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Feeling Like Garbage for Leaving Grad School

  1. Feb 13, 2013 #1
    So, a few months ago I withdrew from my graduate program. The reason was due to a medical diagnosis which was no less than life changing. In my withdrawal I had the support of all my professors and even the secretary. In fact, they felt it would be for my benefit to do something else.

    In the present, I was rethinking graduate school and visited a university a week ago (I didn't like the program I was in, but that had little to do with why I left). While I met all of the qualifications for the position and got along with the prof very well, he told me that he felt it would be better if I took a job in industry for a few years then reapply to the school working for him.

    Initially when I heard that I was upset, but I understood where he was coming from. Now, a week later, it is starting to hit me that I cannot take the path that I had envisioned myself going down. What upsets me most is that it has nothing to do with my competence or a lack of knowing what to do - what stands in my way is some series of events that were totally out my of control that have changed my priorities. I feel like I had to sacrifice my dream of becoming a scientist for stability.

    Too tell you the truth, I've lived a difficult life and worked very hard to overcome whatever obstacles had come before me. Personally, I think its a miracle I didn't end up a full time employee in a gas station. I feel like I've been slapped in the face by life - I come all this way to get shot down by something that's not my doing. It makes me not want to try anymore.

    I just feel like my effort and passion into my field isn't paying off anymore. Heck, I don't even feel like my character is paying off anymore. If I keep taking loses like this, I don't think I'll be able to make it. Even my family is concerned about my "luck" streak. People say those things matter, I don't see it now. I feel like I just flushed my talent down the toilet, then took a dump which clogged the pipes.

    On a positive note, I have already gotten some interviews with good companies. I can always get a Masters through a company, but I want to do a thesis. Whatever happens I feel grossly inadequate and hopeless. At least if I was incompetent I could come to terms with the fact that I made a mistake or that I'm not qualified. I'm not sure how I'm going to find closure, considering this was the dream that I held on too that kept me from doing terrible/stupid things growing up.
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  3. Feb 14, 2013 #2
    I don't know if it helps, but the majority of people who set out to become scientists fail through no fault of their own. Its a long, uncertain path and its all too easy to get shoved off the path by bad luck. You aren't alone, and there are plenty of people who have been there, and can empathize. People leave for medical reasons, lose funding because of political changes at the funding agencies, etc.

    The good news is that you DO have interviews with good companies. You can get a good job, maybe even a job related to what you wanted to do. You will be making more money and have more free-time then the people you were in graduate school with, which is no small thing.
  4. Feb 14, 2013 #3


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    Clearly you're not incompetent or you wouldn't have gotten into grad school in the first place. You cannot be both "competent" and "hopeless".

    Figure out which companies can offer you work which you find interesting, and can exercise your brain. Chances are that, after an initial period, you'll become an asset to the company and can rise up through it, or through other companies. Maybe even become a highly paid independent contractor/consultant eventually.

    Just because actual life doesn't follow planned life, it need not follow that actual life will be "bad". It could indeed be quite good, even better than good, if you adopt a flexible attitude.
  5. Feb 14, 2013 #4
    Hi, Aero,
    do you have a subject for your intented thesis already? If you have one, nothing forbids you to advance on it on your own, to keep your enthusiasm going until the day you re-enter grad school. If you don't have one, a time in the industry may be a good way to explore for a subject. My two cents.
  6. Feb 14, 2013 #5
    ParticleGrl, I did not realize it was so common for grad students to lose funding and their position due to other reasons aside from being incompetent. It makes me question the purpose of getting a PhD when you can learn just as much on your own. It seems like the career of a scientist is unstable and financially unrewarding. Granted, I wanted to do what I loved, but now I am questioning what I would have had to sacrifice. For example, I assumed I would graduate with my PhD by the time I was 28 years old. I would probably get married within the next 3 years and start a family soon after. That would only leave a short period of my life to do whatever I wanted before having to settle down. Unacceptable considering I want to do everything :)

    strange, My hope is to advance through to company quickly. In fact, I told one of my employers that I would like to work under an aerodynamicist then eventually rise up. He (the interviewer) seemed intrigued. I know things aren't as bad as I'm seeing them, Im just upset.

    Dodo, I dont. Right now I am studying stat-mech and turbulence in my spare time. I'll see if I can get into something pertaining to turbulence when I go for my 2nd round of interviews.
  7. Feb 14, 2013 #6
    To become a scientist, its not enough to get a phd. You have to survive several rounds of extremely difficult job markets. I know a few people who (after their phd) left science when their soft-money position vanished when a grant failed to be renewed. I know other very competent scientists who finished their 5+ years of postdocs at the wrong time, and no one was interested in hiring their subfield, so they left.

    Read about Doug Prasher- the man did nobel quality work in biology to find himself in his late 50s with no savings driving an airport shuttle bus. Science is terribly uncertain.

