Confessions of a Grad School Dropout Graduate

Tonight I’m assembling an appendix to my thesis. Plot some data; bring it into Illustrator to clean up the formatting; write a caption and add it to the LaTeX document. Rinse; lather; repeat. I’m using an egg timer – I can handle 45 minutes of this boring stuff if I get to blog when it dings.

I’m writing a Master’s thesis; I wasn’t originally expecting that. While I am fully capable of enumerating its many flaws in a multi-paragraph bullet-pointed high-pitched single breath, I’m still proud of what I’ve produced. I wasn’t expecting that either.

Let me give you the soap opera summary: I burned out during undergrad. Dazed, packed with angst, and convinced I was too stupid for a research career, I crawled out from under the mountain of popcorn* with B.S. in hand, swearing that I would never go back.

Within a year, I was thinking about grad school. And within a year of starting grad school, I was thinking about leaving. This time, I’m swearing that I will only go back after I have figured out what’s behind my love-hate relationship with academia. I am convinced that I’m smart enough for any career I want, including a research career, but at this point I can barely even remember what it was like to want one of those.

What do I want? Oh, lots of things! I like to solve problems, especially technical ones; I like to feel helpful, which seems to mean that I do better in more team-oriented work environments; I like to learn new things and explain them to others. I am largely indifferent to which things I am learning, exactly – or rather, I am interested in almost everything. The process of choosing just one or two good questions to focus on has not been my favorite part of science.

My long-term goals have been useful things to cling to when my career is feeling stormy: I’ll work on skills that can be transferred to a job as… a ballerina unicorn! I would be such an awesome ballerina unicorn, you have no idea! But the fact that a goal keeps me afloat doesn’t mean it is anything more than handy flotsam. During calmer periods, I feel kind of dumb, grabbing my flotsam with cramping hands, and… okay, this analogy has run its course.

Anyway, the point is, I have found that clinging too stubbornly to long-term goals is actually bad for me. Not because the goals themselves are bad, but I tend to become emotionally overinvested in them, and then I freak! out! at the slightest threat to my success. Learning to keep things in perspective has meant, for me, appreciating that lots of things can happen between now and the completion of my Five-Year Plan. I might finally figure out how to hold together an exercise routine, or win the lottery, or suddenly hear my biological clock tick, or find out that I am sterile. Life would go on. I might also die in an earthquake, in which case life would not go on and I would very much regret any sacrifices I’d made that had not yet paid off.

Instead of planning for a long-term goal, I am planning for change. A good career choice is one that seems interesting in the short term, pays a living wage, and promises to provide varied and interesting opportunities a few years down the road.

So. Now that I’ve just myself seem like a really excellent long-term human resources investment… know of any interesting job openings in Seattle?

*I don’t know what that means either; it’s a metaphor. And also a Real Genius reference.


  1. PhysioProf wrote:

    I am largely indifferent to which things I am learning, exactly – or rather, I am interested in almost everything. The process of choosing just one or two good questions to focus on has not been my favorite part of science.

    This is typical of extremely bright people. You should not in any way consider this a sign that you aren’t cut out for a PhD.

    It’s also worth pointing out that, while it is necessary to focus in order to earn the PhD, once you do so, it is possible to chart a much broader course in science. This is true both in academia–particularly as a PI–and in other professional science contexts.

    Regardless, the PhD is, to some extent, a key that unlocks many, many doors that will otherwise remain closed to you. And behind those doors are many, many fascinating and diverse career pathways that bear little resemblance to being a grad student focused on completing the PhD.

    Bottom line: Having a love-hate relationship with being a PhD student does not mean you have a love-hate relationship with science or academia. It’s hard to see this when you are a PhD student, but trust me: it’s true.

  2. Andrea Grant wrote:

    Whoa I really related to this! I dropped out of my first PhD at the master’s breakpoint (after having already taken a two year working break between undergrad and grad), went and did some adventuring, and then found myself back in another PhD program. I definitely seem to have some love/hate thing going on, and I’m surprised to find the hate reasons are the same as the first time around. No one else is surprised by that, though! I’m not sure why I thought my first time around was so terminally unique, and I’m hoping I can learn some lessons from all of this, at least.

