Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"KT": "...my love of science slowly came back"

Our latest story on leaving graduate school is from "KT"; it has been edited for privacy. It is longer, but absolutely worth it, with such good themes (transitioning from smaller schools to grad school, irreproducibility problems and PI issues) and worthwhile ending thoughts.
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? 

21 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, I don't think that the greater connectivity internet is completely effective for the recognition/prevention of suicide: I heard that there was one at Caltech just last month.

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    1. I agree it isn't completely effective - a childhood friend of mine is now in grad school in a field other than chemistry, and is a pretty obvious suicide risk from the stuff he's been posting on Facebook. In his case, his mother knows exactly what's going on and is worried sick, but he's had some bad experiences in the past with psychiatrists and refuses all help. I think in my case, my parents knew I had hit a rough patch but were unaware of the severity of the problem, and a Facebook account probably would have revealed the truth.

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  2. I also had an abusive P.I. in graduate school. Eventually, he kicked me out of the lab. He told me to "pack my stuff up and move on" BY EMAIL. Me thinking that he was just having a bad day, I went to the lab in the morning as usual and he locked me out of the lab completely. He locked the doors so that I couldn't get in. I remember telling my family that I wanted to quit Chemistry and just go out and work while pursuing another bachelor's degree. Instead, the stubborn fighter within me wouldn't allow me to quit. I found another P.I. in the department and had to start over with a completely new project but I eventually graduated anyway. I've had so many bad experiences in this field through layoffs etc. that in hindsight, I actually wish I had of quit. I don't even enjoy the current job that I have. Abusive P.I.s in graduate school are ubiquitous and this guy is right in that graduate school challenged your mental health. There are many days where you feel like you're not good enough and the "beatdowns" from your P.I. don't help. I honestly wouldn't recommend graduate school for most people. I applaud anyone like this guy who "knew when to quit" when it came to graduate school.

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  3. Preventing verbally/emotionally abusive PI's should be a top priority for university HR departments, but I doubt it will ever happen. Getting rid of a tenured professor is very difficult, and they know that.

    On the other hand, making university HR departments look more like industry ones might result in longer average completion times becuase it might allow students to slack off and get away with it. My post-doc started at a university where it was next to impossible to fire a grad student unless they did something illegal.

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    1. Getting rid of an abusive Prof. Is especially unappealing for the department if he/she is a big name in the field.

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    2. Yeah, we have a professor who made all of his grad students work for his company for a year (while still being paid out of grants for research projects...) and takes great joy in belittling his students and postdocs constantly. He also stole the research of two of our junior faculty members and has faced absolutely no opposition from the department nor the administration. Of course, he does happen to be one of the biggest names in catalysis, so I guess that that matters a lot more than running roughshod over literally everything to do with ethics and best practices.

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    3. Now that I'm thinking about it, the support staff at my graduate alma mater were nearly impossible to fire for cause - there was a strong civil service mentality, like driver's license photo center workers. It was a state university, so that was probably why. I used to order things from outside vendors that we were supposed to order through the university's central stockroom because there were so many screwups.

      As for firing grad students, my advisor seemed to be doing his best to avoid that, just trying to nudge me out by making things increasingly unpleasant for me instead. Even when he finally asked me to leave, it wasn't a firing, as I had the option of going through with my prelim anyway. I did have a cohort my year in a different lab who failed his prelim on the second try and was forced to master out, then reapplied to the program and still finished with a PhD. I get the impression that it's difficult to fire a grad student against his or her will, so all a PI can do is encourage someone to leave by making their life unpleasant.

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  4. When I was in grad school there were two people who committed suicide.

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    1. Ah, good times. A dorm neighbor right next door to my room suffered from nightly bed wetting. He was very ashamed of it but did nothing about it, for months, except of using large quantities of a strong perfume, which made the place smell like public urinal with a freshener. He kept very much to himself. One night he got on the roof of central library (the tallest building on campus) and jumped. The second suicide was by the most senior grad student in our research group. I remember being horrified but also thinking "this could have been me". The group became a haunted place. I did not finish the grad school.

