Have you ever thought about quitting grad school? I did. And, I am not the only one, as you will realize as you read this article.
Recently, my PhD program felt too overwhelming for me, and it wasn’t just the science. Everything seemed to have turned against me and against my success. Not only was my GPA low and my research not working but also, I was uncomfortable at work. To top it off, I just received a letter about my prelims exam (which I passed months ago!) that only had harsh criticism for me.
I wondered, Can I hang in here for three more years or should I just ask for the master’s degree?
The difficult part was making the decision. I just didn’t know what do. Left or right? Stay or go?
Do you have any idea how many people ask this question about quitting their PhD? As one of my wise coworkers pointed out to me:
“Everyone who has ever gone to graduate school has considered quitting at one point or another.”
Recently, the WiSE group sent a survey, separately to the men and women of the group. We asked “Have you ever thought about quitting graduate school?”
50% of the men and 64% of the women surveyed said YES.
When we asked them the reason, the answers were very similar: because of the lack of real life besides school, no social support and because of the high expectations and little reward.
Figure 1. Men’s responses
Figure 2. Women’s responses.
It turns out, my coworker was right. Most people in grad school ask themselves whether or not they should stick it out.
As my coach, Jill Tietjen (CEO of Technically Speaking and CEO of the Women’s Hall of Fame) said to me “Nobody can make the decision for you…It will take you some time because it is an important decision.”
When confronted with this kind of situation, Ms. Tietjen advises,
“When circumstances cause you to reassess your career plans, take responsibility by gaining clarity of your purpose, identifying your values, and defining on your own definition of success.” (Jill S. Tietjen and Mary D. Petryszyn, SWE 2011, designing your career path).
I did this assessment two months ago. I thought I had that clear already. But, no, I realized I needed to reassess my career plan again, as Ms. Tietjen and Ms. Petryszyn explain, because of the circumstances.
A few days after having those feelings, I left for a vacation as I had planned. Vacation was just what I needed. Going away from work helped me relax and have time and space for myself.
After vacation, after talking about it with my friend, with my coach, my coworker, after reading about life challenges and after thinking about it a little bit every day and understanding my feelings, it became clearer what my purpose is.
I remembered that I decided to do the PhD because it is my dream. Also, I became aware of the challenges I would need to face and realized that they aren’t stop signs for me.
I realized I want to stay on the journey of my dream no matter what challenge others put in my way.
“Don’t let adversity stop you” says Ms. Tietjen in her article 10 Amazing STEM women and what we can learn from them. “Mary Engle Pennington (1895) didn’t let her earned but denied bachelor’s degree stop her. She became an expert on food safety” continues Ms. Tietjen.
But, I also realized I had to make some changes in order to stay happy in the PhD. I needed to accept graduate school as what it is: competitive, non-social and full of high-pressure demands. Also, I needed more support on my research project, so I had to talk to my advisor as my coworker suggested to me:
“Being open with him about how you are feeling is the best way to making your time in graduate school a little bit easier”, he said.
Accepting these realizations about grad school has helped me move forward in my degree. But, I also keep in mind that this is my dream. This is why it’s important to me to accept the competitive, high-pressure demands of the program.
What is important for you to stick with graduate school? What are your values? How do you define success for yourself? Are there changes you can make to stay happy?