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Debating leaving PhD program with an MSE


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Hey there everyone,

I'm new to this site, but not new to grad school. I'm currently a 2nd year student in a PhD program, and as the subject of this thread indicates, I'm having some second thoughts. I have second thoughts several dozen times every day, and I'm leaning closer than ever before to leaving with an MSE. I am currently taking my last course, and will graduate with the MSE this coming April. The question is: Do I start looking for a job now to start in May, or stick it out for another 3-4 years of the same grind? I should say that I work in the Computer Architecture field, which I find interesting, and I feel that I could complete a PhD - the question I've been trying to answer for myself is "Will I be happy here for 3 more years, will I be happy after that, and is this really what I want to do?" I'm at a bit of a tipping point in a long-term relationship (in a good way), and the upcoming possibility of several large life-changes begs for outside input from those not directly-related to me.

My dilemma is that I've discovered don't really enjoy research (but I don't hate it, either), and I don't want to go into academia. I don't enjoy thinking abstractly so much as I do actually working with tangible hardware and "doing things". I do rather enjoy teaching students, and would consider a lecturer position somewhere, but I don't want full-fledged academia to be my career. I was very gung-ho on research when I came into grad school, and over the past two years, I've really pushed myself to keep going, to try different approaches to it all, and to be open-minded to the lifestyle changes that come with being a PhD student, but I'm just not feeling it like I had hoped I would. I feel I could be happy with a PhD - I might have a more flexible schedule than perhaps other employment situations would offer, and I'd be more financially well-off later in life. But, at what cost to me now, in my prime years? To me, being able to be there for a family physically and financially someday is the most important thing, and I know I could do that with a Masters. I don't want a career of academia - I look at those around me, and see a group of highly-intelligent, but highly anti-social people, most without families, and that's not what I want. I utterly refuse to let work be my life. I've come to the realization that the jobs I would enjoy doing certainly don't need a PhD, and many of them don't even need an MS.

Now, that previous paragraph might make this seem like a straightforward decision for me, but it is not. The number of outside forces weighing down upon me, urging me to complete the PhD, are huge stressors in my equation. I don't want to be seen as a quitter - I don't want people, including my current advisor/funder, to think I gave up, or to look down on me for "only" having a Masters, but that's the fear I have. I've grown up in a highly-academic family; One parent is a tenured department chair / professor, and another (a step parent) is about to finish her PhD in religion. The pressure from them to lead the life of an intellect and to take a PhD and become a professor is overwhelming, and I don't want to let family down - I love them! I am of the "please others before yourself" personality - making others happy is what makes me happy. I also don't want to let those at my undergrad down - of my EE class (60-80 students), only 3 went to grad school (we churned out workers, not future grad students, apparently), and I was the only one to 1) go to another school for graduate study, and 2) enroll in a full PhD program. That's a lot of pressure - I was the star student in my faculty's eyes, and they've all pointed out the "success story" that I am to their program, requesting that I come back to be a professor when I finish my PhD. So, that's a lot of people to let down, a lot of people I could be ostracising myself from if I make the wrong decision. That's what I fear.

And since I can't see the future, how can I know if I will truly regret my decision (either way) one day? I want to be successful and happy, and I want to enjoy a job and raise an awesome family. So, how best can I factor in the various trade-off's? How can I end my internal struggle? What should I do? The other thing to consider is that I am currently funded through research, and I need to have funding - I fear that if I tell my advisor now that I want to stop, I'll stop getting paid, which would be very, very, bad.

Thanks for reading, and any comments would be REALLY appreciated :)

Edited by hw_man
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I hate to say this, but you can't know if you will truly regret your decision. You can only do what you think to be correct AT THE TIME.

The decision that you make may be right for right now, but may be wrong for later. If you do leave with the MSE degree, try to do so in a way that doesn't burn bridges academically...so that you can come back later if it comes to that. Make the choice after considering what is best for the next few years, but also assume that your life may be radically different in 10-12 years.

I spent many years of my life saying, "If only I had known this...I would have chosen that..." and being full of regrets about the choices I'd made. But that was stupid: I have been happy my whole life, even though my life was far from ideal. Now I'm glad I made the choices I made when I was younger; they haven't stopped me from pursuing my Ph.D. at almost-40, and they gave me the flexibility to be there for my kids when they were very young.

