Leaking From the Pipeline (Again)

So here’s an announcement: I’ve officially become a master’s student. My advisor, fabulously, has agreed to support me while I prune my commitment-phobic tangle of half-finished papers and dissertation proposals into something resembling a thesis. I’ll be doing that until next May.

I made the decision… well, it was one of those realizations that came on gradually. I’ve been seriously thinking about it since last summer, but I filled out the disappointingly short and unofficial-looking form back in February; my petition was officially approved in April. In fact, I meant to post about this in the first Scientiae carnival, and in every carnival since. Like Zuska, though, I’ve been blogjammed. My decision to leave is a hard thing to write about, because so much boils down to dissecting my personality, my strengths and weaknesses as a student and a researcher, the health of my various mentor relationships, and the culture of my department. Not in public, thanks.

But I’ve been feeling some pressure to come up with a good story about my experience as a leak. The pressure comes in part from colleagues, who ask …really? Why? as if they expect a simple answer. It also comes, inescapably, from my desire to tell myself nice stories about my life. Unfortunately, there are no coherent narratives. Every time I hear or think of a new reason that I’ve been unhappy as a grad student, I respond with an enthusiastic yes, yes, that’s exactly the problem! – because it always is. I tell my colleagues very upbeat stories (sincere ones – yes, yes, that’s exactly it!) about feeling passionate about other career options, mainly science writing and outreach. I will tell prospective future employers very upbeat stories about how much I have missed being part of a team – people here are collegial and helpful, but that’s not the same as having a core group of people whose successes are interdependent. Really, though, I’m unhappy, I don’t trust that I would be able to change that if I stayed, and life is just too short to fart around pretending that if you exercise just a leeeetle bit more gumption your problems will all go away.

I don’t feel I have experienced any visible sexism*, but it has not escaped my notice that in my department, more women than men seem to have trouble with their qualifying exams (this is based on numbers I’ve gathered by talking to older grad students; it is not a statistically significant difference). My suspicion is that this is largely mediated by self-confidence, which is gendered both in terms of who has it and in terms of how it is perceived by others. I started grad school with a great deal of self-confidence, and though I retain the core belief that I am the raw material of a very good scientist (among other things), I’m not quite sure what happened to the rest of it.

I can’t point to a villain. Perhaps I should be pointing to a hero/ine for giving me the courage to leave a situation that isn’t right for me, but I can’t do that either. Regardless, even though I’ll never have more than statistical fuzz and a hunch to back this up, I don’t think I would be leaving if I were a man.

Those of you who haven’t been reading this blog for the past five years might not be aware of this, but when I decided not to pursue an academic career straight out of undergrad (and possibly not ever) I went through an astonishingly similar set of questions and angsty musings. This time ’round I find that my responses have been substantially improved by experience – I am feeling positive about the strengths I have that aren’t being used very well in academia, I am excited about my career options, I am able to recognize misfits between myself and academia as value-neutral or as flaws in academia instead of feeling like I am broken. It’s good to feel like I’ve learned something.

I haven’t quite figured out the trick of viewing a master’s degree from a prestigious institution as a proud accomplishment, rather than a booby prize – the pipeline paradigm is tricksy that way. But that’ll have to be material for other posts; right now, it’s time to make sure there will still be a booby prize for the mulling. Ironically, deciding to leave has made me much happier about work – and work, as usual, is calling.

*At Berkeley. Caltech is a different story.


  1. Lab Lemming wrote:

    “I don’t think I would be leaving if I were a man.”

    If you were a man, would you have the self-awareness to realize that you aren’t happy? And if you did, would you let such a nebulous concept as self-fulfillment interfere with your pursuit of your degree?

  2. A. Nonymous wrote:

    Hi GreenGabbro–I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for a while. I’m a product of your department, who has shared many of your feelings and experiences that you write about so eloquently; and for a variety of reasons I’ve stuck with it in academia (so far). For me, the main reason to stick with it is so I can be a scientist. But there are lots of other things out there also–I definitely realize that. (And other things often tempt me to leave–the diode effect is sometimes the only thing keeping me in…).

    Please keep my post anonymous online, but feel free to email me if you want a sympathetic ear.

  3. Ximena wrote:

    Quitting anything is a bitch, but I think you’ll be a powerhouse in whatever you choose to do next, and this experience will be fuel for the furnace.

  4. tectonite wrote:

    A PhD seems to limit opportunities more than create them, except in a few circumstances (becoming a university professor, working as a research scientist at a national lab, the USGS, or an oil company). A master’s degree is exactly the right amount of credentials for a lot of jobs in industry, and it doesn’t leave you overqualified for a lot of cross-over jobs. (And groups like AGI hire geoscience outreach people with master’s degrees.)

    And yes, a master’s from Berkeley is something to be proud of.

    When students are considering grad school, I tell them not to do a PhD program unless they discover that they can’t be happy doing anything else. There isn’t a lot of satisfaction outside the work itself, either in grad school or as a professor, and I’ve found that the loneliness and self-confidence actually get worse the further along the path that I’ve gone. (But I love the rocks, and I love teaching, and I can’t imagine doing anything else, so it’s worth putting up with the subtle bullshit, for me at least. But I’ve come darn close to ditching it, many times.)

