this place very quickly. Part of your building collapsed? Run!)
posted by rtha at 11:38 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Weak math background puts me below entrance requirements for most engineering programs. I can't take undergrad courses as a grad student, so my self-study does not show up on transcripts.
posted by fake at 11:39 AM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: 8. I have no debt, children, or strings to speak of. Just a lot of equipment and a lot of anger that is ruining my mental health.

Then GTFO.

If its just time you wasted, count yourself lucky, you're lot leaving with thousands in debt. Walk away, move back in with your parents if you have to, get a part time job, save money, figure out what you love and start formulating a plan to get there. It seems like there are a lot of grad school questions on MeFi and it seems like a lot of them are stooped in misery/regret, if you can leave with little to no consequences and you're this unhappy; do it.
posted by Scientifik at 11:42 AM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding aimedwander, transfers do happen. Use the conferences talks to find a program that does exactly what you need to learn. Then ask only trusted mentors for letters of rec. Remember to phrase these requests as opportunities to make your current program look good, "The background in psychology that I got here at Nightmare Tech has fuelled my interest in neuroscience. I'd like to pursue that interest further." Allowing your letter writers an opportunity to save face will allow them more leeway to write you generous recs.
posted by Sara Anne at 11:42 AM on March 10, 2010

Transferring is an option. My husband, for example, transferred PhD programs two years in, largely for reasons of incompatibility with his supervisor in particular, and the broader dept in general. It does happen. That said: you really need to know the people in the dept you're looking to transfer to. Depending on how you sell yourself, you can either be at an advantage or a disadvantage to more traditional applicants. I've seen and heard of it happening both ways.

I also don't know how small your academic world is or how giant and anonymous, but it's certainly legit to mention things like self-study in cover letters and statements, or even conversations at conferences/workshops. People can and do take these things into account.

One other thing to keep in mind if you look at transferring is that, depending on the school and the dept, you may be at a disadvantage for funding.

All that said, depending on how awful the situation is, I would at least stick it out and get the terminal MS to show for your work.
posted by PMdixon at 11:46 AM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: Frankly, I can't imagine any consequences from dropping out that would be worse than enduring the situation you're now in.
posted by Jelly at 11:52 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Given that you sound pretty active (3 talks this month - awesome!), what are the odds you could use those opportunities to network with a potential new mentor or advisor who could facilitate a transfer to another institution? Seek out folks you think you might want to work with elsewhere, and email them to ask if they'll be attending an upcoming talk or conference you're interested in.

If you end up transferring, you'll need a mentor who can be your advocate and possibly your source of funding, so you want someone who is impressed and hopefully enthusiastic about working with you, even if it's in a different field or sub-field than you are now. Be as clear and straightforward as you can about pitching the idea of working with them, but try to leave your departmental politics out as much as possible - the whole building collapse / psychology vs. neuroscience degree / lack of support at your current school should be enough to give someone a broad sketch of your motivations for wanting to transfer.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:10 PM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: I appreciate the advice regarding transferring, but assuming that is impossible, what might the consequences be? Please keep in mind that my talks are unrelated to neuroscience, and I am not particularly interested in continuing in neuroscience.
posted by fake at 12:22 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: If you're never going to be involved in the field you're getting a degree in right now, I'd say the consequences will be minimal - the folks you're breaking ties with will have no bearing on your future academic/career decisions.

I dropped out of a science grad program in 2007 and am now working in a tangentially-related industry with no ill effects so far, although I imagine the lack of advanced degree could be a hindrance down the line. At the time, though, it was such a mental relief to call it quits - I tendered my resignation, let my apartment know I was leaving in X weeks, packed up or got rid of all my stuff and drove back across country. And it felt damn good.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:32 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might still need references from faculty for jobs, so don't burn any bridges. Inventory the skills that you have developed, and start sending out resumes. Once you've established enough professional contacts in your new job that your academic references won't matter, you're pretty much home free. The only thing that strikes me as a negative consequence is that your student loans will start to come due within the year.
posted by Sara Anne at 12:34 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: If you're this upset? Get out ASAP. Or if you want a conservative option, can you take a semester leave of absence to figure out what you want and regroup? It's often quite easy and reasonable to do - I would list "personal issues" as the primary reason.

Short term - your advisor and/or collaborators may not be very happy with you. Your funding will go away, and your health insurance may go with it. However, it's pretty clear from your post that your mental health may improve.

Long term - you may have difficulty getting recommendations from the people at your institution. You will have to come up with a simple terse explanation for your "nontraditional" path because everyone will ask. Future employers/programs may contact people at your old job. You will lose your institutional affiliation when applying for other opportunities. Your status will drop from transfer to new applicant if you decide to re-enter academia.

BUT - you'll probably be happier. And that probably trumps all this other stuff. It's true that it's hard to leave academia and come back, but it's certainly not impossible and it's not clear that you want to anyway. Get out, and become a badass in whatever field you truly care about.

