Second-guessing graduate school

Graduation Day 2014 // Agnes Scott College // Smooching on Dr. Larimore

If you would’ve told me in May 2014 that I would be second-guessing my decision to go to graduate school, I would not have believed you. I would’ve told you that going to graduate school was my dream, and that one day I would be a well-respected professor. I would’ve told you that I had dreams of doing good science, learning so much more than I ever thought I would, and of influencing other Latinas interested in STEM/education. I might’ve also told you that I would help find some novel drug that could help someone, someday.

Little did I know what getting a doctoral degree actually means. Graduate school is difficult, and not only because the work is challenging (it is). It’s difficult because you’re away from your family, and your family doesn’t wait on you. Your parents will age, they might even get sick and you won’t be there for them. Your siblings will have children, and you won’t see your nieces/nephews grow up. Your friends will miss you, but inevitably make other friends. Your pets (who you couldn’t bring with you) will also age, and maybe die while you’re away. And if you are an immigrant, and are scared of Donald Trump’s war on minorities (I haven’t copyrighted that phrase yet, but I might. Don’t steal it.), you may be scared alone.

In hindsight, I also did not think about everything else that would happen during my mid-twenties. Like getting married, and wanting to have kids, and wanting to have a stable job, and maybe even a retirement fund. Or getting married to an active duty Marine, and wanting to follow her to her next duty station, but knowing that it would put my career at risk. Let’s not forget student loans–I wish someone would pay back my student loans, but the truth is that Sallie Mae will be the first one at my graduation, waiting for me to get my PhD.

I’ve been reading a lot of forums talking about ABD students who left academia, and they all say the same thing:

If you don’t want to teach, or stay in academia… getting a PhD is worthless.

Is this true? If I stepped out into industry or even a non-STEM career, will I regret the years I spent getting a PhD? The truth is that yes, I might regret it. And I might not. Maybe this time is necessary for my future, and is completely adding to my development as a scientist, woman, communicator, friend, cook (I’ve been cooking a lot since coming to Chicago). And maybe I will regret it. The years I could’ve spent working at a job climbing the corporate ladder. Why I would climb any ladder I don’t know–I barely like walking up stairs, let alone a ladder, but still. The years I could spend starting a family–as a lesbian it will take months, if not years, to really try. And the moments that I could be spending enjoying life–traveling, not basing my day around a behavioral experiment, not spilling chloroform on my shoes (that only happened once).

I haven’t even touched on the isolation that graduate school brings. Jennifer Walker wrote an interesting piece on the emotional and mental costs of getting a PhD.

A general feeling of isolation can also weigh down graduate students who spend much of their time buried under a pile of books or alone in a lab.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel weighed down often. And it’s not even the work. I love science, and the research, and finding solutions. I’m not crazy about presentations, but who is? It’s the academic system that prioritizes publications over people that gets me. The lack of mentorship. The way students slip through the cracks and end up graduating after 7 years, only because their department pushes them out…not because they’re experts in their field. The way that no one actually cares about the mental health of their students, and leave them to cope as long as they’re producing results. The way that we’re all machines churning out data, appeasing a supervisor/committee member/reviewer #3.

second guessing graduate school

It’s very possible that this is just a low, now that I’m halfway through my projected PhD timeline. It’s also very possible that this isn’t a low, and that I should be more satisfied. Either way, I know that the best way to get help is to get help. Seeking guidance from a counselor, a trusted friend, or even an old mentor would be helpful. Maybe even taking some time to recoup away from the lab. I’m not leaving the bench anytime soon, but I hope that I will have the courage to do so, if I decide that that’s what’s best one day.

2 comments Add yours
  1. A PhD is such a long-haul thing, and often at a stage in life where priorities can change very quickly, like you mentioned in this post. There’s no good answer as to whether one should complete the PhD or not. I tend to err on the side of completing because of how much work usually goes in to even set up research, and also at least here having a PhD is seen as beneficial in non-academic (scientific) jobs. I do think a good support network (lab, mentors, PhD buddies and other friends, career counselling type people, etc) is essential. Have you seen this site? Not in science, but she talks about people’s experiences with dropping out of PhD programs.

    1. It is a huge commitment, and a good support network is critical. Without a strong foundation, I can easily see why amazing scientists end up leaving the field. I started browsing through her site, and I’ll be sure to check it out a bit more! Thanks!

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