If I'd known then what I know now, would I have chosen differently? Probably. But things probably would have worked out that way, too...because if you are doing what seems right at the time, life has a way of working out for the best. Or at least it does if you are a positive thinker and hard worker.

(Sorry for getting all rambly there)

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No worries about the rambling - like I said, all comments are appreciated!

I can see what you're saying there, and all I know is that right now, I'm leaning towards thinking that taking an MSE is the right thing at this time. I just don't want to let people down, I do enjoy the work I do for the most part, and I have a great lab and advisor, so its hard to think about saying goodbye. And sure, maybe I would want to come back in the future, but maybe not.

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It does sound like a hard choice. But most choices in life are not between good and bad, but rather between good and better. And sometimes it's hard to know what is better.

Letting others down is never fun, but letting yourself down (and negatively impacting your life in the process) is not a good alternative. Your family may be hurt at first, but they'll get over it because they love you. Your advisor may find your departure inconvenient, but he/she will find someone else to take over your work; that's part of being an advisor. (Even students who leave with a Ph.D. frequently leave unanswered questions that someone else has to take over. That's part of research.)

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Here's where I get a little preachy...

One of the things I'm really fed up about Post-College education is that everyone treats it like a hybrid of a Career/Job and Prison... Mainly because of how much of an impact a name (or a negative reference that is attached to that name) has... which is also ridiculous. The truth is that this is YOUR education, not your advisor's or your department's education. Granted, your advisor is investing in you, and so you need to be honest and fair with them, but you do need to remember that ultimately, you are there for YOU, not your advisor or your department. I think that if more grad students thought that way, there wouldn't be as many horror stories that are so common on this and other boards.

Again, you need to be fair with your department. If you decide that a PhD is not for you, then discuss it with the necessary people, but in the end, make the decision that is best for YOU!

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hw_man--

I don't want a career of academia - I look at those around me, and see a group of highly-intelligent, but highly anti-social people, most without families, and that's not what I want. I utterly refuse to let work be my life.

FWIW, I worked as a coordinator at a software/hardware R&D lab for five years and change. I remain in touch with former team mates who give me the skinny on how things are going at 'the salt mines.' IME, the cohort you describe was very much like some of the most capable developers/software engineers at the shop.

My suggestion is that you take a step back from the "grass is greener" expectations you have about the private sector. I recommend that you understand that the golden days of software/hardware development are over. The corporate types maintain an unending focus on the bottom line.

If you manage to find a job, it is likely that you'll have a demanding work load, encounter a fair share of "anti-social people," marathon conference calls, an unrelenting barrage of email (some of my colleagues received 300+ messages a day), and a lot of frustration as good ideas will take a back seat to business related priorities. (Unfortunately, numerous NDAs prevent me from giving you concrete examples.)

IMO, these factors should be weighed against the many benefits and rewards of working in a creative and dynamic field. In addition to the sense of satisfaction that comes from participating in leading edge projects, you will meet people from all walks of life and have opportunities to make life-long friends.

Hence, my caveat aside, if you can find work as well as a plan to manage your transition from graduate school to the private sector that leaves open the option of returning to the Ivory Tower, I do not see why you should not explore your options.

I do, however, recommend that you be as up front with your PoIs/advisors/mentors as possible. It is my observation that some of the most successful members of the industry are those who happen to be honest brokers in addition to having advanced skill sets.

HTH.

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I am definitely doing this PhD for me -- at 40+. I gave up on something for family reasons earlier, and there were issues I had to work through related to that. Even so, I don't regret past decisions, because they all led up to now. The kids are great -- and they were not doing so well before. I'm happy where I am. I guess the "message" is make your decision and accept it. You can only decide with the information you have now, and looking back on the past is pointless, because you don't know how things would have turned out if you'd made a different choice -- there's no guarantee things would have been better, so I like to assume I made the best choice at the time and that it is still the best choice.

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Thank you all for the replies! I'm going to respond a bit out or order, so bear with me.

I recommend that you understand that the golden days of software/hardware development are over. The corporate types maintain an unending focus on the bottom line.

