Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The state of the PhD: Master's vs. PhD

In yesterday's post, I left out the most demoralizing part of my most recent conversation with my advisor. Noting how I'd spent lots of time working on classes and not much time working on research, he asked whether I still wanted to be a PI (principle investigator--that is, have a PhD and lead my own research lab), as I'd said I wanted to be when I started the program. Research is only rewarding if you love the research (oceanography research doesn't pay too badly, but it doesn't pay well). If I don't enjoy working late puzzling about a research problem and prefer to work on well-defined tasks from 9 to 5, maybe I shouldn't get a PhD. Do I maybe want a master's degree instead?

This is what broke me. I'd thought of it myself occasionally--I'm miserable, should I just flee with a master's?--but to know that my advisor was thinking it too was painful. Do I still want a PhD? Do I still want to be a PI? Do I want a master's instead? I don't know. I go back and forth on the issue multiples times a day. The reasons are all jumbled in my head, so I hope that by organizing them here I might be able to make a better assessment of each argument's merits.

Escape with a master's

I've been pretty miserable with my research here. At times I've been tempted just to quit, but having invested two years of coursework towards the degree, I feel like I should be able to have something to show for it. There are some programs that only award master's degrees if a student is deemed unfit to complete a PhD, where a master's is a mark of shame (e.g. MIT-WHOI), but our department loves to give master's degrees--no shame implied.

I have long doubted my affinity for a career in research. I applied to the undergraduate summer internship that started me on this career path in part to prove to myself that scientific research was not for me. I only returned to that lab in Maryland after I graduated the following summer because I didn't know what else to do, I needed to get out of my parents' house, and it was an easy job to get (the professor happily welcomed me back). I still didn't think I wanted to do scientific research. I hated reading scientific papers, was bored to death in seminars, and only made it through most days with frequent and long internet-surfing breaks.

After a year working as a faculty research assistant in oceanography, in an underpaid job that was heading nowhere, I decided to apply for PhD programs in oceanography because that seemed like the thing to do. Surrounded by smart, interesting, happy people with PhD's, I figured I should be one, too. I was good at what I did, I had a strong academic background and respectable experience in the research field, and it was a way to move forward and advance my career. In a way, it was the path of least resistance. Not a good reason to commit to a PhD.

I see my boyfriend (the Housemate), and he's a person who belongs in his PhD program. He gets to lab early, stays late, works on weekends, and he loves it. He enjoys isolating algae like I enjoy playing video games (well, almost). I call the Dragon Age 2 characters my friends, and he calls his algae cultures his babies. I fall asleep planning what strategy to use against a big game boss, and he falls asleep proposing methods to identify types of viruses infecting his cultures. When I see him reading an academic paper willingly before bed--not just to put himself to sleep--I get a little bit jealous. I wish I could love my work as much as he does. But I don't. Scientific papers and seminars become more interesting as you know more about their topics and can better understand them, but I still don't like them. There are so many things I'd rather be reading or watching. Recently I sat in a seminar, listening to someone present his work, and thought, "Why? How long did it take you to do that? Why did you care? It's soooo boooooringgggg." Is that really going to be my life's work as well?

When I think of it that way, and compare my experience and interest to that of my boyfriend, I see that I am not the sort of person who belongs in a PhD program. I can't be an academic, a PI, writing grants, begging for money. I can't spend four years working on a dissertation. I'll die of boredom long before then. Quitting would look bad, but getting a master's would be a graceful way to bow out of this huge mistake.

Never give up, never surrender!

I don't want a master's degree. I never have. I've worked as a faculty research assistant--a lab tech--before. It has its perks (not having to write grants, making it someone else's responsibility to find money), but I don't want to do it for the rest of my life. A PhD is independence. Yes, a PI still has to answer to many demands and requirements, but your research is your own. Why should I spend my talents answering someone else's question? I want to decide for myself what questions I want to tackle.

The thought of settling for a master's depresses me. Part of it is concern for how it would look to other people if I dropped out of the PhD program to get just a master's. My parents would worry about my career. My aunts and uncles would wonder what I did wrong. My friends would be less impressed. My mentor back in Maryland would be disappointed, as she saw great things for me and would always tell me, "The world needs you!" My current advisor would be disappointed, as he was excited by my writing ability when I started and looked forward to publishing papers with me. I know I shouldn't concern myself with appearances and what other people think, that I need to live my life for myself. But if how much other people adore or respect me affects my happiness, then why should I ignore it? Besides, if I settled for a master's, the person who would be most disappointed in me would be myself. It's a form of giving up. We're taught all our lives that quitters never win, giving up is the worst way to fail, etc. Yes, I've gotten myself into an undesirable position. But if I use that as an excuse to settle for a master's, it will be out of fear. It will be because I was too scared of the work required to fix things. Running away is the lazy solution. If I stop with a master's, I may wonder for the rest of my life how things might have turned out if I'd decided to tough it out, work through the difficulties, overcome the challenges, and earn the PhD. How could I deal with that wondering?

There was a time, after all, when I was happy doing research. I wouldn't have applied for grad school if that weren't true. I enjoyed setting up the computer model simulations and interpreting the results that gave me my published peer-reviewed article. I got completely absorbed in the task of taking 3D gridded model output of environmental conditions in Chesapeake Bay and turning it into a numeric of suitable habitat volume that could be used to help assess viability of fisheries. I worked after hours to solve that puzzle, and that was the research I proudly presented at the international conference in Berlin. Solving such puzzles can grant satisfaction similar to winning a game. With more experience and knowledge, I could come up with my own puzzles to spend long hours tackling.

