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Should I Stay or Should I Go? Handling a Midcourse Crisis


All your life--or at least for the past few years--you've wanted to be a research scientist. You took the classes and passed the exams, and now the time has finally come to throw yourself into your first big research project. Hopefully, the results will form the foundation of your thesis and--sometime soon--earn you the coveted title of Doctor of Philosophy. ...

So why the nagging doubts? Why the sudden feeling of dread? Why the urge to run for your life?

Don't panic. This is all normal. You are just having a midcourse crisis. Take a breather and think about where you are, and the palpitations should subside.

The training for a research career, including time in graduate school, can be divided roughly into two parts. At first, you do almost nothing except coursework and exam preparation. But by the time you pass your qualifying exams, the focus has shifted almost entirely to research.

And as you try to leave the classroom and establish yourself in the lab, you will notice a change in your responsibilities. From now on, instead of solving problems and performing experiments defined largely by someone else, you will be expected to tackle your own problems and design your own experiments.

The Quitter

If there is one thing that team sports teaches children, it is that you should never quit. With its implication of personal failure and social dysfunction, few childhood barbs burn quite so deeply as "Quitter." But there is another side to quitting. Suppose you are in a job you hate, but you don't want to do something heinous enough to get you fired. Then your only options are to suffer silently or quit.

Lots of grad students hate grad school. And lots of them quit. At least half of my entering class was gone by the end of the first year. They all had a good reason: a bad advisor, little interest in research, or simply the urge to try something new. If you find yourself in the throes of a midcourse crisis, it is worth your time to find these grad school quitters. Their experiences may give you a startling amount of insight into your own feelings about school.

Sounds easy, but there's a catch: Grad school quitters are hard to find. However, they nearly always leave a trail. Try asking the departmental support staff or other grad students for forwarding addresses, e-mail addresses, or phone numbers.

In my experience, most students struggle with this transition. After a lifetime of learning to follow orders, it is difficult to turn around and start giving them, even if only to yourself. To complicate matters, most grad students are completely burned out after their exams. A friend once said in passing on the quad, "See you in a year!" When I asked what he meant, he explained, "I just passed my quals. And since I know I won't do any productive work for at least a year anyway, I'm taking a year off from school." It made sense to me. But I never saw him again.

Not everyone who hesitates is lost, though. This month's column is about Fred and Wilma (no relation to each other or the cartoon), two potential quitters who took a moment to reflect on their experiences in the first half of graduate school before diving headlong into research. Although they ultimately chose very different career paths, Fred and Wilma both wound up on boats.

First up is Wilma. Wilma arrived in graduate school straight from her hometown college near the coast of Maine, where she excelled in physics. She coasted through the first two years of graduate school and easily passed her exams. But then she started having serious doubts about the value of pursuing a research career. So, she took a leave of absence to experience "real life."

After a couple years painting houses and acting in community theatre, Wilma decided that she wanted back into research. The problem, she realized, was not the subject, but the location. She loved physics, but she wanted to work near the ocean. So Wilma quit her program in condensed matter physics, switched graduate schools, and earned a Ph.D. in ocean physics. Now she spends her research time sailing on the Atlantic Ocean, from Maine to France.

Before coming to graduate school, Fred had spent some time fishing for salmon out of Seattle. Almost as soon as he arrived on campus, he began having doubts about whether or not he wanted to be there, but he soldiered on through coursework and exams. Then he decided to drop out, too. Part of the reason was unrelated to physics. While walking home late one night, two muggers beat Fred up and threw him through a plate glass window. But the real problem was that he didn't find research all that stimulating. So Fred went back to Seattle and salmon fishing. As far as I know, he never went back to school.

The point of these two stories is that you should take your midcourse doubts seriously. The decisions you make at this juncture will determine the course of your professional life, at least for the next several years. If you find that you want to take some time off, do it. The world won't end.

But if you decide to stay on, come back here next month when we take up a subject near and dear to my heart: writing about science.