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170. Mailbag: Should I Quit Grad School?

If you’re a grad student who hasn’t thought about leaving your PhD program at least once, you might not have a pulse. When experiments fail, grants are rejected, or you get reprimanded by the PI, it’s often comforting to remember that all of this suffering is self-imposed and you could simply leave the University and start a book shop somewhere.

For most students, that moment passes and they move on with their training and career. But sometimes, the moment doesn’t pass, and students begin to ask more fundamental questions.

Asking the Hard Questions

Some students begin to examine their initial motivations for enrolling. Maybe they did well in college and a PhD seemed like a logical next-step. Or they really wanted to improve human health by making incredible discoveries in the lab. Only years later do they realize that the incremental improvements of biomedical research can’t satisfy their grander visions.

Whatever the reason, when a student seriously stares down the prospect of leaving the PhD behind, it can shake them to the core.

“Who am I?” they might wonder when the self-concepts of ‘scientist’ or ‘Doctor’ begin to fade.

“If I don’t get this degree, will I ever find a job?” “What will people think of me?” Sometimes these practical considerations are just as painful.

In Their Own Words

This week on the show, we hear from two listeners who are considering these very questions. Both are graduate students, at different points in their training, that are seriously considering stepping off of the academic track and into something new.

Ben just started grad school, but is having second thoughts. He writes:

Listening to your show has helped me realize that uncertainty and anxiety is very normal among graduate students, but I wanted to get your advice regarding my situation and PhD career pathways in general. I am concerned that I jumped into this lab prematurely, and that I would enjoy an engineering position doing more day-to-day problem-solving work a lot more.

Do you think it makes sense to stay put in my lab/position if I don’t enjoy the lab work much and find it hard to stay motivated, just because I am hopeful that an R&D-type position will be a good fit for me long-term?

And “Bee”, a fourth year who has had many prior academic successes, writes:

The past two-pandemic years made me reassess whether I was living urgently for the right path or simply living the path that was logical. In my fourth year as a PhD candidate, I decided that following my mission in science did not necessarily mean putting my name on a publication, having a stellar h-index or countless citations. Living for those metrics did not translate my passion for science or my capacity and desire to impact people’s lives.

It is not easy to come to this decision and I’ve been trying to not be overwhelmed by what others may think as a failure. I’m trying to focus on everything this difficult learning time of the past four years have taught me and what could be the best future direction outside of academia. However, it is really tough to envision anything, or even start a job research. What kind of positions to look for with my job skills?

We have plenty of advice, but more importantly, a lot of questions that will help these students make their difficult decisions.

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