Grad School Malaise

May 5, 2008

I have been receiving some thankful e-mails regarding a comment I left recently concerning dissatisfaction and malaise in the later stages of a PhD program to a post at Green Gabbro (Hi, Maria!), and I have been implored to lift this comment up to a post here at DrugMonkey. We always try to give our readers what they want, so here you go!

In her post at Green Gabbro, Maria explained her decision to, at least for now, put off completing her PhD and stop with a terminal Master’s degree:

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.

She went on to explain in further detail some of what was underlying this thought process:

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.

I commented as follows:

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.

Another thing to keep in mind, although this is not applicable to Maria’s situation, is that by the time you reach the end-game of grad school, are finishing up the last few experiments, and are beginning to write the thesis, it is highly likely that you will be pretty much completely disgusted with the science underlying your project, life in the laboratory, and science as a career. This state of mind is a natural consequence of the grueling process of earning your PhD, and does not reveal anything particularly salient about how you really feel about a life in science.
It is similar to how Army recruits feel at the end of basic training: drained, exhausted, miserable, and wanting to quit. But this is no time to make life-altering decisions, such as leaving science for some other profession. As soon as the thesis is accepted, a huge weight lifts, and over the course of a few months, you begin to remember the joys of a life in science.

21 Responses to “Grad School Malaise”

  1. Change Says:

    Thank you. I’m close to finishing up my PhD. Though I have no plans of quitting engineering, I’m beginning to doubt if I’m cut out for a career in engineering academia.


  2. Eric Says:

    This is exactly how I feel. I just got my final assay to work. Now I only need to write paper, review and thesis and then I’m done. I’m so exhausted that I just want to quit.
    But DAMN IT! I made it this far, and I’m not quitting now. It is nice to know that I’m not the only one.


  3. Emily Says:

    I had some similar thoughts to Maria when I was finishing up my Masters, so I left and got a job in industry. That turned out to be the right thing for me. I could have stayed and gotten a PhD, but I knew I wasn’t focused and wasn’t getting the value I could out of my classes and research. After a few years of working and seeing how research is done in other settings, seeing what I liked and didn’t like about different kinds of work, and spending some time thinking about what it is that keeps me engaged with work I was ready to go back. I learned a ton out in industry, and I’ve already gotten a lot of use out of that in getting started as a student again.


  4. drdrA Says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more PP. I finished graduate school completely burned out and would not have the job I have today if I had made serious career choices in that state of mind.
    Best to make these kinds of decisions when you have a little better perspective on things… and are not immediately miserable.


  5. BikeMonkey Says:

    This is yet another reason for maintaining the attainment of the Master’s or PhD, in and of itself, as a full and unfettered goal or ambition.
    One of the most soul-deadening parts of the science vida loca is the constant shifting of personal achievement goalposts to potentially-unattainable heights. You start off thinking you want a humble enough job…but then you are very likely to train with people who hit a very high standard in your subfield. The bigger labs train more people. Teaching oriented-colleges and industry institutions train nobody.
    So your goals start to shift a bit and you come to think that perhaps you would like a career more like the big/active/exciting academic research lab in which you are training. So if you don’t stay on that path, you start to get a little disappointed in yourself. Start to think that there can’t be any other job than the BigHighHattinPI…
    This way lies madness.


  6. JSinger Says:

    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.
    I’d say that’s way overstated. I’m in the same camp as her, but certainly know plenty of “extremely bright people” who have been happily locked into a single subfield since their Westinghouse days.
    That said, I know a lot more not-so-bright people who adopted cognitive dissonance as a way to get through grad school, and never learned the difference between passion for a subject and myopic refusal to compare its value to anything else.
    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.
    Regrettably, this isn’t nearly as true as doctoral advisors love to tell themselves (and their students) that it is…


  7. PhysioProf Says:

    I’d say that’s way overstated.

    PhysioProf never overstates anything.


  8. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I had a devastating MS experience, but was able to change fields and go for a PhD. I loved it, and the people who were graduate students with me are among my closest friends. I went on to an Assistant Professorship in a startup regional university and found myself pretty much isolated in terms of being the person my PhD work had convinced me I wanted to be. I forged ahead and look back on my Professor years with great fondness, and some of my university colleagues are among my closest friends (and some are not). Focus and drive is how you get to live the life you want.
    One of the really frustrating kind of students is the universal polymath. A person who cannot decide if they want to conduct a major symphony, become a world class painter, win a Nobel in chemistry, or what. They have a real problem with the idea of focus and drive in one direction. I’ve never been real successful with that kind of student.
    If getting your PHD is not the best and most fun thing you have experienced up to that time, you have a problem and you need to deal with it. Something is not right.


