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Robert Neubecker

Leaving a Ph.D. takes courage—and it doesn’t mean the path to academic success is over

“I walked out of my first Ph.D. project!” I exclaimed. I was just a few months into a new job as manager of a graduate school, sitting in my first doctoral student recruitment board meeting. The faculty members and I were discussing the candidates we had interviewed. One hadn’t hidden the fact that she wished to leave her current Ph.D. position to join our program, and some of the faculty members worried this might be a bad sign, indicating a lack of commitment. I argued that such a decision is not taken lightly and, depending on the circumstances, can indicate strength of character rather than failure. I hadn’t planned to bring up my personal experience, but it felt like the right time.

Twenty years earlier, I had enthusiastically embarked on my own Ph.D. journey in the lab of a well-known professor. But the lab culture was bad from the start. The default mode seemed to be blaming the new guy for whatever went wrong. I was shouted at for breaking a piece of equipment I had never used—and several other times for no valid reason. I tried to focus on my work. For 3 months, every morning I built myself up with all the motivation I could muster, only to return home each night deflated and drained.

I wondered whether I just needed to toughen up. Working at the leading edge of science was sure to be demanding, after all. Friends and family members in whom I confided suggested, all with good intentions, that the challenges I was experiencing might be part of a normal transition from the relatively structured life of an undergraduate student toward academic independence. It was hard to recognize what now appears obvious: The conditions in the lab were unacceptable.

One evening, on the way home after another shouting incident, what I thought was an itch on my cheek turned out to be tears streaming down my face. I knew then that enough was enough. After a sleepless night and against the “better” judgment of others, I announced my immediate departure. As I left, I thanked a colleague for his support. “That is brave,” he said. A few months later, I learned he too had resigned. I also discovered that my predecessor as a Ph.D. student in the lab had left after 1 year due to burnout.

I worked menial jobs to make ends meet, not sure of the way forward. I was still interested in pursuing research, but my enthusiasm had taken a major hit and I felt like damaged goods. Who would ever take me on as a doctoral student after I had walked out like that? An application to work in another lab proved unsuccessful, though I can’t say whether this was because of my tarnished record or because my heart was not quite in it anymore.

Who would ever take me on as a doctoral student after I had walked out like that?

I was lucky. My former master’s degree supervisor came to my aid and arranged a short stint for me to work as a research assistant in a collaborator’s lab. I embraced the opportunity to discover a new country and found a team of jovial colleagues with an enthusiastic group leader who helped me regain my passion for research. In the meantime, my master’s supervisor was granted funding for a Ph.D. student and offered me the position. I had been given a second chance. I went on to obtain my Ph.D., complete a postdoc, work as a lecturer, and run my own lab before moving to my current position.

At the recruitment meeting, someone mentioned that a former principal investigator from our candidate’s current department had recently taken a position at a nearby research institute. By coincidence, I had met him just a few days earlier. The board agreed that I should get in touch with him to ask whether a student might have a legitimate reason to leave that department. His answer: “I consider that very likely.”

Walking out of my first Ph.D. project was the most difficult and most important decision of my professional life. Young academics making such a tough call ought to be recognized for their resolve more often than I fear they are. I am glad that our recruitment board did.

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