I just got my masters in Biophysics and want to leave. Should I?
December 12, 2013 8:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm in a Ph. D. program in Biophysics. I'm getting paid to be here. I've joined a lab and finished the classes, but I still have at least 2 and a half long years of research to go. I don't care for my project, I don't care for the town I'm in, and I don't even know if I care about science anymore. Finally someone noticed and I've been told I need to step up my game.

I had no experience in biology prior to joining (my undergrad degree was in english and physics), and my reasons for getting my degree were pretty dumb - i.e. I wanted to work on resurrecting dinosaurs and immortality, I didn't have any other plans, the economy, I really liked my physics professor and he said it was a good idea. Turns out I hate biology, but I was able to join a lab that was more physics-y. Even that though just doesn't do it for me. I can recognize that the work my lab is doing is really cool and potentially world-changing, but all the recognition in the world doesn't make me want to do it one little bit.
Today the head of my lab finally (I've been waiting, hoping, for him to do this for MONTHS) called me in and said I had earned a reputation for being a poor worker, being out often, and (most damning) lacking curiosity. I said nothing but in my head I agreed with him. He says if I don't show serious improvement by the end of January he'll be writing a letter to the department head.
Three questions:
1. Is this just a normal bout of imposter syndrome/ grad school angst?
2. Will I hate myself for leaving in 3 or 5 or 10 years?
3. Will my lack of motivation and poor work habits follow me wherever I go? I'm in therapy partially because I hate my job and feel really guilty for not being passionate about it/working hard at it, but it doesn't seem to be helping much. I want more than anything to know that it's the job that is making me such a lousy worker and not some intrinsic laziness in me.
posted by anonymous to Education (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
OMG just leave! Grad school is a long slog even if you love it. If you hate it, it is the worst thing in the world. You will not regret leaving with a Masters (I sure as hell don't). You WILL regret having wasted another two or three more years than you should have (I sure as hell do).

I now have a job that I love. The depression, the lack of motivation, the just-not-caring-ever...it is (mostly) gone.
posted by rockindata at 8:19 AM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

Yeah just leave. Some of the smartest (I mean MENSA-level) people I know are PhD dropouts.

No therapy can make you like something you don't like, so don't over think this.

Go back to the head of your lab, say you've considered his comments and agree that this isn't the place for you even though the research is amazing and you love the people etc. etc., and then hand in your resignation. Wish him all the best, thank him for helping you address something that has been bothering you for a while, add them on linkedIn, and sayonara!

You're waiting for someone to give you direction in life; now it's time to go out there and grab it!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:23 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Start applying for jobs and, once you find one that makes you happy, leave. Science isn't for everybody and the terminal master's exists for those people who are smart enough to realize that this isn't the indentured servitude they're looking for.

My friends who quit grad school are almost universally happy with their decision.

And please don't let people guilt you into staying. You've given them a lot more than you've been paid.

This is also what I tell grad students in my program as they move to the ABD stage. I want them to be happy and successful. And if they're not happy, they won't be successful.

But do wait till you find a job. Unemployment sucks and you won't get any support if you quit school (I think).
posted by eisenkr at 8:24 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, leave. ASAP. I am a firm believer that you should not spend a day in a profession you don't want to be in, forget 2.5 years.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:24 AM on December 12, 2013

1 & 2: Neither seem likely. You have no plans for the eventual Ph.D., hate your job, and aren't taking any ownership of any part of your job up to and including initiating discussions with your boss to either improve the situation or end the situation. You have several more years ahead of you and relationships are already rocky. Give yourself permission to leave.

3: It's probably a combination of bad fit and bad habits. The former tends to encourage the latter. So I don't think you're doomed, but I do think that in the future you need to be more proactive both in the planning/entry phase to jobs so that you don't end up in a job because someone else thought it was a good idea, and in the day-to-day realities and performance of the job so you don't wait MONTHS to have a conversation you want to have.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:26 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes! Leave! Definitely leave; grad school is hard and long and only worth doing (especially in this job market) if it's a thing that you enjoy. You now have a degree that will be useful if you want an industry job in that field, and have spent no money and only a few years getting it. Take advantage of that, and get out before this gets any worse.

But also: figure out what you actually want to do, not just what will be easiest. A thing that's easy will never make you work hard, and though finding a thing you actually find interesting or rewarding isn't a guarantee of lifelong inspiration, it certainly helps.

I say this as a person who is in grad school and loves grad school and knows that leaving wouldn't be the right thing for me, but that it is because of me, not because grad school is some inherently good thing to do. It is easy to become convinced that grad school is somehow good in and of itself, but that is so definitely not the case, and spending time with people who are not in grad school is a good way to remind yourself that this attitude has a lot in common with Stockholm Syndrome.
posted by dizziest at 8:26 AM on December 12, 2013


This part didn't convince me you need to leave:

Today the head of my lab finally...called me in and said I had earned a reputation for being a poor worker, being out often, and (most damning) lacking curiosity...He says if I don't show serious improvement by the end of January he'll be writing a letter to the department head.

But this part did, like WHOA:

I've been waiting, hoping, for him to do this for MONTHS

posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:32 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you can leave with a Masters, do it.

