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Facing Adversity: A Positive Spin

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!


Dear Dr. Clemmons: I attended graduate school at a very prestigious Ivy League institution in the Northeast. However, after 6 years of blood, sweat, and tears, I did not get my Ph.D. After being told to get a new thesis advisor and being given few other options that would allow completion of my degree, I decided to leave the program. As a graduate student in the department of biology, I did very well my first 2 years and passed my qualifiers, but my dissertation project was a dead end and my thesis advisor and I ended up not getting along. On top of that, my thesis committee was not supportive and backed my thesis advisor's point of view at every turn. The entire experience still causes me anguish and I often think about how bad my graduate experience was. I am very resentful and angry over the fact that I feel like I was railroaded. I feel that there was never any intention on the part of my Ph.D. advisor to graduate me and there were many unwritten rules that I was never made aware of. I know that I am just as good of a scientist as anyone with a Ph.D., but I am now constantly relegated to second-class scientific status. Dr. Clemmons, can you please give me some good advice that will help me to get over this experience and move on with my life? Deep in my heart, I love science, but my real-life experiences in the pursuit of scientific endeavors have left me cold. Nowadays, I find pleasure only with my true love, art. However, I cannot make a decent living as an artist, so I just keep taking lower level science jobs to pay the bills and I am miserable. Please help me to sort this out. --Full of Anger and Regret

Dear Full of Anger and Regret:

First, let me tell you how sorry I am that you did not realize your dream of getting a Ph.D. As you very well know, it is a very tough road to travel and not having gotten the degree in the end makes it all the more difficult. In your case, not getting the degree after six long years of work makes it all the more painful and I am respectful of that.

You asked me to help you sort through problems caused by your leaving the institution without your Ph.D. I completely understand and empathize with your situation and I wish that I would have been able to speak with you before you made the final decision. Perhaps there were other ways to handle the problems you faced then, but that is all in the past now and you are trying to move on.

The advice I am going to give you comes from the heart. It is representative of what I truly feel is best for you. However, it is up to YOU to take the necessary steps to piece your life back together. I have no magic pill for you.

That being said, I think that you have been much too hard on yourself. You are not the first person, and you certainly won't be the last, to not finish graduate school. Many reasons exist as to why people don't finish Ph.D. programs, but from my experience in talking to others in similar circumstances, your situation is, unfortunately, not all that uncommon. It is an especially common occurrence for women who have children and people of color who don't have mentors. Graduate students end up with bad dissertation projects and thesis advisors all the time. In fact, due to demand from my readers, my column next month will feature a candid graduate school primer that is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Ph.Do's and Ph.Don'ts, that deals with many pertinent issues that should be deliberated by minority students considering graduate school.

Often, you hear the good things regarding graduate school, but not the bad. I believe that a balanced picture of all the sacrifices and decisions you may have to make is in order BEFORE taking the plunge. More importantly, it is critical for students to know beforehand that navigating graduate school is an art. Knowing the game before you start is essential to having a good experience. I will go into more detail about this next month and hopefully that column combined with your experiences will help others.

I truly believe that you were the victim of circumstance and that you should not beat yourself up. It is a sad fact that many Ph.D. students end up with advisors who are not the best mentors and/or bosses and unfortunately, you seemed to have made the mistake of not choosing the best laboratory in this regard. To make matters worse, you put together a committee that ended up being nonsupportive when it counted most. I am sure that you see these missteps now, with hindsight being 20/20. At this juncture, it is important for you to do the following:

  • Take responsibility for your part in the problem

  • Assign responsibility to the school, your thesis advisor, and committee for their part in the problem

  • Then move on with a clear conscience (I know, if it only were that easy. ...)

It seems to me that you are angry and hurt that you do not have your doctorate and you have not been able to let the feelings of disappointment go for reasons that may have more to do with your ego than with the actual validity of the Ph.D. degree. I say this because even though you feel strongly about your capabilities in another field, art, you still lament the Ph.D. This is understandable on a certain level, since you did spend 6 years working on it, but on the other hand, it seems to me that becoming one of the world's greatest artists would also make you happy (maybe even happier than being a Ph.D. scientist). In this regard, you are one of the lucky ones.

For a person in your situation, I believe that you need to see your circumstance as a positive development and not a negative one. Truthfully, the condition you may have found yourself in after getting your Ph.D. might have been just as bad. In fact, through my own experiences and those of others, I have seen a modicum of disappointment in "life after the Ph.D." You are sold on the idea that having a Ph.D. is the Holy Grail, only to find out later that you have only made it to the first rung on another long ladder of difficulties. What I am trying to say is that you have to rejoice in the natural gifts that have been given to you.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that you did not end up with the Ph.D.? Now, instead of chasing something that may have not been as fulfilling for you, you are free to become an artist--a life that was meant for you! How many people have the natural talent to be an artist? It is truly a gift. For the sake of happiness, you should pursue it as vigorously as you did the Ph.D. The difference is that this time, you will most likely find victory and not defeat. Assuming you have learned from your mistakes and are willing to apply the lessons learned to your new career, you will definitely find success.

