Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Sam": "Very happy having left"

This story on leaving graduate school in chemistry is from "Sam"'; it has been redacted for privacy. 
1. Why did you leave? 
So a little background first.  I graduated from [small prestigious college] in Chemistry with a strong desire to go into theory.  I was awarded a [redacted] Fellowship to study for a year in [European country X] in [redacted], and I deferred my admission to [University of West Coast].  While in [European country X], I applied for and was selected for a 3-year [redacted] fellowship. 
While in [European country X] I had changed my focus, or rather, grown disillusioned with electronic structure theory.  So when I arrived at [University of West Coast], I wanted to join the lab of [Professor D], instead of [Professor G].  [Professor D] resisted, saying he already had accepted the three students he had funding for.  Me, being an idiot, said, "Well, I have an [fellowship], so you don't need to fund me."  I did not realize that he was saying "no." 
At [University of West Coast], theoretical chemistry students are expected to take graduate quantum mechanics in the physics department.  So I did.  The problem sets were incredibly difficult.  Midway through the second semester I discovered that most of my fellow students had copies of the answer keys, handed down from previous years.  Stupid me: I thought I was supposed to do the work myself.  This was a further disillusionment. 
At the beginning of second semester, we got four new [redacted] machines, two of which had to be set up headless because we didn't have room for 4 new stations.  I took this on and executed it competently.  I got no acknowledgement or thanks for this, except that I was selected to be the lab sysadmin.  Later that month, when there was a planned outage, I came in on the Saturday to supervise the restart of all the machines.  Everything booted okay, but there was a network outage due to a router in a locked cupboard we could not access.  I decided to go home until this was sorted out. [Professor D] called me to chew me out because the group website was down. 
This is all background.  The best part is later. 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
Despite all that I was still interested and excited about doing theory.  We were each assigned a project to present at group meeting; my date was in [the middle of the year].  I had worked as a programmer at a [larger corporate organization], so I knew a bit about software development and planning.  I planned out a development schedule, leaving extra weeks for troubleshooting and debugging, and two full months to run my (small) problem.  I explained my development plan at a group meeting [at the beginning of the year]. 
"Not good enough," said [Professor D]. "I want to see a prototype by Monday."
So I knocked together a prototype over the weekend.  It only had to be a proof of concept, so I wrote it in [redacted computer language], but it worked.  I enjoyed the work, even though I did not like the artificially-imposed deadline. 
On Monday I brought my code in to show [Professor D].  He was away, on a planned trip.  He returned Wednesday evening.  Thursday morning I walked into his office and quit. 
I believe that if he thinks about it at all, he thinks that it was because I couldn't "hack it".  In a sense that's true: I respected myself too much to be willing to continue with a toxic boss and unpleasant workplace environment.  I had worked in the real world, briefly, and earned good money and had decent working conditions and a 40-hour work week.
I mooned around [University of West Coast] for a couple weeks, looking for someone who might take me in, but I couldn't find anyone who wanted me (no surprise, in retrospect).  So I withdrew from my grad program and gave up the [redacted] fellowship. 
I started working as a contract programmer for a previous client and tripled my income. 
3. Where are you now? 
Happily married, with three children, with [12+] years of self-employment as a programmer, owning a nice house which is 3/4 paid off.  If I had stayed in the academic track, I would have a chance of being tenured now.  Of my cohort of [small prestigious college] alumni, I know of one who is now tenured faculty at a top tier institution; some who are tenured at lower-tier institutions; and many who, after completing grad school, are now doing work that does not use their lab/research experience and does not require a Ph.D. 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
Very happy having left.  I think it was the right decision, especially considering that the chance of getting a tenure-track position at that time (entered grad school [post-1995]) had already fallen precipitously.
Thanks to "Sam" for their story.  

25 comments:

  1. boo hiss. I've been empathetic towards most of the "why I left" stories, but this one smacks of entitlement.

    I don't doubt that Sam's boss might have sucked, but I'm interpreting the bigger issue as Sam's failure to adapt and "play the game" in grad school.

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    1. "but this one smacks of entitlement."

      It seems as a healthy amount of dignity and self-respect to me, as this is yet another example of a toxic environment.

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    2. A toxic environment and entitlement are not mutually exclusive. And granted, it's entirely possible that Sam is much more level-headed now with some time and experience.

      However, in terms of what's presented here, it definitely strikes me that, at the time, that may have been the case. I see three negatives, which aren't all that bad.
      1) Sam is upset he (or she, could be a Samantha) didn't get an extra pat on the back for doing something they agreed to do.
      2) It's sparse on details, but it seems like Sam handled the server outage poorly. Either diffuse the situation with PI, or just call them in advance to say "hey, I did what I could, but this is locked."
      3) Sam is upset that PI is pushing them to crack work out. I think the PI giving an artificial deadline of Monday when they'd be back on Wed is a dick move, but it doesn't warrant quitting.

