Monday, April 4, 2011

If You Feel Like These People, Get Out NOW

In my weekly Sunday night googling, I came across the following blog post and comment thread about when you should consider leaving graduate school.

I spent about an hour going through all of the comments. Note that the post was made in April 2009, and people are still leaving comments, two years later. The comments are heartbreaking.

People write of being miserable, of having lost all of their self-esteem, of being isolated and depressed, of interacting with unhelpful professors and catty grad student colleagues. One person even mentions feeling suicidal. Almost all of them mention that they feel guilty about leaving, or that it will make them a failure.

I mean this from the bottom of my heart - if you can relate to these comments ... if you are as miserable as these people are, and it lasts for more than a few days or weeks ... just go. Drop out.

You are a highly intelligent, motivated, self-driven person who successfully graduated from college and perhaps a masters' program, and now beat out hundreds of other applicants for a position in a Ph.D. program.

You are smart, capable, and accomplished. And you have options.You do not need to stay in a job or program that makes you miserable.

It does not make you a loser or a failure to leave. It just means that you tried a new job, and you didn't like it. And what do you do if you get a new job and hate it? You start looking for a new job. A Ph.D. program is no different than any other job. Do not let your advisors or other graduate students convince you otherwise. It's a job, and it's not for everyone, and if you are miserable you should leave.

I don't care if you've been in your program for three months or ten years. If you are miserable and depressed and discouraged, there is nothing forcing you to stay in your program. Just go. Find a menial job or move back in with your parents, or take a leave of absence until you can regroup. I absolutely guarantee that you will feel better.

You made a voluntary choice to apply to graduate school, and you are there voluntarily. And you do not have to stay if you are miserable. If you're on a contract, ride it out. But explore your options in the meantime.

My god. I was never as miserable as the people in some of those comments, and I still left. The idea that there are people still plugging away at a Ph.D. program while being depressed, suicidal, and for some reason thinking there are no other options? That breaks my heart.

You have options, and there are people out there who will help you. Start by clicking through my blogroll. You do not have to be miserable. You deserve to be happy.


  1. I am one of those people (September 13, 2011 poster). In tears now yet again as I have pushed my own stupid research aside to work on a side project I hate, only to be told that I will probably not receive authorship credit on the final journal article. Co-author assholes think this paper is going to be published in a top journal in our field. I think they're delusional, but it still bums me out to think about my effort getting squandered.

    Hate these people, academia, all of it. Want to be courageous enough to leave, but I'm in a program where almost no one drops out and hate the idea of giving those jerks another reason to laugh at me...

  2. Hey, thanks for stopping by. I promise you, you are not the only one who's wound up in tears over what academia does to us ... to our self-esteem, to our well-being, and to our professional credentials.

    I'm sorry you're having such a bad experience. I've been there - spending hours working on a paper that you have no interest in, just to get no author credit (or perhaps "last author" credit) from the faculty members who are already tenured and don't even need the CV line. They take the credit for what you do, and they don't care at all about who actually did the work they're taking credit for. It's awful.

    I'm also in a program where no one drops out ... certainly not this late in the game. I guess I look at it this way: (1) the best revenge is to live well. So if I drop out but then run into my former "colleagues" and they see that I'm happy and that a weight's been lifted off my shoulders, and that I'm doing work I'm proud of and that actually makes a difference? I know that somewhere, deep down, they're going to be jealous that I got out and can be happy while maintaining a reasonable work load. And (2), if you drop out then you never have to see those people again ... so who cares what they think? You know that what they're doing is awful and that they're terrible people. So presumably you won't see them anymore once you drop out, right? So who cares what they think?

    I know how hard it is. I couldn't even make myself leave until I had taken one good shot at the academic job market, even though I clearly KNEW that I didn't want an academic job. But ultimately I am so much happier now. I work a job where I'm paid fairly for the hours I work and where my boss and coworkers respect me and don't backstab me or screw me over. It is possible to leave, and you'll find better things outside of the toxic environment of academia.

    I promise, you can do it. Work should not leave you in tears on a daily basis, and you shouldn't hate everyone you work with. I promise that the world out here bears no relation to the petty, bitchy academic world.