    Other points of convergence: finishing touches of a latex thesis (mine is due in 4 weeks), wanting to learn about anything and everything, getting overly attached to long term goals, swearing off academia, feeling helpful and being in team environments…

    You are on your own with the ballerina unicorn, but keep us posted!

  3. cfcasper wrote:

    Join the club! My story is very, very similar to yours. After taking an M.S. in chemistry at the University of Michigan and working in industry for a few years as a technical writer (while doing an M.A. in English part-time at Eastern Michigan University) I’m now working on a Ph.D. in rhetoric at NC State, studying the emergence and evolution of new electronic genres for scientific communication, especially for online “post-publication review” in journals like Science and PloS ONE. I love it, and I still get to think about science. It’s possible that you might also enjoy doing a Ph.D. in something related to science but that doesn’t require you to focus on one little slice of the scientific pie.

  4. Academic wrote:

    Yes, I can totally relate about the “Too many doors open at one time” idea. Good luck at your own crossroads!

  5. yttrai wrote:

    Your plight hits ever so close to home for me too.

    In the short term: you’ll figure this out. It might not be pretty, but you’ll find something to do next and you’ll do it.

    In the long term: you’ll figure this out. So what if it takes a few tries to figure out what you want to do when you “grow up”? At least you experienced life and learned a few things in the meantime.

    My background: undergrad straight to grad school, left with Masters’ after passing my orals – i had 2-3 more years to go and my labmates were insufferable. Plus PhDs were doing 2-3 postdocs and Masters’ chemists were being hired like hotcakes.

    I have been working for 10 years now, and have just been accepted back into grad school to get my Masters’ in Education. Other routes i considered were Safety, Computational, and purification. And HPLC maintanence and repair ;)

    Keep at it. Something will appear one day and you’ll do it and it’ll either feel right and you’ll keep doing it, or it won’t feel right and you’ll find what does :)

  6. PlausibleAccuracy wrote:

    Thanks for the post. I’m in a similar situation myself. I hit a major speedbump along the path to Doctordom when my first advisor was abruptly fired, and my research since then hasn’t been going very well at all. I’m getting to be old as far as Ph.D. students go, and a comprehensive thesis project isn’t really in sight. I’m really sort of wavering over the whole question of whether to stick it out and try to get a Ph.D. or to get a Master’s degree and try to figure out where to go from there. I also identify a lot with your description of what you want – I just want to keep learning new things, more or less…

  7. Eric wrote:

    I’m desperately trying to finish my PhD and at this point, I really, really want to quit. I can barely drag myself into the lab in the morning, and writing is really difficult. However, I can’t quit now and would really regret it.

    This is the second time I’ve been close to quitting. I almost walked away when I was six months into my PhD (and was in a bad laboratory).

    Being a student in academia causes a love/hate relationship. You work like crazy for small amounts of money and that eventual PhD. I think anyone who doesn’t feel this way during their PhD is an odd duck.

    At any rate, good luck with your next step! If you change your mind the PhD route is always there. And if you find something that makes you happy, well, you are a step ahead of me for now.

  8. gort wrote:

    How about Intellectual Property law? It worked for me when I soured on my 15 yr career as an engineer. You get exposed to a wide variety of technologies and inventions, get to interact with the inventors to discuss the invention, you don’t have to do the actual reasearch but you do need to learn enough to understand the invention. You have a technical degree so you can take the patent bar exam without being a lawyer (you’d be a Patent Agent, which reduces the scope of services you can perform). Even as an agent, the pay should be decent. If you like the work, you can probably go to law school at night, become a lawyer, and get paid a lot more.

  9. Kim wrote:

    Regardless, the PhD is, to some extent, a key that unlocks many, many doors that will otherwise remain closed to you.

    Well, in my experience, the PhD opens doors… and then locks them behind you, all the while cackling about your little dog.

