IF YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT QUITTING GRAD SCHOOL, READ THIS

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.

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Figure 1. Men’s responses

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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?

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Why it’s beneficial to seek help when you’re feeling depressed

Ever felt unmotivated or depressed? I have, often since starting grad school.

As I struggled through classes, paper reviews, preliminary exams and research, the fear of failure was constant. I always felt like I was fooling myself and everyone around me.

Being put on academic probation was the worst part. I couldn’t understand why after months of studying and doing research non-stop, I was not making progress. I was not satisfied, I was not happy, I was not motivated.

I went back home to Catalonia for Christmas. Though I was still feeling down, but getting away from school, Boulder and the people I see every day, helped distract me and allowed me to share my feelings with my loved ones. Even though, my family and friends are not familiar with my career, they gave me support and encouragement, which is exactly what school doesn’t provide.

Sometimes you just don’t know

Once back in Boulder, I was a bit refreshed. I could think more clearly. After a few days of thinking about my situation in school, I realized I was depressed and I needed professional help. Recognizing and acknowledging I needed someone else to help me was difficult. I thought, Why me? Why do I need to seek help? I felt as if I was weak and alone. Nobody else that I knew was experiencing the same situation…

But the fact is you never really know what others are experiencing. Just because you feel alone in your situation doesn’t mean people around you don’t feel the same. You just don’t know!

Last February, the WiSE group at CU Boulder sent a survey separately to the men and women of the group; members that belong to a diverse STEM fields. We asked “Have you ever felt depressed and/or unmotivated in grad school?”

75% of the men and 95% of the women we surveyed answered YES.

Figure 1. Men’s responses.men

Figure 2. Women’s responses.

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Now, I know I am not alone.

As Dr. Douglas Logan, Dean of Engineering at Walla Walla University, said in a seminar held by WiSE:

“Personal crisis happens to people and you should take it as an opportunity to grow!”

First, I decided to see a counselor through the university medical center since it is free for students. I saw her a couple times, but it didn’t work out. They are very busy; finding a consistent time to meet became impractical. Also, as a good professor said to me once “Free is not always good…”

Later I decided to see a private counselor. Even though I had to pay I thought, This is worth it to change my life and be happier.

Indeed, Dr. Christopher Bowman, distinguished professor at CU Boulder, in a seminar held by WiSE, recommended seeking professional help when you are in a situation of depression in graduate school.

“If you are not doing well, get help from your peers, from your family or, if that is not enough, then from a counselor!” said Dr. Bowman.

Today, a little more than a year later, I am very happy I sought professional help.

What’s on the brighter side

Going to therapy helped me understand what was happening in my professional life and why. Only then it become clear to me that I was not weak or incompetent. It was the difficult circumstances I was facing. Here I was, a foreign exchange student in a PhD program at CU Boulder. I was learning how to live in a new culture and the language barrier posed a substantial challenge to my academic success. Also, there was a huge academic gap between my University in Catalonia and CU Boulder. CU Boulder is a prestigious university, requiring much more academic commitment than I expected.

My counselor gave me support, which helped me believe in myself. She also gave me advice about how to deal with my challenges. Tools that I use today. I was fortunate I found a great therapist with whom I created a strong relationship. She had faith, love and trust in me. I felt comfortable with her. Our sessions gave me a safe place to let go of my worries and doubts. Seeking professional guidance helped me overcome the stress of school.

You are not alone

If you are in a similar situation, and you are wondering if seeing a counselor is worth it, then you should ask yourself- What is it costing me to live my life this way? Think about your health, your friendships, your family, your career, your happiness.

Taking Charge of My Career

What do I want to do when I finish my PhD? Who do I want to become? I think about this a lot, especially since passing prelims.

At the beginning of graduate school, I only focused on getting through classes and prelims. I didn’t have time for anything else. But now that I have passed my prelims and am almost done with the required coursework, I am thinking more about my future. I am also realizing that getting a PhD is a long and arduous process, so I better have a clear reason for pursuing it.

What makes me happy in graduate school? What is it that motivates me about the PhD?

‘If you know the answer, it will be easier to map your career, said CU Boulder prof. Chris Bowman at the latest Professional Development seminar hosted by CU WiSE.

Similarly, the transformational coach Colleen Miller encourages us to ask, Why am I here? Is there another direction I can take to become who I want to?

When I was at the hairdresser’s a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a Women’s Health magazine and spent some time looking through it. I don’t usually read magazines but an interesting article written by Mallika Chopra about how to choose your job caught my eye. Mallika is the founder and CEO of Intent.com, a website focused on personal, social and global wellness and the President of Chopra Media, LLC.