      I want to trust Sam's word on the matter, but from the evidence presented, I wouldn't qualify the environment as toxic. Maybe a "new jersey" level of general unpleasantness.

      Saying that you were making good money at a 40-hr/wk job doesn't really mean anything - one should be acutely aware that's what they're giving up by going to grad school. Assuming there is more to the story than presented, the "I respected myself too much" could be accurate, but given the info presented it sounds whiny. And above all, stating that there's a chance Sam could be tenured by now strikes me as the height of entitlement. There's a chance I could be a pro footballer, too, if only I hadn't stopped playing in middle school.

      It's nice to see that Sam seems to understand their folly in hindsight ("(no surprise, in retrospect)"), and I have witnessed a fair bit of students in toxic environments of their own for comparison. Abruptly hitting the eject button, and burning bridges such that you can't find a home elsewhere in the department is quite unwise. Unless I'm mistaken and I'm mis-reading the subtext here, I'm seeing a lot more of "It was Professor D's fault!" than "I botched handling the situation." Ie, entitlement.

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    3. The only difference between Sam and most grad students is that he had some experience in the working world first, and knew the basic standards of professionalism toward subordinates. I don't call that entitlement. I think there's a good chance I would have punched my advisor's teeth down his throat if I'd started grad school as a 30-year-old with real-world work experience and he talked to me like he always did.

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    4. I'll second KT's sentiments. I spent a year in graduate school during my early 20s, but I was in no way mature enough to succeed and I left. After many years in industrial IT-type positions, I went back for my PhD. The unprofessional behaviors I encountered no longer astonish me, but they have left me cynical about the purported merits of career academics. If people can't manage their time well enough to either keep their appointments or call and reschedule them, or if they are unable to offer direct guidance in what they expect from a subordinate, they shouldn't be given the expectation of trying to organize and direct a freestanding research program.

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    5. Like MG, I have recently returned to working in an academic environment, having worked in industry for several years. I too am astounded by the above behaviors from the career academics. It makes it a little hard to respect them when they behave that way.

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  2. I think what people are misinterpreting as entitlement is actually the power of having a back-up plan. Sam had skills that were actually valuable in the outside world...not just B.S. "problem-solving skills."

    If I had had a fall-back plan, I would have left grad school my first year. Heck, if I had one now, I'd give my two-weeks notice.

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    1. Seriously. I feel a lot more people more flip advisors off if they could find good jobs easily. There was a guy in another lab who was job hunting while in grad school. When he found a job he basically told his advisor to **** off and left. I like to think he's doing alright now.

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  3. Seems to make a good case for knowing programming. If things don't work out at least you can move into the tech industry where jobs seem to abound like a field full of lilies. I know at least two chemists who made this transition.

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  4. In my experience, chem grad students with computer programming skills (good ones, anyway) tend to get crapped on by advisors because even though they may be indispensable to keeping things running in the group, they can also be seen as just technicians not doing real chemistry. In the group I did my PhD in, my PI pissed off two students in a row with computer stuff and disrespecting them; both left. After them, another new student came in with programming skills who was going to do a joint PhD with another professor. Thing was, this 3rd guy was already successful at starting and running a tech company and came back to grad school to do a PhD solely so he could have a piece of paper in his hand saying PhD; he didn't need it for a career. Only student in the program who had both a BMW and a Hummer in his garage fully paid for and a bigger house than all of the faculty in the department. This turned out to be a nightmare scenario for both advisors; the new student quickly proved himself irreplaceable because they both needed him for his programming work but they had no control over him. He would frequently skip group meetings without warning and the faculty would get pissed and ask where he is this week and we would have to answer, "oh, X is in Tokyo this week negotiating with the Japanese over software rights". And they just couldn't do anything about it because only he had the skills they needed. We all sort of lived vicariously through him and envied him. He took 9 years to get a PhD, not because he was lousy or had difficult experiments or anything, but only because he was working at his own pace (like 30% time) that he set and basically didn't care if the profs wanted him to do more things quicker.

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    1. I guess this shows if you have the skills people need, you have the longer end of the stick.

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  5. Seriously, what IS the problem with academic chemists? Almost, but not quite all have been utter a**holes and spoiled brats who bullied and exploited their grad students and post-docs. In a sense, I'm slightly relieved that my memorably unpleasant experience at the academic workface was far from atypical.

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    1. Simple - I talk to a co-worker at my industry job like that, and I have to go to a meeting with HR, they put a record of disciplinary action in my file, it looks bad on my performance review, etc. In academia, nothing happens, and even the less naturally nasty ones learn that this kind of thing is normal.

      I left grad school with the impression that the rules of basic behavior toward others didn't apply in labs. It wasn't until my first industry job that I learned the problem isn't with science; it's with academia.

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    2. @KT: exactly. In academia, if you are faculty, you really don't have anyone to answer to, and there is little incentive to be a decent human being. Its scary to see how much incentive people need to be nice and do the right thing (like a tenure prof retiring at 65(!))

