Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"LB": "Some nights I think about how different my life might have been"

Today's story about leaving graduate school is from "LB"; it has been redacted for privacy and edited for clarity. 
Why did you leave? Your thought process in leaving? 
A number of reasons come to mind in retrospect.  
First, there would be reasons what I now classify under environmental factors. I belonged to a small town in the midwest and moved to [California] for my PhD. [Big West Coast City] itself was hard to deal with---too many people with too much attitude, and I hardly had a group of friends/ acquaintances in the city, or even in California. House prices were expensive and I with the meager stipend (which was actually not that bad) I ended up with a rather s---ty studio in downtown [Big West Coast City] where going out late night meant trouble. Again, I enrolled in spring, which is rather rare for doc students. I was the only spring admit and that did not help since I ended up with seniors and juniors and no one of my cohort to crib to.  
Then there were other reasons---more important perhaps. I was brilliant in chemistry in my undergrad and ended up getting national scholarships for grad school. Which caused me to build up some hubris and made me think I could conquer everything. I had previously done research and published one solitary paper (though in a good journal) in inorganic chemistry. Now I heard that there were no jobs for inorganic and combined with my confidence (and a great talk by my future adviser) I 'changed' to total synthesis of large pharmaceutically relevant molecules.  
Total synthesis is hard and I sucked at it. Further our lab had a 'no one really wants to help anyone else' attitude which didn't help. I did not know all the techniques and getting it from others meant enduring a lot of crap (including the oft made suggestion that I should leave for a future elsewhere since synthesis was obviously not for me). The beating on my self confidence needed to end and I was soon looking for other stuff. I would have thought it was just me, but there were others later who endured the same and left.  
I first thought of changing labs, but my adviser was really supportive and had given me an RAship right from the beginning. I was grateful for that and wasn't sure what to do. Further, I thought that a career in chemistry is endless. A PhD and then a post doc would eat at least a huge chunk of my twenties. I wanted to change fields, and went on to do a MBA at a top school. I reasoned that a MBA will propel me to jobs (an undergrad degree in chemistry seems to lead nowhere) and I was correct. I announced to my adviser my decision to leave and he was rather upset (to be fair he had a lot invested in me) but I managed to get a MS (though not his recommendations). 
Where are you now? 
Perhaps not getting a PhD was a bit self defeating and I was keen to prove I was not a quitter (though quitting isn't bad in any way). After my MBA I worked a couple of years and went on to do a doctorate (yes a PhD!) in economics. Economics had no relation to chemistry and maybe since it was a non-lab based subject, I didn't have to rely on co-workers for support. I always seem to have good luck with supervisors and this time around I also had good mates and collaborators. I managed to overcome a new subject, publish and join the federal government though I hope to be in a tenure track position in a good university soon. 
Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
I am glad I left, but I am also bitter. I had invested just 1 1/2 years in my PhD and sometimes I feel I did not stick around to give it my best shot. Some other times I feel thankful that I left early and did not get stuck in a mess as some of my peers did (one of my labmates left without a pub in [their] 7 1/2 year PhD, another quit after 4 years. However one of my seniors, an international doc student from China left with over 5 pubs including a Nature just to illustrate both sides of the story).   
Yet during other times I long to go back and finish my PhD, perhaps at a different school. I am so much older and more mature and I feel I have the ability to do a PhD in just about anything now.  
But I also have a job, a wife and a whole host of animals and a tiny farm--- a second PhD would mean giving all that up. Some nights I think about how different my life might have been, but in the mornings I am back to building stochastic frontier models, a far cry from the Heck couplings and Wittig reactions and TLC plates which used to rule my life back then...
Thanks to "LB" for their story.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow! My vote is that this is the best story so far. Even though LB sees himself as "bitter" I think he has had a very positive life. Clearly very talented, LB managed to figure out the primal mess going on in the research group and found his way out in 1 1/2 years. How many so called "failed" students managed that? Did the fellow who graduated after 7 1/2 years "succeed"?

    Soon after, LB is on his way back to academia through the side door. Fantastic! As to the Heck reactions, I wish we had a good stochastic model for the process. Maybe they wouldn't be so messy to scale up.

    TLC plates, though.....