If you manage to find a job, it is likely that you'll have a demanding work load, encounter a fair share of "anti-social people," marathon conference calls, an unrelenting barrage of email (some of my colleagues received 300+ messages a day), and a lot of frustration as good ideas will take a back seat to business related priorities. (Unfortunately, numerous NDAs prevent me from giving you concrete examples.)

I do, however, recommend that you be as up front with your PoIs/advisors/mentors as possible. It is my observation that some of the most successful members of the industry are those who happen to be honest brokers in addition to having advanced skill sets.

I don't know that I feel the need to be on the bleeding edge of tech development, and I would not totally agree that the age of HW development is over. The major processor manufacturers who fund most students in my lab and take many of our graduates for employees are doing some cool stuff. I don't feel the need to try and be one the most successful members of the industry - I do want success, but I want to make sure I really enjoy the work I do, too. I did some temporary contracting work for a summer for a business, and definitely got a whiff of the business environment. I definitely understand it's not all roses over there. It's not so much that I'm thinking this would be the easy way out; I'm trying to determine what route would make me happier as a person, which route will I personally find more interesting, engaging, and fulfilling. Your comment is definitely food for thought.

Letting others down is never fun, but letting yourself down (and negatively impacting your life in the process) is not a good alternative. Your family may be hurt at first, but they'll get over it because they love you. Your advisor may find your departure inconvenient, but he/she will find someone else to take over your work; that's part of being an advisor.

I know, and that's what I tell myself all the time - I just don't like letting people down at all, and I just don't want to be seen as a quitter. Boo! I also just don't know how to bring it up. I'd definitely continue work on research for the rest of the semester, but I need funding, and I fear losing it if I bring anything up now.

One of the things I'm really fed up about Post-College education is that everyone treats it like a hybrid of a Career/Job and Prison... Mainly because of how much of an impact a name (or a negative reference that is attached to that name) has... which is also ridiculous. The truth is that this is YOUR education, not your advisor's or your department's education. Granted, your advisor is investing in you, and so you need to be honest and fair with them, but you do need to remember that ultimately, you are there for YOU, not your advisor or your department. I think that if more grad students thought that way, there wouldn't be as many horror stories that are so common on this and other boards.

That's a good point, thanks for chiming in! It's tricky just thinking about ME, though. I just don't tend to be that type of individual :(

I am definitely doing this PhD for me -- at 40+. I gave up on something for family reasons earlier, and there were issues I had to work through related to that. Even so, I don't regret past decisions, because they all led up to now. The kids are great -- and they were not doing so well before. I'm happy where I am. I guess the "message" is make your decision and accept it. You can only decide with the information you have now, and looking back on the past is pointless, because you don't know how things would have turned out if you'd made a different choice -- there's no guarantee things would have been better, so I like to assume I made the best choice at the time and that it is still the best choice.

I don't know how easy it is to return. I know several guys just joined my lab in the PhD program, all already possessing MS degrees, but they are now being required to retake all the Masters-level coursework. That's insane, in my mind, and not something I'd want to deal with. I appreciate all these comments; unfortunately with good arguments from both sides, my brain still churns. Let's see if anyone else turns up!

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I've discovered don't really enjoy research (but I don't hate it, either), and I don't want to go into academia.

That's part of the answer there. The other part is that being an academic involves a lot of long-term thinking and managing of students, but not as much actual research work (in a lot of cases). Industry labs are a little different, but some are also pretty similar. If research is not what you ultimately want to be doing, then what is the point of getting a degree that you won't actually use?

I don't want a career of academia - I look at those around me, and see a group of highly-intelligent, but highly anti-social people, most without families, and that's not what I want. I utterly refuse to let work be my life.

You've kinda conflated two problems here. Compute science, as a field, tends to attract more introverted people. I bet the majority of them were introverted before entering grad school and CS programs don't push on them to get out of that comfort zone. You don't have to be that guy and it's not fair to claim that the degree itself is the reason for the personalities (I'm sure it's true in some cases though). There are much more social academics/grad students and maybe you just haven't run into them.