    This would have been incredibly difficult- generally if you want to go the academic scientist route you'll have to do 6 years of postdoc, which is a lot of work for little pay. This makes it very hard to start a family (will your significant other be willing to move across the world every two or three years? Can he/she get a work visa in the country you find a job in? Can you afford to live if he/she cannot get that visa? How will your kids deal with being uprooted? )

    I personally left because I wanted to start a family before I was 35 and in physics that simply would not have been possible.
  8. Feb 15, 2013 #7
    From what you are telling me it seems like science is not worth it at all? What is the point of doing 2 post docs after having done a PhD already? It seems like overkill. It could not have been like this 50-100 years ago. I guess leaving wasnt such a bad thing after all.
  9. Feb 15, 2013 #8


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    The biggest problem with "being young" is it happens at the wromg time in life, when you don't have the life experience to take the best advantage of it. Or as John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans".

    Just go with the flow and see where it takes you. If you are getting interviews with good companies, take a job with one. You will probably find out that what really happens in "industry" is nothing like what you expected. It might even turn out to be better than what you thought you wanted to do, if you go for it with an open mind.

    FWIW My own "planned" career got off to a very bad start. I was signed up by a big company after a couple of internships and thought I knew exactly how the next few years were going to progress. Except the company went bankrupt just before the start date. Since it did a lot of millitary work it was "too big to fail" and taken over by the government, but there were quite a lot of job losses and no new vacancies anywhere except where the trade unions would allow them. The result was that I spent most of a year doing 4 or 6 week spells in pretty much any department that could find a budget to pay me, and eventually got a "permanent" job doing something that I didn't even know existed as a "job" while I was in college.

    With hindsight that was one of the most valuable years training I ever had, in terms of finding out what different parts of a big organization do and how they work together (or fail to work together, in some cases!), and networking with the junior management in 10 or 15 different areas around the company - over the years, several of those junior managers moved on to become senior managers, either within the company or elsewhere in the industry.

    Virtually none of the "big career decisions" I've made have actually been planned in advance. Stuff happens, you take the chances you can see in front of you at the time, and (at least in my case) I would be quite happy to do the same over again.
  10. Feb 15, 2013 #9
    Heh, after I left grad school the first interview I managed to get (after almost a year) was for a position at a gas station. I didn't get the job. Just some perspective, be grateful you are at least getting interviews.
  11. Feb 15, 2013 #10
    I'm a little surprised you were enrolled for a time in a graduate program and had little idea of the career path. People do postdocs because they value working in their field above financial stability, career stability,etc.
  12. Feb 15, 2013 #11
    I intended to go into research in industry, so I never considered an academic route- I don't think my personality fits the position. I love my field, but I think doing post docs just to get a adjunct position for a few years doesn't make any sense. I don't understand the rationality of the "system" when someone who is both smart enough and capable of acquiring a PhD could spend their time more productively in science if they didn't spend it acquiring superficial experience. More simply, I dont understand what a post doc does for you aside from saying you did more research.
  13. Feb 15, 2013 #12


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    Aero, I can sympathize with you. I too dropped out of a PhD program in EE (I graduated with BS degrees in EE and physics) after a year because of an illness. I have had several jobs in industry since then and I have hated all of them. I can't stand sitting in a damn cubicle for 8 hours a day. I want to go back to a PhD program (in physics this time) and am studying the physics gre to improve my score in the meantime in order to make it happen.
  14. Feb 15, 2013 #13


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    Also, I have been angry and bitter ever since I dropped out.
  15. Feb 16, 2013 #14


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    Good points. But sometimes you have to be pragmatic in life. Every path you take involves jumping through hoops. I mean, *every* path - capitalism hasn't totally rid industry of inefficiencies. And frankly, sometimes it's more economical to just jump through the damn hoop and get on with things.

    Pick your battles wisely.
  16. Feb 17, 2013 #15
    That is one of my problems. Rather than jump through them I attempt to break them in half, over my knee and move forward.
  17. Feb 18, 2013 #16
    Today I had an interview with a company. While I think I did well, a question came up regarding my graduate school experience. I realized when I answered that question that I felt heartbroken. I think the interviewer noticed too, as the inflection of my voice changed. In a way it affirmed how much my field meant to me.
  18. Feb 19, 2013 #17


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    If this is your goal, I think a change in perspective might help you.

    I'm a PhD student in ultrafast optics and I've seen several of my fellow grad students graduate and get jobs in industry (usually laser companies, optics start ups etc.).

    A new student who joined my lab is coming back to grad school after 7 years in industry. He may have some catching up to do with regards to courses, but as far as research is concerned, his industry experience will definitely help in my field. Having a new student around who knows how to place work/ purchase orders, deal with administration, and knows how to collaborate and work with others in a research setting is great! (Most of the time first year students don't know how to do anything except sit in a classroom.) His industry experience is not a hindrance. Also, when he is done, having real world experience AND a PhD will help him in the job market especially if he decides to go back to industry.

    So, I think you should try to think of the jobs you are applying for as part of your career plan. Hopefully, I've convinced you that this could be true. If you don't you are going to come off as nonplussed about the job in your interviews and you will keep reinforcing feelings of depression.
  19. Mar 3, 2013 #18
    Even Newton ended up in finance (working for the Royal Mint) so why should anyone expect permanent employment in physics? Do physics as a graduate, then find a job... any job... and stop winging! You can't expect humanity to fund your pet interest in physics... although 1 in a 1000 might get lucky...
  20. Mar 5, 2013 #19
    Aero51, Im assuming your in aerospace. If you have any knowledge (even basic) of solid rocket propulsion and are, more importantly, good at math let me know.
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