On Mastering Out

Yep. You read the headline right, I’m leaving my PhD program. Pause for reaction. I’ve wanted to start a blog for a while, and I figured this would be the perfect time to do it.

Relevant Terminology:
Mastering out: Leaving a PhD program early with a master’s degree (here, a M.S.). Has negative connotations that have now given me a perpetual eye-twitch.
PI: Principal investigator. A spirit guide through your PhD and effectively one’s boss.
BIL: Brother-in-law. Seriously annoying to type full phrase.
Prelim: Preliminary exam. My graduate university’s version of a qualifying exam (“quals”). PhD students take this to become “candidates” – the format varies between universities, but this is where a committee of faculty members approve your thesis proposal (or not).
Labmate: Person who works in the same lab as you. Listens to your whining and doesn’t judge you for eating a whole bag of goldfish in one hour (you guys are good to me).

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to disparage master’s degrees – in fact, it’s not even about them. Not even a little. I’m referring specifically to my experience in leaving a PhD program – it’s about changing my plan, not which degree I received. Both of my parents have their master’s in their respective fields and have/had (Dad is retired) very successful careers. So please, if you have your master’s, do not take this personally (cough–*Dad*–cough).

Let me be straight with you: The main reason I’ve decided to post this online and not just send all of my friends the same text is to hopefully comfort anyone else frantically googling “Can I master out and not be homeless?” The results online, I will say, are pretty disparaging. Some gems from my search include:
–  “A master’s is a consolation prize for those who have started a PhD and can’t finish”
–  “You can’t do anything with a masters degree in biology that you couldn’t do with work experience”
–  “If you’re thinking about leaving with your masters already you should probably not even go into a PhD program” (This one I don’t particularly disagree with, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Here’s my situation for you, internet cynics. I have not decided to master out because I am being kicked out. I actually was doing quite well in my program. I’ve been told my decision is a surprise to faculty and students whom I’ve already told. As my labmate said, a masters degree is not “a participation trophy”. I have worked extremely hard for the past few years, and perhaps the most difficult decision I have ever had to make is to choose being happy over being called “Doctor” [of philosophy].

I’ll say it again: Nothing about this decision is easy. It feels like a failure and no matter how many times you tell me it’s not, I will still be disappointed to be giving up the prestige of a PhD. For years I’ve looked forward to having that “Dr.” in front of my name, and for years I’ve known that’s a truly horrible reason to get your PhD. I’ve met graduate students who say they don’t care about this, I strongly suspect they are not being truthful with others or themselves on that front. When I’ve mentioned this to my PhD friends, they turn red and laugh nervously – I’ll take this as confirmation of my suspicions. Back to being disappointed. I would venture a guess that no one who takes their masters from a PhD program feels only relief. I do feel comfortable with this decision, I’m sure it’s the right thing for me, and I’m even excited about getting a real job in the real (non academic) world, but coming to it has been a long process. I have spent about a year trying to fall in love with research the way I love learning about science, and it took me months to resolve that those are different things. Anyways, here I document my logic behind mastering out. I will describe the factors leading up to my decision in the order that they became factors instead of how they occurred chronologically, and include retrospective views on those factors (perhaps a scientific writing style is now a permanent trait?).

Six months before I made my decision to master out, I went to visit my very pregnant sister and brother-in-law. I spent the entire spring looking forward to this trip, I planned to take a week off from school and host my sister’s baby shower and visit with all of my friends in the area. It was a glorious trip: I ate at my favorite sushi restaurant, reunited with many of my friends, and experienced the inevitable question I had grown to dread. “How is grad school going?”…ugh. Can everyone just like, stop asking me that? I’m fine. It’s okay. I loathed explaining my research and the questions of its health implications (my planned thesis was evolutionary based, in a Drosophila lab). I didn’t want to think about it or talk about it, so I quickly smiled and explained “It’s fantastic! I’m doing well, I have a paper in review, I just got a small grant for one of my projects, I’m preparing for my prelim exam in the fall.” All of that was true, except the “fantastic” part. Perhaps this should’ve been a red flag – it certainly is now – that I was exceedingly unenthused with my successful progress as a second year graduate student. On my last day at home, the Sunday dread (that feeling when you know real life is coming in hot tomorrow) set in. My sister was at the time finishing up her third year in dental school, my brother-in-law has a successful career as a military officer. Aside: my sister is a lifelong role model of mine – driven in her career, mercilessly hard working, and wise beyond her years. My BIL is similar, and the two of them always provide me with useful life coaching (even when it is not what I want to hear. It is disturbing how often they are right). Anyways, we were discussing their cars – my BIL drives a beautiful BMW… not that I know anything about cars, but I know this is not an inexpensive purchase – and my sister proclaimed that she would be driving a BMW SUV as a mother and dentist. I cringed with self-pity. I would not be able to afford a BMW SUV and children concurrently in my planned career as an academic (unless I married rich, but let’s be real: that is not a legitimate “plan”). I blurted out, “I should quit school and go to dental school!” half-joking. My sister’s eyes lit up, and so proceeded a 2-hour long conversation about how I would leave grad school with my master’s degree, quickly apply to dental schools and start shadowing a dentist immediately. Get on board; this train is leaving the graduate school station.