UntitledShe says in the article “Think about what’s truly important to you beyond money or stuff, and then align your work habits with those things. It will fulfill you and look great next time raises are being considered.” She relates that for most people, “when asked, ‘what do you want?’ they say a six-figure salary or a better title. While you might want those things, there’s also likely a greater need that’s not being met, and addressing it can actually put you on the path to those material gains” (Enjoy your job more, May 2015).

As she recommended in the article, I grabbed a blank piece of paper, and wrote down what is important to me by listing any feelings, people, and places that came to me.

It seems obvious but you may not realize what is important to you until the words are staring you in the face”, says Mallika.

If helping other matters to you, then mentor an undergraduate student; if fighting for women’s rights matters to you, then join the CU WiSE team; or if you enjoy teaching students, then ask a professor to let you teach their class. By doing so, you will feel happy and satisfied, it will look great on your CV and it will be valued when you are interviewed for the job you want.

Indeed, during the career-development seminar organized by WiSE last month, Prof. Chris Bowman advised that if there is an activity in graduate school that you want to do and it helps keep you motivated during your PhD, keep doing it! It will not only bring you happiness but also balance. He also shared with us three important skills that are required on top of technical expertise: communication, teamwork and creativity. Those are the skills an employer considers when deciding whom to hire. “Practice those skills at any opportunity before various audiences and ask for feedback to improve” Dr. Bowman said.

Figuring out the answer to those questions helped me feel confident with my choices and helped me focus on learning the skills I need to get the job I want. Most importantly though, it allowed me to take charge of my career.

So, are you ready to take charge of your career? Get a piece of paper and start answering…

Why am I in graduate school?

What makes me happy and what is that motivates me in graduate school?

Are there other paths I can take to do what I want to do in the future?

Do I have enough balance in graduate school?

As Jill S. Tietjen and Mary D. Petryszyn say in an article from SWE (Designing your career path, fall 2011), “getting the answers will require introspection or bouncing ideas off of trusted friends and family. But, if you don’t start trying to determine what is that you want, it will just be a longer time until you find the answers”. They advice that

it will be easier to accomplish what you want if you gain clarity of your purpose, identify your values, and decide on your own definition of success .

“Take charge of your career! Become the Boss of Me”, say Tietjen and Petryszyn.

FAILURE IS SUCCESS IN PROGRESS

‘Is failure a part of the road to success? Do we have to be ready to fail if we want to be successful?’ I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately.

The first semester of graduate school was extremely hard for me. On average, I only slept five hours a night because I couldn’t keep up with my classes, homework, projects, exams and research.

I’d never in my life been as stressed as I was then. My hormones were totally out of whack and I was sweating all the time. Even though I worked very hard and slept so little, it didn’t help. I didn’t do well in my classes and I even failed one. As a result, I was placed on academic probation for the following year.

Being put on academic probation was a huge failure for me and I lost a lot of confidence in myself. I remember asking myself every day ‘Am I smart enough? Am I aiming too high? Is this for me?’

Despite these doubts, I kept working hard. I had to keep moving forward. What else was I supposed to do? During my second semester of graduate school, I took an undergraduate class so that I could really understand the concepts that I had failed to grasp in the graduate course. At the beginning of my second year, I re-took the graduate class and, finally, passed. No more academic probation.  It was certainly a relief, but things didn’t get easier after that.

During that same semester, I had a science literature exam in my research group. For the exam, my advisor and everyone in the lab tested my understanding of forty-five research papers to make sure I had the knowledge required for working there. For a month, I read and re-read three to four papers a day and constantly discussed them with my colleagues. I worked very hard, but again, I wasn’t rewarded for my hard work. I only partially passed. I had to write a review paper to make sure I understood the concepts to fully pass the test.

I felt like I’d failed again. I continued to ask myself – ‘Is graduate school the place for me? Am I smart enough to be here?’ These doubts plagued me.

Two weeks later, I had my preliminary exams. Preliminary exams, or “prelims”, consist of two parts. The first part is a written research proposal of your thesis work and the second part is an oral defense of the proposal to a committee of faculty.

I worked very hard on my proposal. I thought about it for several months. I studied the relevant literature. I wrote draft after draft. I stayed late in the lab trying to get as many results as possible to include in my proposal.

But, I didn’t pass.

I couldn’t believe it. When my advisor told me I didn’t pass, I thought he was joking.

I was very frustrated. I had put in so much time, effort and dedication.