    Stay in touch, okay? You can do it. It doesn't matter what delusional people think of you - you deserve to be happy. Good luck!

  3. I was a graduate student in a biochemistry/Microbiology program. I hated it from the start, the research was confusing the advisers were all very unhelpful. I changed research labs and advisers 2 times because I thought maybe I just got stuck with a douche and that I could maybe find a better lab...however, every adviser I worked with was just out there for themselves. Everyone was just wanting to get published and to hell with everyone else. I would go home crying and depressed multiple times a week. The only thing that kept me just a little happy was being able to TA a undergraduate class.

    I never had any idea what I was doing; I hated reading research papers that I really did not care about and I was not interested at all in my research project. I looked forward to weekends and nights when I could be at home and away from the school. My advisers and other professors I would talk to seemed so interested in their topics and everyone seemed to think they were so much better than everyone else because they had their PhD; everyone else (even undergrads) were beneath them. I kept telling myself that in a few years this will all be over and I would have a PhD.
    The only reason I went into graduate school was because I wanted to teach college students; however, had I realized how horrible it was I never would have applied.
    The only reason I stayed in as long as I did was because I feared what others would think: they would make fun of me for being a quitter, my family would think I was stupid for not being able to make it, the other graduate students would think that I just couldn't make it and I would again be classed as being lower than them.
    As soon as I dropped out I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I am so much happier now and am a high school teacher. Everyone that I know that is still in graduate school always talks about how depressed they are and how they cry a lot. It really doesn't matter what others think, all I know is that leaving my PhD program was the best decision I ever made. I am no longer depressed and actually look forward to everyday.

  4. Thanks for reading!

    This more or less exactly describes how I felt when I came into grad school. I wanted to teach college. I had no idea of the grind of research or of the unpleasant people I'd encounter in grad school. And like you, I kept saying that once I got the degree it would be better. Until ... you know ... I realized that I'd still be doing the same job that I hated once I graduated, but possibly in a city I wouldn't be able to stand either. So that would actually make my situation WORSE. Not cool. So I'm gone.

    I agree ... I'm happier with my silly little office job than I've been in the last 4-5 years. And all my grad student friends still talk about how they cry a lot and are overstressed. No thanks.

    Hey, would you mind if I took this quote and brought it up into a regular post? It's buried pretty far back in the archives here, but I think a lot of my readers would be encouraged to read about how much happier you are now. Let me know - just leave a comment here or shoot me an email. Thanks!

  5. I survived two year of my MA program... had a 4.0 and everything. The one thing I just could not do, however, was finish my thesis. Every time I started to work on it, or even thought of working on it, I'd cry, get depressed, etc. I piddled away the last semester of my funding and didnt get it done. My mom also got sick that semester, and I took some time away from the project to care for her. I could use that as an excuse to why I didnt finish, but the truth is I just couldnt bring myself to work on the thesis. I took this summer off, and I was so much happier. I took a job at a hair salon, and while the work is not what I truly see myself doing, it has not been terrible. However, I did decide that I should try and finish the thesis after taking out so many loans and so forth... thought I'd be seen as a failure because I couldnt finish my thesis... and now the semester has just started and I'm already depressed again. I'm actually sitting here now because I googled "I hate my thesis." It looks like I'm in this for another semester, but if I dont end up finishing I need to gather the courage to just walk away. I mean, a MA in sociology really isnt going to get me very far. People already laugh when I tell them what I'm doing in grad school.

  6. Hello,

    I just started a professional degree program. An Ed.S in School Psychology. I am 3 weeks into the program and I'm crying with an immense amount of doubt and belief that this may not be what will make me happy. I have also realized some fundamental philosophical issues I have with the profession. One example is that school psychologists change people's behavior to meet the state's or the school district's mandated "acceptable behavior". I have never felt comfortable changing another person into someone they are not. I started undergrad with an interest in technology, drafting, computer science, but got all confused with trying to figure out the boundaries I wanted to set between hobbies, interests, work, and what made life meaningful for me. I think I may have been drawn to counseling because I felt lonely in college, was depressed because of... well a growing awareness of the world. So I went to a couple therapists and thought, "these guys suck, I could do their job better than them."

