Monday, March 03, 2008

Whether and when to quit grad school: response to comment on last post.

Dear Erin,

I feel so badly for you.

I am against people working in careers where they're miserable enough to need medication to function on a daily basis. To me that just says it's not a good fit.

That's not your fault, in my view, it's a problem with science in all of its un-touchy-feely current glory.

Ugh! Would that we could make it a little better, somehow! Blogging will have to do for today.

Of course I suspect some of the reasons you have anxiety, if not all, are the same things I blog about all the time.

We all just feel it to different degrees.

You must feel raw all the time, and that makes me sad.

I'm a little confused about how your advisor got you to work on a project that you found out later has nothing to do with your project. I guess it seemed related, but then you found out it can't go into your Master's thesis?

I'm also confused about whether your advisor has always been more on the supportive side and just recently became abusive (because what you're describing is, to put it mildly, taking advantage of you)?

Or was this advisor always like this (and therefore a major source of anxiety)?

Regardless, I think it's great that you have a job lined up. That gives you tremendous power.

I think you should try first to negotiate a way to get your degree before you give up. In this, though maybe not in all things (if they're like mine), your parents are right.

Here's the MsPhD part of the advice:

Perhaps you need to stand up to this advisor?

Perhaps that won't work in this case and you need to approach whatever passes for a graduate program/advisory committee where you are?

Figure out who has the power to give you what you want, and who is more likely to give it.

Being willing to walk away is very powerful.

In fact, it's the first thing they teach you in negotiating school (okay, so I've never been, but I've read some books).

I'd recommend getting a couple of good books on negotiating. As much as I badmouthed it recently, the one I just read might be helpful for you. It's called A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating: How to Convince, Collaborate, & Create Your Way to Agreement and you can get the e-version on Amazon instantly.

There are plenty of books like this out there, and it's worth your time to do this now, breathe deeply, and try to marshal your strength.

You do have some. It's in there.

And then, don't wait too long. Give it a shot. Ask for what you deserve. You want your degree? Say so. You don't have to be confrontational about it. You can work it in as part of another conversation.

Get someone to go with you if you need support, maybe a labmate or a mentor?

If nothing else, you will learn something from this experience.

Personally I hate to see someone go to grad school for 4 years and leave empty-handed, and I blame the advisors and the grad program.

I was actually just talking to a student today about accreditation, and she was saying that although they claim they want honest feedback, the committee that reviewed her program didn't seem like they would do anything about any of the problems.

So I also blame the accreditation process for letting it get this bad at this many places.

And with that, I have to go right now so I can't write more, but I'll keep thinking about you and see if I can come up with anything else.

I'm sure my gentle (!) readers will have more to say that might help you.

And I'm sure you're not alone, by the way. There are others just like you, probably reading this blog. Thanks for writing. I'm sure it will help them, too.

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At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also confused about whether your advisor has always been more on the supportive side and just recently became abusive (because what you're describing is, to put it mildly, taking advantage of you)?

The advisor, who has been paying her for years to be productive, is demanding some actual productivity. The non-productive student is not the person being taken advantage of in this relationship.

At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous advice to Erin (just as predicted by MsPhD):

If you don't need or want the masters degree, there's really no point in being this guy's cheap work-monkey. I didn't read carefully, but I assume you are paying tuition for this masters degree. Ask yourself how much longer it would take to get your masters. If it is longer than what is reasonable (this is up to your personal timeline), then cut your losses and get out.

There is nothing worse than squandering away your best years and realizing it was for nothing. I wasted over a full year in a misogynist's lab. He was not a good advisor, treated women blatantly horribly (every female student before me quit! what a red flag!) and actually wanted me to drop out of the program. I ended up transferring to another lab and eventually got my PhD, which is exactly what I wanted. (caveat: a PhD may not be for you. You have to decide these things.) I kept thinking I could see the project through, but I should have quit after the first dismal semester. If I hadn't stuck around for 2.5 whole semesters, then I could have gotten started on my PhD that much sooner.

