All these stories people are sharing assume people went to grad school for the same reasons and got there on similar paths. At least for me, the backstory is important in understanding why I “left” with a master’s degree. (I think it is interesting to point out that chemists consider it “leaving” with a master’s degree, while the rest of the world considers it “graduating” with a master’s degree.)
What was the plan going into grad school?
I came out of undergrad in the mid 90’s with biochem and chemistry degrees. This was pre-internet, so for you younger readers please keep in mind how much more difficult it was to get information back then. I went to grad school because I’d had a “pair of hands” research job in undergrad at a government lab that showed me I’d need to take my education further to have a satisfying career. I also felt like I didn’t know nearly as much as I should about either biochem or chemistry. Much of that feeling stemmed from my lack of engagement during undergrad, mostly a result of me having a little too much fun while I was there. Being interested in both biochem and chemistry, my plan for grad school was to learn more about what tied them together - organic chemistry - by getting a master’s degree. My naïve perspective at the time was that people went to graduate school to get graduate degrees, meaning either a master’s or a PhD. I would certainly find out later that chemists do not see grad school in that light.
I applied to two large Midwest US schools which were in the top ten for chemistry grad schools, not necessarily because I thought I belonged there, but mostly in an effort to stay near my future wife, who would be at our undergrad institution for two more years. Thankfully I got into the one closest to her and we’d be able to see each other most weekends as the drive was only an hour and a half. I also would be able to see many of my undergrad friends on weekends, which I now realize allowed me to keep some perspective on life outside of grad school by maintaining a social circle that typical grad students can’t access.
Why did you leave? Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden?
Without going into a ton of detail, it was relatively apparent to me in my first semester that I was towards the bottom of the talent pool of the incoming organic chemistry class, but I was enjoying the experience. The process of joining a group was something I was wholly unprepared for compared to my peers. I don’t remember exactly when or who I had this conversation with, but I was asked by one professor whose group I was considering joining why I came to grad school. When I revealed the plan to intentionally get a master’s degree, I was told “the way it worked in this department”. I quickly started to limit disclosure of my intentions to potential advisors and peers in conversations, now realizing that I was there to do something everyone else viewed as a failure. In my own mind though, I took a “let’s see what happens” attitude. If I ended up liking it, maybe I’d stay for a PhD. If I didn’t, I would leave.
Thankfully, I joined the group of a second year professor who ended up being perfect for me – a great example of me getting very lucky to land in a good situation. In our conversation about joining his group, he did let me know he had heard I may have been considering leaving with a master’s degree and wanted to know what my intentions were. I told him I was going to go for the PhD as I was enjoying the experience so far (which was true), but in the back of my mind I always had an out.
Moving through more classes and cume exams reaffirmed that I was likely in the lower portion of my class with respect to talent. As I started to do research, it also became apparent that I initially had no idea what I was doing in lab. After I did my first reaction, I went in to my advisors office and asked him what came next. He said, “Well you work it up.” I said, “What’s a workup?” I can only imagine his horror at what he’d gotten himself into. It’s another testament though to what a great advisor he was. He never demeaned me or lost his cool. He acted professional despite what was clearly a bad situation for him (currently anyways).
My first two projects were actually pretty bad ones. My first year of research mostly involved me setting up reactions and then dumping them in the waste, which is not very motivating and doesn’t teach you much, but at least now I knew how to run reactions and isolate and characterize products. Things continued along into the second year with classes, TA’ing, research, seminars, group meetings, etc. Decision time was coming though. In the second semester of the second year, students were required to present an hour long “literature seminar” to the department on a current topic. These seminars were tough. I had seen people go up there and get so beaten down by some of the faculty that they had looked foolish. One poor woman had even cried in front of the entire department during her presentation. I figured that this seminar would expose my inadequacies and saw it as basically an insurmountable obstacle.
Before we had to sign up for second semester classes, I went into my advisor and had the talk with him about leaving. When he asked me why I wanted to leave, I let him know where I thought I stood in relationship to my peers and that I didn’t think I had the talent to make it through to a PhD. I also let him know that my future wife was soon to be out of undergrad and getting into her career, so in an effort to move on with our lives together I needed to start thinking about getting my own career started. He was very understanding and we worked out that I would stay on for about a year more. During that time I would finish up classes and switch onto a project he thought had a better chance of working out so I could write a thesis and get a research master’s degree. He also said he would attempt to get me out of TA’ing if possible so I could focus on research. Again, he was a class act through and through.
