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Mastering out of PhD

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I graduated in May 2017 with a B.S. in Microbiology in Texas and got accepted into a PhD program in Microbiology in Michigan.

Before graduating, I had decided that I definitely DID NOT want to go into academia, I want to work in industry. During my senior year I was debating whether I should go for my Masters or PhD. I had heard that you cannot keep climbing up the job ladder in industry with just a Masters, and that you would eventually would need to go back to school and get a PhD if you wanted to get to the top positions. I talked to a family member who only got a B.S. and started working in biotech straight away and she told me that from her experience, friends who had PhDs actually found it harder to find jobs in biotech than did her friends who only had Masters and years of experience. So my original plan was that I would go for my Masters, then go work at a biotech for some years and if it seemed like I needed a PhD then I would go back to school.

My plan changed when some of my professors told me that I should just go ahead and apply for the PhD anyways because my original plan would take too many years to complete if I did end up wanting a PhD. They told me that I would be the safest by just dong my PhD straight after my BS, especially since (they said) it is very hard to go back to school once you have been in the workforce for some years.

I had done undergraduate research and I liked being in the lab and doing benchwork and working towards a project. I thought to myself, "I should just give PhD a try, even if it isn't what I had originally planned." The thought of going into debt to get my Masters was also discouraging, and I thought PhD would give me better job opportunities in industry. So when I got accepted into a PhD program I was ecstatic and I accepted right away.


Now here is a bit of background on my personal life: I don't have a good relationship with my family. My only support was my boyfriend (now my husband) and my two good friends. When my now husband knew that I got accepted to a program in Michigan he was completely happy for me. At that time he was working on starting up his own company so he told me that as soon as he got things worked out in Texas he would move with me to Michigan ( he estimated around 6 months). We had been a long distance relationship from the beginning because we lived in different cities (we only saw each other twice a month during weekends), so I thought me moving to Michigan wouldn't be a big deal for us.

.... Fast forward 6 months... turns out he would need a year in order to move to Michigan with me.... Fast forward to a month ago: I went back to Texas and we got married (happiest days of my life), but then it turns out he won't be able to move in with me at all. Or if he does, it would probably be another 3-4 years which by that time I would be almost done with my PhD.

Coming back to Michigan after we got married was the hardest thing I ever had to endure emotionally. I was depressed (still am) and that made me lose motivation in my work although my professor is amazing and I love the lab. What made it worse is that after looking back at some of the research I have done over the past few months and last few days, it seems as though maybe getting a PhD is not worth it for me. I talked with many other people in past few months and it seems as though you can still get into top industry positions with just a masters and 5-8 years of experience. It started to seem like a PhD was not a total requirement to get into top industry positions as I had previously thought. And that had been my biggest reason why I decided to go after the PhD in the first place.

Now, I don't feel like I have good enough reasons to continue my PhD and endure the emotional pain of not seeing my husband (I literally only saw him 3 times in the past year). Besides, I'm starting to think that maybe Masters industry positions are a better fit for me anyways. I love benchwork (something I hear M.S. students that are in the PhD program complain about: that they hated having to do benchwork all the time and that they wanted to be in charge of research, therefore, they decided to go for their PhD). I do like research, but I am not completely passionate about it. I think I am more passionate about learning new things in science, and I have read that loving science and loving research are two different things. I am afraid that maybe PhD positions in industry are more managerial type positions (like being a PI, but in an industry environment) and I wouldn't like that. I want to be able to be in the lab, doing wet work every day, working in a team, and it seems like those kinds of positions in industry only require a Masters and a PhD would be overkill for those type of positions.

I think I am 90% convinced that Masters is a better idea for me. #1, it seems as though maybe Master job titles would be a better fit for me anyways #2, I don't think I'll be able to endure the stressors of a PhD PLUS the emotional stress of being away from my husband and best friends back in Texas.

I have barely completed the first year of my PhD and I got accepted into a permanent lab this past May. How can I start the conversation with my PI? I feel like I am going to let him down. When is it possible to get a Masters during a PhD program? Before or after PreLim? I would feel bad pretending like I am going to finish my PhD, but then quit after passing my prelim. Would I automatically lose funding once I declare that I don't want to finish my PhD? Should I just quit altogether now, go back to Texas right away and apply for a M.S. Biotechnology program for next Fall?

Any advice would be appreciated... thanks.

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I'm sorry I don't have any advice on this. But I read your entire post and wanted to send you some love and good thoughts. 

Personally, I was going to go into a Masters program I wasn't thrilled about. I moved back to the area (it was the same school I did my undergrad at), attended orientation, got my things settled...and realized if I stayed I was going to end up either hurting myself or committing suicide. So I packed my things back in my car and left. Called my PI the next day to tell him what was up and that I needed to drop out of the program. He was okay with it; the head of the program wasn't too happy, but in the end I did what was best for me. Took a year to decide what I really wanted, applied to schools and programs I was excited about, and I'm doing so much better now. 

