Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 20: Two Roads Diverged, Redux


As you, dear readers, hopefully remember from last month, I've come to realize that the project and goals that I'm working toward at the moment are not my own, and that there's something more interesting out there that I, at some juncture, might like to pursue in order to keep from losing my mind.

Last month, I asked for your comments. Dear readers, I got some. Here are some of the responses I received by e-mail, along with some other comments from conversations I've had since last month about where to go and what to do now that I see something else that interests me:

Larry, my friend from another department, provided some very interesting advice. "Be careful what you wish for," he wrote:

At the moment you're working on a project that your adviser is interested in, and you're making progress. Earlier in my career, I was working on something that didn't interest me [that] much, but my adviser was interested. I decided I wanted to work on something else and, all of a sudden, his interest in me dried up, as did funding for a research assistantship; I've been TA-ing ever since.

Although I'll always be on a research assistantship because of how my department operates, my adviser's interest keeps things moving. And like I said before, it isn't my objective to stay here for an extended period of time. So I might be better served by sticking it out where I am. This may seem like a cop-out, but I don't intend to be in graduate school for more than 6 years. Let's not pretend that we haven't seen people hanging on for extended periods, wallowing due to a lack of interest--theirs and/or their professor's--motivation, funding, a future, or something else to push them, or pull them, out the door. I do not have time for that ... I have other things I'd like to be doing.

An untenured faculty member at a research university sent me this advice:

Getting data is important. If you've managed to get data on one project, it's hard to let go of that and delve into unknown waters. Who knows when data will come in that project? Your adviser might have a slightly better idea of what's likely to "work" in his lab, in your field, and in the all-important grant-getting and publishing.

So my advice is to crunch down and work on the projects that are working, not so much because your adviser wants you to but because they are working. Finish your degree, and explore new avenues in your postdoc. The key now isn't what topic you work on, specifically, but that you show that you can accomplish something. The career demands that drive your adviser's need to publish are also your own.

My graduate work put me on the map, with high-profile publications. [It] got me my postdoc and was significant in getting me my faculty position. Having done graduate work and postdoctoral work in related [but not identical] fields has also given me credentials in more topics, and more colleagues who know me and my work.

Knowing that my adviser may be thinking some of the same things about my situation gives me hope. Perhaps he has my interests at heart, at least partially, even if his own interests remain front and center. Following the advice offered by this professor has the great advantage that it gets me out of grad school and moves me on to a postdoc with more speed and ease than stop, drop, and rolling to a new project that has an uncertain future and is glimpsed through thick smoke (to further strain an already strained analogy).

"In the 3rd year of grad school," wrote another professor, "95% of the people who make it that far ... get second thoughts about continuing, or about their project." He continued:

I don't know what kind of program you're in, but in chemistry, the 3rd year is when some people leave with their master's degree. This is tempting, a good decision for some, but a bad mistake for others. Talk to senior-level students in your department about that.

I think your evolving interests are natural. If you stick with your current project and do a good job, the rewards will be greater than the negative aspects of working on it. You will get good letters from your boss, [and] you will have more papers, hopefully. If you start something new in your untenured boss's group, you might not be so lucky, paper-wise. Remember, no matter how unreasonable he can get, he is also just learning and trying to get something established!

Use your evolving interests as a stepping-stone for identifying whom you want to postdoc with. Start looking now! Coming from an untenured group, you might want to join a well-established one for your postdoc. The [whole] world will want to join that group, if it is in a hot field. The earlier you contact those people, the better your chances of getting in.

"One final note," added this professor, helping to reaffirm my faith that profs--some of them, anyway--really do care about the next generation of scientists:

I got quite frustrated with my grad adviser, and I got sick of my project. [For my postdoc,] I joined a ... group in a completely different field that I thought I would be more interested in. While I liked the postdoc boss better, I didn't like doing that type of work as much. The bottom line is that I now have exactly the kind of position I wanted, and I am ... combining what I learned during grad school and postdoc in my own research.

Speaking of postdocs: A current one had the following to say about taking a master's degree and going elsewhere else, versus staying and completing the Ph.D.:

In the beginning of my 3rd year of grad school, I found an area that I loved and that I wanted to work in, but there was no one, or equipment, or anything in my institution for me to follow that path at the moment. I had two options: to get a master's degree and go do my Ph.D. somewhere else, or finish my Ph.D. there and go do a postdoc in a new area.

My supervisor convinced me that I should stay, that I could finish my Ph.D. in 4 years, and then go. It took 5 years (because in the end I decided to explore some other options in the lab, and I wasn't so eager to leave anymore), and now I've been a postdoc for 3 years. (Changing areas can take time, especially if there's a huge theoretical base you have to learn in the new area.)

And although I enjoy what I'm doing, and it's better than what I did in my Ph.D., I'm not constantly excited about it. I guess my interests are just too broad to have one single area as my source of happiness in life. ... In the end, I don't regret staying for my Ph.D., and I figured that the total time of master's + Ph.D. + postdoc would have been the same or more than Ph.D. + long postdoc.

Another postdoc offered the following:

I think many of us reach a point in grad school where we have devoted so much of our time and energy to research that we begin to wonder if it's even worth it. In my case, I think I lost my ability to see the forest for the trees. I got so focused on day-to-day stuff that I couldn't see the merit of what I was accomplishing. It's hard to see the big picture when your nose is always to the grindstone. My Ph.D. research was cool, but there is no way you could have convinced me of that. I published a number of articles and still thought my research was irrelevant. You're not alone in this, so try not to be down on yourself about your level of energy or commitment at this point. It gets better. Honest.

Of course, there is a possibility that you are in a cave, not a tunnel. I don't think an untenured professor would put you on a project that is a true dud, though. That would put your adviser in one heck of a spot with regard to tenure review.

I would encourage you to keep publishing and attending conferences. It helps you see that the scientific community is interested in what you are doing. It will also help when you start looking for a job. I landed a postdoc in an area unrelated to what I did in grad school, and I credit that primarily to a Ph.D. adviser who forced me to publish everything I did. Publications prove to potential employers that you can get results, figure them out, and communicate them. Those are important skills.

Not everyone agreed with the prevailing point of view. One fellow graduate student wrote: "Tell your adviser that you want to do your own project. Try some negotiating. Make a deal that you'll train a new student on the project, but then in 6 months you're free to do what you want. Or strike a bargain where you get to work on your idea for a year, and if nothing pans out, then you'll go back to the current project. I think you have a lot more power than you realize."

For my part in all this, I've made myself more comfortable by talking to Jeff (my adviser) about my different interests. He has generally been supportive. I have to write an independent proposal as a part of my written qualifiers; it will probably be in my new area of interest. I've mentioned this to him, and he has been offering advice on where to find information to get started.

I would like to thank all of you who sent along advice on how to get through the madness. For those of you still in the throes of graduate school, I hope this advice helps you as much as it has helped me. My decision, for now: Stick with it, switch at the postdoc, and see where it goes from there. If any of you have an additional or alternative view, send it along to And if you have friends or students who are experiencing similar drama, forward this advice to them! Sharing is good for the soul. Back to work I go, making sure I see the forest and the trees.

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