A PhD, like any worthy endeavor in life, requires hard work, patience and perseverance. It also involves challenges that will make you doubt your choice to pursuit an advanced degree in the first place. It is inevitable that a series of failed experiments or that one paper rejection will bring you down and temporarily make you question your professional choices. You should, therefore, think of these doubts as part of the process and learn to find happiness in graduate school, despite the occasional bumps on the road. Unless of course the frequency, duration, and intensity of these doubting bouts start interfering with your personal and professional life, making it hard to cope with them. In that case, you might want to pause and re-evaluate your path. Read below for a step-wise guide on how to do that.
1. Do Not Make Any Decisions When You are Emotionally Charged
It’s no secret that when we are sad, mad, or disappointed – in other words emotional – we make decisions that do not reflect who we are and what we truly want. You might want to leave graduate school after a fight with your mentor or during that month-long depression caused by a rejected manuscript, but you should not. Try to set emotions triggered by isolated incidents aside and evaluate the situation as objectively as possibly. Ironically enough, you have to start the evaluation from the inside.
2. Know Yourself
You are not the same person you were when you started your PhD; hopefully, you now know more about your research, how academia works and yourself. Take some time to sum up this knowledge and reassess you needs and wants as a person and a professional. Do you still like bench work? What about writing papers and grants? Do you still dream about having your own lab? Ask yourself the question that everyone will ask you in any job for the foreseeable future: where do you see yourself in 5 years from now? Give yourself enough time to think about these questions and, if it helps you, put your thoughts in writing so you will have a track record if you need to repeat the process down the road. This will help bring your goals in sharp focus and allow you to move onto the next step.
3. Determine Where a PhD Fits in Your Newly Defined Plans
If your self-evaluation revealed that the difficulties you are facing caused you to doubt your chosen path only temporarily and they have not changed your love for research nor your dream of having your own lab, then your decision is simple: stick with your path and treat the challenges as something that will make you stronger. If, however, you realized that your dreams have changed, take the time to research what is needed to achieve your new goals. For example, if teaching interests you more than becoming a PI, you will have to keep in mind that your PhD will still be necessary to land a teaching job in a college. So, you should think twice before you walk away from your PhD program. You should also consider investing some time to volunteer as a teaching assistant or attend teaching seminars. In addition to giving you an edge when applying for a teaching job, this will be a useful distraction that will, hopefully, provide the additional motivation needed to cross the finishing line.
If on the other hand you realize that you passionately care about start-up biotechs and venture capital, maybe it is time to consider leaving your PhD program early (possibly with a Master’s degree) and pursue an MBA or a financial degree.
Now that you have redefined your goals and you have assessed whether or not your PhD is necessary in achieving them, you can move to the next step.
4. Make a Plan to Implement Your Decision
At this point you have hopefully made an educated decision. Whether you’re leaving or staying in a PhD program, you have to consider your next steps. If you decided to continue pursuing a PhD, the plan seems relatively simple, but this might be misleading. To prevent getting stuck in the same spot in the near future, continuing your PhD means that you need to work to alter the conditions that made you want out in the first place. Look carefully at your project, your work habits, and the your way of utilizing resources, and find things you could improve on. Talk to your mentor, or a trusted member of your committee, be honest about your plans and ask for help to realize them. This last bit of advice applies also if you decide to leave the lab. Be frank and professional. Clearly explain to your mentor the thought process that led to your decision. If you are in the middle of projects, give your advisor and the lab ample notice and either bring these projects to a good stopping point or offer to train the student or postdoc who will take over. It is the professional thing to do, and it will help protect your relationship with your mentor, who could be helpful in your new career path.
5. Be Brave and Trust Yourself
No decision in life is foolproof and you cannot be 100% certain that you will never regret the decision you will make. You can, however, draw confidence from the fact that you made the best choice with the data available to you at the time. Write yourself a letter explaining why you made this decision and your plans. This will serve as motivation and reassurance whenever you second-guessing your decision. Remind yourself that this is your future you are deciding and no one else’s. You should not concern yourself with what other people may think about that decision. You are the only one who knows what is best for you, and you have to trust your judgment.
You may have to repeat these steps more than a few times during graduate school and beyond. Taking the time to re-evaluate, re-assess, and, if necessary, start over is the key element of a successful, fulfilling career. You should settle for nothing less be it in academia or outside of it, with or without a PhD.
What helped you decide whether you should stay in graduate school or move on? We would love to hear about your experience, so please share your thoughts below.