(Also, without excusing your school's bait-and-switch, it's worth mentioning that lots of card-carrying neuroscientists and experts with exceptional engineering skills have PhD's in psychology or are hired by psychology departments. Since a lot of research in existing fields falls under the neuro umbrella, many universities have been slow to establish diploma-granting departments. The thing that determines your expertise is your published work.)
posted by synapse at 12:35 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: Is there any way your department will let you finish off with some minimal degree - eg leave town now, write up your existing research into a consolation-prize master's? Some programs allow this, maybe you can find out by talking to your DGS. In talking to people in your program, leave out all the frustration (and other intense feelings) and just go with a change-of-interests narrative: "it's clear to me that my interests lie in more technical work on optics, so I am leaving this program. Is there any way I can get a master's by the end of this spring?"

Barring that, it sounds like you should quit without waiting around for the degree.

If it were me, I would be thinking about what city to move to, where I would have a good social support network of family and friends (and where the cost of living is manageable). Then think about career plans that fit with that geographic goal. Chronicle of Higher Education has forums that talk about various issues including life outside academia - they might have useful tips there. It sounds like you have good technical skills. Would you be interested in something like becoming an optician? I don't know what the training process is like for that, but I would guess it's manageable and finite, and then you can get a job just about anywhere.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:37 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: You state your goal is to be an engineer working on optical systems. Work from there. Talk to people doing what you want to do. What kind of training and school is necessary? Then figure out what you need to do to get there. If grad school is required talk to potential advisors in potential programs about what is needed to get into their program and your case in particular. Then ask all whether a Masters in Psych will be useful forthat. If not, walk now. If it could be helpful, decide whether putting in another year to get that piece of paper is worth it. If you were to stay in your field, dropping out of a program before a degree could be a negative. But since you are changing fields I don't see it as too much of a problem. New graduate programs will be concerned whether you will be able to finish their program given your history, but you have very acceptable reasons for abandoning your old program. Such a change in field of study has the potential to reflect positively on your level of intellectual curiosity.

As for talking about a disfunctional department. Contra aimedwater, I don't see it is a problem to say you are coming out of a disfunctional department when you talk to people about your situation. Everyone has been in one or knows of one and knows how they can be. What is unseemly and can reflect poorly on you is being too specific or too personal or dishing too much dirt.
posted by Tallguy at 1:11 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: What about networking for a job in industry instead of networking for another grad school slot for now?
posted by delmoi at 2:39 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: I think it's perfectly okay to leave grad school if you are this wildly unhappy. What stands out to me is that you aren't just unhappy with the traditional things grad students are unhappy with (no money, potentially shitty working conditions) but with the overall field. Why torture yourself for higher education in a field that you don't want to be in? The only people that really survive through PhD programs (in my experience) get through it because they LOVE what they do. It's an essential ingredient.

That being said, I'll just relay my own little story:

I dropped out of a PhD program in biochem/biophys because I was wildly unhappy there. The department was all sorts of fucked up and I just couldn't find a lab that really interested me. I then spent about 6 months sitting around wallowing in self-pity and loathing. Then I got a part time job at Whole Foods and really was hating my life; however, during that time I was figuring out (through trial and error on a lot of interviews) how to get myself a job in academia again as a lab tech. After doing that for a year I decided to apply to pharmacology programs and got into one of the best in the country, which is where I am at now. It turns out that if I'm doing science for an actual practical purpose, like curing a disease, as opposed to just understanding how, say, proteins organize themselves I'm a much happier person.

So, take home message about leaving grad school:

1. It's going to be hard and it's going to hurt, but sometimes that's the only way to make your life what you want it to be.

2. It doesn't mean you can never come back to academia, so if somewhere down the line you want to come back, just figure out what you need to do to make it happen. There's always a way for those who are determined.

My advice would be to do the following:

-try to get your terminal MS if at all possible. I emailed my chair directly and explained that leaving without an MS would be devastating considering the years of work I put in and he told me what to do in order to get it.

-start contacting temp agencies now. At least this will increase your chances of getting a job better than working part time at a grocery store (but if that's what it's going to come down to, suck up your pride and do it)

-take some time off after this before jumping into a new career. Really find out what it is you want to do.

-be proud of yourself for having the courage to make your life what you want it to be. Not many people have the balls.
posted by sickinthehead at 3:02 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: Man, I just left my grad program and I thought I had it bad. You're situation sounds terrible and seriously, you need to get the fuck out. Out of all the issues that you've discussed, this one is the most relevant:

4. My interest and skills are all technical - optics, cameras, and displays. I spend every last dime and free hour on this stuff, obsessively. I apply what I've learned studying vision.

This is what you should be doing. Right now. Get out of grad school because the consequences aren't that bad at all. The main consequence is that on paper the education portion of your resume won't look that great. However, you clearly have extensive experience giving talks and as long as that's on there (as a CV) then that should mitigate the lack of a degree. If you're as skilled and interested in optics and displays as you sound, and you're willing to work for free, I would certainly suggest grabbing some internships at a company that does that sort of thing. Because you left grad school, it might be harder for you to get hired for a paid job immediately, but if you can get your foot in the door and demonstrate quality of work, you're certain to get hired. If not at the place you were working, then at somewhere else when you get a glowing letter of recommendation. Another potential consequence of quitting grad school is a salary cap. You may not be able to earn more than a set amount at a company without having an advanced degree, though this is very company-specific.

