Thursday, January 22, 2015

Steve: "I was actually relieved that the slog was over."

Our second story of quitting graduate school comes from Steve: 
I spent five years getting no results.  My supervisor was hired to be the director of a research institute at my university after spending years in industry and government labs in the States, and I was his first grad student.  The first year or so was lost in setting up the lab and waiting through renovations.  Another year was lost chasing a compound that a collaborating group had published (turned out later that the results they got were actually due to the steel walls of the pressure reactor and not the compound - and they got another paper to correct this). 
My difficulties were not entirely due to circumstances.  Synthetic research and I are not a good mix.  I've said in the past that I suck at research, and my supervisor told me not to be so hard on myself, because if the project had involved measurements or anything other than air-free metal complexes I would have had a much easier time. 
After banging my head against the wall for five long years, during which time I tried to write up and discovered my work filled 32 pages, including introduction and literature review, I admitted that it wasn't going to work.  My project was dead and never going to produce results, and while I had some momentum going on a side-project, I was just too burned out to carry on.  An hour after I sent my withdrawal notice, I got an email from the university telling me they were giving me the boot because of an unsatisfactory grade at a presentation six weeks before.  Efficiency has never been this school's strong suit. 
Rather than being crushed, I was actually relieved that the slog was over. The unwritable thesis was no longer hanging over my head, and I was so worn down at that point that I didn't really care my life's ambition had dissolved.  I had a sessional gig at a second-tier regional university, and they didn't seem to care that my promised credentials weren't going to appear.  After that, my current position fell into my lap.  It's a postdoc, but they knew they entire story and hired me anyway.  I've been far luckier than I deserve.
 Thanks to Steve for his story. 

12 comments:

  1. This story highlights one scary part of grad school. Often the majority of your thesis is the result of a lucky and productive 6-12 month period. What if that period never materializes?

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    1. I agree: we spend so much time trying to convince reviewers (and ourselves) that every project was planned and obvious due to our "genius" that we forget (willingly or not) that most of these were sheer blind luck...it takes a good student to develop a project, but that initial hit? Not so much.

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    2. "This story highlights one scary part of grad school. Often the majority of your thesis is the result of a lucky and productive 6-12 month period. What if that period never materializes?"

      Of course luck plays a role (prepared mind...yadda...), but this is true of everything in life. Why should grad school be any different?

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    3. There is no luck in engineering work.

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    4. I agree to an extent about luck.You'll never find an ethically obtainable good result if nature's not on board with your finding it. That said, there is a lot to be said for knowing when to cut your losses and being able to direct yourself to something that has better odds. I would consider these to be essential skills for a Ph.D. scientist.

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    5. So true. Most of dissertation was on results achieved during my last year of graduate school.

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  2. I disagree. Sure, for publications you need a positive result. The thesis should be filled with all the things that didn't work and what you LEARNED from the experiments. If you only have ~30 pages with intro after 5 years then you didn't do enough experiments and didn't learn from the ones you did.

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    1. If it's a bad hypothesis, and hard project. You can spend 10 years working 24x7 without any results.

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  3. It should be noted that getting a "postdoc" without a doc degree is very very very very rare. Usually part of being hired as a postdoc is agreeing to have your degree within a certain timeframe.

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    1. A colleague got royally screwed by his department when his advisor left very suddenly and within days of his thesis defense, he was told by his committee that his thesis was unacceptable and ended up leaving with a masters'. This in spite of having a postdoc position lined up; the future advisor was sympathetic and took him on as a technician (essentially an equivalent position).

      It was such a mess that i thought about describing the whole situation to ChemJobber at the time.

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  4. My takeaway from this is the sad notion that it is OK to work for 5 years and then sit down to write something up. Most of the blame surely lies on the professor of course. Five years is a LONG time to not write anything!

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  5. My experience is that you can graduate with research that never really worked all that well, but you wont publish much, and it takes much longer to convince your committee that you've done all you can to get your project(s) to work as best they can. If you can show your committee that you designed intelligent experiments with good hypotheses, you learned something, and can propose good further studies, they should let you finish. I agree that 5 years and 32 pages doesn't really make sense. First chapter of my dissertation was more than 32 pages and it was just lit review and background on my project.

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