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I just finished my first week of a PhD program straight out of undergrad. I had some research experience in my B.A. and while I found it tedious, I figured a PhD would be worthwhile for the future job prospects. Besides, my parents both did it, and most graduates of my college go straight on to grad school. (Not a good rationale, I know). My major was interdisciplinary, with a science focus but no set career path, so I wasn't sure what else to do. I also wasn't/am not sure what exactly I want to work in (other than "not in academia"). I ended up throwing applications in several directions and seeing what I could get into with my major, figuring that'd be the best option.

So, I ended up moving halfway across the country to a state I've never wanted to live in, to do a project I don't love, in a field that's just "okay". My lab group are all lovely people, my courses are fine, and I'm no longer having panic attacks about TAing, but I don't think I'll be happy staying here for four years (especially since my advisor is one of those "well I worked 70-80 hours a week" people). I want to at least stick out the semester (get some course credit, pay for my lease, don't leave my students in a lurch, give my advisor a manuscript draft), but I also don't look forward to faking my way through talk of the future and feel really guilty because I know my advisor will be FURIOUS if(when) I spring it on her in November, and she's really a good person. I don't want it to reflect badly on people from my (small) undergrad college or people without a master's who apply to the program in the future.

I'm also homesick and in the throes of post-graduation depression, so as much as I'd like to go home this instant, that would be unwise. Part of me wants to suck it up and stay in the program all four years because that's stability. On the other hand, I don't enjoy the research process enough, I don't want to work super hard for nothing but a title, and I think if I ever go back to school later it'd be a master's, after enough work experience to know what I actually want.

Is it ethically okay to still want to get something out of being here even if I don't want to stay? Do other people know they want to leave basically from the beginning? Do other people actually like the research process? Is there a future for PhD dropouts?

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Sorry to hear that you're struggling after just first starting.  It can be a difficult transition, especially when you've moved so far away from home.  

I have just a few thoughts for you to think through (you don't have to answer here, of course).  First, is it possible that the doubts stem from the typical adjustment that is happening and not reflective of your desired life direction?  Second, is it possible you might find some passion in your topic and study at a later time?  Third, if you dropped out of your PhD program and wanted to return to grad school later, are you prepared to explain why you dropped out?  Fourth, if there is no passion and no real career reason for staying, are there any emotional barriers to dropping out (e.g., disappointing family, letting down advisor)?   

I only advise people to endure misery when it is in service of moving in a valued life direction, in which case the payoff is purpose and meaning.  If misery is in the service of keeping others happy, this often becomes a cost that people later regret (or even resent).  The professional community is smaller than you think, so if you were staying in the field, word would get around and your reputation would be an issue.  If instead you're just wanting to do something different all together, then the short-term cost of disappointing others might be worth the long-term gain of doing something that you want to do.  

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  • 2 weeks later...

RyanS makes a lot of valid points. I also want to ask if this is your first time living away from your parents (assuming you did your undergraduate studies at the same institution where they teach and/or work). Assess yourself: is your depression due to living in a different location away from your parents or are you just not interested in the field of study? Can you see yourself doing something other than research? Once you have answered those questions, then you can decide whether it's worth staying in the program. Given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, I will emphasize that this is not a normal academic year. The virus is making a lot of people anxious and stressful because so much is unknown about it. At the same time, follow your intuition. I believe you will have a better picture of your career direction six months from now. 

Edited by michigan girl
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