I don't want to be a professor, I just want to be a lab tech who reads a lot.
November 3, 2011 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me quit grad school.

I'm a second year graduate student in physical chemistry. I'm finding that I'm really unhappy with academic life, to the point where my performance and motivation to keep up with my responsibilities are suffering. The idea of continuing in an academic career fills me with dread; if my problem were just "grad school is tough", I think I could push through my funk, but it's really "grad school is tough, and I don't see any reason to continue."

Today, I picked a fight with a professor, because I felt our latest exam had been unreasonable and that his own statements supported my assertion that it was not an appropriately paced exam (he'd specifically compared it to a qualifying exam, in which we have approximately 3x as much time to complete an equivalent amount of material.) He denied it, we went back and forth a bit, he told me to come see him in his office. And the thing is, I know I was wrong to pick a fight. I know that, in the scheme of things, what I said would make no difference, and that adapting to apparently-impossible expectations is part of the whole game. But I am so thoroughly sick of it, of the idea that we have to constantly adapt ourselves as they move the goalposts back and back, that we're just supposed to accept it and self-medicate on our own time with alcohol and black humor. It's childish, I know, and I kind of hate myself after reading what I've written there, but I think it's indicative of something that I've been realizing a lot of different ways: academia is not a realm where I can be happy. There's a fundamental incompatibility.

I don't know what to do. I can't focus in my classes, or on my work, because I just fantasize about leaving, about going somewhere else and doing something else. I've managed to hold it together on talent (I know that I have the aptitude for grad school, and I think that's part of the problem: I bought into the "If you can, you should." mentality.) I lucked into a great adviser, someone who I have a very good working relationship with, and that makes me feel really guilty about leaving (he's new faculty, tenure-track; I was one of the first students to join his group and I feel awful when I think about how I'd have wasted his limited time, money, and work if I left now.) I'm also afraid, because I don't know what I'd do if I left. It's a hard economy, and if I don't think I'm qualified to do much more than grad school.

I'm sorry, this post is turning into an incoherent mess. Here are the questions: What have people done before? Should I just grit my teeth and stick it out for a Masters? Are there any jobs left, at all, for people with a B.S. and some teaching and research experience? How do I tell my adviser, my professors, that I really don't want to be there any more, especially since it's quite likely that I'll need a few of them to act as references if I want to find a job?
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Are there any jobs left, at all, for people with a B.S. and some teaching and research experience?

You might be qualified to teach high school, depending on which state you live in. There are state programs (not, like, Teach for America) that will take you in with a B.A. and pay for you to go to grad school/get certification concurrently. So you won't starve to death or amass loans, but you still have to go to grad school. Although it's not nearly as difficult as physical chemistry grad school, at least from what I've heard.
posted by griphus at 9:56 AM on November 3, 2011

Do you want to go corporate? We had someone here in our [research] program switch from a PhD to a masters, finish that quickly since she'd been in the program a couple of years, and move cross-country for a corporate job. That was, true, in 2008.

I used to be firmly in the "academia, even when it sucks, is better than corporate life" camp, but the way academia is going these days you might as well move over to the private sector.

Some university folks are still hiring lab staff - civil service level junior scientists and so on. That might be a possibility and a lot of those folks go in with a BS. Pay isn't great, but if your place is like ours it's about what you're making as a grad student but with a 40 hour workweek.

Hating work games will be a problem for you in life. It's a problem for me; it ran my father out of academia. I've coped by choosing a lower skill career path which is sometimes boring, sometimes frustrating, but which has its satisfactions and which isn't tied up with anything I care deeply about. I mean, I care about doing a good job and so on, I enjoy opportunities to learn when I get them, but my passions do not lie in administrative support.
posted by Frowner at 9:57 AM on November 3, 2011

Have you talked to your great adviser about your problems? Or is this something you've bottled up so long that you're bursting at the seams now? If you've told nobody about this, that's a guarantee set up to not succeed. You have to confide in someone who can help you make the right decisions. Your adviser (a person you clearly like and respect) is the person in the best position to help as they know you and they know the specific academic environment you're in.

