1. Why did you leave?
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden?
I'll answer both of these at the same time. I got started off on the wrong foot from the beginning, and made some mistakes that are clearer in hindsight. I didn't hit it off with my cohorts who started in the same year and subdiscipline as me, and was slow to make friends until I joined a lab. My first few months, I'd go to class, go to my TA assignment, and then go back to my apartment. It didn't help that I had foolishly chosen an apartment in a heavily undergrad-populated area avoided by grad students, so even though I was close to campus, I didn't live near any of my classmates. I regret that I didn't join some clubs and activities when I first arrived on campus - having come from a small undergrad where everyone knew each other, I didn't realize the importance of joining clubs at a big university.
In November of my first year, I joined my advisor's group. I was taking a graduate course he taught at the time and enjoying it, so it seemed like a safe choice. The grad students in his group were friendly, and said nice things about working for him. We had some known slavedrivers in my department, and he wasn't one of them. Things seemed to be looking up for a while, as spending time in the lab building put me in social contact with others, and I soon began to make friends.
My project was supposed to build on the work of two students before me. [Grad student A] graduated shortly before my arrival on campus, and was the group's golden child. [Grad student B] graduated the spring of my first year, and was widely considered to be a marginal grad student in both ability and work ethic, although our advisor liked him more personally than academically. I had trouble reproducing work from both of them, and things started to go sour sometime around the summer of my first year. Every meeting with my advisor turned into a verbal beat-down, and my well-meaning labmates told me that they had to endure it too, it was just part of getting a PhD, and he was only doing it to help me and make me a better scientist. Even as it gradually became clear to everyone but me that he didn't want me around, I kept believing what I had been told, that this was some kind of boot-camp experience that would make me a PhD chemist if I endured it. As my second year went on, I bit the bullet through an increasingly miserable life of verbal beatings from an advisor I had become terrified of.
Outside the lab, my social life had improved considerably. When my lease expired the summer of my first year, I moved to an apartment complex loaded with grad students in my department. We spent many happy evenings at the local bars, drinking away the stress of long days in the lab. During my second year, my friends started to notice I was drinking too much (even for a grad student). I never went to lab drunk, but I came in hung over on weekday mornings increasingly often, and several times my friends were upset with me for drunken behavior that I didn't remember the next day.
Sometime during my second year, my advisor became frustrated enough with my inability to reproduce work by "B" that he took that part of the project away from me and assigned it to a new grad student. I was unable to get rid of an impurity peak in a spectrum, no matter what I tried. When asked about it in an email from my advisor, "B" assured him that he seldom if ever saw this peak. After the new grad student was also unable to eliminate the peak, our advisor went through "B"'s files, which revealed that he always did see this peak, and the spectra in his thesis were cropped to avoid showing the troublesome peak. Even though I was vindicated, I was already beaten down to the point that the quality of my work had become poor, and my advisor was constantly hollering about how perfect "A" was and demanding that I be more like her.
In the fall of my third year, I was gritting my teeth through one of my meetings / beatdowns with my advisor, and he told me that he thought I should cancel my prelim exam and leave with a master's. I was shocked at first (of course no one else was), but soon relieved to be leaving. My advisor offered to let me leave with a thesis master's, and the alternative would have been to sign up for classes in the spring semester to leave with a coursework master's. At that point, I was so mentally worn down that I was barely able to come up with an acceptable thesis, but I managed to write up and vacate my lab workspace just before Christmas of my third year.
3. Where are you now?
I'm in my mid-thirties, and I work in industry. One benefit to having a master's and not a PhD is that I can choose where I live. Many of my friends from grad school see their parents once a year at Christmas, even if they aren't dealing with the two-body problem. I'm back in my hometown and I have a good job, and at least one of these probably wouldn't be the case if I had finished my PhD.
Additionally, I was able to find a new job after a layoff without having to move - not an easy feat for someone with a PhD. The job I do is an interesting blend of bench chemistry and business responsibilities that a PhD would probably be considered overqualified for, but still at a high level of scientific challenge - not the beaker-washing drudgery that people go to grad school to escape.
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?
Leaving was clearly the right decision for me, but I regret not doing it sooner. It was hard for me to admit failure to my family, friends, and undergrad professors back home, and I tried to force myself to stick it out long after it was obvious things weren't going well. In my mind, I was no different than the partiers and potheads who dropped out of high school or flunked out of undergrad. It took me a long time to realize that to anyone outside my field, I graduated with a master's rather than failing grad school. In hindsight, if I hadn't been so fearful of letting people down, seen that things weren't going well in my second year, and signed up for classes to get a coursework masters, I could have been done sooner and at less cost to my sanity.
I contemplated suicide many times in grad school, and this scares the hell out of me looking back. I had heard whispers about past grad student freak-outs, but in the early days of the Internet, stories like Jason Altom's were little more than rumors. I'm glad I didn't do something like that, and I think today with Facebook, it's more likely that a grad student going off the rails would be noticed by family and friends back home. I did have some good friends in grad school, but they didn't know me before, and didn't have a baseline to see the changes taking place in me.
My drinking went back to normal (at least what could be considered normal for a guy in his mid-twenties) once the stress of grad school was removed. Aside from this, it took me a long time to recover after I left. As an undergrad, I had made great strides from being an awkward, nerdy high schooler, and was gaining confidence with dating at the time I graduated. I didn't regain the self-confidence my 21-year-old self had until I was about 30, several years after I left grad school. This is the biggest regret I have - I'm feeling good about myself now in my mid-30s, but I could have been feeling this way throughout my 20s if I had never gone to grad school, or had left sooner.
Looking back, I'm glad I didn't leave the field. When I left grad school, I was so fed up that I never wanted to see the inside of a lab again, and I only applied to chemist jobs because they paid better than the kinds of entry-level cubicle-farm jobs that hired humanities majors. I didn't really want to be a chemist anymore at the time. Once I was out of the toxic environment of academia, my love of science slowly came back.
One thing that made me feel vindicated was meeting the spouse of golden child "A" when we worked at the same company for a time. [They] had worked for a different PI in my department, and like "A" had graduated shortly before my arrival. I was shocked to discover that the group's golden child hated and feared our advisor as much as I did.
One change I would like to see in academia is HR departments with teeth, more like those in industry. An industry boss would find himself in hot water for delivering verbal beatdowns, no matter what someone did to earn one. In academia, everyone looks the other way when this happens. I'm not sure whether this is because university HR departments confine themselves to dealing with the payroll/tax/paperwork aspect of HR and stay out of topics like workplace behavior and sexual harassment, or if they do get involved in such matters, but only for people who are unambiguously unversity employees such as support staff. Others have commented on sexual harassment and mistreatment of female grad students, and I recall there weren't any consequences for this sort of thing, in sharp contrast to industry. If my advisor thought I wasn't that good, that's his decision, but he could have gotten rid of me a lot more humanely.CJ here again: thanks for KT for their story. Readers, what do you think about the concept of a HR department in academia that would look after graduate students?