Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 24: Casualty of War: Micella Loses a Co-worker


I guess it's a regular but unfortunate phenomenon on the minefield that is graduate school: One of my co-workers will be leaving my group and the department soon. I never formally introduced George in column, so I wanted to take this opportunity to present him, and to say a premature goodbye.

The composition of my research group has changed considerably in the year and a half since I introduced my potentially dysfunctional lab group in Chapter 4. We lost Tim to another group in the department, picked up Sabir, and, just last year, George joined the group and has been working on a project in close proximity to mine. George is one of three international students that we've added to the group over the last 2 years; postdocs Du and Rajeev joined in the last 6 months, as well.

Monica just joined the group as a first-year student; she and Daphne have husbands who are also in the department. Laura is inching toward graduation. Daphne, who is my year (as Sabir is), has calmed down a little, but she's still trying to do the superwoman thing. We've been augmented twice by visiting students who worked for a few months then ran away home. The undergraduate population has decreased and increased as well: Ben has stayed on, and we've added Tina and Catherine while Brian went off to graduate school.

The potential for group dysfunction has been very real at times. Keeping things clean, organized, and inventoried and just tolerating one another has been challenging. I've tried to keep things sane and calm, talking a few of my group members down from the ceiling or away from the ledge from time to time, and I've kept from maiming my co-workers, though not by much. I'd like to say that Jeff, my advisor, tries to maintain a level of civility, but he let's the thinly disguised jabs hurled at group meetings go, and he might even throw a few himself.

We all know that graduate school success isn't 100% assured. You have to have the love for the subject, the drive to get the job done, and the stamina to do it day in, day out, and the insanity to do it all for minimal pay. Classes must be passed with a certain level of proficiency. Qualifying hurdles must be cleared.

Then you have to deal with your advisor, your co-workers, their egos, and the drama and politics that could ensue. And then you must complete your research, write and defend your thesis, all just to obtain those three little letters that you need to get to the next level. Unfortunately many of us get tripped up in the hurdles, because we lack preparation, confidence, test-taking ability, motivation ... not necessarily because we don't have potential as scientists. George falls into one of those former categories; that is, he seems to lack something, but it's something other than scientific potential.

George has been doing battle with--and thus far losing to--the qualifying exams, those things I had "fun" with ( Chapter 3), flunked two of ( Chapter 7), eventually passed, and promptly forgot about ( Chapter 13).

Since his season of exam-taking started, George had only passed two of the six exams he had taken. Meanwhile, he was experiencing much of the same research anxiety that I experienced ( Chapter 15), and he just didn't want to talk about his status in the group or department. I knew from George that Jeff had been pressuring him to get results on his project. Things had been going slowly, although he was putting in a great deal of time and work, and he got frustrated, as many do. Then, George said, Jeff started asking when he would pass the exams (as if he knew) and, lately, he had started asking George if he had alternate plans.

Personally I think this was heinous behavior on Jeff's part--please, inflict more shame/pain/agony upon me; I enjoy having my spirit crushed. I thought it was the advisor's job to be supportive in such situations, talking earlier on about his performance on the exams, while not divulging whatever departmental secrets are hidden. Something similar occurred with a student in my year; she had been doing poorly on her exams, and she was told one day to stop and that she should get her master's degree. She could have saved considerable time if someone--like her advisor, who was also the department head--had taken her aside and talked to her kindly before it got that far. She's since taken a job and is working happily, but her bitterness at this place will remain for life. To his credit, Jeff never expressed doubt that I would finish my exams, despite my struggles. I still haven't quite figured that one out; I guess I was lucky.

Back to George: Recently he has decided he wants to change schools and departments, but not necessarily his research focus. I think he would be a lot happier in another department; in fact, ever since he made the decision to leave he has been more relaxed. I can tell a weight has lifted.

When things were going badly for me, I considered doing much the same thing. I think a major reason that I didn't decide to switch programs or departments was that my advisor expressed some faith in my ability to pass the exams, and because I did eventually pass them. There was less pressure on me to perform well toward the end, because I had passed a number of them in a row.

I wish George's story was uncommon, but I know it isn't. It was almost me. Why do we have these sadistic hoops to jump through? Is the qualifying process just a weed out? Is it a political tool? Another person I know got booted from their program because there was a feud between their advisor and another faculty member; how fair is that? Commentary on the perils and minefields of graduate school, and your experiences and how to survive such setbacks, are welcome, as always. I'll share as well; we all gain from the collective experience. And yes, I do check my e-mail. Good luck to all, no matter which way you go; and a sad goodbye to George.

Playing the Game: When to keep fighting and when to throw in the towel

It's hard to decide that a program is no longer for you, especially when you've invested a lot of time and effort in it, whether you've been successful in the program or not. Many of us contemplate daily whether or not we've made the right decision. Often, pride is the only thing that keeps us from leaving: Except for the humiliation, leaving wouldn't be, necessarily, the worst thing in the world.

We all make our own decisions for our own reasons. But here are some questions that guided me during the not-so-good times. They are also questions I asked George when he was making his decision. If you aren't relatively happy in graduate school, you might ask yourself these questions.

  • Why do you want your Ph.D.?

  • What is the degree going to do for you and what will you do with it once you've finished?

  • Are you motivated to study for your exams/qualifications?

  • Are you motivated to do your research?

  • Are you happy doing what you're doing, and, if not, can you keep yourself coming in to work for a few more years?

  • How tuned in is your advisor to your needs? Do you have his or her support? Can you discuss your concerns?

  • Is there another person you would rather work for, inside or outside the department?

  • Do you have enough outlets and a support network (inside and outside your department) to keep you from being miserable?

  • If you can't answer all of these questions satisfactorily, or if the answers to 3-8 are "no" most of the time, then you might seriously consider taking a hiatus and deciding if a Ph.D. is really for you. It isn't for everybody; you might be brilliant, but the way of life just isn't your thing, and that's okay. After all, the job market sucks. Don't waste banging your head against a cement wall.

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