Friday, May 19, 2017

An Academic Journey: A Premature End



It was my intent with this blog to catalog and describe my experiences with my doctoral studies. The first year was weird and kind of great. At the same time, it was also kind of disappointing and frustrating.

To that end, with the academic year coming to a close and my future entirely up in the air, that I made the decision to leave the program.

The doctoral program was maybe not as rough as I had expected. The academic work was easier than what I went through during my masters program. Rotations were great; every project I worked on went smoothly and got successful results. My fellow students, both senior graduate students and those in my cohort were pleasant, and even friendly at times. Some were even helpful, which was nice. The non-faculty staff were amazingly helpful, despite a few hiccups in paperwork and stuff throughout the experience. The faculty were... a mixed bag. 

The classes we took were all over the place, as far as difficulty. Of the 8 professors that taught the two core classes, and the two that taught ethics and conduct, most were at least acceptable. Having classes focus on specific research interests rather than useful knowledge was frustrating, as I believe that that type of directed learning is the purpose of journal clubs. A few professors took time to tell us how stupid we were, and how bad our institution was as far as quality of education. Those moments were a little off-putting, as a student. Furthermore, it sometimes felt like the classwork was simplified, and existed merely as a formality. I excelled at it, and I did not expect that. Rotations were undirected and in my experience there was no real way to address the absence of expectations or direction of the work. Rotation students weren't treated like potential graduate students, we were just treated as 8-10 weeks of free extra labor. In one rather awful case, I was belittled and insulted daily by a PI, to a point where other graduate students and faculty began to take notice. Nothing was done about it, because such behavior seems to casually condoned: everyone else had it rough, why should the new people get a break?

To sound a little bitter, this exposure to academia made it seem like they were all nothing but fragile egos living in this awkward bubble of unrealistic ideas of the world. They didn't seem to know how to treat people properly. It's like they have no understanding of the portion of their job that requires them to teach and mentor. A building full of intelligent people, who have a history of success, and yet are so far removed from common human interaction that it would be laughable if it wasn't so bad for the people who rely on them to do their job. It was a frustrating experience to be treated poorly while simultaneously doing well in most facets of the program. 

My experience is likely not a unique one. It wasn't even unique in this department: half of my cohort left the program; the three at the top of the class academically, with the most experience outside of academia.. in the real world, so to speak. I'm just glad that I was at a point in my life where being treated poorly and being miserable for six years was not something I wanted. I'm sure there are other places - institutions, labs, what have you - where I would have been happy, and done even better. None of that was present here, and rather than make a commitment to destroy my mental health, I made a choice for my dignity and well-being. Academia, especially in the sciences, is a bloated, draconian institution which has yet to address growing problems with how it functions. Postdocs and graduate students are often poorly treated, and definitely under paid. The time it takes to obtain the degree is slowly growing. Many professors are hired only for their research background, and have no business being around students, or being responsible for training and mentoring the next generation of scientists... some few grew into the position, but it isn't encouraged or examined because it isn't seen as important by administrations which see research only as a vehicle for money. Curiosity and creativity take a back seat to pushing whatever gets funding. At second and third rate universities, trying to emulate larger, more successful institutions is a recipe for disaster, because the resources and infrastructure don't exist. In my experience, academia attracts a very specific type of person, and from those experiences it isn't the kind of person I want to be. It isn't the life I want to lead.

I know that sounds a little more bitter than I really mean it. There are a lot of great scientists who have inspired me. I had to try to do this, and I truly believe that in other circumstances, in another place, I would have been able to keep going and accomplished this. Fortunately, I also don't regret this as much as I thought I would, despite having spent so much time and effort working towards getting into a program. I think I did what was best for me, given all the factors. That is the thing I want you all to take away from this: don't force yourself to be miserable. Don't force yourself to settle for things that are less than you expected, and don't let yourself be treated like garbage by 2nd rate academics at 2nd rate institutions. That one may be a little specific, but it still applies. If you're thinking of graduate school, please remember that it is okay to walk away. By no means does leaving a program mean that you're stupid, incompetent, or incapable. Sometimes things just aren't a good fit, or you're not in the right place or state of mind. Don't be ashamed to choose yourself in these situations. If you find your mental health being compromised, or your physical health, you really need to take steps to rectify the situation. To anyone struggling with their graduate school issues, please just tackle the problems. Step on toes. Take nobody's shit, even a miserable PI. Temper it with as much patience as you can, when you need to. Play it smart, but don't lose sight of your humanity. 

Now as I enter this weird new phase of uncertainty, I feel nothing but relief about my decision. I miss the science, but I don't miss the bullshit, or the bad people. Maybe some day I'll get back into it. Maybe I'm just going to be an outside observer, and that's alright too, right now. If things change, we'll see.

Good luck!