  9. Becca Says:

    @ Jim Thomerson
    Bah! Humbug!
    If getting your PHD *is* the best and most fun thing you have experienced up to that time, you 1) need a better sex life 2) should consider trying skydiving and/or 3) you simply are very, very inexperienced.
    Do you think it’s equally true that geting your PHD should be the best and most fun thing EVAR? Or is it supposed to be a delightful walk in the park followed by a vastly more exhilerating stint as professor?
    Would even you have thought that getting your PHD is the best and most fun thing you had experienced if you hadn’t been surrounded by really good people? What if getting your PHD was the first time in over a decade you felt like you *just didn’t belong* (not because of the intellectual stimulation side, but because of purely social things)?
    Also, consider differences in how people view their own motivations. For some, focus and drive are fun in and of themselves. For others, focus and drive are an important source of pride, but not intrinsically joyous. Many things are valued by not fun- typically, getting a PHD is one of those things (or rather, not *always* fun, or necessarily *typified* by fun)
    (I am sorry if this came out overly-argumentative. I see a lot of value in your perspective, I just think it was unwisely overstated… grad students who struggle with the daily monotonies and frustrations of lab should not be told by advisors that the fact they are not skipping for joy at lab everyday is a sign something is TERRIBLY WRONG with them… not that I’m bitter from a past advisor, oh- no!).


  10. bill Says:

    If getting your PHD is not the best and most fun thing you have experienced up to that time, you have a problem and you need to deal with it.

    Bullshit. If you seriously think your experience generalizes to *everyone*, it’s you with the problem. That goes double if you seriously think that every last unhappy grad student should suck it up and deal because it’s somehow “their problem”.


  11. I wouldn’t say that having a bad time during (some of) grad school is necessarily an indicator that you should leave; however, if you don’t enjoy grad school, I think you should spend a while reflecting why. If you were burnt out by the sheer volume of work, that’s probably ok–you’ll have a chance to switch gears and get excited about new stuff in your postdoc. But if you dreaded going to work every day (and I mean every day, not just during the stretches where nothing’s working, because we all have those), then you may want to reconsider your career path.


  12. thomas Says:

    How many months would you say is

    the course of a few months,

    because I’m still waiting to

    begin to remember the joys of a life in science?


  13. Thanks for reiterating here your comments at Green Gabbro. Those are the four most concise yet insightful paragraphs of advice I’ve found to help grad students put things in perspective. It would’ve taken me two pages to do anything remotely similar and would have put readers (and my past grad students) to sleep.
    BikeMonkey sez:

    Teaching oriented-colleges and industry institutions train nobody.

    I’m certain that the BM will get flak from the SLAC crowd but my guess is that many would agree that, “industry institutions train nobody.” This is an issue central to getting our students to understand that any career path is honorable and worthwhile.
    I was fortunate to be an undergrad where there was a plethora of pharma and chem companies who offered us eight-month internships as part of our required training. In fact, several of the preceptors had graduate faculty appts and served as primary thesis advisors for MS and PhD students. Here were a good number of academic-minded industry folks who were helping produce a crop of trainees who not only were unaware of the stigma of an industrial career, but who were actively encouraged to pursue such careers by their profs back at the mother institution as a function of these partnerships designed to serve the student.
    When the training environment is inclusive, not as myopic as “non-academic = failure,” students are offered a more realistic and broader view of what can be done with a PhD without reinforcing the neuroses their mentors have been conditioned to pass on to them. The key is for academics to be secure enough in their own careers that they are willing to include fellow scientists elsewhere into the training process.


