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051: Should I change labs or quit grad school?

Jessica was finishing her third year of grad school when she finally decided she had had enough.

Funding had gotten tighter, and her PI had basically checked out.  Many of her lab-mates saw the writing on the wall, and left their projects behind to find other work. With no support from her advisor or peers, she had little hope of turning things around.

And then her thesis project – the one she just proposed and defended – was scooped by a competing lab and published in a major journal.  It was the last straw.

Jessica had three options:

  1. She could quit immediately, and have no degree to show for her three years of work.
  2. She could find some portion of the project to salvage as a Master’s thesis.
  3. She could start all over and try to find a new lab.

Amazingly, she chose Option 3.

A Spork in the Road

This week on the show, we invited Jessica into the studio to share her story.

It’s an impossible position, but one that graduate students face every day – the day you can see the conclusion of your dissertation topic and it’s a dead end.

The decision to forge ahead or cut your losses is so challenging because of the costly investment we make in graduate education.  Graduate school means taking a subsistence salary for an unpredictable number of years, living frugally or taking on debt.  It’s a time when friends and peers are gaining valuable experience for their resumes while you try and try again to get your Western blot bands to appear with “publication quality.”

It’s painful, too, because of the binary outcome.  You either get the degree, or you don’t.  There’s no “92%” when it comes to a PhD, even if you’ve completed all that work.

Jessica shares the play-by-play mental and emotional process she went through during that fateful third year: realizing her current situation was untenable, remembering the optimism that had brought her to grad school in the first place, and facing her uncertainty about the future.

She describes how she decided to start over in a new lab with a totally new project, and how she found a PI who would take her on after what looked like failure to the outside world.

In the end, she earned her PhD.  Now she’s doing work she loves in the way she always imagined.

If you’re considering a similar step out of grad school or into another lab, we hope hearing from Jessica will give you the inspiration and information you need to make an impossible choice.  Whatever you choose, we’d love to hear your story.  Email it to

You say Pecan, I say Pi’kahhhn

As a special thanks to Jessica for sharing her story, we sample one of her favorite beers!  It’s the Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale brewed in Kiln, Mississippi.  It claims to be the first beer made with whole roasted pecans, but it’s only a matter of time before other breweries try it too.

It’s apparently a little bit difficult to find, so let us know if you spot some in a store near you!

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