Honestly, those are about the only negative consequences that you'll face for the opportunity to do what you love. If you ask me, it's totally fucking worth it. Go for it.
posted by scrutiny at 3:47 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: Visual design + cognitive neuroscience can be a killer combination together.... especially if you throw in a dash of visual storytelling to largely narrative weak science papers. Effective visualization skills + strong narrative + sound empiricism = win. I know many in the cognitive sciences, in both research and professional careers, that understand this and fight hard for students and employees with potential in any of these areas, sounds like you touch all three. If you're in a department that doesn't recognize this and there are no cross-discplinary champions, you probably don't want to be there.

If you want to stay in academia and transfer programs, if you find a good adviser that wants you, they will work the system for you. Based on your love of optics, I could see the domains of perception and psychophysics being a good fit... esp. high-level vision, shape from shading, object and surface perception, visual form, aesthetics, etc. These all fit under the very broad rubric of psychology- there is hard science in psychology, that sound potentially much more aligned to the specific technical skills and interests you describe above. From one of the modern wizards in the field, check out some of the projects here .
posted by oldefortran at 5:17 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: Not having the Master's degree would mean that most teaching opportunities at community colleges would be closed to you. That may not interest you now, but adjunct (i.e., part-time) teaching at community colleges is a nice way to earn some extra money. Most places require you to have the Master's degree to do it.

So if you can, transfer. If you can't transfer, then try to get the MA which, presumably, would be without thesis and, as has been described above, can often be done by appealing to your Dean and Dept. Chair. They will often allow you to drop to the MA by counting your coursework and a test of some kind as satisfying the requirements.

The MA, even if it's in a field you may not choose to work in specifically, is a credential which can be helpful if you're looking for work.
posted by darkstar at 6:11 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: I know tons of people who have dropped out of PhD programs. Most got a master's, but a couple didn't. On the CVs of the people who didn't, it says "Graduate coursework in [field] at [university]". That can mean SO MANY different things. I mean, heck. I had that on my resume for awhile because I was taking classes at a university that I was trying to get into. Certainly not a black mark against me. GTFO, sez I.

You've wasted plenty of time. Why waste more? You don't want a job in this field anyway. You know people who know the things you really ARE passionate about and you know they know you're awesome. Does anyone you know have a job doing something you want to do? Because that's who you ought to be talking to about this.

My only caveat is that if there's even a shadow of a doubt that you'll want to return to grad school in this subject, tread carefully, because once you quit your PhD program good luck ever getting back in.
posted by little light-giver at 6:16 PM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: I left a great PhD program with a Master's (due to lack of subject interest, and with full support of my fantastic advisor), and then immediately abandoned another PhD just one year in (due to total program mismatch, and with a jerky advisor who didn't care either way). No ill effects, six years later.

I think you need to reframe this in your own mind. You're not leaving because the program/building/city sucks. You're leaving because you are seriously awesome, and you know what you want, and you are willing to explore and take risks to get it. It's been a fantastic learning experience, because now you know better where your strengths lie and what you want to do. Hooray, seriously. You failed nothing; you learned everything.

File whatever paperwork gets the MS or MA. Apply for jobs that sound interesting, in whatever discipline you want, in whatever location you want. See if your school offers career counseling, and see if you can find someone smart there to help you brainstorm job options and do some informational interviews. Under the MS/MA on your resume, write "Research Interests: neuroscience of vision and optics" or whatnot, because that's totally compelling, and discuss this in your cover letter as well. No one cares if it was technically a psychology program, and not all psychology programs are touchy feely therapy-oriented anyway. They care about what you're demonstrably good at and what you are passionate about. Apply for nontraditional engineering-ish programs like NYU's ITP or MIT's Media Lab. In your applications write about what you've done and what you're interested in doing, regardless of how it fits with your prior formal education. You are young and unencumbered and educated and interesting. Be bold.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:24 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I left the program -- thank you for all the thoughts and support.
posted by fake at 8:04 PM on April 13, 2010

Congratulations on your newfound freedom!
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:54 PM on April 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks! I also landed a 1-year position in a well-known corporate research lab in LA, so I will indeed be enjoying this new freedom. Ironically, it can only be a 1-year stint because I don't have an advanced degree.

For what it's worth, after taking into consideration what was said here, I talked to my advisor, who has always been solid/good (though little about the program was). He was generally supportive of my decision to leave. We had a beer and discussed reasons for leaving (which I laid out basically as I did in this question, minus the insults to the field) and a little about future plans.

Haven't bothered to tell the rest of my department/program yet and may not, as the rumor mill will do the job for me.

Thanks again, mefites, let's have a drink in LA.
posted by fake at 5:04 AM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

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