Good luck!

At 10:41 PM, Anonymous matt said...

Just quit and start your new job. If your mentor is going to jerk you around then screw the Masters... it won't really mean that much for any career you settle in anyways. You will forget about all this soon and be glad that you made the right decision.

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with MsPhD that you should fight to get your Masters. However, be careful about making any promises, i.e when its time to leave, do it, don't postpone leaving or agree to come back and do more experiments. The most telling parts of your comment were the fact that you hate grad school, and the fact that you have an incredible opportunity to leave. Believe me, there are lots of people who would love to leave academia, but can't for want of a better opportunity.

At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, this comment is not meant to be public, just an FYI. To say that you "feel badly" means that when you put your hand on something, you are unable to feel what you are touching, that your sense of touch is poor. I think you meant to say "I feel bad for you" or in more eloquent language "hearing about your situation really pains me." Just a grammar FYI.

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Erin,
I have had some tough situations in my grad school career...from an overpowering mentor (post-doc) and an advisor who believed everything he said to sexual harassment (dirty old men). I learned to eventually use the faculty around me for support and continued my education with another advisor (who believes and listens to me when there are problems).

My main suggestion is for you to go faculty members you trust or even the Chair of the Department. Openly discuss the situation and your objectives. Then arrange a meeting with all involved members to academically negotiate a successful finish.

I do support you finishing your degree. You can then have this experience as a badge of honor. I will also say, that walking away with your head held high is a respectful and much braver decision.

Best of luck

At 6:10 PM, Anonymous bsci said...

I assume you want the master's degree if it is possible to obtain without losing your sanity. You clearly don't want the PhD from this mentor at this time.
In our case, the negotiating part comes down to what you are required to do to earn the masters degree.

You need to make a very specific list of tasks that you are willing to complete to earn the master's degree (perhaps make it a bit easier than necessary so you have negotiating room).
Present the goals to your advisor. If you can agree on precisely what is required of you, have your advisor signed off on it (literally sign a piece of paper with the proposal). At this point you can work with full effort on only the things that will result in the degree. Note that a reasonable request might be to organize data and tie up temporally sensitive studies and make sure others can continue where you left off.

If he wants more than you are willing to give and won't sign a reasonable proposal, the sooner you know that the sooner you can leave.

At 8:09 PM, Anonymous JR said...


Consider yourself fortunate to have such a good opportunity. There are many who complete graduate school and postdocs and don't have anything. If it is as good as you think it is, it would be foolish to walk away from it now.

I really don't see what your conflict is. It seems that you have already commited to leaving in May. That's only a few months from now and there probably is no intention of granting you a terminal masters based on the work that you have already done. Your PI initially offered this to you and probably got over ruled so that's why he is acting like a bad guy. They get cranky because they know they can't compete. They will try to tap into your high achiving, perfectionist personality that we all seem to have and guilt you into doing things that you really don't want to do anymore.

Suck it up knowing that come May not only will spring be here, but you will be happier in your new opportunity.

I've said before that graduate school is not school. Its really more of an entry level job. There's no need to "stick it out" if something better comes along. Think like a free agent. Opportunity is key and that's what you have now.

I've seen more people cry in the time that I was a graduate student. Most of them quit. They were all happier after they quit. All of them.

At 9:19 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

For Erin, I would say that I guess it depends on how valuable a Master's is for your field. In mine, it helps a lot. If its value outweighs the (what it sounds like to me) trauma of your time in grad school. If it doesn't, chalk the last 2.5 years to sunk cost and move on.

Good luck!!

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 1,

I don't see how you can assume that from what she said. I think you're jumping to conclusions.

Anon 2,

You have a good point about squandering your best years, and about tuition. Erin didn't say if she's paying tuition or not.


I think there are some careers where having a masters would help, especially if Erin decided 10 years down the line to go back to get a different degree, whether it's a PhD in the same field or something else (an MBA, for example).

