By David Fay
Here’s why I almost quit grad school a few years in. (1) I wasn’t getting along well with my first advisor. And part of that was, of course, on me. (2) My project wasn’t going well, so I was discouraged and losing interest. This too was partially my fault for not applying myself and figuring out how to make better progress. Ironically, it was a project that I had more or less come up with on my own. So much for the great ideas of a first-year graduate student! (3) I felt less committed and “into it” than most of the other grad students around me. For the record, this was during the late 80s and early 90s at Yale, where you could walk down a hall at 9 PM on a Thursday and it seemed like the labs were humming away at 70% of their normal occupancy. Ugh. (4) I was admittedly distracted by my hobbies. I fantasized about becoming a climbing bum or making it as a rock star. I became briefly obsessed with carpentry. Exactly. (5) I saw the road ahead and it seemed very uncertain and ultracompetitive. I didn’t like the odds and didn’t know if I had it in me to pull it off.
Here’s why I ultimately didn’t quit graduate school. (1) I found a different advisor with whom I got along much better. Changing labs seemed like a big traumatic deal at the time, but it was only a blip in the grand scheme of things and is totally survivable. I know others who would say the same thing. (2) Along with the change of lab came a change of projects. I liked the new project better, although it too turned out to have its challenges, of course. Still, I persisted. (3) I continued to feel less committed than many other students but just learned to live with that feeling. (4) I was still distracted by my hobbies. At the same time, I also worked quite hard. (5) I tried not to think or plan too much about the road ahead. Some people I respected told me that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed on the surface. Turns out they were right. (6) I still really liked science and enjoyed the intellectual challenges, freedom, and creativity it allowed. (7) I liked being around my friends in graduate school. They still felt like my tribe, and many of them were going through similar periods of questioning. (8) In my heart I harbored the stubborn notion that I could be good at this, including teaching students and even leading a lab someday. (9) I’m practical. There was no trust fund waiting for me. Down the road I would need a job that paid decently, and dropping out seemed like a bad move. (10) I never had a better idea for what I’d rather do. Sure, I came up with things. But none of them ultimately appealed to me more than what I was already doing. At least none of the career paths that I could realistically envision were more appealing.
Your experience may be different, or possibly the same. It’s common for grad students, even ones who are doing well enough and therefore have “no real reason to complain”, to get the blahs after a few years. You’ve lost that initial newcomer exuberance and innocence, but the light at the end of the tunnel is still only the size of a pinprick. You question what you’re doing and why. And you wonder if you’re good enough, or want it enough, or where it’s all going. Congratulations, you’re totally normal! And for those who never experience any doubts, I say, “Really?” Well, OK then, good for you! Of course, what you ultimately decide in terms of this complex decision is for you to figure out. I stated my reasons, and maybe you read them and thought, “That’s me all right!” Or maybe some of the reasons I stated for staying just don’t resonate with you, at least not anymore. Fair enough, and good that you’re figuring that out!
But what I’d end on is this. If you decide that science or a PhD really isn’t for you anymore, don’t just continue going through the motions, pretending like nothing has changed. In other words, don’t lie to yourself or mislead others. Trust me, this approach almost never works out well for anyone. Maybe you decide to leave with a Masters, which is still a valuable degree. Or maybe you decide you want to finish your PhD even though you ultimately want to leave scientific research. That’s entirely reasonable because it will qualify you for many different types of career paths, and most of us would consider that a success story! Just make sure to do justice to the work that remains in front of you. Finish strong. I would also encourage students to be honest with their advisors about their thinking. It can be a relief to everyone just to have it all out in the open. A good mentor will be understanding and reasonable about what it will take to finish, and sometimes you can meet in the middle. Just communicate and, once you have made your decision, commit to it.