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How to handle grad school doubts

Maybe your experiments for your Ph.D. project haven’t panned out this week—or this month, or even this year. Maybe you feel like you’re spending long hours in the lab but not making an important contribution. Perhaps the frustration you see among postdocs trying to figure out their next career steps is making you question the degree’s ultimate value. Or maybe seeing your nonstudent friends bring in salaries far above your stipend and move up in the corporate world has you wondering whether pursuing a Ph.D. is holding you back.

For many, frustration, burnout, and uncertainty are typical parts of the growing pains of getting a Ph.D. (and simply of being in your 20s and 30s). And many scientists have wrestled with feelings like these and gone on to complete their doctorates and establish successful careers. But for some, these concerns may hint at something deeper: Maybe getting a Ph.D. just isn’t the right call for you.

If you find yourself struggling with these kinds of feelings, you need to figure out which camp you fall into so that you can decide whether you should keep pushing forward or seriously consider exit options. The process is tough. But regardless of what you ultimately choose, putting time and thought into these difficult questions will help you move forward with purpose and confidence.

Assessing your options

Angst is a common part of the Ph.D. training process for many students, and it has been for years. Mary Ellen Lane, associate dean for curriculum and academic affairs at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, says that the anxieties she hears from current Ph.D. students are similar to the concerns she and her peers had as cell biology doctoral students in the late '80s and early '90s.

To figure out whether you can categorize your feelings as “that’s normal” or “this is about something more,” you need to talk to people, career counselors advise. Talking to your peers, students ahead of you, and people who have earned doctorates in your discipline can help you realize that many others—including those who have successfully completed their degrees and moved on to satisfying careers—have had similar thoughts at one point or another. “It’s not just you,” says Anna Ballew O’Connell, director of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has advised graduate students for the past 10 years. “Everyone has trouble communicating with their PI; everyone feels that their experiments aren’t working and wonders if they’re good enough.” For some, knowing that doubts are natural may be just what they need to quell their uncertainties and confirm that they want to continue with their Ph.D. plans.

But if knowing that struggling is normal doesn’t calm your anxieties, or if the high points of research haven’t outweighed the failures and rejections, reflecting on the value of the Ph.D. for your career and life goals can help you critically evaluate whether pursuing a doctorate is time well spent, career counselors say. Think deeply about what you really want to do with your career, and whether you need the Ph.D. to do it.

In some fields, having a Ph.D. will give you greater opportunities for career advancement; in others, the degree doesn’t matter as much. If you want a career doing research, for example, you’ll climb higher with the Ph.D., says Lane, who was a biochemistry and cell biology professor at Rice University earlier in her career. If you see yourself leaving the lab in the future, the calculation is different. Over her 14 years of providing career advice, Lane has seen many students who wanted to eventually move into nonresearch roles in industry, such as in business development or customer service. They were able to find jobs—and well-paying ones, she adds—without a Ph.D., and to use those first jobs as entry points. Informational interviews with people and employers in the fields that interest you can help you determine how necessary the Ph.D. is for entering and advancing.

Depending on your comfort level, expressing your concerns to your thesis adviser can also be helpful. Your adviser could provide reassurance that you’ve only hit a rough patch, or an honest discussion about your career goals could lead to negotiating a plan to finish your thesis so that you can graduate and move on.

In many cases, however, advisers themselves turn out to be the source of students’ doubts, or at least contributing factors. Frustration with an adviser due to, for example, conflicting expectations or working styles, or a student feeling that their progress is being held back by an unavailable adviser, is a common source of trouble that O’Connell and Lane help students address. Approaching your adviser in these instances can be awkward and tense, but it frequently resolves the issue. “I sometimes feel like two-thirds of the problems that are brought to me disappear with the first conversation between the student and the adviser,” Lane says.

In other cases, changing labs may be the solution. Doing so midway through your program may feel like a setback, but the fresh start has been the right fix for students who see value in the degree. And even though the research is new, it’s not really starting over. Many of the lessons and skills learned before the move will still be applicable in the new lab, and changing labs doesn’t necessarily lengthen a student’s time in the program by much.

If you aren’t comfortable reaching out to your adviser, consider turning to other university personnel—such as your program director or manager, a member of your thesis committee, or career counselors at your institution’s professional development office—who can offer advice and refer you to the resources you need to move forward. For instance, they may help connect you to other students who have gone through similar experiences or point you to on-campus activities, such as student clubs or internship opportunities, that can help you determine your next step. If you feel depressed or stressed, your university’s mental health counseling services is another important resource. Speaking to a counselor can help you figure out whether your Ph.D. studies are the primary contributing factor and strategize about how to handle those feelings.

Seeking career advice and counseling from various sources can be useful at any time, and throughout your training, O’Connell says. Having a support network is critical for weathering the trials of graduate school. But the tipping point for when you really need to see someone is when your work is affected. If you’re making more mistakes than usual, you’re avoiding going into lab, or your anxieties are causing such emotional distress that your sleep and relationships are impacted, for instance, it’s time to start making use of the resources your institution has to offer.

In the end, the goal of this self-reflection and information gathering is to come up with an action plan or put together options that you can choose between so that you come out of this period of doubt with resolve. Spending the time to do so will help you make an informed decision, not a reactionary one or the one that takes you down the path of least resistance. Regardless of the outcome, the important thing is that you’re intentionally choosing a path, Lane says. If you choose to stay, it’s because you’ve decided that you can build a better career if you get your degree and you are committed to finishing, not because you couldn’t find something else to do. And if you choose to go, it’s because you’re leaving the program to pursue something more worthwhile to you, not because you’re running away.

Deciding to leave

The decision to leave a Ph.D. program—even if you know that it’s the right move for you to pursue your ultimate career goals—can be emotionally fraught, O’Connell acknowledges. There’s a loss of identity, especially in students who have been planning to be Ph.D. scientists for many years. There’s also the feeling that you didn’t cut it, compounded by the feeling that the time you spent training to become a scientist might now be for nothing. Be kind to yourself as you’re dealing with these feelings and figuring out your next move, she advises. You also need to dispel the lingering what-ifs and mentally accept your decision, Lane says. “If every time something bad happens in your life and you’re looking back and saying ‘Oh, this wouldn’t have happened if I stayed in grad school,’ you’re not going to have a good life,” she says. “You make a decision that you’re not going to regret your choice.”

It’s also important to recognize that the time you spent in your Ph.D. program—and the effort you put into making a thoughtful decision about leaving—was not wasted. There’s a lot of value in figuring out what you want to do, O’Connell emphasizes. Plus, you’ve gained valuable skills and experience that are relevant beyond science and research, Lane says. By troubleshooting experiments, you’ve learned how to solve complex problems. From giving seminars, you know how to propose arguments and present information visually. You can work in teams, and take in and synthesize knowledge. “These are really transferable skills,” Lane underscores.

What matters in the end is you: The decision to leave was right for you. “It’s is a valid decision. The Ph.D. is not for everyone,” O’Connell says. Your time in the program “means you learned something about yourself, and you made an informed decision, and that is totally OK.”

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