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    3. A prof I had was still teaching at 88.

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    4. I know of some cases where a professor in his 70s or even 80s continued to do active research using only undergrads and postdocs, while others lost their lab space in their 50s due to shrinking groups. A solution to the problem of deadwood professors milking the system would be to force anyone not doing active research to take on the same course load as a teaching professor, but the problem is that a lot of research types aren't particularly fond of, or good at, teaching.

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    5. Maybe it's different in the US, but over here, I have not myself experienced anything bad. Two PhD students in my supervisors group graduated recently, after ca. 3-5 years, both went into the industry, further developing ideas from their PhD. They only have good things to say, and the atmosphere in the research group is brilliant.
      I know of only two people in my department who had problems with their supervisors: a) one case where their supervisor (not my supervisor) took their ideas for their thesis and made it an undergrad bachelor's project, saying that this was not appropriate for a PhD anyway and b) someone who had regular yelling matches with one of the postdocs. This student was interdisciplinary, and was completely shocked to find out that it wouldn't be their supervisor showing them how stuff worked, but other people from the group (PhD students etc.), and that they'd be required to teach others as well... I think that's more of an issue with adapting to circumstances (ie larger group) than anything else.
      Apart from those two cases, people seem fine in my department, and a lot of recent PhDs went here for their undergrad as well, and stayed to do postdocs.
      This makes me wonder - is what I'm reading here constantly totally warped, or is it the norm and I'm really lucky? Or do I just not find out about these things? I have been around for nearly three years..

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    6. What country are you in? In the US, it's unusual for someone to stay at the same institution for undergrad and PhD, or PhD and postdoc. Exceptions are usually because of the two-body problem.

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    7. I think you're lucky to be in a good department, Anon! Don't sweat it, just be happy about it :) Maybe you'll never have to enter this world described here. Good for you - you'll be better without it.

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    8. ^^ I'm Anon above, in the UK.

      That I know of, at least four of our lecturers did both their undergrad and PhD here. Two of them went away for a period between PhD and coming back to teach though. Another did their undergrad here, then PhD, then left. I also know one person who decided just last year not to finish their five-year undergrad master's and went straight into a PhD after graduating with a BSc, because his undergraduate supervisor said he'd take him on with only a BSc. Another is currently doing a postdoc, after having done their undergrad and PhD here - I think half a year of that was spent on placement elsewhere, though.
      I am very happy here! But I don't think I want to stay forever - I'd rather have a safe haven to come back to if things do go wrong elsewhere. My supervisor is all for it, he likes sending out people who eventually come back with a load of knowledge his group can benefit from.

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    9. Oh, I don't disagree that it's generally better to move around.
      I know a certain supervisor, not at your uni by the sounds of it, who has a lot - and I mean a LOT - of students and postdocs who stayed from undergrad right the way through. I'm pretty sure he does it by convincing them that no one else will take them and getting them to think that he is their only chance, when this is patently untrue. It doesn't sound like this is your uni; just saying there is a possible alternative to the happy campus!

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    10. Hi Anon from the UK - I think you're very lucky to have a stable, positive experience with a Chemistry department in the UK. I worked for four years at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Through that time, and a little before, there was an exceptionally toxic and nespotic environment there, and a major civil war within the department. The university admin and Vice Chancellor were also hell-bent on eliminating Chemistry from the university curriculum. I understand that things have improved a little since then, but I'm just saying: there are plus and minuses to any sort of environment where humans are competing for a shrinking amount of resources.

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  6. A lot of people are railing against academics compared to industry, and they're not wrong. I will say that I've had generally positive industry experience, but my current manager is just as big of an asshole as a lot of these academics are being described, except he's not competent. His boss thinks he's the greatest so he gets away with it. Again, it's less common than in academia, but these types of nightmare scenarios can crop up in industry as well.

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    1. My manager is the same way. I was lucky in academia with supportive PIs during both grad school and postdoc. I have been amazed how such an incompetent boss can get away with this in industry.

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  7. What is the problem with academic chemists? In my view it comes down to money and entitlement. The chemistry programs in most schools offer full fellowships and assistanships. There are a few other disciplines like that - biology, CS, ME - but universally the Ph.D. costs the student real money. A business or art student can easily add $50-$100 k to his student loans.

    This gives the users (i.e. PIs) the perception that the chemistry graduate student is a commodity - doesn't need to be courted to join the group, gets paid for (initially) nothing, and has a definite expiration date. In contrast, a graduate student who pays his way through the school earns an automatic level of respect.

    The other factor is the sense of entitlement. I do mean the tenured professor's entitlement. The near absolute protection from consequences of abuse combined with peer pressure to deliver scientific results distorts the PI's perception and behavior over time.

    I am definitely not arguing that the chemistry professors self-select to be the abusers. However, the coincidence of the three conditions - low value of the subjects, lack of consequences and peer pressure for the PIs - combine to create a naturally toxic environment.

    For some background info check the Stanford prison experiment.

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