    But I think what I am realizing is that I went to therapy to look for a friend, to feel connected and that is not what therapy is about. After studying more and more, and learning more about counseling and myself I am realizing that I don't think I want to be a therapist, or a school psychologist. I don't want to get to a point where I mix work with home. I want to work to live and not live to work.

    I am in the process of doing an inventory of why I decided on this program and whether or not I should drop out. I will probably end up crying myself to sleep thinking about how I just kind of want to move back with my parents and get a job at costco. That I should have taken a break between undergrad and grad school and gotten experience working. I took out some loans but I guess I might stop myself from taking out any more.

    I distinctly remember thinking "I just need to get exposure. I need to get an introduction into mental health before deciding it is or is not for me". I don't know if I'm just transitioning to the world after undergrad or I just really do not want to do this and am content with very little responsibilities/expectations.

  7. Hi. Soooooooo... what is this "contract?" I have a Masters and am in a doctoral program now (Humanities) on a full ride, and I am considering leaving. I feel dumb not knowing this, but how could a contract keep you in your program? I.e. if I don't attend, I don't HAVE to TA, because TAing pays a stipend that I would no longer receive (OH NO, so much money lost! Just kidding), and tuition that would no longer need to be paid. Right...?

    1. I'm pretty sure you can't be forced to stay but if you leave before the semester is over (assuming you're contracted semester-to-semester) the school might leave you on the hook for tuition and possibly the stipend they were paying you. If your job doesn't require the degree though, who cares if the school wants to charge you tuition?!

  8. Its 2 in night and when i found no answers to my misery, i found your blog. I have gone through most of the comments (and the comments of the blog you mentioned) but i still place myself as the worst case. I started my PhD almost 6 years back, till date i have worked harder than anybody who joined before or after me, why i can say that? After i finished writing my thesis and publication (in sept 2013) i got a best job a PhD student can imagine. I entered the best industry of my field. But this made my boss go nuts, he didn't like the idea of me leaving academics nor he was ready to accept my thesis or communicate my manuscript. Since one year he has been correcting the grammar and typos in my publication and not communicating it at all. I was the only international student in his German lab. Recently he accepted thesis of the girl who joined PhD 2 years after me but not mine. He still says that i should work more on my publication and get it published if i want my thesis cleared by him. (none of the other german students published anything). Clearly i have been discriminated and I am standing here, where i dont know if eventually my thesis will be accepted or not? I dont compare myself to any other human being nor i wish any luxury in life but the mental harrasment i have suffered through this time has made me a bitter and hateful person. I still dont want to give up and i will continue fighting for my right but I do not wish this for any other human being!

  9. I just decided to leave grad school about 20 months in. The emotional torment caused by my fellow students is beyond words. The lack of aid from the major professor does not help. I switched to the M.S. program to try to get done quicker and leave. As it turns out major professors are very keen on helping the young early-to-mid 20 girls and have little time for the men in the department. I guess the "male privilege" means us guys already know everything about everything and need zero assistance on writing manuscripts. The two rough drafts of manuscripts just end up in the folder where edits are never made. It wasn't for a lack of trying on my part. Three poster presentations at two conferences I feel demonstrate my dedication to my research.

    Luckily I have a very solid undergraduate education and already am getting placed on eligibility lists and having returned phone calls for job applications. Luckily I am leaving with zero student debt as all my undergrad debt was paid off before I entered grad school. Attending grad school was one major mistake. However I learned more than anyone could have possibility envisioned and I know about the types people who are the students more than they would care to admit

  10. Hi
    I googled "who cares if I quit my PhD " and found this thread. I am so in the same place as others. Thought I loved my subject (geology) and wanted to teach. I had worked for five years and came back to study. It's crap. All about papers, not about learning. Topic is all over the place after one year, supervisors are to busy to really help.
    What hit me about your comments is that if you are in tears or feeling sick everyday then go. That's me exactly. I am quitting. I made that decision recently - and it's starting to help. Not out yet but need to be. I think I am lucky as I have worked so really know how crap academia can be compared to real world.
    Don't put up with it. I second the comment that if you are smart enough to get into a PhD program then you can do anything. Get out and find something that makes you happy.