Asking for a Friend: Sad in Grad School

Dear Olive,

I spent more than eight years on the road to becoming a scientist with a dream of a PhD. Now, I’m finding myself in a position where my committee wants me to leave with a master’s and my advisor is not supportive, and I wonder why I’m doing so poorly. I don’t work hard because I’m bored and I’ve started to hate this. I want a job with clear goals and directives, with a specific thing that I can learn to do well, instead of nebulous goals that are supposed to be figured out. I want a nine-to-five where I can go home after and make art and do the things I love that don’t make sense as a career. But this feels like striving for mediocrity because society (i.e. my parents) view this as less than the ideal, as falling short of my supposed “potential.”

My life will probably be good no matter which way I go, but in the short term it might be miserable if I stay in the PhD. This is complicated by the fact that I’m in a long-term committed relationship, and leaving the program now means I don’t have to do long distance and makes any moves in the future easier to manage job-wise. There are two good reasons to stay in the program: I came up with a cool project that I want to see through and make some intellectual mark out there in the world, and I’m scared that later in life I’ll hit some kind of employment ceiling. I guess my questions are: Is it okay to do the “lesser” career option? How can I be okay with it? How do I stop feeling like I failed?

-Want to Be PhDone

Dear PhDone,

Before we delve deeper, I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct you straight to Polly, who answered a question not so different from this not so long ago. Polly has good advice: give yourself space to feel terrible, then power through anyway because you know it’ll be worth it in the long run. Also, get a treadmill desk.

I don’t think you’d be wrong to listen to Polly. A treadmill desk and stick-to-itiveness, even in the face of mild despair, are both useful things to have in your arsenal and in the story of your life. But my advice — straight from the middle of grad school, for what it’s worth — is different.

My advice is different because the questions you ask most pressingly are not about whether you should quit, but whether it’s okay to. It sounds to me like you’ve already made up your mind about what you want to do. Now you’re looking for someone who’s not a parent, partner, or advisor to tell you that your choice is right.

I’m happy to be the person to tell you your choice is right. There’s nothing wrong with opting to have time to watercolor instead of being bored and overworked. It’s not wrong to aim for balance, to want the freedom to move to a new city with your partner, to prefer a day job that doesn’t align with your life’s calling. It’s not a failure to change directions when the direction you’re going is pointing somewhere you don’t like. It’s just a job, after all, not a child or animal or even a cactus you’re abandoning; they’ll get along without you. If your days will get lighter the minute you take off with a master’s degree in your hand and a phantom PhD in the rear view, the levity of the future years you get back will alleviate the weight you feel now about letting down your parents. You’ll defend your choices more fiercely when you love them. If this is truly the right choice for you, it’s brave to make it, not cowardly.

You’ll notice there’s a “but” lurking in all this affirmation, though. And that’s because, instead of one Big Thing that lodges in your guts and says that something needs to change, in your letter I see a million small ones, like mosquitoes that are easily dispatched one by one but in their collaboration feel like they’re eating you alive. You sound tired.

Your advisor doesn’t support you. Your partner might not live in the same city anymore. You don’t have time for your hobbies. You’re stuck. Most intractable, and least reliable: the life you imagine on the other side is exponentially better.

This part, as you might guess, is so universal there are sayings about it, so universal that even in the middle of the life we might have imagined once — even in the middle of opportunities in line with our ambitions — we look for ways to be somewhere else.

Is it from fear? Vulnerability? Difficulty enduring difficulty, even when we know we want whatever is on the other side of it? Yes, maybe, all of the above. I wish I could tell you why I nearly always put off writing until the last possible moments, even though it’s the thing I’ve wanted to do since third grade, even when I get to do it for an audience and for a living. There is, even in the midst of dreams coming true, a powerful desire to avoid their turning into reality. Even though suffering through a job you can’t stand just to go home from it at five every night might be worse.

Maybe. Or maybe that feeling you’re feeling, that accumulation of mosquitoes sucking you dry, is more than the sum of its parts. Maybe the right thing to do is quit and be instantly happier.

Aside from the obvious snag — the chance that the other side of reality is just more reality — there’s one thing you wrote that stops me from suggesting you cut that anchor and sail into the sunset: that one cool project that you’d like to see through. In the cloud of frustration around your advisor, your long distance relationship, and your boredom, you found an ambition that still has the power to inspire you.

That is the thing to focus on, not your fear of what might happen if you never pull off a PhD. That desire is what will get you through the next years of distance and difficulty, if it can. Is that desire strong enough to power what comes next?

For me, the answer is yes, even when I’m struggling and suffering under a mountain of work and guilt. It’s why I haven’t left this pursuit to do something else — something that I might not put off until every last deadline.

Try, if you can, to make this decision based on facts in front of you, not the possibilities hovering just out of sight. Your unsatisfying job and absent advisor? Those are real problems, ones you can address. That spark of excitement about an experiment you might get to run? That’s real too. Your possible future career ceiling or all that time you’ll have to practice handstands after you quit school? Not so much.

As for your parents’ disappointment, this is in an altogether separate category of likely, inconvenient, and ultimately not your problem to solve. Your parents didn’t build the life they gave you so that you could pay it back in prestige. They gave you what they did so that you could make your choices freely, boldly, fearlessly — even if they don’t know that yet. Even if they never will.

What’s the one thing that’s worth whatever you’ll have to sacrifice to have it? Your science? Your relationship? Your art? Make that choice. Defend that choice with your whole spirit. Notice how green that grass is right where you’ve chosen to stand, and just how far a choice like that is from failure.

Love,
Olive

 

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.

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