March 06, 2011

Step-by-step guide to making the BIG decision

Since I announced my departure from graduate school, I have been introduced to several other students also struggling with this decision. When you imagine making this life changing decision you can practically hear the doors slamming shut around you, as one opportunity after another becomes out of reach. The other side of the coin is that you can taste freedom, and if you are really miserable then you're sure that anything (even sitting around unemployed on the couch) would be better than your current situation. That said, before you run around screaming "I quit!" I'd recommend having a battle plan so you can leave with confidence and without burning all of your bridges.

Here's a step-by-step guide through the process I used. You may find it helpful, you may not. This is a very personal decision to make and I'm not saying that this is the only way to think about it, but if you're struggling for a place to start here's my advice:

  1. Why are you unhappy?
    I love lists, so the first thing I did was write up the pros and cons of my grad school life. If the cons are things that can be fixed (problems with coworkers, or if you like research but don't like your project), take a proactive approach and try to make things better for yourself. When I had "the talk" with my advisor they offered to let me change projects if that was the source of my unhappiness. It's dependent on the advisor, but if your pros list is longer than your cons you should probably sit down and have a chat with them. If the cons include things like "I hate working at the bench" or "research sucks" then I would move on to number 2.
  2. What was your goal in coming to grad school? Do a cost/benefit analysis.
    If you're like me and you wanted to be a professor at a school that emphasizes teaching over research, consider whether that dream is worth your continued unhappiness for the next few years. I have friends that say it is, but for me it wasn't. Maybe you like labwork but you don't like the independent nature of PhD research? A Masters wouldn't be a bad way to go. You could work in a lab making more money than a BS, but with more guidance (and less freedom potentially) than a PhD.
  3. What do you enjoy doing and what kind of job do you want?
    You still have to pay the bills, so what do you do now? This was an important question for me since I decided against both teaching and labwork. Do you like writing? Web design? Are you a salesman?
  4. Are there jobs available (where you want to work)?
    It depends on your situation and the type of job you want. Some jobs are harder to find than others and might require you to move to where the opportunities are (ex. most policy jobs would need you to move to D.C.). If you have a significant other you aren't willing to move away from (my situation) then start looking at job listings in your area. Does anything look appealing? I started looking on Monster, and Indeed, and also searched for local job listing sites (many cities have these).
  5. Do you have a plan but you're still unsure about your decision?
    Talk to mentors, family, friends. Lay out your reasons for leaving and your plan for after you leave. Sometimes it helps to hear someone else say "You know, it's clear you've thought through this careful and it sounds like you're making the best decision for yourself." Just be prepared, odds are not everyone will be supportive. (I actually returned to this step multiple times throughout the process.)
  6. The tricky part: Apply for jobs and then tell your advisor or tell your advisor first?
    I struggled with this myself. I thought it would be nice to have a job all lined up before I talked to my advisor, but I worried that employers would be suspicious if I didn't supply my advisor as a reference. I was also worried that the more people I told the higher the chance that my advisor would hear I was leaving from someone that wasn't me. I finally decided to talk to my advisor first, which worked out quite well for me.
  7. The resolution.
    Hopefully you should feel a rushing sense of relief that you've made the decision to leave (then you know it was the right decision for you). I can't tell you what happens next because I don't quite know myself. I tried to be as accommodating as possible to my advisor to ensure a good reference, which lets me benefit because I get to keep earning a paycheck while I continue my job search.
So there's my very analytical analysis of the process, but what else would you expect from a scientist? I'm no authority on the subject, so if you took a different path tell me about it in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I just recently found your blog--thanks Chemjobber--and must say I'm in a very similar spot to you.

    I joined a young research group at a top tier institution (in Pharm Sci, but my group [med-chem] was kind of the red headed step-child subject wise) and was all starry eyed with the prospects of a professorship.

    After a year my project was a seemingly insurmountable mess (SNAFU), my morale was being worn away by the seemingly insurmountable challenge of finding that academic job and the contract of pharma, and I was falling back into depression.

    The thing that pushed me over the edge was my boss' untimely resignation and ensuing dissolution of the research group. After that, I decided to bail with the masters. I told my new boss my first day back from the winter holiday and have been gearing up to leave at the beginning of the summer. Currently, I'm looking for a job close to my girlfriend and ideally related to the craft beer industry (talk about a change of pace!)

    Anyways, that was a bit long and rambly, but it warms my heart to find others following the same track as myself out of the PhD mill. Godspeed.