Anon 3,

Great point about making promises and that this is a great opportunity to leave!

Anon 4,

Thanks! Will try to remember that in the future.


I find it interesting that you think quitting is braver than staying.

I think staying can be a lot harder, and therefore might require more courage.


You're basically giving her the short version of what a negotiation book would say.

But you make another important point: if she wants to leave, and he's being unreasonable, there's no reason to even bother staying until May.


I think it's foolish to be so cynical about whether there are intentions of granting a masters or not.

There are times when it can be a good defensive strategy to assume that people are taking advantage of you, and this is an important perspective to consider.

But I've been in situations where I assumed the worst and it angered people who were actually trying to help me (albeit in their own selfish, shortsighted ways).

Maybe best to assume the worst, but act like you believe that everyone means well. Don't let on that you've considered they're just using you.

The entry-level job mentality is good, but the way I see it, leaving without the degree might be akin to realizing, years later, that you left empty-handed. You left before you got what you came for.

I think we all agree she should leave when the time comes to start the new position, I just think it's worth it to make a last stand. That's not quite the same as 'sticking it out.'


I think the point is that even Erin might not know how much a Master's might be worth farther down the line in her career, depending on where she ends up.

It's really easy, in the moment, to say that it makes sense to quit. But in a few years it might all seem like just a little dip that could have been surmounted with a little more patience and perseverance.

Personally, I have one big regret where I made a decision based on what seemed to make sense at the time, when I should have fought harder for what I wanted in the first place.

As someone wise said to me recently, it's all about figuring out what you really want.

At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Walking away from grad school is brave choice, especially after putting in years of work. The persons ability to accept the decision internally is something the individual must do for themselves (i.e. Erin), as well as how they may perceived by colleagues.

Staying and sticking it out can be very difficult. This decision tends to be a long road (one I have taken...not necessarily the road less traveled).

In my mind, they ("being brave" for walking away and it "being difficult" to stick it out) are two different concepts despite the decisions being entwined.


At 7:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really good advice here. I started in a not-good advisor situation, took a leave, did some other things to explore some other interests, and have emerge at a new research area. Without taking the time to pursue what I wanted to explore, I don't think I would have found it. I personally feel that you can't go to graduate school if you have a negative relationship with both your advisor and your research. Taking care of yourself is important!

Again, really good advice MsPhD. Thanks!

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see how you can assume that from what she said. I think you're jumping to conclusions.

The assumption is that because she can't even get a Masters degree yet, she doesn't have any first author papers. Why doesn't she? She's been taking up space and time and resources in the lab. What has she contributed in return? Unless her advisor and her doctoral advisory committee are irrational, scientific results (publications) are generally rewarded with a graduate degree.

If this student has a problem with her advisor, her first recourse is to her doctoral committee. Many, many graduate students utterly fail to realize that their committee is their most important ally in graduate school. What do they have to say in her case?

At 7:37 PM, Blogger tnk0001 said...

I just wanted to say I understand where you're coming from. Right now I am at the end of a Masters program that at the best of times has made me cry and at the worst of times has made me want to leave all fields of science entirely and hide under my bed. I have a job in another field already and walking away would have been alright at the time, but years from now I might have said 'Dang, why didn't I just get it finished'. I can be absolutely certain though that I will never say 'I really hate that I finished that'. You have to do what's right for you though, in the end all the success and degrees and papers and great jobs won't necessarily equal happiness, it's you that has to look back and feel good about what you did.

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The assumption is that because she can't even get a Masters degree yet, she doesn't have any first author papers. Why doesn't she? She's been taking up space and time and resources in the lab. What has she contributed in return? Unless her advisor and her doctoral advisory committee are irrational, scientific results (publications) are generally rewarded with a graduate degree."

