Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"S": "I cannot think of a more realistic choice I could have made."

This entry on leaving graduate school is from "S"; it has been edited for privacy and clarity.
1. Why did you leave? 
It came down to physical and mental health.  I battled anxiety and depression, [constant medical problems], and probably more.  Our insurance at the time was a joke and I ended up taking out loans to pay medical bills.   
In retrospect, the stress wasn't all project/dissertation related, although I was working an unfunded project and constantly battling contaminated or broken equipment when I did get the instrument time I needed.  My boyfriends's (now husband) project was funded and progressing very quickly, and we faced potentially several years in difference between graduations.   
The big kicker... My advisor was having an affair with a graduate student in our group. They were very secret about it, but everyone in the department suspected.  So we were constantly fielding questions from interested parties.  It was very uncomfortable, and I didn't realize it was a form of sexual harassment until I attended a training a few years ago and found myself running out of the room crying at these memories. 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
For months, I could not eat breakfast until I had cried my nerves out while hiding at my boyfriend's desk. Then I would return to my lab/office and try to get work done.  I loved teaching far more than my research and established an exit plan with the graduate program in education.  I abruptly told my advisor in tears, stayed [some time] to finish up some loose ends, and started in education [the next term]. 
I suppose I could have switched groups, but I was facing a two-body problem and my advisor was [involved with student grievance procedures].  I had no idea who I could safely talk to without making my life more hellish than it already was (I'm not sure if the contaminated equipment I faced was deliberate or incompetence). 
3. Where are you now? 
I earned an M.Ed. in [redacted], along with my teaching certification.  I have taught as an adjunct or instructor at [many] different colleges and universities because of my chemistry coursework [which was completed in its entirety] and the teaching experience I gained in grad school.  I am healthy again. 
I currently teach as an adjunct in chemistry part time, mostly teaching labs, but I also teach [other fulfilling courses on occasion].  I spend most of my time with my [children] but get out into academia enough to not go stir crazy.  I use my education background to collaborate with my husband and contribute to my department.  We (not so jokingly) say that he does the work of two people, and it's practically necessary for me to do all of the cooking and such AND do things like revise his teaching philosophy so it includes actual educational terms. 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now? 
Financially, I'm not happy about the decision and the student loans I had to take on when I switched departments, but I cannot think of a more realistic choice I could have made.  I consider my teaching certification and the investment in it to be "insurance."
If something were to happen to my husband, I could move closer to family and take the required tests to get the state's teaching certificate and hopefully not have too much difficulty securing a job.  It certainly gave me a unique skill set that I bring to my department in contributing to student assessments or evaluating our labs for disability accommodations.  I don't do as much of those projects as I like, though, because I'm not paid to do them. 
I do like being able to work part time and still be at home enough to minimize the need for child care. I wish I had a more secure job though, and I wish I wasn't relegated to teaching general chemistry labs. 
I think what I hate most is having to explain over and over that I am not to be addressed as Dr. (to both students and faculty) because I am so often in positions where I am the only adult without a Ph.D.  That hurts.
Thanks to "S" for their story.  


  1. 'For months, I could not eat breakfast until I had cried my nerves out while hiding at my boyfriend's desk. Then I would return to my lab/office and try to get work done. ' I did something similar. I think you all (in this series) are very brave to have taken the steps to change your life instead of sticking with the devil you know. Wish you the best!

  2. Is there a reason you never reported the ongoing relationship of the advisor and graduate student? I understand how difficult it would be to do so, but it is unprofessional and inappropriate and action is required. The only way to stop such behaviors in academia is to speak up.

    1. Say goodbye to your career if you do.


    2. Wow, the reactions on reddit make me even more sad than the story.

    3. The affair was kept very secret, to the point of the advisor even pretending to be married and living at home for longer than s/he actually was. No one had any concrete evidence of the relationship until it became open after the student's graduation, but everyone suspected because of their friendlier banter and spending more time together. It was almost worse having everyone in the department constantly inquiring.

      Having so many friends and a significant other in the department, I wasn't just worried about retaliation against me, but against those I cared for. To this day, I still have a close relationship with someone who could have their career seriously impacted because of my former advisor's current position. In fact, I went as far as to get their permission before submitting this story.