In the end, it's your life and it's unfortunate that it seems people are trying to live some of their lives vicariously through you. Realize that you only have to answer to one person and that's you. Your family will still love you even if you *only* have an MS. Advanced degrees are not exactly a dime a dozen and it's about figuring out what you want to do with your life. One possibility you haven't mentioned (and one that I would strongly encourage) is to look into internships and to talk with your advisor. If you go off and work for a summer and realize that you love that environment -- great, problem solved. It's ok to leave with an MS even after 3rd, 4th, 5th year. You don't have to make the decision right this second. At the same time, you can also apply for jobs and just gauge what kinda offers you're getting. Applying doesn't mean committing to being hired.

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That's part of the answer there. The other part is that being an academic involves a lot of long-term thinking and managing of students, but not as much actual research work (in a lot of cases). Industry labs are a little different, but some are also pretty similar. If research is not what you ultimately want to be doing, then what is the point of getting a degree that you won't actually use?

In the end, it's your life and it's unfortunate that it seems people are trying to live some of their lives vicariously through you. Realize that you only have to answer to one person and that's you. Your family will still love you even if you *only* have an MS. Advanced degrees are not exactly a dime a dozen and it's about figuring out what you want to do with your life. One possibility you haven't mentioned (and one that I would strongly encourage) is to look into internships and to talk with your advisor. If you go off and work for a summer and realize that you love that environment -- great, problem solved. It's ok to leave with an MS even after 3rd, 4th, 5th year. You don't have to make the decision right this second. At the same time, you can also apply for jobs and just gauge what kinda offers you're getting. Applying doesn't mean committing to being hired.

What is the point? Trying to answer that question myself. I don't want to leave and regret it later - I don't want to leave and then get a crappy job and potentially miss out on something awesome in the PhD life. I do think I could be a good PhD advisor, but I don't want to be one. Regarding internships, I'm currently looking to have one this summer (at my advisor's urging), but it's not a typical internship - it "has" to be a research internship in my field, so I feel that wouldn't be super different than what I do now. I am however looking at jobs - I'm basically browsing job sites and seeing what pops up with various keywords, trying to figure out which jobs I'd actually enjoy doing. And yes, I plan to start applying to some just for the heck of it to see what happens. Part of me feels a bit deceitful because of it, but it would give me a good feel of what's out there, and how attractive I am to potential employers with an MSE. I'd feel bad putting off leaving for several years because then that's just even more money I would have sucked out of my advisor's pocket.

Edited by hw_man
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Don't feel deceitful. In January 2011 I considered leaving my PhD program (which is in psychology and public health, so not the "hard" sciences). I ultimately decided to stay. The first thing I learned is that this is not a decision you can make in a day, a week, or even a month - depending on your own personal decision-making skills and where you stand. I mean, if you are completely and absolutely miserable, it's a lot easier to make the choice (although not easy), but if you are sort of on the fence - and there are aspects you like and aspects you dislike - it's definitely harder. So take your time and explore things. You don't have to take several more years, but you can at least give yourself until the end of the semester or the end of the summer. People stay in jobs they plan to leave all the time until they secure another one. Think of this as a job - an apprenticeship. Remember that your advisor is also getting benefit from you during your time there.

Why do you have to do a research internship? You can do an internship that's a hybrid of two worlds, such as the one I did one summer - a market research internship with a corporation that used my analytical and statistical skills. In my case, I strongly disliked corporate culture and the sort of 9-to-5 grind, and I decided that I did not care for trying to make other people rich. Doing that internship helped me narrow down what I wanted. I do have the advantage of having my own external funding, so my advisor couldn't stop me even if he wanted to, but is your advisor going to cut off your funding if you do a more corporate-type internship than a research one? You could also do something in-between like I did.

Also, definitely do not feel beholden to anyone but yourself. Neither your advisor nor the people you left behind at your undergrad have to live your life - only YOU do. So if you want to leave, leave. Your advisor will find another student (and being a professor, he has probably witnessed or experienced several other students leave before they finish) and your undergraduate will eventually graduate someone else who goes to get a PhD. Not graduating with your PhD does not make you NOT a superstar - you're still a strong student and an intelligent person, just one who decided to take a different track in life.

