March 11, 2011

FYI: Quitting is admirable

That's one of the things I learned from my coworkers when I told them my plans to leave the PhD program. Overall the most terrifying and surprising part of leaving graduate school was the response I received from friends, family, mentors, coworkers, and my advisor. Terrifying because I was worried that I would be disappointing all of the people in my life, and surprising because I found out from them that that wasn't what they were thinking at all. Here's how it all shook out:

My friends (and boyfriend) were all incredibly supportive. It helped that most are also grad students, so they understand the pressures and my reasons for leaving. Some were sad to see me leave, but overall they understood and wished me luck.

My family was the most taken aback and concerned about my announced departure. My parents are baby-boomers and strong believers in the earning power of an education. They were concerned that I was giving up on a career path I had said I wanted for years (professor) and were especially worried about my job prospects in our current economy. Even with their concerns they said the most important thing was that I was happy. My aunt (a very outspoken woman) on the other hand, informed them that I was making the biggest mistake of my life and would regret it forever. This was the only blatant criticism I heard over my decision.

My mentors, chemistry faculty from my undergrad and a couple from Big U, were also overwhelmingly supportive. I was most nervous to tell my mentors because they had encouraged me to go to grad school and believed that I could succeed; if anyone was going to be disappointed I thought it would be them. None of them even hinted at disappointment, instead it was more like: it's not uncommon and you've thought about it carefully, best of luck in your new direction, and we're excited to hear what you do next. (To be fair one tried to convince me to stay in the PhD program, but they also said that they would support me no matter what my decision ended up being.) One comment that really stuck with me was, "This is part of education too, figuring out what you don't want to do."

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My coworkers (group members) gave the most interesting responses. It ranged from "I called it" to selfish disappointment to envy to admiration. One person I told immediately said, "Oh yeah, I figured as much. You've been acting differently the past couple weeks and I haven't seen you in lab." One (my only classmate in the group) was selfishly disappointed because I wouldn't be around to remind them of impending deadlines. I often figured out how to do things the hard way and then they would saunter up and I would explain it to them. (I'm guilty of helping because I love feeling knowledgeable when people ask me for advice.) One person seemed envious and said that if it were a year earlier in their career they would think more seriously about leaving too. The last reaction, and the title of the post, surprised me quite a bit. One group member told me I was very courageous for leaving, and they were very impressed and admired the fact that I knew what I wanted and wasn't afraid to make big changes to get it. I heard this echoed about a bit by other people too. I think this is the only time in my life where someone told me it was admirable to quit.

My advisor was in total shock at my announcement. It just goes to show the weakness of our relationship that they had no idea I was unhappy. I was asked by a few people whether I would have stuck with the program if I had had a different advisor, and honestly I don't know. I always felt like I was on shaky ground with my advisor, and it stems back to when I was in their class the first semester or grad school. I did poorly on the second exam (which in my defense included a large portion of material that we had not covered yet) and I had to attend a meeting with my advisor to discuss my performance. I thought I would be asked what went wrong, be given a couple suggestions for better studying and be sent on my way since everyone kept telling me how classes don't matter in graduate school. Instead I was told that I needed to study my ass off for the rest of the semester if I hoped to pass. I did the studying and passed the course with an above-average grade, but I don't appreciate scare tactics and the whole scenario started a little itch of resentment toward my advisor that I never shook. (It became clear throughout our relationship that my advisor enjoyed using fear as a motivational tool, and the occasional raving compliments I received from them always seemed fake against that back-drop. I might detail this relationship more in a later post.) Overall, the most praise and appreciation I ever received from my advisor was the day I told them I was going to leave the program. They looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Why? You have all the skills you need to succeed at this and you've done really well so far." They offered to give me a new project and refused to accept my decision until I slept on it for another three days. In the end they were very supportive, offering to pay me through the end of the semester to assist in manuscript writing and other non-lab duties.

I guess the person that had the most difficult time accepting the news was myself, but I feel lucky to have the support of so many people in my life. It's one of those moments where you can look around and really appreciate what you have.

**If you noticed my excessive use of "they" and "them" that's because I was trying to remove any gender identifiers to keep things anonymous.

1 comment:

  1. That is some awesome and useful information right there. I cannot wait until the little people go to sleep so that I can concentrate and work some of this stuff out.