Good luck
posted by inturnaround at 9:59 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

How far are you from completing an MS?
posted by k8t at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2011

Also, be human and apologize to your prof for the outburst. Admit that things got a bit overwhelming for you at the moment and you apologize for the things you said. I'm sure he's been in the same boat at least once or twice in his life.
posted by inturnaround at 10:01 AM on November 3, 2011

Recognizing that a field isn't for you, and not making the sunk-cost mistake, is a sign of maturity and your advisers and professors will (probably) perceive it as such. They would rather spend their time with students who do want to "be there," so you're being helpful in that regard, but more broadly they're human beings who generally want to see other human beings be happy, and they will (probably) wish you well and be glad to help ease your exit as best they can. Keep in mind that you're describing the process as a wearing-down that is intended to drive-out people who can't or don't want to hack it. You're not really "failing" in the connotative sense if it's built into the system, right?

If you're having difficulty talking to professors without picking fights, that's a problem and you need to take a breath. But when you get that straightened out, you'll be able to talk honestly and frankly with your professors about your decision—if you do decide to quit—and they will (probably) respect you for making it and end up having some helpful advice for you going forward.

From your description of today's encounter, it sounds like you're still feeling pretty raw. There's nothing wrong with making a big decision like this at an emotional moment. Sometimes that's the best of only way. But I think you do need to let such decisions sit for a day or two. Make it in the moment, that's fine...but don't act yet.

As for the master's...? It depends how far along you are, how much you've paid, what's left to do, how much you hate what you're doing, and what you'd do with the remaining time if you didn't spend it finishing the master's. Without knowing all of those—and mostly they're subjective, and only you can measure them or understand the measurements—it's impossible to give good advice. Generally I'd say stick it out and finish the master's for the credential, and for having something concrete to show on your resume ("I spent two years and obtained a master's" looks better than "I spent a year and quit," especially because the only word some employers will hear is "quit"), but again, your mileage may vary. Good luck.
posted by red clover at 10:04 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't help you with the career practicalities (except to say that there's no way to know how things will turn out anyway, and you should trust to your innate capabilities and reach out to as many people as you know for help and further contacts), but I was in exactly your position (though not in your field) and I took far too long to bite the bullet and get out. It is enormously self-destructive to force yourself to stick with something you hate, and I urge you not to succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. You only get one life; use it well.
posted by languagehat at 10:04 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd consider staying in for the master's degree due to the opportunities it likely can provide. Try not to burn bridges; for the potential future support if you decide to come back to some graduate program later after trying something else.

On preview, yes, what inturnaround says (talk with your advisor).
posted by lathrop at 10:05 AM on November 3, 2011

Most universities have career counselors as well as psychological counselors. You might want to talk to both of them. The latter is used to working with people in your same situation and can help you understand what motivates you in the first place.
posted by turtlefu at 10:09 AM on November 3, 2011

Have you started looking at job postings? Try looking at craigslist, your university job posting site, and job listings in research journals. What is your actual skillset? Here in San Diego there appear to be a decent number of jobs for people with a BS and a willingness to put in the work. My roommate (BS in biology) works as, yep, a labtech at one of the many biotech companies here. The bigger labs at UCSD also seem to be hiring lab technicians and data managers.

Also, have you considered taking a leave of absence? Take a year off and work on whatever seems interesting to you. Maybe after a year of working odd jobs, you'll find that you have it in you to finish the master's degree or even the PhD.
posted by millions of peaches at 11:07 AM on November 3, 2011

Get involved in your local Hackerspace, if you aren't already!

If you like the material but hate the environment, academia isn't the only place science happens.
posted by edguardo at 11:08 AM on November 3, 2011

There's a lot of good advice here, of which I think turtlefu's might be the most immediately necessary. To figure out how you'd proceed, you have to know what you want. And you shouldn't determine that rashly.

As languagehat points out, there's something tragic and self-destructive in sticking around if leaving is what would make you happiest. The longer you stay, the more the sunk cost fallacy looms. If the change is really needed, do it boldly. You'll be happier for it.

If the change is needed. You don't need me to tell you that we're starting to hit that time of year that's really difficult in grad school. Headway on research is expected, undergrad assignments to be graded are piling up, the holidays (with all their self-reflection, and "yeah I'm still in grad school" conversations with family & friends) are fast approaching, and the polite goodwill built in the department, borne of the summer's distance has fully eroded. This is the time of year where grad school sucks the most. And when it sucks the most is when its hardest to remember why it could be fulfilling.