My long winded point is that if you think leaving is the best for you emotionally, mentally, and for your career: I'd say do it. If your PI doesn't like it; honestly...it's not their life. So yeah, not having their approval or blessing will suck, but you need to do what's best for you. Obviously take some time to think about things, don't rush into this. But if you're already depressed and you still have 3-4 years to go; honey, I'd get out. 

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It is really difficult to give advice, but I feel for you. The emotional pain of doing a PhD away from family and friends is very intense. I went through that myself, and had I not seen PhD a must in my life, I would have given up. Does your school have anyone like counsellor or student advisor whom you can talk to? I don't mean that your thoughts of quitting PhD are not justified, but it is always good to get opinions from someone who have seen that a lot. They can also advise you on how you can bring that up to your PI. 

All the best! 

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First, I want to say that you have totally valid reasons for not wanting to complete your PhD. Wanting to be near your family, your husband, your friends, and your hometown are valid reasons. I think sometimes in academia, we are encouraged to believe that our personal desires and goals are beneath and should remain subservient to our professional careers. That may be true for some people, and there's nothing wrong with that. But most people don't want to make that choice. Not only do you have the personal concerns, but you also sound like you don't really want the kinds of jobs a PhD will qualify you for, so it makes sense to graduate with an MS.

When it is possible to get an MS depends entirely on your program. In my program, it was once you had completed all of your coursework and had written a master's thesis/paper; in my program a publishable paper satisfied (it was only 14 pages long, but it did become my first journal article). In my department, you didn't have to take your comprehensive exams to get your MA. I'm sure the Graduate School for your university has the requirements listed somewhere, either in a student handbook or on their website (or both). Look around and ask some current students - you can always couch it in the terms that you want to earn your MS on the way and just want to be sure that you are doing things correctly.

Should you leave now and go get a terminal MS? Depends. What field is your PhD in? If it's something that you could easily parlay into a biotech job, perhaps with an additional certificate or something...it may make more sense (financially and professionally) for you to stay where you are. You're getting built-in research experience and your degree is paid for. Obviously, I would not advise someone who wanted an MS to apply to a PhD program and do the master's, but you actually thought you wanted a PhD and only recently changed your mind. However, I will say that being in a department that assumes you want a PhD and an academic/research career is crazy-making. And sometimes, terminal master's programs give you more career development and networking exposure. That's a deeply personal choice to make (as it also depends on the costs of an MS in biotech back home; whether or not your husband can support you while you do an MS full-time; how much undergrad debt you have; etc.) But what I will say is that you should not feel bad should you decide to finish with your MS in your current department.

Now, as for telling your PI - well, first you need to find out about your MS requirements and decide what you want to do. My guess is that you'll need at least another school year before you earn your MS, so you can finish your coursework and write your paper or do whatever project is necessary. After you find out the requirements...personally, particularly if you decide to earn your master's in the department, I would advise you to wait until you're close to finishing up the MS and you want to leave. Whether or not you would automatically lose funding depends on your department, but many departments and PIs do become less interested and less involved in a student they know wants to finish with their MS. (It's not malicious; it's mostly out of self-interest.) In some departments, converting to an MS only may actually make you lose some or all of your funding. 

As for feeling like you're going to let your PI down - that's a common feeling, and your PI probably will be disappointed. However, think of it this way: you are the only person who has to work your career and job, whether it's struggling through a program for a degree you don't want, working in a research job you don't want, or leaving to go be with your friends and husband. The other thing is that you will deal with a temporary amount of discomfort (which will range from a single conversation to maybe a few weeks of awkwardness, depending on your PI) for something that will bring you longer-term happiness. That's a trade off that is almost certainly worth it.

After you have figured out what you want to do and have solidified your plans, and the time is right, schedule a meeting with your PI. It's easier (for you and them) if you sound decided and settled. "Dr. Black, I've enjoyed doing research in your lab, but I've decided not to finish the PhD program. After much thought and research, it doesn't really fit with my professional goals any more. My plan is to finish with my MS and leave in June 2019."  For a more senior graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, I would advise suggesting a succession plan with the papers and projects you're working on, but at your level you may not need to. You can leave out the personal reasons, unless you feel comfortable enough with your PI to discuss them.

Some may say that you should tell your PI early so that they can recruit new graduate students to fill your place in the lab. I say that's nice if it aligns with your own professional and personal timeline, but don't feel like you have to rush your process to help your PI perfect his timing for finding another graduate student. Let them figure out how to deal with that. (For example, if you were otherwise indisposed, they'd still have to replace you!)

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