True, you may be saying that a struggling artist has a hard time paying bills, but how much different is it than the life of a struggling graduate student? In my opinion, there's not much difference. With a little ingenuity, you can find a way to pay your bills and pursue your love of art. Perhaps finding work with an art gallery or with the art department of a university can tide you over until you make it big? Once again, sacrifices will become important in the pursuit of your goals. The question is how will you play the game this time? Will you play smarter or will you just go through the motions? Will you blame others or will you educate yourself on the rules of the game so you can have the best chance of winning?

Finally, the key to finding your peace is in a simple concept called resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences. It may also be defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, stress, threat, disappointments, and other important challenges in life. Resilience is a key factor in the triumphs of most successful people. Fortunately, the ability to build greater resilience is in developing a set of learned thoughts, behaviors, and actions that can be achieved by almost everyone. Please see the tips below for an idea of how to build resilience in yourself.

Building Resilience: What Does It Take to Become More Resilient?

From an article by Arlene S. Hirsch, Wolf Management Consultants Inc.

  • Good "people" or relationship skills. By learning how to communicate, cooperate, collaborate, influence, and lead others, you can greatly strengthen your "bounce back" potential.

  • Self-motivation. Although it's important to work with other people, support systems are not always readily available. Knowing how to sustain motivation and momentum will keep you moving forward and on track.

  • Persistence. Resilient people don't give up in the face of obstacles, they buckle down. An important aspect of persistence involves "not giving up" when the going gets tough.

  • Resourcefulness. Think creatively and develop innovative solutions that will enable you to surmount many of the obstacles you face.

  • Perspective. Rather than getting mired in the details, it is important to understand the bigger picture. Rather than letting the small stuff throw you, focus on developing a greater sense of purpose and commitment to your work.

  • Cultivate an attitude of optimism and hope. Expecting success is a large part of achieving it.

  • Learning from failures and mistakes is another important dimension of success. When you fail to learn from your mistakes, you are doomed to go on repeating them.

  • Cultivate a sense of humor. Take the work seriously, but learn to laugh at yourself. Otherwise, you might be prone to becoming overly sensitive to criticism and mistakes.

  • Accept the inevitability of change. When you embrace change, you become more flexible. And when you are more flexible, you are also more responsive to the needs and challenges you encounter at work.

  • Finally, cultivate self-awareness. Your thoughts and feelings are an important factor in your success or failure. When you understand yourself, you are less likely to engage in self-sabotaging behaviors and more likely to empathize with others.

  • If you notice, none of the keys to overcoming adversity involve academic pursuit or intellectual aptitude. All of the ideas center on your personal attitude. This is the ultimate key to your happiness, success, and survival. Students and people on the job often make the mistake of believing that superior work will speak for itself and that they don't have to do anything else to be successful. I would bet that you had this attitude as a graduate student. Nothing could be further from the truth! Separating the wheat from the chaff takes what is called "soft skills," like the ones important in building resilience. Learning this lesson well will provide you with the necessary skills to move to the next level.

    I would like to leave you with the thought that "not everything is meant for everybody." Coming to grips with not having your Ph.D. may involve an inner journey that may be very painful, yet enlightening for you. Perhaps you were never meant to get a Ph.D., but were meant to go on and do even greater things in the art world? Maybe your spending 6 years doing something against the grain was a result of your ignoring what that "little voice" was telling you. The little voice may have been saying, "pursue life as an artist," but you kept telling the voice to shut up because artists don't make any money and live in perpetual poverty.

    Quite a few people that I know do this a lot. That is, they talk themselves out of pursuing the best options in life because that path may be the hardest. This only results in them cheating themselves out of a fulfilling life. I suggest that you analyze the years you spent in graduate school to see if this was indeed the case. I would bet to some extent, this scenario--in which you told yourself that you could never be an artist--was played out over and over again.

    The positive spin here is that you do have another chance to live the life you were most likely meant to lead, the life of an artist. So what if you did not get the Ph.D.? It is not the end of the world. Don't settle for less by working dead-end jobs. Do what truly makes you happy because life is too short! It will far exceed your expectations. I am rooting for you and look forward to hearing about your artwork and how the negative experience you had in graduate school made it possible for you to grow into a successful, more well-rounded person.

    Good luck, Godspeed!


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