So it's also possible that things just are looking dim right now. In that case, you may find that inturnaround's advice is right on. Check in with your advisor. Apologize to the professor. And begin to think about strategies for managing stress that aren't just alcohol and black humor.

Seriously. You want to talk this through with someone. I don't think you'll find many people who went through grad school who didn't have doubtful moments; my suspicion is that if you confess your own, people will be more likely to listen and help than they would be to judge.

Having that conversation in your department might make the department seem a little brighter to you. But if you want to think it through in a safe place outside the department, a university councilor might not be a bad idea.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:16 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

How long you are from the MS matters. If it's not very long and you can stick it out, do. If it's still another year or more away, then it might be better to cut your losses. There's lots of life after academia.

Oh and that great advisor of yours? In addition to talking to said advisor, you should also stop feeling guilty about how you've wasted their time. The worst thing you could do is slog through all of those years through to the PhD, being miserable and making everyone around you miserable, and then still leave the field. *That* would be wasting time (although still mostly your own).
posted by nat at 11:17 AM on November 3, 2011

Oh, dear. You sound like you're done. I was done, too, and I haven't regretted leaving grad school for one minute. No practical advice, but big hugs to you.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:03 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

My advisor decided, apropos of nothing, that he wasn't happy with his new life in Chicago as an associate professor, so he packed up and abandoned our entire lab (biophysics) to go back to an industry job when I was about a year into the research phase of my first PhD program. It was traumatic and terrible, and I was told by our department that I could either leave or start all over again with a new advisor and begin a brand new project. Total prospective setback time = approx. 4 years.

Yeah. Ouch.

So while the circumstances aren't the same as in your situation, the position I was in was remarkably similar. I have always been very, very glad that I stuck it out to get the MS. That opened up teaching jobs (adjuncting at 4-year institutions and teaching full-time at 2-year colleges) that I never would have been eligible to hold otherwise. I was also able to work for a science museum and to run a NASA/NOAA initiative that I, again, wouldn't have been able to with only a BA or BS. So take the MS if it's not going to absolutely kill you.

The other thing I did that I'd recommend is rather than drop out, I took an extended leave of absence from the program while I made the hard decisions about what to do next. I was given a very generous two years to do this, and it made all the difference in the world; having that safety net was enough to keep me from going into a panic.

In the end, I chose to do Teach For America immediately afterwards. Then after teaching college for several years, I wound up going to graduate school again (in a different field, in a different country--also something you might want to consider, as expectations and lab culture can be completely different than it is in the US). In hindsight, this was the best decision I could have made, and that MS really opened a lot of doors for me.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:08 PM on November 3, 2011

First step: go listen to the song "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" and rewrite it to be about leaving grad school. "Just slip out the back, Jack, make a new plan, Stan..."

I am a science professor, I am not your science professor. I know that dropping out of grad school seems like a huge deal to you because it will require a big shift in your identity, and that means recalibrating your vision of yourself and what you want to do with your life. But to everyone else, it is so not a big deal. It happens all the time. People figure out that they hate grad school, and they leave. It's normal. It's very good to figure this out in your second year rather than later.

I and most of my colleagues know that not all of our students will go into academia, and we want to do what we can to help our students be professionally fulfilled. Even from the most selfish, narcissistic perspective, miserable students are not good for lab morale. Talk to your adviser. He will not be surprised. He will be able to give you advice, for example on the question of whether it's worth it to stick it out for your master's degree. In fact it's not unusual for the master's degree requirements to be bent slightly to allow a good student who has decided to leave grad school to get out quickly while still getting a credential (of course this may not be true at all schools).

Your adviser can give you advice on looking for jobs; he may have contacts in industry whom you could talk to. Talk to other students and professors; one of them might tell you about another former student who left and started a company and now is looking for people like you to hire. If you're at a total loss about what to do next, ask your adviser if you could keep working in his lab (as a non-student employee) while you sort out what you want.