Retrospect: Dental school is probably not the best path for me. Do they not get grossed out by other people’s mouths? What if someone bites you? Not important. What IS important was how quick I was to jump off the academia train entirely. I had quickly become turned off by my life plan (PhD > postdoc > tenure-track faculty), and so began my quarter-life crisis.

I immediately became aware of how much I hated the idea of a career in academia, and had spent months avoiding thinking about it. I described to my BIL over a breakfast sandwich (also not important, but it did have bacon and avocado, killer combo) that not only did I have 3 to 4 more years to go on my PhD, but then would have to get a postdoc (average, 4 years), and then apply for faculty positions. For those unfamiliar with this process, you apply for tenure after ~5 to 7 years as junior faculty, and if you are denied tenure you are asked to leave in a short amount of time and start over elsewhere. At my graduate institution, you leave within a year. So, here’s the math, best-case scenario: I started grad school immediately after my bachelors degree at age 22, graduate at 27, postdoc until 30, apply for tenure at 35, succeed, have tenure and job security. Note: Unless I suddenly became a research savant, it is likely I would start at a mid tier or low tier university, of which I would not be able to decide the location – you have to go wherever there are openings in your field. Worst-case scenario: graduate at 29, postdoc until 35, apply for tenure at 42, get denied tenure, start over at a different institution, reapply for tenure at 47 or 48, get it or jump off a bridge. This timeline is certainly dramatic, but isn’t unheard of and doesn’t even include the rising incidence of academics completing more than one postdoc. I haven’t taken a single year off from school since before kindergarten, and the best-case scenario requires another decade before I’m settled into a career in a location I have no control over. Here’s what I take from this now: More than anything, you must LOVE research to succeed in academia. Maybe not everything about it, but there must be more than a desire for tenure (job security) at the end of the day, which is certainly what most appealed to me and kept me motivated to complete this plan. I thought, “I’ll never be unemployed if I get my PhD”. I also loved the idea of teaching university students, however teaching is most often only small component of your tenure packet (application) compared to research and service (editor for journals, participation on review panels, etc.).

The breakfast sandwich conversation made me wonder how I even developed this life plan, which I realized I was now completely uninterested in. I think I first decided on a career in academia during college when I started working in a lab. I quickly found I was good at lab work, and I liked it. Cell culture and PCRs are tedious but calming, and the lab I worked in was a fun environment. The graduate students included me in their culture of socializing-in-lab-by-day and drinking-beer-together-by-night, and I felt like this lifestyle suited me.

Retrospect: I loved the lab environment. I did not read more than 20 papers over the two years I spent there regarding my undergraduate thesis (which, consequently, was kind of a shit show scientifically). I liked that I was good at experiments, not the actual research process. I didn’t even know what research was, I was handed my project by a graduate student and was happy to follow directions. I will also note that this particular group of graduate students did not often talk about science after hours, and I quite liked that. This is really not the case at my graduate school institution. As I mentioned, I dread discussion of my research, and quickly learned to divert the conversation to departmental drama, a universally loved topic. Don’t even try to deny it. Aside, I do know at least one person who genuinely does not like discussing drama: my labmate, who truly loves her research. I hypothesize this is why she’ll be eligible to graduate after only 4 years. She, I think, is a rarity.

Back to the early stages of my quarter-life crisis. I began to research dental schools. I went to my dentist and asked her if I could shadow her, and set up a time to do so. I bought a textbook to study for the DAT, and started Khan Academy Organic Chemistry to brush up. I remembered what sp3 hybrid orbitals are (ughhhhh). I quickly realized how difficult this would be, but I thought, it’s worth it, because then I’d be leaving graduate school with a plan. In case you haven’t gathered, I quite like having a plan. I am notoriously organized, and feel unsettled without short- and long- term goals. I decided to bring this concept to my PI, who is likely the most supportive and understanding advisor in all of academia, yet I still was nervous about his reaction. I would, after all, be leaving without my PhD and shorting the lab of publications and an already funded project.

