Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"LSN": "I was happy leaving."

This story on leaving graduate school is from "LSN"; their story has been edited for privacy. 
Why did you leave? What was your thought process? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
It was sudden. I was in my fourth year in grad school, and I had a meeting with my advisor. He thought that I was not likely to finish my degree in finite time, and that I did not have the package of abilities that people would expect from a Ph.D. - primarily, the ability to prosecute a research plan from (almost) start to finish. I was surprised, and saddened, but it made sense. I talked to my parents about it, but they didn't have much to add, other than being parents. I didn't feel like I had much choice in the matter, but at the same time I could not escape the logic of it, because I felt that my advisor's judgment was accurate. 
I had had a harder time joining a research group than expected, for a variety of reasons; to start, I didn't really have enough experience in lab or perhaps enough skills there to do what I wanted, and a lot of other people my year did. I also don't think I thought about grad school in the way that Derek Lowe and lots of others understood it - as something to learn from and succeed at and leave as soon as practicable. I didn't understand what I was trying to do, other than learn neat stuff, and I didn't know enough about the practice of research to know where I ought to be going. My advisor's research group was large; I received help (as lots of people do) from my postdoc and others in the group. I have assumed that I would have been better off in a smaller group, but I am not sure what I expect to have gained from a different environment. I don't think I put in as much work as I should have. I had worked on some different projects and had not made much progress on any of them. My group tended to publish a lot, and I showed no signs of having publishable research in a reasonable amount of time. All these things should have been clear earlier, but I was somewhat oblivious. 
Where are you now? 
I started looking for a job; my job search went only slightly better than my research, although at least with my job search I had a goal (that I knew about). I was supported by my advisor. My undergraduate advisor helped a lot; I had talked to him about my situation, and some of the issues that had become (finally) apparent to me (my lack of facility in lab) had been apparent to him earlier. He thought that maybe I could work with chemistry outside the lab, and knew of people who were looking. I was nervous, but figured it might be interesting. I managed to get an interview at [a firm related to the chemical industry], and when I went there decided that it was something I could do. Fortunately, they decided that maybe I could do that as well. I went to work there and have been working there for almost twenty years. I had thought about trying to work in pharma, if I could, but my not-great research experience would have made that a poor idea, which is fortunate for me, I think. I have done OK at my job - probably not as well as my pedigree would suggest I should, but OK.  
Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now? 
I was happy leaving. I don't think grad school was slavery or anything like that; I was happy with the idea of getting paid to learn interesting chemistry, but I don't think I understood exactly what I should be doing, and I was not mature enough yet to understand what was going on, or even that something was going on. That made grad school much less fun that it might have been for others, and I was weary of my lack of progress and lack of development. I liked the people I met in school, and the chemistry going on around me, and I wasn't ambitious or hard enough to make my own mark in it. I didn't like failing. I was glad not to feel guilty over time not in lab. My job allowed to me to see lots of chemistry and to do some of things that I enjoyed and could do well from it. Eventually I made friends, and found some strength socially. I was timid at work until I found that I could be useful and do things, and that helped too. I am a lot different now than I was when I left grad school, but I don't know if being in grad school hindered my progress in these areas, or it was just a matter of having time and growing up.
While my maturity and ability at research were problematic, I still was interested in chemistry. I think I learned to appreciate the chemistry that was going on that I had not appreciated initially, and seeing people I knew find success doing chemistry makes me happy (I don't feel like their success is something I should have had). I have access to lots of chemistry literature. 
I don't have a good a picture of what was in my head at the time; I think I accepted it because I had to and got on with it. I think, though, that the conclusions my advisors made about me were correct. I think I might have done better at a smaller school and group, perhaps, though I might not have. I needed to have a better idea of how grad school worked and of my own chemistry strengths and weaknesses before I went on to grad school. It seemed like the theory that I picked up that it would be harder to go to grad school after working and making money (and getting used to having stuff), but the experience, of doing real chemistry, of the structure of actual research, and of trying to accomplish specific tasks to that end probably would have helped me more than hurt me. Having done more research before grad school (both in industry and in school) would have been a good idea, so that I could learn to do research and to (perhaps) find something I wanted to do if I could not.
 Thanks to "LSN" for their story. 


  1. How long have you been out? I left grad school thinking I wasn't competent to work at McDonald's, and my self-confidence slowly returned over the next decade or so.

    1. I've been out about 15-20 years. I always had intellectual (and status) confidence/arrogance (when I went to a job fair starting to look for a job, I was somewhat nonplussed to be told that I needed to do some temp work first - that was hard to swallow after eight years of school and about four in lab, although I wasn't dumb enough to say anything until I got back to lab). I wasn't confident at work for a couple of years after grad school, but I thought inside I could do it - I just didn't deal with people very well. (Also, when I have thought I couldn't be wrong, and acted like it, I found out I was, and I am risk-averse more than success-craving). Socially, it took longer for me to have confidence, but that wasn't grad school's fault.

      My experience was not nearly as bad as lots of people's, though. I didn't see myself as fortunate, but I probably should have.