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Taking a master's instead of finishing PhD...?


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Hi all,

I am looking for some advice; I'm sure this is information I could get from professors at my school but don't want to ask, as I don't want them to know I'm thinking of dropping out. My first question is, if I take a Master's degree instead of the PhD I originally sought, does this (either officially or unofficially) bar me from re-applying to PhD programs later in my life? Also, has anyone done this and what are your experiences with finding jobs after "quitting" your program?

I'm currently a second year in a cell/molecular biology PhD program working full time in a lab, and I HATE it. I hate it so much and feel like this is the worst job for me, my lab-mates don't speak English, whereas I am very outgoing and love to laugh, and they will not help me but it is clearly expected of me that I will get help from them. I have tried telling my advisor but she is out of touch and busy. The result is that I flounder through expensive, time-consuming experiments which then don't work and the troubleshooting process is complex since I have so little grasp on what I'm doing to begin with.

Anyway I have tried to be patient, and have even gone on antidepressants to make sure I am feeling mentally sound before I make this big decision. I feel really good in my non-work life now that I'm on meds, but am utterly miserable in this lab. Further, in my past lab (where I worked for two years with awesome people and a better handle on my research), I still felt like I didn't enjoy the act of doing labwork. I like science more as an idea but the process of doing lab work is awful, I really hate it. It is what I'll be doing for at least ten more years if I stay in this field, doing a PhD and then post-doc(s).

Anyway sorry for the long post. Just looking for some advice, specifically about the way universities perceive someone who "quit" or finished with a Master's after applying for a PhD.

Thanks guys!


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A bad fit in lab can be fixed by switching labs, if there is one available. However, you mention that you may not like labwork at all. Those are two VERY good reasons for leaving programs. A terminal Master is a nice compromise in your exit. You get a little something for leaving (maybe be able to submit some/all of your thesis for publication), and the department also gets the 'credit' of you having earned a degree in their graduate statistics.

When you do apply to PhD programs, don't dwell on why you didn't complete your previous PhD program. Say that this current PhD program that you're applying to has a better fit for you because of XYZ.

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Since you don't like labwork, I won't be too concerned about re-entering a phd program, at least in your current field... why would you eventually want to go back to something you currently hate?

But ending with a Master's is the 'classiest' way to leave a program. If what you really like is the ideas end of science, maybe you can get a job where you are involved in those ideas without having to do lab work. This could be at a grant giving institution like NSF or as an adjunct, or as a consultant for an industry that wants to keep up with the latest research coming out of your field but wants the highlights and wants them translated out of science speak. Regardless, having the Masters should be sufficient to allow you to stay involved in the ideas end of your field without having to continue to be miserable. I can't know your professors, but they are likely to realize that research isn't for everyone and maybe they have some contacts that will allow you to have a leg up on pursuing one of these related lines of work. I would go talk to your advisor, being as positive about the things you like as possible, honest about your dislike of lab work, but avoid being specifically critical of her lab... if you really believe it is a problem with you in this type of work, rather than the lab dynamic entirely, glossing over grievances with the specific lab may help you to get job connections and maybe even a future recommendation that highlights your maturity and self-knowledge while choosing to leave the program - some programs in my area specify that a recommendation should come from your last academic advisor. I mean your advisor could be unreasonable and un-understanding (I hope not!), but if she is professional and willing to listen than you can probably spin this to be a positive move for yourself rather than a negative 'quitting' situation. And coming to her soon, before this season's application review begins will allow her to give your spot to a new student next year rather than having it sit empty (maybe mentioning this will show her your concern for her work, not just yourself).

Were you to decide later to try again, if would be from an experienced position where you would have (hopefully) grown, realized why you didn't like the work you were doing before, found what you want to do that you won't hate and be passionate about what you need a phd for at the other end. Right now it seems like you are dreading the future post-doc as much as your current work. I would think adcomms would like that kind of self-knowledge and directed-ness. I agree with the above poster that you don't really need to dwell on leaving this program when applying for another, but the benefit of experience will need to shine through.

One more thought: if you are getting a masters as you are leaving, there is no real reason why you have to mention having started the program as a phd student at all if your department grants terminal masters (well unless your recommendation writers are likely to mention it).

Edited by LJK
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