You can't be serious. She stated that she's been in the program for 2.5 years, you expect her to have first author papers already? By your criteria, 95% of grad students are "taking up space and resources in the lab". Who are you to make that judgement, perhaps you are a "star" in the field who got lucky and got a lot of papers early. That doesn't mean that everyone else who is honestly slogging along and working hard is "taking up space" because they didn't have the fortune to fall into a good project (most likely inherited from someone who left and already did the bulk of the work).

The attitude espoused in your comments is pretty scary, especially if you are someone (i.e. a PI) who actually has control over students. On the other hand, I do agree that there are two sides to every story, and we are only getting this one from the student's point of view. Still. Lighten up just a tad!

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The attitude espoused in your comments is pretty scary, especially if you are someone (i.e. a PI) who actually has control over students.

You're right; it is scary, but sometimes it's a scary world. If she doesn't get authorship on any papers and then leaves, whether with or without a Masters, the resources that went into her training and research are lost without compensation. In a well-funded big-name lab, that's no big deal -- people in big-name labs tend to be disposable. In a small lab, or a new lab, especially in these very difficult funding times, the money, time and opportunity lost when a student leaves without productivity can be devastating. If she hasn't been productive, they don't owe her anything. Quite the reverse in fact.

You heard the student's side. This is my guess as to what her advisor's side looks like.

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If she doesn't get authorship on any papers and then leaves, whether with or without a Masters, the resources that went into her training and research are lost without compensation.......If she hasn't been productive, they don't owe her anything. Quite the reverse in fact."

Come on, since when do PIs pay for their students? Most of them are paid for by departmental/training grants. Also, since when is a Master's degree dependant on publications? Most master's programs are 2 or 3 years at most, not enough time (unless very lucky) to publish a first author paper. I agree with you that the institution does not owe her a Masters, but the problem as she wrote is that she was promised it, then her PI has somehow seemed to change his tune. It isn't going to kill him to give her a Masters, when in reality that degree really doesn't count for much anyway.

Also, just because she doesn't publish before she leaves, doesn't mean the PI has lost her without compensation. What if she's contributed data to a grant he's written? What if she's laid the groundwork for someone new to come in and continue her project, that subsequently contributes to a grant or publication? Your view of this is very black and white, when in reality science/lab work is one of the "grayest" occupations there is.

Oh, one more thing while I'm at it. A student's failure to publish is at least as much a reflection of her advisor/PI, than it is a reflection of her. You can't expect a student in their first or second year in the lab to have the skills to know how to do it all themself, it requires guidance and mentorship which is, quite frankly, often lacking.

At 4:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 1 is undoubtedly an advisor.

First, advisors almost never pay their students. Grants and departments do. I.e., taxpayers.

The advisor's job is allocate the resources between students and projects. An advisor who lets the situation get to the point where the student quits is (A) spineless and (B) an economic dolt. The fact that they think it's their money is a psychological fallacy and not the student's problem.

You are not paying the student, you are paying the slot. If a student quits after several years, you should either have (A) noticed they were unproductive and unpromising earlier (B) Fixed the problem or (C) Help them finish.

Helping them move on with or without a degree as quickly as possible is the best thing for everyone, including group morale.

The fact that advisors are not taken out and flogged for destroying people's lives due to their slackness doesn't make it okay. If the advisor hasn't gotten tenure, he should be denied on the basis that they can't manage students.

Yes, taking up a slot and using resources is a problem and it devastates the morale of other group members.

Lack of student productivity is a problem. It is a management problem. One of the first rules of management is that the manager is responsible for the productivity of their workers.

It's either recruiting, ongoing motivation, lack of publishable project ideas provided by the PI, unimportant busyworkork dumped on them by the assistant professor who doesn't know how to say no, or a truly bad student that isn't managed or replaced expeditiously. The fact that most advisors never spent time in the real world is the reason they don't understand this. They also strike me as emotionally immature and thus avoid the conflict required.

She's also a Master's student, not a PhD student. They owe her respect and dignity and a fulfillment of the promise of academic training. If an advisor expects every student to come out of the womb a superstar without the need for advisement, that doesn't sound like the student's problem.