      The most hilarious suicide story comes from a prominent Canadian research group. A colleague had the sad duty to inform his advisor, that a postdoc in his group just killed himself. It was the third suicide in the group's history. The advisor's reaction was one of an absolute annoyance: "But who is gonna work on his project?"

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    2. Wow. And I was completely ignored by my graduate advisor. Maybe my experience was not so bad after all.

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    3. There were actually a few people who committed suicide when I was in grad school, but this was overall for the university and not just chemistry (where I think there was none when I was there). This of course, has to be taken against the general population suicide rate in the same age cohort to have any meaning. It's true that grad school is stressful and things should be done to minimize that and feelings of helplessness and depression, but it might not be an epidemic or much of anything at all. Of course I don't have the data...

      I remember one of the suicides though was announced by email, that there was a tragic accident: a physics grad student fell off the top storey of the parking garage. I remember saying at happy hour "Huh, that's funny, why would he go to the edge when the cars are parked away from it... and you'd really have to be very uncoordinated to fall over the high railing." Someone answered me, "That's because he jumped you idiot.". And I was like, "Oh... that makes a lot more sense." There were no follow up emails about the case, as I think they realized it wasn't an accident.

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    4. Ah, uncle sam, you takes things too literally like I do. I always thought it was because I was on the very high end of the autism spectrum....

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    5. Pretty sure I'm not autistic. But at the time (in my first year of grad school), I didn't think that universities would engage in much crude propaganda to improve their image, or things like overheads and armies of administrators existed. I assumed that university bureaucrats would try to play it straight whenever possible. Of course, that was a long time ago... and before Columbia keeping the lid on Sames/Sezen and the Anil Potti thing at Duke. Now I'm convinced my grad school university would do anything to keep suicide cases quiet. Which is quite in contrast to my posdoc university, which when it happened said it wasn't why he died (it could have been just an accidental overdose as it turned out the guy was an addict), and organized a big memorial service and kept everyone informed. Also reviewed the advisor who was pretty shocked too. The president also sent an email to everyone when an anonymous masters student in another department was kicked out for plagiarism and said 'don't plagiarize foolz!' (more or less). Of course, I don't know if misconduct by professors would get the same treatment.

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    6. There was a strong culture of silence at my graduate alma mater when it came to anything that might embarrass the university. I can't say I'm surprised about the Jerry Sandusky coverup at Penn State - nothing that extreme happened when I was a grad student, but it was understood that the department's dirty laundry was not to be discussed. There were whispers about many potentially serious ethical lapses within the department, but we knew better than to start trouble by reporting anything.

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  5. Yeah. Just before I arrived in Germany to start my doctoral studies, a grad student in the group committed suicide. The only person from the research group who did not attend the memorial service was my future research director. Clearly, I had chosen the wrong research director, but only realized this many years on, after realizing that he didn't give a shit about what happened to the people who slaved away on his behalf.

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  6. HR is not going to help students. The job of HR is a company is to protect the company, especially against law suits. If something can be covered up plausibly, then that is what happens. If it is not the case, then HR moves in to damage control mode, and does things that may be helpful to those involved in the wrongdoing. I graduated with a PhD from a university that was a top producer of women with PhDs - there were no suicides there. There was a suicide just before I began my post doc at another university. Then I had the stupidity to join a process group that would later boast two, not just one, suicides. HR was horrible there - on a good day HR was merely useless. Grad school wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't anything like working in that despicable industrial process group.

