Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"E": "I met with my family and was overwhelmed with the support and relief."

Today's story on leaving graduate school is from "E"; it has been edited for clarity and privacy.
Why did you leave? 
I came from a small undergrad school [in the South] and joined a medium sized grad school [in the Midwest] to do some synthetic organic research. My advisor was very hands-off and laid back, and didn't have me really working on anything until after my first year of classes were done. I began my initial research in my second year with the help of a [redacted] exchange student. Even though the research wasn't going well at all, I ended up becoming great friends with the guy. 
By the time he was ready to leave, we looked back at the number of failed reactions, out of service instruments, expired/impure reagents, and our dwindling hours spent in the lab. I realized after he left how bad it was. 
I started getting severely depressed before the two year mark. I wasn't hanging out with anyone. I wasn't talking to anyone. I was reading stories of suicide online. I met my roommate's friend and we stayed up all night talking about my situation. She told me to consider quitting and going back home. But as Vinylogous wrote, I thought "I've already put in 2 years, so it would be a waste of time to quit now". 
But things were getting worse. One night I went to the lab around midnight and recrystallized a large vial of KCN and sat there on the verge of tears. If things didn't get better, I was going to just end everything. I cannot tell you how close to suicide I was. I had failed everything and everyone. I would never have my dream job.  
Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
I talked with my peers that had been there for 5, 6, 7 years. I could not handle this that long. I asked my advisor what I had to do to end with a master's. He replied "you're done when I say you're done". 
I took my bike home and started applying for every job I could find back home. I called everyone. I flew home for 3 days for two interviews. My friends and family were very supportive. When I got back to [the Midwest], I went in for a week and the depression came back. One night i went in again at midnight and cleaned up my desk and lab space.
I stayed home the next week. I didn't leave the apartment. A few days in, around 10AM, people were banging on the door. My lab partners, my advisor, and the police were all knocking and yelling for me to come out. I didn't answer the door. I packed all my stuff in boxes that night. A couple days later, I woke up early and put everything in my car. It was snowing, and absolutely miserable outside. As I was finishing, the 7th year student saw me and said "Where have you been? Everyone is looking for you!" and in the snow I replied "Tell everyone I'm sorry. I'm going back to [my home]." 
I cried for most of the ride home. 13 hours later, I met with my family and was overwhelmed with the support and relief. I was going to get back on track. 
Where are you now? How does the decision look to you? 
Two years later, here I am. I work for a [large pharma] and I wouldn't have it any other way. I have a great salary, great pension, great friends, and I live close to the beach. Life could not be better for me. I am so glad I got out when I could. The depression was so real - each time you refer to quitting grad school in one of your posts I am reminded of my decision.
Thanks to "E" for their story. 


  1. "I asked my advisor what I had to do to end with a master's. He replied "you're done when I say you're done"."

    Wow, what a story. It almost brought me to tears. That above quote is just brutal - an advisor should be an advocate for their students, and should not act like that. Good for you for making the smart decision to leave and never look back.

  2. Im beginning to think I should have had a nervous breakdown in Grad School.... I would have probably more likely to have a better job then the crap job I have as a PhD in academic science that I have right now.

  3. Every time I read one of these submissions I am thankful to be in a field where people usually earn a master's before starting a PhD.

    It's also interesting to see the number of people that report developing issues with mental health. If people without per-existing issues have such problems while in grad school, what hope is there for people who start graduate school with a history of mental illness? A series with stories from such people would be interesting, though getting people to tell their stories (even anonymously) might be difficult.