Friday, February 6, 2015

"W": "It was involuntary, and I was mad."

This entry on leaving grad school in chemistry is by "W"; it has been edited for clarity and privacy:
Less than a week after passing my quals, my advisor came into my office, and just said, "I think it would be better for everyone if you went on to new things." He apparently had no intention of (and never did sign) the papers for my qualifiers, although he volunteered to write recommendation letters for me: the letters also never manifested. I talked with my co-advisor, and he said that I just wasn't going to cut it. When I went to talk to the rest of my committee, they were stunned and didn't know that this was part of the plan.

If I had just flat-out failed that first presentation and been asked to leave, I'd completely understand why I'd been kicked out of the program: I had done a horrible job. But since I was given a second chance, I assumed that meant I was actually being given a second chance.

So there's the long version of why I left. It was involuntary, and I was mad. (Clearly, I'm still a little mad.) I was given a token 3 months of stipend to finish the semester and find my next steps (as well as getting a non-thesis MS degree).

I had also just broken up with a long-term boyfriend, so my personal life was lacking. And I never liked the city I was in. I quickly determined that I was leaving, and going as far away as I could (geographically, politically, and socially).

While being mad at the world, I realized that while doing research was okay, I really liked tutoring, and had been doing so since middle school. I started looking at teaching programs, and applied to several. I earned my MEd.

What I realize now is that I would have been miserable if I had actually finished that degree. My advisor was correct: I'm not a good researcher. However, he could have been far more effective in his actual advising, including talking me out of the PhD.

I now teach high school chemistry and general science, and I love it. It's hard to call myself a "chemist" anymore, and am only (in some people's eyes) a chemistry teacher. There are times where I miss the academic nature of grad school, with the calls for data-driven education, and keeping up with discoveries. But for now, I get paid to make silly putty and blow things up, and I get to see the light in kids' eyes when I show them new things. I hope I give them far more encouragement than I ever received in that program. 
Thanks to "W" for their story.  


  1. W: I believe that you're a chemist who teaches. By shaping the next generation, your contributions to your students and the science are immeasurable. Clearly you made right choice!

  2. Ugh. I've seen this sort of thing happen to many people, mostly women. It is completely unfair, PIs have had access to massive cheap labor pools and behave without fear of audit. I'm sorry W, what happened to you was the result of a corrupt system. Bravo on finding your way out of it.