Thursday, May 19, 2011

The state of the PhD: Where do I go from here?

My heart tells me that I will not find happiness here. But my heart is a whiny bitch with no better solution to offer, so why should I listen?

I explained my internal arguments for both sticking with my PhD program and just getting a master's in yesterday's post. So what should I do? I could work through my difficulties with my current project, prove to my advisor that I am PhD material, and churn out a prospectus by the fall. I could even try to find a new project to work on with him, preferably something that he would be better suited to advise me on (since modeling is not something he does). He said he's done this before with a previous PhD student: the student had one idea for a project, but when it didn't work out, the professor got him on a different project that he knew would work out. Alternatively, I could finish a master's with my advisor, probably by the end of next summer. He could give me a tidy, manageable project that would yield results worthy of a master's thesis. A master's is not nearly as complicated as a PhD.

From a master's, I could either leave school to enter the work force or start PhD work with a different advisor. If I started working, I could be a lab tech, but better paid than I was in Maryland thanks to the master's degree, or I could get a desk job for the government or a private company. Potential new PhD advisors include the other professor at University of Hawaii whose offer to be my advisor I turned down, the professor at UH who was my initial contact and advisor of interest at the school but couldn't offer me a position due to lack of funding, and the professor I left in Maryland. She wanted me to be her PhD student, and I did enjoy some of the projects that she was working on. It seems odd that of the four internships I applied to that summer, the one that accepted me but I almost turned down assigned me to a mentor who turned out to be such a good match for me. All the more odd to think that after leaving her for more tropical pastures I might now be considering returning to her. I think I was happy working with her. But a year of blog posts show that perhaps I was bored and distracted in that job as well. Maybe it's easy to look upon the past more favorably than the present.

Those are my options as I see them, but none of them jumps out as the best choice. None of them even jumps out as a particularly desirable choice. I'm still too torn about my inner arguments, and the unfortunate position I've put myself in. I don't want a master's--I'll be miserable if I try for a PhD--I just need to work through it, turn a corner, and it'll all fall into place--it's hopeless--never give up! I think a part of me has always suspected that I won't be happy doing scientific research. But I'm mystified as to what career would make me happier, so what good does that do me?

I'm starting to realize one of the things I have to do: I need to forgive myself for not loving my research. Surrounded by people who love their research, I feel like something must be wrong with me. Am I not good enough to be an effective researcher? Am I not smart enough for a PhD? But it's not about talent or intelligence. It's about passion. If I fail to get a PhD where other people around me succeed, it's not because they're smarter than me, it's because they want it more. I want to want to do research to earn a PhD, but wanting to want something doesn't make it so. That's not my fault. Four years out of college, I still don't know what I want. That is my main problem, for now. I need to accept that.

Here is my current state of mind: I should get a master's with my current advisor. Most students in my program are encouraged to get a master's en route to a PhD, anyway; my two years of oceanographic research prior to entering the program excused me from that pressure, but that doesn't mean there aren't some professors who would happily recommend that path. That way, I can delay my decision for another year or so--whether I want to get a PhD or escape while I can. It would give me another year to try to figure out what I want. The thought doesn't make me happy, but it seems like my best option at this point.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if I'd started my PhD with the other professor here at UH, or with the professor in Maryland. Would I be making the same agonizing choice I'm making now? Would things have gone more smoothly? I can never know. If this were a video game, I could reload an old save, see if a different option makes things turn out better. But this is the RPG called Life. There are no reloads.


cassey said...

I think going for the M is a great plan. As you've mentioned it'll give you more time and open up different options. Try not to stress about being out of university for 4 years, and not have an idea of what you want to do. I'm in a pretty similar boat. It happens. All I can say is try to do what will make you happy, not everyone else.


Out of Sync said...

Going for a Masters isn't 'a fail', it is simply a different option to the one you originally intended. Masters would be an option that is chosen NOT because you 'lack the skills' to complete a PhD thus are opting for the 'easier' path, as I am sure you know that if you set out to complete a PhD you certainly could.

With the option to enter the work force, sure that would be great, but you have your whole life in front of you to work, now I would say is the best time for studies.

Whatever your choice I am confident it would work, there really isn't a 'wrong' choice, so you win either way =)

Rosalind said...

I would say it sounds like getting the MS right now is the best idea. I tell people all the time that if they don't know exactly what they want from a PhD and aren't sure about doing the work for it, don't. A dissertation is pretty killer when you love it, when you don't, it can kill you, or worse, leave you ABD after a long wasted time. Also, getting a job with a PhD right now is very, very hard. I know, I just finally landed a teaching position after searching since August, and my friends on the industry side aren't doing any better.

You clearly have skills and interests in computers and programming and such. I would look into getting that kind of work. What your degree is in tends to be less important than what experience you have. Also, MS's can teach at community colleges if you want to try that route.

Right now, I'm 3 years past my PhD, and realizing how much I want out of the publication part of the research world, so even with loving it, there are things I no longer enjoy (like my current post-doc) and now I'm going to be teaching full-time in the fall, which I'm super excited for.

Take this opportunity to figure out what you do want to do, then go do it!

Don't forget, a PhD only means piled higher and deeper, and that is a pile you don't want to get stuck in unless you really mean it!

I'm a jaded post-doc right now, though, so consider that.

Eleni said...

Cassey - Life doesn't always go smoothly and according to plan (if there ever was a plan), it's just hard when you see things going wrong. But I have to stop feeling sorry for myself and make the best decisions for where I am now. Thanks for the encouragement :)

Out of Sync - You're right, it's not a fail, it's just that whatever part of me wanted and still wants a PhD sees a master's as giving up. Since it was never my goal before, I have to change my thinking to make it seem like a worthy goal now.

Rosalind - It's funny how post-docs can tell grad students again and again how miserable it is and somehow we never believe you. Problem is we see plenty of professors who seem to have it all worked out, and we don't realize just how hard it is to get there.

I thought I knew what I wanted going into the PhD program, I thought my two years of research had given me the experience to make that call, but now after two years in grad school I realize I really didn't know what I was doing. The wise man knows himself to be a fool, or something like that.

I guess one fear I have is that I'm not a very certain person. I considered doing medical school, but I didn't want to commit to it unless I was sure it was what I wanted. So I chose grad school instead. Now I'm shying away from a PhD because I'm not sure it's what I want. "But how can you know what you want till you get what you want and you see if you like it?" (kind of obscure...) If I never know what I want in advance, will I ever commit to anything. Aaaahh! Sorry, I'm not really freaking out now.

Congrats on getting the teaching job! I feel like teaching at a community college could be pretty good, but of course I'd prefer to teach at a university. It's kind of frustrating how university teaching works: in order to be suited to teach at a university, you have to be an innovative researcher--and, if you're an innovative researcher, somehow that's assumed to make you suited to teach! Definitely not always true.

Thanks for the advice :)

Eleni said...

On a completely unrelated note, I just learned that the Latin term for a Master is "Magister." That sounds awesome! I want a Magister degree! Need to find a university that gives degrees in Latin, though.