Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"IL": "I spent 5 years stumbling through what would not work..."

This story on leaving graduate school is from "IL"; it has been redacted/edited for clarity. It is longer, but worth it, especially for the comments on the difference between interviews at the M.S. and Ph.D. level.
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. 


  1. Things won't get better until people can name and shame these sociopaths. Sadly, there is a "critical mass"of good old boys in most places that will retaliate against victims that speak out no matter where they go.

  2. anon electrochemistMarch 10, 2015 at 4:52 PM

    Very interested in how one goes about answering that interview question. Constructing a story around having a bad living situation or some external pressure isn't plausible without a strong rec letter from the PI.

    Ideas anyone?

  3. This is heartbreaking.

    I don't know exactly how to answer the interview question, but I do know you would have to write out a succinct response and memorize it like a script. You don't want the interview to become derailed by a fifteen minute discussion of that one point. Perhaps an answer that focuses on how the experience, while painful and difficult, helped you learn to deal with adversity and people who were difficult to work with?

    1. Yes, that would be the only way to do it. I don't know if it would wash, but I think it's all you can do.

      It's unfortunate how often this quote from Derek Lowe and an anonymous European seems apropos: "And I particularly enjoyed the first comment on the post, from a reader outside the US:'Dear Americans: a lot of your professors appear to be totally f*ing mental.'. There's a lot of empirical support for that position, I'm afraid."

    2. What you say is undoubtedly true. But are things really better on the other side of the pond? I'm an American who went to Germany for my doctoral work, and learned the language to near fluency. For 19 years I defended my "Doktorvater" against the accusations of his other doctoral students (the majority of whom were German). Those students said that the "Doktorvater" was completely unhelpful to his former students and was only looking out after #1. But now, 19 years later, I must admit that they were right, all along. So there are assholes everywhere, not just in North America.

  4. And some people insist stories like these are just "incidents", and only a few, select PI's are like that. I say, do some searching and read the many stories of talented, decent people who had horrible experiences with their advisors and tell me again how it's just a few isolated cases.

  5. Frances Hocutt's account of leaving the field still resonates strongly with me. It's disconcerting that so few U.S. Chemistry Olympians end up becoming chemists when you would expect that these high school students were being groomed to be the next superstars in the field.

    1. Thanks for pointing that one out. It's an interesting account albeit one i'm somewhat less sympathetic to than some that we've seen here. But as for your comment, i'm not sure i'd really expect 'greatness' from the high school olympians. People change a lot after high school/college and she, like i imagine many others, find they have other things they are more interested in.

      Besides, these child/teen contests probably don't have much predictive power. Do the winners of the Spelling Bee ever go on to do anything notable?

    2. Is the analogy between the National Spelling Bee and the Chemistry Olympiad complete? Having participated in either one, I dunno.

    3. I know that's maybe a weak analogy, and i must admit i don't know many specifics about the Chem Olympiad. Is that just a thing about performing/reciting textbook things, or does it include a creative element?

      I think a couple of Profs (Liu at Harvard, i think?) had Westinghouse/Intel Science Fair experience. Maybe that's a better demonstration of being a self-starter?

    4. A pretty small percentage of scientists do anything notable anyway - I can only think of a few individuals from my time at a top graduate program who went on to tenure-track professor jobs at big research universities.

      Generally, the kids I grew up with who did things like the Science Olympiad grew up to be nerdy adults, often in scientific fields, and many did go on to grad school in the sciences.

      Frances is a great example of how the toxic environment of academia drives talented people away from the field.

    5. Well, like i said, i read that essay as a little self-serving, and kind of "mild" to "medium" as far as Grad School Toxicity, but Her Mileage May Vary.

      (And if she worked for the guy i think she did at UW, it took me about 5 seconds to size him up with "that guy's an a-hole". So probably toxic , but how did you miss it in the first place?)

      She definitely sounded more interested in working for her union or building a Social Justice lab than doing the work to actually, you know, become a PhD.