    Maybe it’s different in the biomedical sciences, or if you decide to switch gears before taking a job in academia. Or maybe boys get let into rooms that have windows (or maybe even doors). But my experience has been that, post-PhD, I have had even more people advising me that I need to focus more narrowly, that I shouldn’t do anything that won’t improve my publication record in a narrow sub-field – and that includes writing for non-scientists, or going to feminist studies reading groups, or switching field areas to ones that are more inspiring to me or more accessible to undergraduates, or trying to teach effectively.

    I know people who first got PhDs and now work as lobbyists, or run companies. (I don’t know anyone who became a writer, but that’s a niche that needs filling. McPhee is only one voice, and he won’t be around forever.) But I don’t know if the people working in non-research careers are any better off than they would have been with a Masters. (Especially a research-oriented Masters – geoscience MS students tend to do very independent creative work, and your work sounds especially cool.)

  10. Kat wrote:

    I don’t recommend doing the patent attorney route unless you really like the law. I’m taking the patent bar just for the hell of it, because I can and because it means someone someday might hire me. But you have to be really interested in the law to get through the non-IP parts of a JD (and for that matter the IP parts too) without wanting to jump out a window.

    I did law school instead of a Ph.D because… because… because it seemed like a good idea at the time? Because I got really interested in copyright law and technology policy. And because I thought I’d be more likely to finish a JD than a Ph.D.

    I love being a student. I spent one year not a student, away from college campuses and the university environment, and it was depressing. I think I’d enjoy being a “real” grad student (instead of a law student who takes quasi-grad classes…). But I can identify with pretty much everything you said, including the burnout during undergrad (no, really, I crashed and burned in my last semester because I was burned out and upset and was never ever ever going to be a good mathematician, and finished with only .8 of that major :-P).

    However, unlike my classmates who can’t wait to go be lawyers and are tired of school, I could stay in school for years but am somewhat afraid I will burn out on actually practicing law.

    Short version: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with myself either.

  11. Alicia P wrote:

    I was so burnt out after year 2 of my PhD work, I know exactly how you feel. I did push through, was close to a mental breakdown, and suffered from extreme anxiety for months after finishing my degree only to find that there were no jobs…so do what you gotta do. You’ll find a way to do what you want. After a year of unemployment, breathing, and thinking about what I really want out of life I have a wonderful job assisting researchers in the areas I am comfortable – writing, editing, and literature research. I also get to delve into other areas of interest without jeopardizing my direction in science and am developing a reputation among freelancers. In today’s frustrating world, those who are competent and smart will find an alternative direction from the mainstream and tradition. I diverted from my ‘plan’ for the sake of my sanity, only to find myself right on track and even ahead of where I thought I’d be.

    Good luck!

  12. Becca wrote:

    Great post. I don’t know why, but I love the ballerina unicorn thing.

    Also, Thank You PP, for that comment. Yes, I shall just think of my terminal inability to focus on only one subject (let alone something as narrow as a thesis topic), my infatuation with all popular science writing, my (morbid?) facination with the meta-science and academic culture, my longings for good discourse on all manner of shoes and ships and sealing wax to be signs of my *extreme brightness*- not my inability to do a PhD.

    I think that getting a PhD does open many doors- but as has been pointed out, many people who are former grad students (whether they finish the PhD or not) go on to do very cool things. I think the “interested in just about anything” phenotypes usually correlate pretty well with the “now doing something totally cool” (if unexpected). Wishing you well!

  13. Dave Eaton wrote:

    I always wanted to design things like computers and electronics. So of course I got a PhD in chemistry. I don’t regret doing it. I got a great job at a company that in R and D that is ~50% electrical engineering and ~50% chemistry. The route was circuitous (hee hee) but here I am.

    The PhD opened some doors. It wasn’t necessary. It didn’t hurt (except while I was getting it. That hurt a lot.) I wouldn’t trade for anything the way I see the world (which is mainly what I think my education did for me).

    The stuff that gets in the way of finishing a PhD, even for those who do finish, seem to me to be unique to that environment. The combination of excitement and stimulation whipsawing with frustration and ennui paved over with poverty is brutal. It is peculiar to academia.