I sobbed through our hour-long meeting. I’m a crier; most people know this about me. If my 20’s have taught me anything it’s that I’m going to cry if I’m distressed, or if a friend is a distressed, or if my dog stubs his toe, and that’s okay. I’ve learned I can later mock myself via a rendition of my Kim Kardashian level ugly cry meltdown, and my friends think it’s hilarious, so it’s worth it. My PI was very supportive of me leaving academia after I graduated, but our conversation concluded with me steered in a different direction than I had anticipated. Instead of developing an exit strategy, we focused on my distaste for academia, and when I briefly mentioned dental school he gave me a confused look and suggested perhaps that I consider other job opportunities available to PhDs – industry, education, or perhaps government. He asked what I wanted in a career and what I did not want. Over the next few weeks he put me in touch with a pharmacology PhD who worked as a patent agent after I expressed an interest in patent law and public policy, and researched the potential for me to get my MBA at the same time as my PhD. I quickly threw the idea of dental school aside and never looked back. I thought to myself, I overreacted. I don’t like teeth or want to go to dental school. I just wanted to drive a BMW, and I could do that in an alternative career with my PhD. Phew, crisis averted guys! Everything’s fine. I told my PI that I could easily suffer for 3 to 4 more years if it meant a successful career.

Retrospect: 3 to 4 years is not an insignificant amount of time to be unhappy.

Over the next few months, I watched my motivation continuously decline despite my revised plan. This is when I began to realize it was not just about driving a nice car someday. My PI and I would meet weekly and he’d observe me verbally tiptoeing my way around my progress with obvious concern. I had an obvious excuse in that I often had a relatively full plate with my committee commitments, and since I’ve always loved managerial-style roles, I kept signing up for more. He’d ask if I’d made any headway on developing my career plan, and I’d say no, not a priority right now. In my mind, I needed to be preparing for my prelim and reading primary literature on my project, yet every time I read a paper I felt it was a chore and unexciting. I procrastinated by prioritizing my committee chair responsibilities, and when I did devote time to reading, I retained almost none of it. I would have to reread several times, yet when I read papers on other topics that were assigned to the undergrads I TAed, I found them quite riveting. Herein lies my graduate school paradox: I love science, but loathe independent research. I did not feel rewarded by my research even when it was going well, and this was perhaps the most frustrating aspect of my life. Other students told me my project was interesting, and I felt proud of the parts of it I had independently developed… but only because other people seemed impressed and interested. I didn’t spend time thinking about my project after work or on the weekends. I didn’t have interest in discussing the potential implications of my research with my friends or family. I knew something was off, and was certainly ashamed and saddened by my lack of motivation and interest.

Retrospect: I was ashamed of being unhappy in my job. Ah, academia. Classic. I coped by joking to my grad school friends about quitting and watching them laugh uncomfortably.

The decision I needed to make became apparent six months after the initiation of my quarter-life crisis. Right before I boarded a plane to visit my family, a trip I booked only a few days in advance at great expense because of my progressively massive meltdown I-really-hate-my-job state, I received an email from my PI. It was supportive, as always, with proposed ways of increasing my productivity in lab, and expressed extreme confidence in my capability as a PhD student. Instead of writing a thankful email, I broke down and cried for two hours on the plane. My small dog Roo, who frequently flies with me, licked away my tears as I frantically tried to hide my crying with a Delta airlines napkin. This is rock bottom, I thought to myself as he tried to lick up my nose. The man next to me uncomfortably leaned away from me into the aisle and glanced at me nervously. It was, looking back, hilarious. At one point he said to me, “It’ll be okay kid. It’s nice they let you fly with your buddy. Good ta have a friend.” He then resumed his fearful stance of leaning away from the psychopath in 9D. Why the meltdown, you ask? I realized then that I didn’t want to implement ways to be more productive, I just wanted out.

Retrospect: I could’ve lied to 9C and said I had just been through a breakup or had a family emergency. Honestly, this was just like a breakup – the departure from an unhealthy, long-term relationship, in which I had grown extremely unhappy and felt very alone. The main difference is grad school certainly won’t be texting me at 1AM or passive aggressively snapchatting photos of it with other prospective students.

In the months leading up to my ridiculous plane meltdown, I perceived my lack of interest in research as laziness, even though that’s very uncharacteristic for me. I have been successful in all of my academic pursuits thus far; I was in a PhD program at a top tier university. You don’t get that far if you are just lazy. Over time I have been able to put my finger on at least some of the sources of my unhappiness.