If you're really completely burnt-out and you have some money, you can just take off and go backpack around interesting inexpensive location of your choice to recover.
posted by medusa at 12:10 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

red clover: "Recognizing that a field isn't for you, and not making the sunk-cost mistake, is a sign of maturity and your advisers and professors will (probably) perceive it as such"


No. Really. I was virtually thrown under the bus when I did this, and nearly didn't finish my undergrad because I told my advisor I wanted to be an engineer instead of a physicist after I graduated (and I was cordial about it), and was subsequently shunned by almost my entire department.

Calling out a professor on some very obvious bullshit and questioning the entire department's teaching philosophy in front of the accreditation board (I'll never understand who the hell invited me to be on that panel, but I digress) actually earned me a small amount of respect around the department. On the other hand, telling my adviser that I wanted to enter a related field and attend grad school someplace else was academic suicide, and I don't think I'll ever have a chance in hell of getting a good recommendation letter out of a single person in the department.

Depending on your program, it might be a good idea to just keep your head down, and carry on until you have something better lined up.
posted by schmod at 12:23 PM on November 3, 2011

I'm going to be a lone dissenting voice. I hated grad school. I hated grad school So Fucking Much that I posted a question about quitting grad school to AskMe. I disliked my advisor, grew to fundamentally loathe my research project, and wanted to rip the eyes out of my labmates. I got put on probation one year for making inadequate research progress.

But at one point, I asked myself "Is there anything I'd rather be doing than this?". And the answer came to me. "Lazing about in the sun and having sex all day." But that isn't an option for me, and in terms of an actual Thing To Do With My Life, research and teaching are still inconceivably more appealing than anything else I can think of. Even with 8% funding, terrible competition, and everything else. So I muscled my way through my Ph.D., switched out of Terrible Boring Subfield into Much More Interesting Field, and now I'm quite happy doing the whole postdoc thing. We'll see what happens in a few years, but I like academia again for now.

So before quitting, I'd ask myself "Is there anything else I'd rather be doing?" If so, and you can get paid for it, go do it. If not, remember that seriously every grad student ever has hated grad school at least once. Either way, good luck.
posted by kataclysm at 1:43 PM on November 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

I quit grad school after I got my MA. So did my best friend with an MS. There's really no way to guarantee that having the Masters will net you a job, a better job, or any of that. I'm very proud of my MA which is from a top school, but I am not using it at all and it almost kept me from getting the job I have now. So mileage is going to vary. I would talk to a career counselor or even, yes, your advisor about what the possibilities are.

And also, you are not the first nor last student to leave a program. No one is going to hold it against you or take it personally if you say that academia is just not the place where you want to rest your head.
posted by sm1tten at 4:10 PM on November 3, 2011

1) Taking a leave of absence might be better than quitting. You don't have to come back, of course, even if you call it a "leave of absence." But it leaves the door open — and that makes it easier for you to just up and go if you feel the need to go, without agonizing over whether you're ready to Leave Forever And Ever.

2) You may as well try talking to your advisor and professors about this stuff before you go. If they're good people they might give useful advice or at least consolation. If they start shunning you or badmouthing you or any of that bullshit, you will have learned something valuable: they're not good people! Some programs are just run by toxic assholes and there's no helping it. If that's the case where you are, then get the hell out and good references be damned. Sticking with a bunch of assholes just to try to get on their good side is a fool's errand.

3) In most programs, your first year is basically just a long drawn-out hazing ritual. In some programs, the hazing stops after one or two years; in some, it continues indefinitely. See if you can suss out which way yours is. Once the hazing stops, research can be really fun (even for people who felt burnt-out as hell early in the program), but you want to make sure that it's going to stop at some point.

4) The job market for people with a B.S. sucks right now, but the academic job market sucks really hard too. Don't stay in a program you hate just because you're afraid you can't get a straight job. Hell, you can always deliver pizza for a year and then go back and get a teaching certificate or whatever.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:50 PM on November 3, 2011

What else can you do?
If you are good at it or it is enduringly fascinating, it is one thing, if it is forever an unrewarding effort, it is another.
Life is too short to plug away at something you hate. Skills translate, especially if you have other skills, social skills, writing skills, etc.
Figure out what you actively want to do. In the meantime, do what you can do, preferably well. If you can at least take a pride in your work, that is something.
posted by provoliminal at 8:08 PM on November 3, 2011

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