The next 15 months of my life up until I left were fantastic. The new project was a tough one at first, but finally something worked. I got a nice three month education in structure elucidation, reaction optimization, and proof of mechanism. Shortly on the heels of that first real success, I also had a tangent to that first result come through and it was clearly going to turn into a methodology project of its own, which in the end resulted in a JACS publication for two of the other group members. When discussing what to do with my advisor, I got the opportunity to decide which path I wanted to go down as I would clearly not be able to handle two projects at once given my situation. I decided I wanted to take one of the new reactions and apply it to a total synthesis, which ended about a year later with me synthesizing the first natural product to come out of the group and an Angewandte publication.
The last nine months as I was cranking away on the total synthesis I was free of classes and TA’ing responsibilities. I was thriving in a setting where I got to come in every day and focus solely on research. Towards the end people in the group said they couldn’t believe I was leaving. I was enthusiastic, making more research progress than anyone in the group, and I suspect my advisor was now very disappointed to see me leaving as I was clearly hitting my stride. Looking back now, I consider myself lucky I hadn’t gotten a successful project when I joined the group. The success I had with the later projects may have convinced me to stick it out and get a PhD, but as I’ll discuss below, I don’t think that would have been a good thing.
Where are you now? How does the decision look to you?
In the late 90’s/early 2000’s the job market was great, though again in my naivety I was wholly unaware that wasn’t how it normally was or would be in the future. I was very much attracted to process chemistry and was able to get a job doing it in the perfect location for me and my wife. We were married soon after I got my job and we now have the family we had always dreamed of having. I have thankfully survived “reductions in staff” and been at this company for my entire career doing a fulfilling job I honestly feel like I was born to do. My wife and I are able to live close enough to where we each grew up that we can visit family on weekends. Many of our closest friends from undergrad have settled in the same area, so in adding that on to all the people we have met through the years after undergrad we have a great social circle. Our quality of life is about as good as we could have ever expected.
Professionally, [redacted number of] years in I am now [redacted number of levels] above incoming PhD, in part because I push myself to develop my skills but also because I have some generous and talented coworkers and managers that have kept my education moving forward just as my advisor had. I am constantly looking for opportunities to broaden my knowledge and feel that part of a scientist’s job is continued self-education that shouldn’t slow down once you leave school. In terms of talent and experience, I am now in my own estimation towards the top of the master’s degree ladder. But what if I would have stuck it out and gotten a PhD?
Looking back, if I had gotten my PhD, I likely would have come out as an average candidate. Given the timing of when I would have completed my PhD or postdoc, there is no way I’d be at my current dream location as my company went through a contraction through those years when I would have been first looking for a job. I’m not even convinced I could get a job here as a PhD with my talent level seeing the talent we have hired in the past 5 to 10 years. PhDs coming in now are the top of the pile with great resumes and pedigrees. I know that I could work 12 hours a day and seven days a week for the rest of my life and I’m still never going to surpass the talent level of some of the people I currently work with. I am now a good research chemist. I am never going to be a great one, no matter how hard I work, as I simply lack the mental capacity. I am surviving now through a passion for what I do, a desire to constantly improve, and a lack of fear to take on challenges, all of which I am hoping will keep me gainfully employed.
The biggest unanswerable question is how getting the PhD would have impacted my relationship with my now wife. Would we have survived an extended long distance relationship? If she decided to try to start her career where I was in grad school, would that stress plus the stress of completing the PhD have been too much for our relationship? How would the stress of me struggling to find a job and/or her moving her career for me impacted us? Would our quality of life be diminished now by living geographically far away from our family and friends for me to have a job? Would we currently have the family we have? It’s hard to say what would have happened. Things could have turned out even better than they are now. What I can tell you is that I’ve not once regretted how things have turned out. There’s not one day we’ve spent together since I left school where I’ve said to myself, “My life would be much better today if I had a PhD.”
Looking around nowadays, I don’t know if it’s feasible to take the path I did anymore. Expectations are higher from both students and advisors, everyone is more informed on the reality of the situation, and there just aren’t as many opportunities. I feel very blessed that things have worked out as well as they have for me. I wish I could say that it was all planned and a result of my clear-headed thinking and hard work, but there has been a terrible amount of naivety and luck involved. One thing I do know is that I have kept pushing forward and not let other people’s perceptions define what I am going to do with my life. If anyone views what I have done with my education as a failure, I have a professional and personal quality of life that argues to the contrary, and I’m perfectly fine with that.