    As PhysioProf says, some doors remain shut to the non-PhD. So what? Decompress, have a life for a while, and see if it calls to you again. I was 10 years older than the average grad student when I started my PhD. It was worth waiting, for me. Whatever happens, best of luck.

  14. Vera wrote:

    Hi Maria! Your entry was featured on the top of scienceblogs for a while and I found it. Now going to read some archives.

  15. Nic wrote:

    Thank you

  16. Tom wrote:

    Hi Maria,

    It sounds like you’re spying on me and using this post to describe my life (with the possible exception of the ballerina unicorn thing). I’m across the quad in the Berkeley materials science department; high five for being too damn curious for the glorified technician work of 21st century science academia.

  17. Stephanie Z wrote:

    I love the Real Genius reference, although I now have Tears for Fears stuck in my head. There are worse earwigs.

    The nice thing about your position is that, whatever you do next, you’re going to be learning cool stuff, cause that’s just the way you operate. No decision will be wasted, no matter how much you sweat over making it. Good luck!

  18. Maria Brumm wrote:

    I’ve actually thought about going into environmental law – when I was in consulting-land we did some expert witness support stuff for legal cases, which was interesting. I think I’d be good at it, too, and able to make a positive impact on the world… at least until I gouged my own eyes out with a spoon rather than assemble yet another bit of boilerplate rigamarole.

    Going back to do something culture-of-science-y is all kinds of tempting, too. But the job prospects for a PhD in a humanities or social science are even more dubious than those for a PhD in earth science, so it’d really need to be something I was happy with as an end in itself, rather than a way of opening any particular door.

  19. Kemist wrote:

    Sounds a whole lot like me too. I’m presently in the wrap-up stage of my PhD. And burned-out about my subject (organic synthesis/medicinal chemistry). So much that I just can’t bear the thought of working or doing a post-doc in this stuff, or in anything chemistry-related. Tried to get admitted in med school, and failed. So now boredom has turned into minor depression.

    So now the result is that I really don’t know what to do. I feel that teaching will burn me out even faster than my PhD. And law or business never interested me. Everybody keeps telling me to settle down, that I’m too old to begin something else, which is very far from helping, and puts additional stress (in addition to wrapping up the thesis) on me.

    If I had money, I guess I would just travel for a while and forget about all this stuff. But I don’t. I have to pay back a student loan (not much, but still).

  20. Maria wrote:

    Kemist: Zomg. Who are these hidebound people who think that you can ever be too old to start something new? I am so sorry that you have to deal with them.

  21. Michael P. Taylor wrote:

    Is the Ballerina Unicorn a Dar Williams reference?

  22. PaulN wrote:

    Hi Maria. Science careers can be crazy things. I did a PhD in Biochemistry, a couple of postdocs and – bam! Found myself in hospital, nearly dead (dunno to this day what happened). Disabled – and unemployed – thereafter, i tried to resurrect my career, and couldn’t see myself outside Accademia. I did a masters in I.T. – and suddenly my life changed. I got the hell out of Accademia – it changed from love-hate to hate-hate. I now work for a pharmaceutical company, writing software for the research department (in San Diego). Life it good! Good luck!

  23. Silver Fox wrote:

    Maria, if you go into enviro law, you’ll have an M.S. in geology, right, and then a law degree, I presume. That doesn’t seem like a bad combo – but somehow I’m thinking you’ll be getting your PhD in hdro-geo-seismo-tectono whatsit. But, seriously, I think you’ll do well at whatever you choose.

  24. Julianne wrote:

    My youngest daughter actually does want to be a ballerina unicorn. Seriously. She mentions it once a day.

    Perhaps she’ll go into ground-water studies too, since it seems like a pretty good Plan B.

  25. Susie wrote:

    Well, in my experience, the PhD opens doors… and then locks them behind you, all the while cackling about your little dog.

    This is the best comment I ever saw. I will be stealing it somewhere in the near future.

    I am too late to do much besides say you are awesome. You are awesome. Oh, and to ask Kemist please to ask the people who talk crap about being too old to start new things to bite my 47-year-old-starting-a-new-thing ass.

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