There are even parts of my experience here in grad school that I have enjoyed. I love giving talks. I can spend long hours putting together presentation slides and practicing my "script" to perfection. And I'm actually pretty good at it. I've been told I have a good "presentation voice", and after last year's division student talks, the professors named mine as one of the top 3 talks (out of 14, so not that impressive). I actually kind of like writing papers. It can be hard to start, and frustrating to gather the appropriate sources, but once I get into it I can enjoy it. After all, if I didn't like writing, and organizing my thoughts into paragraphs of prose, I wouldn't be writing this blog. I also love teaching. I haven't actually had a chance to be a TA yet, but this spring I was a pseudo-TA for a couple people in a class I was taking. The class was on computer modeling of biological-physical interactions (wind-driven model of the Pacific, upwelling of nutrients from the deep ocean feeding phytoplankton blooms and thus zooplankton growth), which is my area of interest, and it being the first time the course was taught, there was perhaps a misunderstanding of what sort of skills would be required for the class. But I was always happy to help explain the model, the grid, the equation derivations, and the programming techniques to my friends who asked for help. This stuff was fun. One friend bought me chocolates at the end of the semester, saying he couldn't have passed the class without me. Some day, maybe I could teach that class better than our professor taught it.

Ultimately, I really love programming. I would use my weekly programming assignments for that class as a reward: OK, self, read those papers for the chemical oceanography class, and then you can do your programming homework. The logic, the equations, and the satisfaction of having the program run and produce output--be it mere plots or nifty animations--just worked for me. That kind of work I found fun and rewarding. The problem with the computer modeling I tried to do last summer was that it wasn't about writing a program, it was about installing the right toolboxes, learning how someone else set up a gigantic black box of a model to run, making grid files, input files, and figuring out what sort of output the model would give me. The problem is that the kind of ocean model that can give the best results is far more sophisticated than anything I could write myself. For now it seems I'm doomed to work with a monstrous black box that I barely understand.

I want a PhD. I want to be a doctor--but not that kind of doctor. I want to be a specialist in my field. I want to ask questions and be paid to answer them. And I don't want to give up when I've come this far already.

What should I do?

Those are the two arguments fighting inside me. Again, this post got really long. My thrilling conclusion will be posted tomorrow: Where do I go from here?


Hezabelle said...

I totally understand. I'm super passionate about ancient history and I wish my life could be answering questions about it. But I'm not suited to the academic life. I'm okay at it, but I prefer slightly more practical things.

That being said, it sounds like you DO have strong passions in your field and I think you really could complete a PhD and even enjoy it if you were only focusing on the things you do like. And why can't you? Why can't you just focus your research differently? Isn't specializing the point of a PhD? Especially if, like you said, your advisor doesn't even know much about programming.. you can definitely become the specialist!

cassey said...

I agree with Hezabell, why can't you focus on the programming part of your work for your PhD? As a side note, in SA - my country - you need to complete a mnasters first before you can do a PhD. So I don't see a masters as a failure, and I'm sure others don't either.

Eleni said...

I like programming, which is why I tried to steer towards a modeling project, but so far the modeling hasn't involved any fun programming, just failed configuration. I audited a class on modeling--how to create your own models--and it was overwhelming. Knowing the complications and the drawbacks of numerical modeling made it seem a lot less fun than how it seemed when I was working in Maryland. If what I like to do is program, maybe I should just be a code monkey somewhere :(

My initial plan was to be the modeler in the lab. The thing we planned with the guy at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) would have made me the modeler in his group. But so far I've failed to do any modeling. The problem is that I haven't been able to figure out how to get started on it on my own. Either that means I need to get more help from other professors, or it means that I'm not good at working independently and not cut out for a PhD. I don't know what I'm supposed to be able to do myself anymore.

I guess I need to meet with professors and work out what I could change about my project to make it work for me, but it's so hard. They ask me questions about what I want that I don't have the answers to. I need to figure things out myself as much as possible.

Sebastian Anthony said...

You could take the Master's now, head out into the real world, and always go back to the PhD at a later date.

Eleni said...

You're right, that might be a good idea for me. I have this bad tendency to compare myself to other people, so if some people are getting their PhD's 5 years out of college, and I don't do it until much later, then I feel "behind" or something. It's a bad attitude to have, but I have to break the habit somehow.

It was recently proposed at a grad student meeting that maybe the department should offer non-thesis master's degrees in addition to master's with thesis (other programs do it, but not ours). If it ever happens, it won't be soon enough to help me, but it might have been a nice option at this point, to leave after finishing all classes, take a final oral exam or something, and leave without it being a waste of time.

Anita said...

I'm pretty much at the point you are, except that I'm not in grad school yet. I took some time after undergrad, and am trying to figure out the best course of action. I'm already years "behind" my peers who have sharper focus.

What I want is research without the grant writing and begging and scraping money; the chance to teach without 7 years of scrabbling for tenure. Is this even a remote possibility? Maybe I should just get a job in big pharma . . . when I think about the grant grind, selling my soul doesn't seem so bad.

Eleni said...

Hi Anita!
I think you can get a job teaching at a community college with only a master's, and you're probably not expected to do the same amount of research and grant-writing as at a regular university (though I don't know, should probably look into that). Community colleges aren't the same, but maybe the ways that they're different ultimately don't matter. There's also the option of doing research in someone else's lab, which I did for two years and liked a lot. I was getting paid very little, but with a master's I'm sure it would be a lot better. But if you want to research what you want to research...there's probably going to be grant writing involved :-/