  1. After identifying that I didn’t want to go into academia or base a career in research, I felt there was no reason to get a PhD. I actually had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I actually said out loud to multiple people, “I do not want to leave without a better plan”. This is a vicious cycle, since I had previously used my career goals to keep me motivated and productive.
  2. I do not like the independent nature of research. Yes, collaboration happens, but you spend the vast majority of your time developing and completing your project alone. I love working with people. My most joyous memories of graduate school are mentoring undergrads and watching them learn, laughing with my labmates while developing project ideas, and as I’ve touched on, my participation on multiple committees (I chaired the recruitment committee, social committee, and the departmental retreat). My most miserable memories include late nights fly tending, pulling cactus thorns out of my foot during my field work in the middle of the Sonoran desert (which I completed by myself, much to my disdain), and reading a plethora of papers at my desk in silence for 3 full work days to prepare for my prelim and finding out I still didn’t know something essential to the background of my project.
  3. More on my love of committees – During grad school I found I was very organized and good at administration and management. While there are PhDs who use these skills in their careers, you do not need a PhD to have a career where these skills are applied, whereas for academia you cannot proceed without a PhD. I also found out I love doing these things, and the success of events or projects I plan is very rewarding.
  4. I was conflicted because I still love science. It was very easy to convince myself that as my project progressed I would develop more interest in the research process.

As my movement towards mastering out has progressed, other red flags from the past few years have come to light. Things I had forgotten about, but now are quite telling – and these are really only relevant to those who are on the fence about going to graduate school.

In a grad school interview, I was asked why I liked the process of research. I quickly recited what I knew would be the most effective answer: “I love that I can ask a question about the way something works and find an answer for myself. It’s like being on the frontiers of science, it’s exciting.” <Eye roll>. You know, I really wish I loved that. I did and still do love learning about science. I love talking about new developments with friends. I find it thrilling when my friends call me to ask me what CRISPR/Cas9 is. As for research, I just really don’t care how you figured it out (pause for groans from academic friends reading this). I’m sure it took a decade, but can you give me the tweet-size version? Just the headlines, please. I’d rather be at the dentist than reading a methods section of a paper (you’re welcome for that irony), and I certainly don’t want to go through all that myself.

Retrospect: Don’t lie during your grad school interviews just to get in. They’re not trying to trick you, they just want to know you’re there for the right reasons. Love of science and being good at experiments doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get a PhD.

I had no idea what project I wanted to work on when I got to graduate school. Perhaps this is not a red flag to everyone, but in hindsight this just lends towards me going for my PhD because it was “the next step” in my education. I thought to be successful I would need the highest degree available. While PhDs undoubtedly have an advantage career wise in biotech or pharmaceutical companies over those with a B.S. or M.S., they do not make up the entire industry.

I will say that I am still certain I want to incorporate science into my career in some aspect, but perhaps in a more applied fashion that makes use of my organizational skills and involves working with people (and not fruit flies). I truly hope my saga helps someone else who is on the fence about mastering out, if nothing else to know that you’re not alone and that it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Here is some of the advice I’ve received, re: “I feel like a massive *profanities here* failure”.

Perhaps you’re a little too German to see that quitting because you’re unhappy isn’t failing. Being too stubborn change something when you are unhappy is failing.

You’re upset because your life plan fell through? What even is that? Now is the time to be figuring out what you like and don’t like. You don’t like graduate school. Do you want a beer?

Stop. Just, no.
–Maeve, my oldest/best friend, in response to me being upset I won’t be “Dr. Ritz”

And here is my advice to you:
No job is worth sacrificing your mental health for. I mean, I really doubt anyone really loves going to their job more than they like watching Netflix, but the misery of it shouldn’t consume everything in your life. The average person spends one third of their life at work (not excluding time spent sleeping), and those people are working 8 hours per day, not 10-12 including weekends like academics. It is ridiculous that getting a M.S. in a field like genetics should make me feel like my future is bleak – it’s simply not the case. The connotation around mastering out is now infuriating to me – I started my PhD when I was 22, but decided to go to grad school when I was 19. When I was 19, I also thought leggings were real pants and that pasta was healthy because it isn’t fried or covered in oil. I still eat pasta 4-5 times per week. Come at me, carbs! Do kids still say #YOLO? Because I did when I was 19. My point is, it’s okay to change your mind, and if it will improve your life, do it.

So there you have it. More posts on job hunting and my time in grad school to come. Thank you to everyone who has been supportive of this decision, my friends who haven’t judged me, my family for loving me unconditionally, my dog for licking my tears away during my airplane meltdown, and to my PI, who is undoubtedly the only reason I’ve made it 2.5 years in my personal gulag.

Post by Katie Ritz, 2016.
Twitter: @katie_ritz