    (Did you read the articles in the May/June issue of the AWG newsletter? The gender tutorial described on p. 7 talks a lot about how slight differences in perceptions of women scientists add up to huge differences.)

  5. Zuska wrote:

    If deciding to leave has made you happier about work, I’d say you made the right decision – everything is easier when you are happy, and it seems like the happiness has come from making the right choice for yourself. How you got there, why you got there….all a long story. It makes me sad for women in science in general, but glad for you that you are finding your way and feeling good about it! That M.S. will be no booby prize – it will be a great achievement and you never know what it will bring you in life! There are many wonderful things to do outside academia. And most of them pay better. :)

  6. Lab Lemming wrote:

    I agree with Tectonite about the utility of various degrees. For example, a college friend of mine who “bailed” with a masters from a spiffy school has had all sorts of career goodness in the intervening decade, compared to those of us with phuds. Incidentally, she works for an environmental consulting firm with offices in both San Fran and Seattle, so if you want me to network y’all once the job hunt begins, just drop me a line.

  7. Andrew Ironwood wrote:

    “A PhD seems to limit opportunities more than create them”

    I still remember one of my music profs putting in his bio fer some composer’s festival something to the effect of:

    “He received his PhD in music composition at [wherever it was], and then realized in horror that his opportunities for gainful employment were now limited to teaching at the university level.”

    (…yeah, one of my fave profs, cancha tell…)

  8. yami wrote:

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts and support. So much of this is stuff that I conscoiusly realize and value, and it’s fighting against really weird cultural status hangups that I picked up in a grotty alley somewhere and can’t seem to get rid of.

    LL, I will definitely be hitting you up for that contact.

    Zuska, it makes me sad too. Sad in general, happy in specific – kind of a weird tension.

  9. bret wrote:

    I’m a man, and I left.

    I was miserable at Berkeley, for various reasons (crippling isolation, panic over directionlessness, others) that are too complex to sum up neatly, as these sorts of things often are. As you’ve found. The MS was the ejector seat.

    A couple years later, I did discover a passion, THE passion, and it was something that I never would have found while slogging it out in grad school. So, that’s good.

    The MS itself has been useless. (MSEE, BTW, so YMMV.) Useless when applying for industry jobs, and now especially useless that I’ve shifted fields entirely. So, that’s bad.

    Some of the research I did has, you know, benefited things. So I guess that’s good.

    I still think of my MS as a booby prize. When I even think about it at all. I usually retrospect about the Caltech years, and block out Berkeley. So, that’s bad.

    But, the bottom line from my experience, and all I can tell you:

    If you are unhappy with grad school, leave leave leave leave leave. Be happy you are leaving. Be confident you are making the right choice. Outside of academia lies freedom.

  10. Brian wrote:

    Ya gotta do what you want…bottom line.

    I hate how MS degrees are looked down upon at big research universities. I got a master’s from a place that celebrated them…and now i’m getting a PhD at a place that almost literally laughs at it.

    The way I look at this…even if you get an advanced degree and don’t “use” it in the applied sense, you learn a lot about the process of working on projects that will help you no matter what.

    And I agree with most of the above commenters….ya gotta nip these kind of situations in the bud (like you are) before they get outta hand.

  11. Gen wrote:

    Thank you for posting this. I’m in a program where I’m pretty sure I want the PhD, after leaving an earlier program (even before the MS… or before completing the first semester…) but it’s early yet; I’m still keeping in mind all my options. Either way, I am a big supporter of bret’s advice to “leave leave leave leave leave” if graduate school is making you unhappy, and am happy for you that you made the right choice for you, for this point in your life.

  12. Mom wrote:

    I personally am saddened whenever society falls so short of optimal productivity of all of its members regardless of gender—it is such a struggle and has been such a struggle—it only hurts us all that women are continually disrespected. (Due to immigration tightening, we will be short of scientists and engineers compared to rest of the world in about 10 years and one viable way to remedy this situation without having to battle bipartisan bullshit is to encourage and optimize the productivity of US women in science—50% of our population) I also applaud anyone who tries to remedy their situation in whatever way they can—–I am happy you are happier—I support anyone who says this is not for me and leaves no matter what it is they are leaving in life (as long as the leaving encompasses responsibility)—to turn and try new things says you are NOT STUCK so BRAVO! -and I agree with all your friends who say that a Masters from Berkeley is NOT a booby prize at all!!! It is a wonderful achievement.

  13. DeliciousCijMatrix wrote:

    Your decision will likely pay off in the long run. Especially when you finish in May and the Hayward decides to rip through campus in July.

  14. Bill Tozier wrote:

    Be proud, and don’t regret. But do everything you can to carry forward your interest, the passion that excused whatever strains you subjected yourself to.

    We all do poorly when we let ourselves be stymied.

    I’ve quit graduate school twice before. And I’m quitting again as we speak.

    And proud of it.

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