So what do you get if you don't? A Ph.D. in a subject you hate. Yay?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:32 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone is saying to leave, but you are right to bring up the issue of "perhaps I just hate everything?" This is certainly possible. Is there something that you really do want to do, science or not? Do you have long-term goals? What makes you happy? Not a bad idea to think about what makes you happy before quitting and flailing into another program that won't solve the underlying issues.
posted by Melismata at 8:38 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do not see any talk about what you want to do with your life or what your goals are. Except that you no longer care about science.

A PhD program was very psychologically taxing for me, and I didn't want to do anything in life other than get a PhD and become a researcher. If you would be happy doing anything else and are not happy doing research, then leave and do that other thing.
posted by deanc at 8:40 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I dropped out of my PhD program several years into it with all of my research done and 60 pages of my dissertation under my belt. I should have dropped out sooner.

That being said... I have a successful, rewarding career and am paid very well, but dropping out of my PhD program made me much sadder than I thought it would. I believed that my research was important and would help my profession, and I felt some obligation to my participants, so those things continue to plague me with some regret. Also, I have always put probably too much stock in the hope that I am at least clever if not other things, so my ego took a hit when I didn't finish.

Having a PhD would make no difference for me with regard to my career pursuits or how much I am paid. The only thing I can't do, really, is become a f/t professor at a university (which interested me at one point, but no longer). I know the reality is that I can have a happy, successful, and rewarding work life without a PhD; however, having put so much effort into my PhD program, and having had a true interest in my research, made it difficult to leave. I left to live a normal life - to have time with family, friends and pursue other interests - and to simply have some time in the day when I'm able to feel like there is nothing else that I should be doing at that particular moment (which I never felt while doing my PhD). It was hard to leave and I think I would be less emotional about it if I'd left earlier. YMMV
posted by analog at 8:46 AM on December 12, 2013

What are you going to do with a PhD in a field you hate? It's okay to quit and go find something you don't hate doing.
posted by rtha at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2013

You should quit. Life is too short to continue with any job you hate. However, before you quit, look for another job. What do you actually want to do? Time to expend some energy thinking about that.
posted by Joh at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2013

Will my lack of motivation and poor work habits follow me wherever I go? I'm in therapy partially because I hate my job and feel really guilty for not being passionate about it/working hard at it, but it doesn't seem to be helping much. I want more than anything to know that it's the job that is making me such a lousy worker and not some intrinsic laziness in me.

I doubt that you have some kind of bone-deep laziness that will hound you wherever you go, I think you're just working a job you hate for shit money, but you're scared to quit, so you're hoping they'll fire you and take that responsibility off your hands. Plus, grad school is a hothouse for that kind of angsting, I've never met anyone whose program was more than a year long who didn't have at least a bit of it. So I wouldn't over-think your frustration and exhaustion, and I wouldn't make an identity out of it.

Even if you are working a job you hate for shit money, though, it's still your job. Line up another one before you quit. Make sure that the new job has at least as large and as stable a paycheck as you're getting now from the lab, and that it has at least as much room for growth as your PhD program does. If you don't, I think you will regret leaving, because you'll be going from the frying pan in into the fire in terms of feeling at a dead end. In the meantime, work hard enough that lab won't fire you. Leaving on bad terms or being suddenly unemployed/broke (and still likely in the town you don't like), *can* haunt you, in the way that a phase of laziness can't.
posted by rue72 at 9:21 AM on December 12, 2013

Master out, grab a real job, begin enjoying life as you aren't expected in the lab at 8pm on a Saturday.

Recent MSc biochem grad who entered uni with the expectation of reading for a PhD: More money, less stress, and anything can be made into a hobby these days.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:28 AM on December 12, 2013

Maybe you do hate everything. It's easy to say "quit." I quit, but that's because I got a good paying job with better equipment than colleges could afford for their labs. And I wanted to be treated better than grad students are treated, and I got that. But I'd first want to know what you love. You speak of lack of motivation, but what would motivate you? I think you need to quit in favor of something, not just to get away.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:28 AM on December 12, 2013

I know plenty of people who dropped out of science PhD programs and none of them regret it even a little bit. I don't even think it does matter if you hate everything, because even if you end up in another job you hate you're probably at least going to get paid better and have more reasonable hours than you do as a grad student, and there's probably not going to be this expectation that you love and are committed to your work the way there is in grad school.

Start talking to recruiters; depending on where you are and what the biotech market is like there you may be able to get temp/contract work very quickly. (On preview, whoops! Missed that you hate biology. But talk to tech/biotech recruiters anyway.)
posted by mskyle at 11:39 AM on December 12, 2013

I'll add to the chorus saying you should find something different to do.
Make sure you have an exit plan.