The fact that advisors and departments aren't punished because of the shame involved will soon be rectified by the internet.

Advice for Erin to follow

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the problem you are now dealing with might be the downward spiral of spoiled expectations. When you are PhD student, you have a certain cache. You’ve now cashed it in by becoming a Master’s student. Before, your advisor hoped you wouldn’t quit. Now, your advisor knows they won’t have you for another two or three years. Before, there was a small possibility you might win him the Nobel prize. Now that door has been slammed. His only rational move is to try to get what he can out of you.

If your situation is like mine, training was sub-par and mentoring was non-existent, but hey, we really took advantage of them on the pay! ;) Anon 1 may have in fact accurately described the advisors viewpoint. The fact that it is misguided doesn’t change that you must deal with it.

First, decide.

The reason you need to do this is that once it is done, you aren’t going to look back. The past is a sunk cost. You don’t owe anyone anything and they owe you nothing.
If you leave now, you cannot do what I did and go back. It only gets harder. Not only will THEY be just as bad, but you will be wiser, and the situation will be more ludicrous. Grad school is a fraud that will tempt you with the promise of significant work after you leave. Don’t believe this temptation, it is a siren song. Life will be so much better after you leave, and all you have to do is squash that lie every so often that you missed out on something.
If you decide to stay, you are going to gird up to go to war. The place is broken, but it’s not your job to fix it. You don’t have any suggestions or criticisms for anyone. You say please and thank you. You do nothing but your project and what you absolutely have to finish. When you talk to your advisor, you smile and are nice. When he asks you to do something, you smile and say okay. You don’t lift a finger on it until he’s asked you about it the second time. Then you rush together the fastest thing you can and put a pretty bow on it, then get back to your thesis. The key is you think only about your thesis and not about what life might be like if you quit. You made that decision already.

If you don’t decide one way or the other, you will resent everything because the alternative looks better. You have to slam the door on one of these options. That’s not to say something catastrophic or wonderful might happen to make you change your mind, but that outside of anything extreme, you choose a direction and know that the other one isn’t better, just something you chose not to do.

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Karina said...

Hi Erin,
I didn't read your story because I have never been on a blog site before and couldn't find the original post. But i typed in Quitting Grad school and found you and all this advice. Anyways I am 1/2way through a 2 year Master's program that I should have quit months ago. I want to pursue acting and am not interested in anything I am doing. The worst is that noe I am working for free for 40 hours a week all summer and don't know if I'll make it. I haven't come to the place where I have made a decision either way. It does make me feel better that there are other people out there who have gone through this. Did you decide to stay?

At 5:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is old, but I wanted to post in response to the anonymous 1 who seems to think that everything in academics is not biased.
My advisor was dealing with a terminal disease and acting unreasonably when I was trying to leave with a master's. We were in the process of writing a first author paper and she still wanted me to do more. She was VERY close with the department head, who was protecting her and not telling anybody about how serious her condition was. And my committee told me that they would not go against her because she was so high up. I was told that if she wanted another year's worth of work out of me, then I should just suck it up. But, I wasn't guaranteed another year's worth it was "maybe" and I wanted to switch fields.
Not everything is because a student is unproductive. There are lots of politics involved in academics that aren't always clear cut. My only options (besides sucking it up, which was making me depressed and suicidal) were to get the graduate school involved and basically get the department in trouble or leave without a degree.
If you are in fact a PI, then you are part of the problem with corrupt academics.
Yes, some graduate students slack off and use resources never accomplishing anything but not most.
I think you should have worked with the uneducated public for a while. Most graduate students work harder than "the real world" expects and in fact lawsuits would be filed if it were a real world job.
Honestly, you should not be mentoring graduate students if your first opinion was that the student failed. That is the first and most absolute way to produce unproductive students. Unless you are lucky enough to get the few who are stubborn and want to prove you wrong.


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