Why did you leave?
This is a very difficult question to answer succinctly.
I was a fifth-year, post-oral exam, post-cumulative, post-classwork doctoral candidate when I left at almost the 6 year mark. I was not just starting out, I was not a "failure." I worked for an untenured professor, starting in [their] second year. I knew the hours would be long and hard, and I was prepared to put in the time. My group was tightly knit and worked 6-7 days a week together. Our adviser demanded at least 60 hours a week in the lab in addition to teaching almost every semester.
Sometime in my fourth year, everything changed. At the time, I was the go-to graphics guy in the group, and in charge of recruiting new team members. It had not been easy. My adviser and I had many long talks about if I was cut out for grad school in my first and second year. Once I had passed orals, I knew that I could do it, and steeled my resolve. This would have been my adviser's fifth year and [Professor C] was beginning the process of applying for tenure. We believe that [Professor C] was told we did not have enough publications yet for [they] to be awarded tenure. We had grant money, but [Professor C] had wanted each paper to be a full JACS-worthy publication so our group as a whole was sitting on a lot of data.
[Professor C] began to put pressure on the group, and that is when things fell apart. [Professor C] began adding authors to publications with "high-billing" to get them enough publications to graduate. Often these people were awarded second author to papers that they had zero involvement with the team that did write the article. This began seeding animosity within the group toward each other, and toward [Professor C].
[Professor C] began to press those that [they] knew would react by working harder. I myself did not have a single, first-author paper to myself. [Professor C]'s treatment of me changed overnight. Over the course of the next 6 months, [Professor C] started with accusing me of working less than 40 hours a week, transitioned to taking intentionally omitting my name from publications I made large contributions to, to the eventual accusation of falsifying data.
My own adviser, a person I had worked for for almost 6 years at this point accused me of falsifying data. There was an argument. It got heated, and the volume of shouting increased to a full-blown screaming match on both sides. Within a week, a letter was submitted by my adviser to the graduate school resigning as my adviser, stating that when [they] brought evidence of my data manipulation to me, I physically and verbally lashed out at [them].
There was a judicial meeting between myself and my graduate committee. My adviser was pushing for my immediate dismissal from the program, but brought no evidence of [their] accusations to the meeting, and admitted that [they] had "nothing concrete" to substantiate [their] claims. I had been working with a member of my committee whom I trusted, as well as a collaborator from another university in forming my defense, which stressed the facts of the case, my notebook.
Because my adviser refused to cooperate at all, I was presented 2 options: I could remain in the program and start a new research project with a new adviser, or I could take my notebooks, and prepare/defend a master's thesis. I chose the latter, and defended a Master's thesis without my adviser's sponsorship, to my committee, which [they were] allowed to remain a member of.
Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden?
The entirety of that last year is a bit of a blur to me. I am a fairly large guy, and I had lost over 50 pounds during the course of fighting. I had at least one breakdown that resulted in a call to my girlfriend (now wife) in the middle of the night, telling her that I was suicidal. I did not sleep more than 2 hours a night (if at all), I was sick constantly, and as therapy had adopted a pet because I realized that I would not be able to end my own life if something else depended on me.
I tried for 3-4 weeks to find a new adviser, determined to finish what I had started. Unfortunately, having such a public battle with my adviser had negative connotations when asking new advisers for their help. I can not even remember what friend it was that I was discussing all of this with at the time, but someone asked me why I was fighting so hard, what did I hope to gain? I realized that I did not have an answer anymore. My original goal was to become a professor. I loved teaching. The experience had changed my views so much that I no longer wanted that life. The final decision was immediate. I was done.
Where are you now?
I graduated in [2005-2008]. In the [7-10] years since, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry. I started with synthesis, since it was more applicable to my research, but eventually moved to analytical method development.
I now manage a lab of [more than 10] people for an international food testing company. I rarely work in the lab.
Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?
At the moment, yes. I am approaching my second year in management and find this work far more fulfilling. I changed my path after 6 years in Pharma because there is a level of what we always jokingly called "academic snobbery." For years, my opinion was invalid because of the lack of degree level and that was the most frustrating part. It can get better, and I made my own path to get there. Outside of work, I do have hobbies again, something that was impossible.
I talk to one person from my group. She was the only person who backed me during the process. No one else wanted to risk their own degree by challenging my adviser. I have succeeded in my own way. I know that I have lost salary (I make less than members of my group made as their starting salaries at Merck or Dow or Rohm and Haas. I was forced to burn a bridge and interview for jobs where a large portion of the interview would inevitably focus on the question, "so five years, and you only had a master's? Can you explain what happened there?"
I do not get to talk about science in my interviews, at least not nearly to the degree that a PhD does. I remember watching my friends brush up on their thesis defense before interviews because they were asked to present a talk as the main portion of their interview. I have been on many interviews, and was asked to give one presentation (I was offered a position). For years, until I gained enough experience to talk about my job's performance, I had to lie or avoid the question above like the plague.
That is the shortest version of my story that I can present. It is far more complicated... Obviously. Was I a rockstar grad student? Did I publish 6 papers in 4 years and graduate? No. I understand this. I have notebooks upon notebooks that I was not allowed to take of failed experiences. I spent 5 years stumbling through what would not work, so that others could build off of what I did learn.
My adviser has continued to exploit [their] group for [their] own benefit. The last I checked [their] group was all but dissolved, and [Professor C] had not only received tenure, but also had been promoted to [an administrator] of the entire chemistry program.
I hold no pride in my program, or the opportunities my degree did present me. The system is different at every school, and that may be the largest problems. We had undergrads move on and go to other schools for grad school and complain that at their school students had so many avenues to appeal when at my school, the professors largely had all of the power. I applied for a "formal" judicial review, but the committee only met every six months and my adviser was only being forced by the department to pay until the end of the semester... well short of the judicial review process. I had a very limited avenue to fight, and at my school the prevailing attitude was that the professor was always correct and if you were having problems that grad school was just "not right for you."Thanks to "IL" for their story.