My story: I was four years into a neuroscience PhD program, technically ABD. But while I liked science and doing experiments, I was having trouble finding a thesis project and lab. Friends and family told me I was good at explaining what I was doing, so I thought maybe I should become a science writer or such; I also talked with an alumni mentor who I found through the university's career center. I asked for a leave of absence from the program, found a part-time job in another lab as a research tech in order to keep earning some money, and got an internship with a local TV health reporter. Within a year I was working full-time at the TV station, could give up the lab job, and began an entirely new career that has had its own twists but been pretty fun and fulfilling.

tl;dr I used the skills I had while figuring out something new, which made the transition financially easier and less emotionally stressful.
posted by underthehat at 11:45 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a similar experience as a graduate student in biophysics, except that I bailed voluntarily before anyone ever took heavy notice in my disengagement. I took an MS and have spent the past few years trying to figure out how to get by as a sane individual. It hasn't been easy, because my problems I had in grad school I also had outside of grad school. However, it is obvious now, as it was then, that there wasn't any point in getting a PhD if I didn't have my heart it in it. You might be able to get out with the degree, you won't get out with any worthwhile skills unless you are motivated to put in the work. If you're at all like me, you'll have some hard years ahead of you regardless of whether you leave or stay. But I've landed on my feet and I probably wouldn't have if I had stayed in and tried to wring out a PhD. I'm back to research and I'm enjoying it much more this time around.

But you might be better off trying to stick it through, depending.

The main question you need to answer is "What is next?" It doesn't seem to be this type of research, but depending on your situation, you might be able to develop skills for a different field of work while still getting your degree. That might not be a bad idea. I was a vagabond for a couple years, but I don't know if I would recommend that unless you're both reckless and resourceful.

You might consider staying at the university, switching labs and continuing with therapy and self-reflection, while you try to figure out your plan.

Have you considered trying to switch programs? That probably wouldn't be easy, but it might be able to give you a fresh start without leaving the safety umbrella of studentdom, which is quite nice, let me tell you.

Have you considered teaching high school? You could probably get a job doing that but I wouldn't get into that if you're struggling with your mental health.

Good luck, it's not easy I know but you'll come out of it
posted by garuda at 12:14 PM on December 12, 2013

Speaking as an advisor of PhD students, absolutely, you should just leave. You are doing nobody any favours by staying, least of all your mentor or yourself. I also have been in a share of jobs that I was just not motivated by. At the time I thought that it was mostly "me" and not the job, but I was wrong: 80% of it is the job. Once you're out of that, I think a lot of your depression and motivation problems will clear up.

That said, two things you said jump out at me:

my reasons for getting my degree were pretty dumb - i.e. I wanted to work on resurrecting dinosaurs and immortality, I didn't have any other plans, the economy, I really liked my physics professor and he said it was a good idea.


I've been waiting, hoping, for him to do this for MONTHS

Both of these are instances of very passive decision-making on your part. Choosing to do a PhD because you didn't know what else to do is not uncommon, though it's almost always a really bad idea. But why were you waiting for him to call you on your performance? Why not proactively come to him and discuss your concerns? It sounds to me like you want to leave but have been unable to cut the knot yourself, and thus want to be forced out. Both of these instances are basically a refusal to make a choice, just letting yourself bob along the wave of circumstance.

I hope you see that this is not a particularly good strategy when it comes to living one's life. You just end up in places that aren't right for you, and -- because you never made the choice in the first place -- you don't get the self-knowledge that comes from struggling with the choice and deciding something.

That's one of the reasons I really think you should decide to leave. Sounds like you might be out eventually anyway, if your performance is so poor, but it would be a great mark of growth for you to actively make that decision yourself. Don't wait to be forced out (or, God forbid, not be forced out and waste many more years of your life in miserable dithering). Stand up, talk to your advisor, take the Master's, and find a different path for yourself.

Then, in the future, make it a goal to always consciously choose whatever path you take. You might still end up somewhere not-great, because none of us are perfect, but having really thought about that choice, you'll be in a much better position to learn from your mistakes and to catch them early while they are still easy to correct.

Good luck.
posted by forza at 2:58 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You graduated from college -- good for you. You decided not to fuck around -- good for you. You decided to go to grad school -- you can't win them all.

GTFO Already! You tried it, you found that it wasn't for you. Try something else. Ideally, you'll develop a theory of the world and your place in it that you'll use to inform what you explore next, but at this point, better to stagger around without a plan than to stay in the wrong place without a plan.

I'm thinking about starting academia anonymous for all the people I know who should, are, or recently quit academia. It is a growing trend, but the dirty nasty truth is that its always been part of the model.
posted by Good Brain at 6:23 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You need to leave the program - you're not contributing to it, you're letting others carry your load, and you're miserable because the choice you made didn't work out.

Okay - it won't be the last choice you make in your life that doesn't work out.

But - get a job first. You've been a student for years and I think you're burned out on school anyway, but don't quit and expect someone else to take care of you. You have a Master's Degree, which may or may not enable you to find fulfilling employment, but whether that happens right away or later is just the way it will go. You need to test the waters and find out what works for you, but you have the education to support yourself and you should. It bothers me that you've just coasted along on this project, knowing full well that you weren't carrying your share, waiting for your boss to fire you - so what's the problem? Whatever it is, you need to kick yourself up into self-reliance now and work out a way to get your ideal career later.

You're still young - you have time; life isn't over just because you don't like your Ph.D. program.
posted by aryma at 7:11 PM on December 14, 2013

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