  14. TreeFish Says:

    I always tell undergrads and grads, “Science can be exhilirating; but it’s frequently frustrating, sometimes aggravating, and never easy.” I think the hardest decision is the peri-comprehensive exam decision, ‘should I stay or should I go now’?
    To be an outstanding grad student, you usually have to want to work 50-80 hours a week, read journal articles like I eat cashews, and be obsessed with turning your data into heiroglyphic figures that would make any Graeco-Roman applaud. There are some who can kick my hind-quarters that don’t follow this, but they’re way smarter than me so I compensate!
    TreeFish to 2nd year grad student or grad student/post docs gazing at their perceived bleak future: “Your future IS bleak! The job market sucks and you probably won’t get a job in your hometown. That said, however, you are in control of your future. Work your ass off, devour journal articles, and think. Work on getting your thoughts into figures, translating the figures into stories, and communicating those stories as interesting papers and talks. If you do all that, and you keep working hard, your future will be bright (or at least less bleak), you’ll have a good chance of finding a cushy job where you’ll have your own lab (and you can buy good pizza for lab meetings instead of that Domino’s shit), and you might be within driving distance of your hometown. It ain’t easy, but if you outwork and outthink your peers, you’ll get a righteous job discovering shit that will blow people’s minds. Now go make some coffee, do some jumping jacks, and get on it, greenie!!!!”


  15. ohtay Says:

    having been a recent PhD graduate, i disagree about the weight being lifted and having a positive outlook on life. to me, it felt more like resembling a deflated balloon. and even after the thesis defense, the questions of “now what?” and “that’s IT?” remain.


  16. windy Says:

    having been a recent PhD graduate, i disagree about the weight being lifted and having a positive outlook on life. to me, it felt more like resembling a deflated balloon. and even after the thesis defense, the questions of “now what?” and “that’s IT?” remain.

    Hope you’ve seen this old classic!


  17. Jim Thomerson Says:

    As said, my MS experience was devastating. I still have considerable mental scar tissue from the experience. I realized that this was not an acceptable way for me to live, and sought escape. I was fortunate to make connections (good with the bad) which enabled me to change fields and get accepted and supported in a PhD program. If your PhD experience is anything like my MS experience, you do have a serious problem. You have my sympathy and I hope you will be successful in making your life better. What is good is a life with a positive F/H ration, Fun/Hassle.
    I said up to the time, because my life as a professor had, on average, a better F/H ratio than my PHD experience. High periods predominated over low periods. I’m of the opinion, which I think should be more widely shared than it is, that being a professor is a really good job. As a professor I had considerable of contol over my professional life, which I think a great virtue.
    My father, who cowboyed all his life, had a favorite saying, “If you don’t use your head, you just make it hard on your ass.” I, being a lazy person who likes to be content, have taken that to mean I spend time sitting around figuring how to deal with things in the easiest and most effective manner. If nothing else, that gives a feeling of being in control (more or less) which is more fun than being a helpless victim.


  18. agm Says:

    Clearly a look on the other side of the fence. There is basically one goal allowed in my field. On a person-by-person basis people might wish you success in your accomplishments, but as a field getting a PhD and being an academic is the only acceptable thing for a physicist to do. Which is pretty much amusing since somehow government labs and such are ok… maybe because as a field physicists know who butters their bread?


  19. TreeFish, I’ll say it again: you really, really should start your own blog.


  20. b Says:

    This thread is probably too old to revive but I’ll ask anyway: What about the postdoc?? I loved the PhD period despite having many difficult times during those years. I never felt like quitting for more than a week or two at a time. But I am absolutely hitting bottom during the postdoc thing… And it’s not a matter of evil postdoc advisor or anything like that. I work in great, well-functioning labs and have had great support from both my advisors…
    It’s just coming to the end of a (way too short) 2 year appointment with the dream (tenure track job in my case) not in sight for myself and almost everyone i know who’s in a similar situation, it’s so hard to be motivated about… no, not finally my own research appointment and group, but the next postdoc! What do we do? I am so close to quitting, but anytime I say this to anyone there is a loud ‘NOOOOOOO! you can’t you’re too good at this to leave academia”. Well I’m apparently not good enough to get a job offer (everything I interviewed for went to people who were already assistant professors by the way).
    Will I and my peers really feel some great relief and revival in our second postdocs after hauling ass across the country or continents and get started in yet new labs and with new people? Really? Really really? Because I see a bunch of us running on empty with no end in sight… For me, the PhD was never unattainable, doing science was never a chore. But chasing a goal that seems unattainable and spending all my time doing job applications is dreadful and makes me hate every day…
    If one more person says to me ‘postdoc were the best years’, I will remind them how that statement dates them as it’s not true. Not one postdoc I know on these 1-3 year gigs are having the best years of their lives in this current job market… Just stop saying this already…
    Sorry for hijacking a barely relevant thread to rant. I’ve been driven to random psychological vents on blog comments.


  21. juniorprof Says:

    Hi B, I’ve got some suggestions on your problem over at my place.


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