    6. Good replies. I'd say the major differences between the Spelling Bee and the Chemistry Olympiad is that spelling is not a field of undergraduate or graduate study and that no one specifically spells words for a living. One would think that the Chemistry Olympians would have a strong interest and aptitude in chemistry that would translate to a career in the field. That said, bad wolf's comment about the Westinghouse/Intel competition being a better indicator is spot-on. That program is more about research and more of those participants are going into STEM fields.

      With respect to the details of FH's account, I previously wrote that many of the problems that she attributed to being a female in the field were abundantly experienced by men as well. I've seen and heard enough, however, to suspect that gender discrimination would indeed have worsened her situation. Yes, I've heard of worse things happening to men and women students, but FH's experiences were still pretty bad. As to her motivations for entering a PhD program, her essay did make it seem that she was more interested in changing the social environment of the field rather than making research contributions. I suspect that this had much to do with the theme of the essay ("Why I left graduate study in chemistry"). To circle back to my original statement, at one point she was a high school student who loved chemistry and wanted to make a name for herself in scientific research.

    7. It was never clear to me why my advisor disliked me so much - if I had been female or a racial minority, I might have believed it to be sexism/racism. If Frances was a guy, it would have been blamed on personality conflicts.

      It's been pointed out that a lot more women master out than men. Although there were no real consequences in cases where sexual harassment did happen, I don't think the attrition rate for women is necessarily because of discrimination. Academia is toxic for almost everyone, but the women seem to be doing a better job of recognizing that they're not enjoying the experience and getting out, while the men grit their teeth until they become Jason Altom. The women I knew who quit tended to do it around 2nd year/early 3rd (i.e. knowing when to leave a bad situation), and every case I remember where someone mastered out after their third year was a man (i.e. silently miserable until they got booted in year 5).

    8. @KT- I think you nailed it. Men tend to accept the misery in hope of some benefit sometime down the road.

  6. Ouch. Very sorry for your experience. You'd have to practice being a politician for that interview question--memorize your response and then deflect back to more favorable terrain.

    Maybe someone should setup a website where you can give anonymous reviews on PIs. RateYourProfessors for grad students and postdocs? Granted, wouldn't work well for small groups, but much of the worst abuse seems to be in the large groups.

    Yours is almost the flip side to my career. I thought long and hard about quitting. Agonized over it because of the mental case my adviser was. But I stuck with it. In my 5th year of the program, my PI ordered me to falsify some data for a pub because they didn't believe the actual data was "right". Tried to argue and thought about quitting again, but after 5 yrs of grad work and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, I just obeyed rather than fight. Later found out they did the same thing to another member of the group. Today I'm comfortable in a PhD position making decent money and productive, though no superstar. But hardly a week that goes by that I feel like my whole career is fake for it. But no point in complaining about it even now; 10 years later my adviser is more powerful than ever with lots of grant money and clout and any truth would just wind up killing me, not them. I also hold no pride in my program.

    1. You do know it's all your fault since you're the first author of course. The boss was duped by you, and he retroactively forgot everything so you're responsible for all of it. But seriously, don't forget to put this on PubPeer when you retire or quit chemistry. Still, posts like this make me feel like a sucker every time a reviewer says 'your isolated yields are too low'.

    2. Posts like this depress me. Cheaters win (good jobs, $$$), honest people.....well, that depends on how smart and lucky you are.

  7. The thought of naming and shaming the PI and program has crossed my mind. I've been in the working world long enough that it's unlikely someone would contact my advisor during a reference check, and I doubt he'd have anything positive to say about me anyway. Like some of the other posters here, I've got no pride in my program either; I even got rid of all of my university logo clothing when I left. Aside from my own bad experience, coming from an undergrad-only school, I was surprised to learn how little most of the professors cared about teaching undergrads (probably true for any big-time research university).

    As for the people who insist these are isolated incidents, only people I know well have admitted to me privately that their relationships with their advisors were horrible. Many of these were PhD's, not people who mastered out. As I mentioned in my story, I was shocked to discover that the group's golden child disliked our advisor when I happened to work with her husband, and I was also surprised to learn that he had burned bridges with his own advisor on the way out.