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  7. Thanks for your story. It is very encouraging to hear both that it took a long time to recover and that you were able to recover. I'm almost 3 years out after being dismissed with a masters from a top chemistry program- A nightmarish and unfair situation really. The emotional, verbal abuse, exploitation and academic misconduct I witnessed while I was there is completely shocking to the friends and co-workers I have now. I went back to graduate school and thought I was fine for 2 years until quals came around and I was forced to confront how traumatized my experienced left me. I'd been content to believe everything my old PI said about me until I learned that three other women had left my lab after I'd been given the boot. After that I started to suspect that maybe it wasn't me after all. I was hoping I'd recover immediately but It took me three years to be able to read emails from my current boss without having near panic attacks. For a long time I thought I'd never recover- I just walked around like a shell of myself hoping that maybe I'd get into a car accident and wouldn't have to further embarrass myself by committing suicide. I managed to pass my quals and feel confident about getting my PhD but it's a daily struggle to cope with the complete destruction of my self-confidence. The more I read about these stories, the more I see that my experience wasn't unusual and I just don't understand why something more drastic isn't done about it. It seems like nothing has changed in chemistry grad culture in decades. As a double minority (black female) it's really embarrassing to just be another statistic so I never felt comfortable coming forward about the discrimination I faced. I'm pretty resilient and so I don't require a lot of sympathy, but after a student from my department committed suicide last year it made me realize what is really at stake. Grad school HR is a good idea, but even a dean of the graduate school who helped me sort my situation had little to say but "I'm aware of the chemistry department," and "It's in your best interest not to fight this." Unfortunately I don't have a lot of hope for change which is why I essentially quit chemistry and opted to get my PhD in a different field.

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    1. Happy to try to help if you need some. - chemjobber@gmail.com (confidentiality guaranteed.)

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    2. I totally hear you on feeling a bit embarrassed to be "just another statistic"- I've recently had a similar experience with quitting my "standard" career at the mid-career point, which, it turns out, is exactly when most women quit my particular type of career. I beat myself up a bit about not being savvier about handling problems that are so well-documented, but in my more clear-headed moments I know that this is not my fault. There's a reason the problems are so well-documented, you know?

      Anyway: don't blame yourself. This is not your fault. It is the fault of the people who refuse to change the culture and don't care that they're burning through people. It is the fault of the people who refuse to acknowledge the biases and other structural issues that make this harder for women and people of color, and particularly hard for women of color. They have built an extremely hostile environment for you and they are the ones who should be ashamed, not you.

      If I could go back and tell graduate school me one thing, it would be to listen to my elders and learn strategies for handling the effects bias would have on my career and my own self-esteem. I thought the worst of the problems were in the past, but in fact I was just too junior to be a threat. As I got more senior in my career, I started hitting the "gotchas" older women had tried to warn me about. I am not at all unhappy with where I've taken my career now, but I do think I would have been able to make career decisions under less duress if I'd had a better toolkit from the start.

      So I say find yourself a support system of people who get it, even if it is only online. Don't think you have to handle this on your own. You deserve better treatment than what you've received. You deserve the same shot at a career in science as everyone else. You deserve the support of a community of your peers.

      Good luck. I wish you success in your PhD, and then in your career. We need you.

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  8. i admit i'm a little envious of everyone who got dismissed with a masters... i survived a year with everyone saying "that's just how it is" about the abuse and expectations of working 7 days a week, 10 hours per day minimum. i started seeing a therapist on campus, and got prescribed antipsychotics that didn't help. once the year finished, i checked myself into the hospital for a week because i would've killed myself if left to my own devices. when i got out, i sent an email to my advisor and dean saying i was taking a medical leave, and never heard back from either one. i ended up going into industry for awhile (until becoming disabled, and chemistry isn't real welcoming to anyone with a disability, so i had to quit)... i wish i'd been able to get out with a masters, because quitting grad school after a year (even without telling them it's because my advisor's abuse made me suicidal) has really given me some looks and uncomfortable comments by prospective employers. a masters is perfectly respectable, but flunking out after a year with nothing to show for it has made me look bad.

    it's nice everyone is talking about this problem in academia though. it's awful that we're told "that's just the way it is" when we're going through it. i hope more current students will see it doesn't have to be this way.

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  9. It can start early: http://tinyurl.com/hgxrvh9

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