Quitting the PhD: when you could and why you shouldn’t

November 12, 2020

The challenges that face PhD students in science programs are frequent and often seem insurmountable. When faced with obstacles, is it better to just quit? Spoiler alert — NO! Its not!

Approximately a quarter of graduate students in science or engineering PhD programs in the U.S. will quit within 3 years of matriculation, according to data gathered by the Council of Graduate Schools. Moreover, of the estimated 24,165 graduate students in U.S. natural science doctoral programs, 6,041 will not defend their thesis to earn a PhD.

There are numerous reasons why quitting may be appropriate or inappropriate. Ultimately, the decision to throw in the towel (or not) is extremely personal.

Anecdotally, I have heard that the main reasons for quitting a PhD in the natural sciences include losing interest in the research, wishing to pursue a different passion, and feeling disheartened by academia. These are all totally understandable reasons, and I have felt them too.

There are other struggles, too. Personally, I sometimes think my experimental design is such a mess that my research is not going to help the world in a meaningful way. Every now and then, I consider the possibility that I am only in a PhD program by some fortuitous combination of personal fraud and admissions committee error. Additionally, I often worry that my future career will not require my high level of education. These feelings have certainly been exacerbated by the mental toll of the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, but they had existed before March 2020.

Nevertheless, I won’t quit, and I argue against quitting a PhD in general.

The pandemic will be over, eventually. In the meantime, there is no shame in struggling during these uniquely stressful times, or ever, actually. Change is really hard, and it’s OK to struggle. Pandemic aside, the process of a PhD involves constant changes: moving to a new city, rotating in different laboratories, joining a lab and moving to a new office, forming relationships with your committee members, working through summers, and a revolving door of lab members, to name a few.

While we (usually) can’t control the changes, we can control how we respond to the changes. My thoughts of quitting partially stem from my responses to change: being supportive versus resistant of the changes experienced in academia influence my mood/outlook, which in turn influence how often the thought of quitting occurs.

PPT - Positive Response to Change PowerPoint Presentation, free download -  ID:476522
Personal responses (supportive to resistant) to change (in general) in academia over time

I’m usually in a pretty good mood and want to keep on keeping on, but I have periods of doubt that basically correspond to whenever there is a change. Indeed, I’ve felt the urge to call my advisor and hang up my lab-coat many times over the past few months, but I will not. The doubt will pass. I will defend my thesis sometime in the next two years.

Overcoming this whole mess, and emerging with a PhD is essential for me, and other candidates. Although the degree represents the contribution of new knowledge to the world about a (very specific) problem, the educational process is the most meaningful part. A PhD is an endurance event — basically a marathon. The finish is great, but the race itself is where you learn and grow against a backdrop of constant change.

Sticking it out and holding steady through the “race” is tough. However, like endorphins for a runner, the benefits of a PhD journey increase as you go on. During my PhD so far, I have become educated in much more than Toxicology. I’ve learned how to be kind yet constructive, that PI’s are just people, and that my to-do list is never too long for a run (and other means of self-care!). I want to continue to learn more while I can, so I will stick around. But not too long!

The decision to leave or stay is personal, and I realize I have certain privileges (I don’t have children, I have more free time, etc…) that enable me to make this decision more easily. Nevertheless, should “the benefits of the process” not be a sufficient reason for you to stay, I offer some others:

  1. You worked too hard to get here to quit now.
  2. The effort you have previously put in will amount to a degree that opens doors to subsequent opportunities
  3. You may inspire others to pursue a PhD
  4. By struggling, you have gained experience that you may share with mentees you can guide and help
  5. You CAN do it — anything worth doing is difficult — If it were easy, everyone would have a PhD!
    • Indeed, 2% of the United States population has a PhD., according to US Census Bureau data from 2019.

Although I urge you to stay rather than quit, spending time in a PhD program means you learned something about yourself, and made an informed decision.

“At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want.” – Lao-Tzu (604 – 531 BC)

Have you thought about quitting? What are your thoughts on the process of getting a PhD? What made it worthwhile for you?

On virtual poster presentations

May 22, 2020 (& June 6, 2020)

As any true academic, I procrastinated something important until the last minute. Someday, This will refer to grants I write or bigger deadlines I must meet, but for this post, it regards a poster competition.

I entered a virtual poster competition that offers CASH prizes for first ($500) and second($250). This is uncharacteristic for a University- sponsored award; the unrestricted money grants me the freedom to spend money on anything I want… probably something very important like rent, food, utility bills, or 1-2 dozen slap-chops.

I implore you to Wach this TV advertisement for commercial excellence…

The stipulations for the award are as follows: 1) The student had a conference cancelled due to COVID19, 2) The poster can be submitted via PDF and 3) the student presents the poster in a .mp4 recording. It seemed easy enough. I figured that it would take a half-hour of my time – tops. Which was good – because I (thought that I) had two hours until it was due.

However – it took me about twice that length. It’s surprisingly nerve-wracking to record yourself giving an academic presentation. It took a few tries to get it right! Below is a blooper from the first of 7 total trials:

Peak derp-level achieved.

While it’s unfortunate that I didn’t get to travel to California to present my research this year at the Society of Toxicology annual meeting, it’s even more unfortunate that I haven’t yet mastered Zoom recordings…🤷🏻‍♀️

I hope you took note of the aforementioned qualifier phrase, “thought that I had.” I was wrong about the May 22 deadline (when I began this post); the presentation and associated files are actually due today! However, I’m glad I finished it then, because today, I was too busy for a last-minute submission scurry. This afternoon, I headed downtown for a few hours of protest, in support the BLM movement with my Rochester community. 🖤✊

Which ostensibly points out…maybe procrastination isn’t a good M.O. to have…

Anyway, I hope y’all enjoy this post & thank you for reading! Wish me luck with the ACTUAL submission! 🙂😂🤷🏻‍♀️

PhDistance | WELCOME

Hi! My name is Ash, and I’m a PhD candidate in Toxicology and a marathon runner. I also love to write, and recently discovered that there’s a solid market for science writers with a PhD! I now regularly daydream of being a science journalist that covers Toxicology and Environmental Issues.

But that’s the future. Here is the past:

I was a distance running athlete in college for SUNY Geneseo, a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York. My favorite races were the 3k and 5k- I never attempted a 10k. I made a big leap to try my first half-marathon after graduating from college. I loved it, and found myself considering a marathon a few days later.

At that time, I was also considering laboratories to rotate in and housing options near the University of Rochester, where I would begin my PhD in toxicology.

Toxicology is an interdisciplinary field that incorporates concepts from biochemistry, environmental science, and psychology. I get to throw in developmental biology and entomology too because of my thesis work: I use a fruit fly model to learn about methylmercury toxicity during muscle development.

When I’m not in lab, I’m literally running around Rochester. The weather can be pretty wild here, given the city’s proximity to the Great Lakes, but it’s usually fun to be out there!

…and other times, it’s not:

If it looks like I’m crying, it’s because I am.

Since coming to Rochester, I have run 4 marathons, and 3 half marathons (see the Races tab).  There have been injuries, personal records, highs and lows along the way, and I’m grateful for it all.

Running keeps me sane, provides a “reset” when I feel spun from work, and has led to wonderful friendships. It also gives me those infamous post-run endorphin spikes.

There are plenty of adventures as I navigate the streets and trails of Rochester, as well as academia. This blog is a space to record my adventures as I chase after my athletic and academic goals.

 Subscribe (email) and follow this blog to keep up as I run towards my goals and away from my problems!