The comment about “STEM Propaganda” caught my attention immediately, as I definitely feel I was fed a lot of propaganda in undergrad. For me, graduate school was an almost automatic step because I knew I wanted to teach chemistry at the college level. I felt well prepared because I had done well in undergraduate coursework, although in retrospect my undergraduate research should’ve thrown up red flags (turning an RBF of bromosilane into a literal pyrophoric firebomb was probably the low point). Earning a poor grade—and yes, I earned every bit of that poor grade—in Advanced Organic Chemistry Lab was another red flag.
I started in graduate school with blinders on, pointed directly at the post labeled “organic synthesis.” I worked my ass off to do well in classes—one story that stands out in my mind is the day I forced myself to memorize something like twenty different aldol methods. “This sucks,” I thought, “but I guess this is just what graduate school is.” I joined the research group of [Very Prominent Professor] who was well known to be extremely demanding. Upon starting research I realized that no, coursework is nothing like what you’re expected to do in the lab. The chasm between coursework and research both seduced and misled me, and I would encourage any young students to look very carefully at the nature of coursework and how (if?!) it promotes research skills. Places like Scripps do this really well; my sense is that most places do it horribly.
I chugged along in research for a few months at an embarrassingly slow pace, sliding incrementally deeper into depression. Pardon the metaphor, but it felt like the activation energy associated with graduate school was climbing ever higher, and that I was not going to be able to get over the hump. Though I was very passionate about teaching, teaching at the college level just felt out of reach. Resigned to my fate, I walked into [VPP]’s office fully intent on leaving graduate school. Miraculously, in a move that instantly restored my faith in humanity, he compelled me not to leave, but to look for other options within the department. He was literally the catalyst that threw my ass over the hump.
Ultimately I ended up switching research groups and working on research projects that were much better aligned with my long-term goals than organic synthesis. In my new group, my advisor was upfront about his lack of knowledge about my work, but didn’t aggressively question or put down the work. Some might say I got lucky; however, in retrospect many of the same things that were true in my first research group were also true in my second. I was still basically on my own.
It took a great deal of maturation for me to come to grips with what graduate school entailed. I tell students regularly that I wish I’d waited a few years to start graduate school. That said, there’s a certain “delusions of grandeur” mindset that comes with being a graduate student in chemistry, and my sense is that most survive, rather than thrive. The system is broken at many universities, and in my experience it boils down to too little focus on developing research skills in coursework. I spent too many years aping my professors and not enough getting comfortable with doing science. I made it through only because (a) I got help from [VPP] and (b) I matured enough to set my own expectations.Thanks to XA for their story. Readers, if you're interested in sharing your story of staying or leaving graduate school in chemistry, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.