Not passing prelims crushed my self-confidence. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I am not smart enough to be in graduate school, to be in this department or to be in this research lab. Maybe this isn’t the place for me.’ I thought about this over and over again.

Getting a PhD degree is my dream. I left my country, family and loved ones to pursue my dream. But my dream was getting too hard and frustrating. I felt like I’d failed three times in a row without any success and I felt I was behind the rest of my class more and more each semester.

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Even though I was depressed, upset and disappointed, I trusted my heart. I set my eyes on the future and I gave myself another chance at prelims. Finally, six months later I passed!

Finally, after almost two years and several failures, I succeeded in achieving part of my dream. I am glad I never gave up!

As my coach said to me after listening to this, ‘Yes, you need to be ready to fail and get up again. That is persistence.’ Persistence is one of the keys to success, she told me once. She advised me ‘Sometimes things don’t work out as you planned, but you need to trust yourself and try again and, maybe, try a different angle if necessary, but never give up. And, do not compare yourself to others, because each person is taking his own path, a different path than you are.’

The transformational coach, Colleen Miller, gave similar advice in a workshop on building confidence last month when she said, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail. If you are working on preventing failure, you will fail. If you are working on succeeding, you will succeed. So, think about what is working in your life, stay focused on your success! And, trust it will happen!’ She also recommended, ‘Be present with your failures. Be prepared to fail so you are not afraid of it. You need to fail, to learn and to know how it feels, in order to prevent it.’

I think we should ask ourselves more often- ‘What is your dream that you want to achieve? Why are you here? What are your goals?’

Go for it! And, if you fail, try again!

“PLANT NOW, REAP LATER”

I feel I have been planting for a long time now, but I don’t see what good it’s doing, I told my coach in an email before meeting with her last time. This is what I learnt from my mum and family. My mum is not academic. In fact, she stopped studying all together after only a couple months of elementary school. She was literally always planting, always hoping to one day to reap the benefits of her hard work. This is what I learnt, too.

But, I asked my coach, is it really true? Am I going to see any reward after working so hard for my future? Am I ever going to stop planting, or do you have to continuously plant your entire life to be successful? And, if you want to be successful in your professional career, can you also be successful in your personal life? Can you “have it all” without giving up anything? Or do you have to choose?

My coach and I met at a restaurant in town. I was excited to see her and relieved when she arrived safely as recent snowstorms had made the roads quite bad. Before sitting down with a printed copy of my email clutched in her hand, she gave me a hug. We took our time perusing the menu. Once we ordered, however, she said, ‘Anna. Yes, that is totally true: the harder you work, the luckier you become! That is what I have experienced all my life.’

Silence.Key-to-Success

I was saying yes with my head, but, I was thinking, what is it that drives successful people to work hard? What is the key to a successful career path?

I didn’t even need to ask her. She read my mind.

“The most successful people,” she continued, “are those that work hard; they work hard because they are passionate about what they do. The three keys for a successful professional career are passion, determination and persistence.”
Great advice! I thought. I can see how they go together: without passion you won’t have determination, and without determination you won’t have persistence. And, you need them all to excel.

What if sometimes I feel different than most people? I asked her. Sometimes people think I am crazy because I work too much. She assured me, “Only you know what is best for you. Only you know what satisfies you. Only you know what you want to do and what you want to achieve. So, don’t let anybody decide for you what is best for you and don’t let anybody define who you are or what you do.”

We were sitting in the center of the restaurant on a busy Wednesday night. Even though it was a little loud, we still enjoyed the food, the place and especially our conversation. The more we talked, the more we realized how much we have in common, and the more I realized what a great leader she is.

She shared some personal experiences that made me aware of how important it is to balance work with physical exercise and time spent with loved ones. She runs many times a week, even though she is 60 years old! Isn’t that cool?! And, she also has time for her friends and husband.

So, I think the answers to my questions were clear after meeting with her:

Yes, you will reap the rewards, but you need to be patient.

Yes, you need to ‘keep planting to have a crop every year’

Yes, you can balance your life. Exercise and time with friends and family should be in your calendar.

No, you don’t have to give up anything.

My coach, a professionally certified electrical engineer, is a great role model. She is an author and speaker, one of the top historians in the country on scientific and technical women, and the CEO of Technically Speaking, a consulting company working to improve opportunities for women in technology.
She is passionate, hard-working and confident. She is balanced. She is successful.

She tells me successful people never feel like they are working because they are passionate about what they do. What are you passionate about? Why are you doing what you do?