I will say that for me, the reason I wanted to leave is that 1) I hate academic politics and 2) I was burned out on coursework. I love research and I love my field, and that's the reason I decided to stay, because I realized I could take my PhD and go work in a non-academic position (yes, with its own politics) AND I was finished with coursework. And this program has been so much more enjoyable now that I am not taking classes anymore. If you don't love research, things may get worse when you finish your classes, not better.

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I mean, if you are completely and absolutely miserable, it's a lot easier to make the choice (although not easy), but if you are sort of on the fence - and there are aspects you like and aspects you dislike - it's definitely harder.

Why do you have to do a research internship? You can do an internship that's a hybrid of two worlds, such as the one I did one summer - a market research internship with a corporation that used my analytical and statistical skills. In my case, I strongly disliked corporate culture and the sort of 9-to-5 grind, and I decided that I did not care for trying to make other people rich. Doing that internship helped me narrow down what I wanted. I do have the advantage of having my own external funding, so my advisor couldn't stop me even if he wanted to, but is your advisor going to cut off your funding if you do a more corporate-type internship than a research one? You could also do something in-between like I did.

I will say that for me, the reason I wanted to leave is that 1) I hate academic politics and 2) I was burned out on coursework. I love research and I love my field, and that's the reason I decided to stay, because I realized I could take my PhD and go work in a non-academic position (yes, with its own politics) AND I was finished with coursework. And this program has been so much more enjoyable now that I am not taking classes anymore. If you don't love research, things may get worse when you finish your classes, not better.

And that's the thing - I'm not completely miserable, it really goes back and forth. Today, I am enjoying my work - tomorrow, I might not like it so much. But it is all doable, I have a great advisor, and a great lab. So its not the environment, per se; its just trying to figure out if deep down, I really like this.

We have to do a research internship for the research experience, and to do continuing work that we can then publish. I doubt I'd lose regular funding for a normal internship, but it would be frowned upon.

And yes, I am sick of course work, but that's not an issue. I'm taking my final course this semester :) Most of the PhD's who graduate from my lab go on to R&D / Industry though, only a very minute percentage stay in Academia. So continuing the PhD by no means commits me to academia.

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I've recently gone through a vaguely similar situation so I'll chime in.

Last August I started grad school in the humanities (Master's degree) right out of undergrad, and by the end of the semester I was considering leaving. Unlike you, I was absolutely MISERABLE, so that ultimately made the decision a little easier. However, it still was a decision that took me over a month to make and it involved a lot of agonizing and a lot of soul-searching. I actually posted here about it, you can find my thread somewhere in this forum, though I don't think it will be very helpful. Anyway, now I'm currently finishing up this semester just to fulfill my teaching responsibilities, but otherwise I'm not enrolled in any actual coursework and will be leaving in May.

I have several different reasons for choosing to leave, but one of them is the same as yours -- I don't want to go into academia. And like you, one thing stopping me was others' expectations of me. I've always been the very studious, "smart one" among my classmates in undergrad, the one who would "obviously" go to grad school and succeed. I did well in my first semester and my professors were impressed with me. My parents were proud of me. My friends were proud of me. Even my boyfriend's parents were proud of me. And plus, what's 2 years? People told me to "stick it out," "it'll be worth it," etc.

Also, I had a really great TA position that was fully funded, and thinking about giving that up (or rather, thinking about what other people would think of me if I gave that up) scared me. I was also scared of having to explain the situation in any job interviews, of even FINDING a job, of regretting my decision and wishing I had just sucked it up like so many people I know.

How did I decide? Ultimately I realized that I was just on the path of least resistance and wasn't thinking about what I wanted. I was in grad school because, well, why not? And that's not a very good reason to be in grad school. I would encourage you to 1) take a really close look at the costs/benefits to you if you were to finish the PhD, 2) do your best to forget others' expectations of you (easier said than done, I know), and 3) have a plan for the next step. Though I must admit that at some point, I just had to take the leap and...leave. I know there are a few differences in our experiences, but I really do hope this helps in some way!

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Your post is very helpful because you do share some of the same thoughts that I have. It a sense, it is the past of least resistance, but I kind of feel like leaving (once I have a job and such) would become the new path of least resistance. I don't know, I just keep going back and forth. I'll just keep pondering, for now...

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