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Science Careers Blog

December 10, 2010

To Stay or to Leave?

Salon.com's "Since You Asked" advice column generally publishes pleas for help with commitment-phobic lovers, unreasonable in-laws, ornery bosses, or impossible-to-please parents.  Today's plaintive writer, however, expresses a form of anguish more relevant to Science Careers: "Grad school is suddenly meaningless," writes a student at a "top-ranked" department who, after "purring along" for years suddenly finds him- (or, from the internal evidence, probably her-) self struggling with doubt over whether to continue.  The student, who uses the nom de 'Net of "Lost in graduate school,"  is "ashamed" of these feelings because "my identity has been wrapped up in my studies." Now, "the whole premise of my efforts has crumbled." 

The major precipitating event, "Lost" relates, probably was the decision of a "close friend and colleague [to] quit a professorship that had taken over and ruined her life."  What's more, "post-docs are now telling me that they have no job prospects and that they wish they had known earlier.  I feel like I've been duped...."  Not surprisingly,  "Lost"'s "advisor keeps acting like pursuing his profession is the only way to be happy." "Lost" does not say what field this is, but, because it apparently has plenty of postdocs, one surmises that it must be some kind of science.

Cary Tennis, the column's hipper Anne Landers, advises "Lost" that "reclaiming your passion for this work" is the way through her crisis of confidence.  Based on what I know about graduate school and where it often leads, however, I must respectfully disagree -- as do many thoughtful comments from the more than fifty people who wrote letters in reply.  What "Lost" should do, I (and a number of the letter writers) think, is take a careful look at the warning lights flashing all around, consider deeply what they indicate, determine how this new information fits into "Lost"'s'  values and goals, and then take appropriate action, including the possibility of leaving graduate school.

What warning lights? First, there's the life-eating professorship.  One guesses from the context (top-rated school, intense pressure) that this friend has achieved what others strive for: a tenure-track post at a prestigious institution.  The years leading up to the tenure decision are  known to be brutal for many young scholars trying to make the grade in a major department, and, as the data unfortunately indicate, those years are especially hard on women who want or have children.  Statistically, single and childless women fare better in high-level academe than colleagues who marry and/or become mothers.  (Intriguingly, married fathers do very well, too.)  One surmises that it's the conflict between the tenure clock and the biological clock, both ticking deafeningly, that may have "ruined" the young professor's life.  Or perhaps the insatiable demands of doing enough research, writing enough grants, and publishing enough papers to get tenure consumed a romantic relationship that was dear to the young professor's heart.

Then there are the premonitory postdocs giving "Lost" the benefit of their own disappointment and sense of betrayal.  If "Lost" was counting on the degree to produce a certain kind of career, she really ought to heed their counsel before investing more years and possibly more debt-financed money in a possibly fruitless quest.

So, what's needed is not a search for a lost passion but an evaluation -- as dispassionate and searching as possible, but still taking feelings into account -- of motives, goals, and the available objective information.

The first thing to go must be her crippling sense of shame.  There is nothing dishonorable about re-evaluating decisions in light of experience and information.  It is, indeed, the definition of intelligence and the essence of the scientific method.

Why did "Lost" enter grad school in the first place?  Where did she hope it would lead?  How likely is this hope to be realized?  Does she still want to go there, assuming it is possible at this point?  Friends and colleagues have provided fair warning of what likely lies ahead. (The advisor may be thinking of the situation that existed decades ago, when he was young.)

If the original destination is not one that "Lost" still desires, then, as many of the letter writers indicate, there is no shame deciding to leave --  a decision that at least some of the postdocs apparently wish that they had made.  (But, of course, one must also wonder what is keeping those postdocs from also evaluating other options available to smart, highly educated people. Is it perhaps because they have lost faith in themselves?)

Such self-evaluation can be emotionally wrenching.  It may indeed require upending an identity, abandoning the dreams of a lifetime, and coming to terms with a not-totally-unjustified sense of having been hoodwinked.  In the end, it may result in new dedication to those original goals.  It may result in a new goal that can also be reached via staying in graduate school, such as an industrial rather than an academic career.  Or it may indicate an entirely new direction.  As a number of the thoughtful letter writers note, this process of self-assessment is a hallmark of adulthood.  

One hopes that "Lost" soon embarks on such an effort and that it leads in the end to a satisfying conclusion.

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