Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Ginger is no longer in a relationship with her PhD

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings.
And why Ginger has taken the slightly dramatic step of quitting her PhD."
-Lewis Carroll (and others)

Yep, that's right. Your blogging hostess is officially a PhD drop-out.

I realise that, from the perspective of my blog, this might seem like a bit of a bolt from the blue. Sure, I've had the odd grumble, but mostly I've kept my disgruntlement to myself. But trouble has been a-brewing for a while now, and recently I made the big decision to call time on my research project. Without wanting to go all 'group therapy' on you, I thought I might use my blog as a way of offering an explanation. Not least because I found Googling 'Quitting a PhD' quite a helpful way of seeing what other people's experiences of this kind of situation had been before I made my final decision.

So, where to start? Well, I entered into my project with the best of intentions, and the desire to see it through to the end. And it's not like I went into it blind - I'd already worked at the lab in question for 10 weeks before I committed myself, as well as gaining lab experience elsewhere. And things were fine to begin with. I had the newbie enthusiasm, the naively optimistic 'get back on the horse' attitude to the odd experiment that failed here and there. But as time went on, things began to unravel. A bit of extracurricular reading introduced me to the existence of a different field which got me far more intellectually and emotionally fired up than the one in which I was working. I began to realise that, post-PhD, I'd rather work in that field and cease lab work altogether. I still remained committed to seeing it through though.

But then... well, there were the experiments that failed to work over and over again, gradually eroding my self confidence, and occupying weeks and months of attempts before I finally managed to show that it wasn't actually my fault. The realisation that the technical problems plus the consequent demotivation meant I was at least six months behind schedule. The dread with which I was filled at the thought of carrying this on for another couple of years, and the long hours it would entail, when my heart was no longer in it. And other problems I won't go into on a public forum.

I do appreciate that everyone goes through 'second year blues' where it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that you have no data, and the end is both a bloody long way off, and yet too soon to get everything done. And I don't think that any one of the reasons I cite constitutes, on its own, a need to throw in the towel. However I do think that, in combination, there was a compelling argument for my decision. I did not want to give over a major part of my life for the next 2-3 years to something in which I no longer had any confidence, had lost passion for, and which was no longer directly relevant to my future plans. I have a deeply ingrained 'I'm not a quitter' attitude, but I am beginning to appreciate that sometimes there is virtue in walking away and not flogging a dead microarray.

Something that has surprised me is how much kudos I seem to be getting for making the decision. PhD/science web-fora seem to be full of people saying 'I want to quit, but I don't want to let my parents down' or 'I wish I'd quit a year ago'. I am fortunate in that my family and friends have been supportive of my decision. What came as a surprise was that people seem to view it as a brave step to take. Certainly, I know it's one of the gutsiest decisions I've had to make, but I was fully prepared to have to justify myself and fight against the perception that I was a wuss who didn't have the courage to meet the challenges of a PhD. It's been a pleasant bonus not to be burdened with that label.

Right, having managed to spout cliché after cliché, it's time to get on with the rest of my life...

6 comments:

Otepoti said...

Oh! As from one PhD drop-out to another, well done! (I think.) So what's next? Time to be the Scholar Gypsy, who "came no more to Oxford and his friends"? The Scholar Ginger, maybe?

Ginger said...

Next? Well I'm not totally ruling out doing another one some day. Sucker for punishment, eh? But I don't think I'm cut out for lab work. I've decided that I'm more interested a different field and a different way of working - more analytical stuff. I've got some research assistant-type work lined up, which should give me some experience whilst I plan my next move. Maybe a Masters - haven't tried doing one of those yet. :-)

Nick Barrowman said...

Interesting to read your account. A friend of mine decided to abandon her PhD, and I don't think she regrets it.

Anyway, best of luck with your future endeavours.

Ginger said...

Thank you. :)

Tonya said...

I don't think you'll regret it. I actually finished mine even though I started having serious questions about it mid-way through. Now I have a PhD (and a job) in a field in which I'm no longer interested. Good for you for following your gut on this one.

Ginger said...

Well, one year on and time for an update, especially as this post gets quite a few hits from what I imagine are other potential PhD drop outs.

I haven't regretted my decision for a second. Honestly - not one tiny bit. It was absolutely the right decision for me to make.

I'm still engaged in the academic process. I've been working as a research assistant in a different field since I left my PhD, and am going to do a masters degree in that field later this year. So things are progressing, even though I've taken a little step back. I haven't ruled out doing another PhD. I think it's what I want, but I have a heck of a lot of apprehension having had a less than positive experience first time around. We'll see.

For others who are considering quitting, only you can know what your reasons for wanting to do so are, and what you want to do instead. But deciding to leave need not be the end of your academic career, so don't lose heart!

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