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Feeling Like Joining This Program Was a Mistake. Should I Leave?


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I know there are lots of posts like this, but bear with me. I'll really appreciate it.

Kind of going through a bit of a crisis here, and I'm not sure if it's normal or if I just really, really hate my field of study. A bit of background info: I'm a first year PhD student in Biology (particularly animal physiology), fresh out of undergrad.

I first made the mistake of going to a grad school because I really wanted to get in somewhere. I LOVED learning and undergrad so much that I thought I'd love to get a PhD. I was told by many professors that I wouldn't have a problem getting in at all. Unfortunately, my interests are evidently quite popular and all the programs I applied to didn't accept me. When I asked for specific reasons, they said that I was more than qualified, but that so many Masters students applied for the same positions that basically no undergrads were accepted. A week later, I got an email from a professor working in another field that wanted me to join his lab, so I just said yes because I was desperate to fulfill my dream of getting a PhD. I moved over 600 miles away from my family and fiancé in order to get a doctorate in animal physiology. I found out rather quickly that my professor's research was really not for me, and I just chose something to work on that was closest to my interests. I started learning techniques and I've found that every aspect of this field makes me want to pull my hair out. I enjoyed the courses in undergrad, but the actual practice is maddening and absolutely nothing in the field so far has caught my interest enough to look into for a project.

Interests: animal behavior, conservation biology, evolutionary biology, behavioral neuroscience, origin of language/culture/music

Stuck with for the next five years: animal physiology

What I'm having issues with is figuring out how I am going to spend the next five years keeping myself from crying myself to sleep every night because I hate what I do. Not to mention, my fiancé cannot get transferred from his good-paying career down to my area, so it's likely that the next five years will be more hellaceous than I initially imagined. I know nobody here, the culture is one I don't fit in with (sorry, Texas), and my field of study makes me want to carve my eyes out. I don't know if I'm just getting frustrated with the difficulty of the techniques or if I just really think this stuff is terrible and not for me. I can't figure out a project that I could get passionate enough to work on for all this time. I know it's early and that many new grad students start doubting things, and that the feeling often passes. I know I'll get good small animal surgery skills out of this, but GAH. The research seems so pointless to me (it won't help anyone... ever), and so all the slaughtering of adorable animals I'm doing just makes it seem even worse.

I thought about going to my professor and telling him that I want to leave with my Master's degree and then continue on to a PhD in a field in which I am more interested and closer to my fiancé. I realize that this may take longer, but I am willing to deal with that. But I also feel incredibly guilty doing this, because not only did my professor pay a lot of money to get me down here in the first place, but he's also paying my tuition for my first year and giving me an RA position so I can live. He's been more than generous in funding me to be his PhD student. He recently moved universities and is trying to build up his lab, so I'm one of the only ones in there. I feel like it would be a very large insult to tell him, "Oh, never mind. I know I told you I was dedicated to getting a PhD with you, but I decided that I don't want to be here anymore. None of what you do is interesting to me." I also realize that doing this may make me look extremely bad. Nothing like pretty much saying, "Screw this crap. I give up!" by going down from a PhD program to a Master's. I am not sure how that will "show up" and/or affect my future prospects of getting into another program/finding a career if all else fails.

I really don't know what to do. Part of me says to wait it out… maybe things will get better and once I get some time in, I will find something I'd love to do and it won't be so bad. Maybe the fiancé will get transferred. The likelihood of either thing actually happening is completely unknown.

Any advice would be appreciated. Please be nice; I'm still a noob and prone to tears (especially right now). Thanks so much in advance.

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Based on everything you write, it sounds like you should leave. This was not your field to begin with and it is not growing on your either. I'm not sure I would even advise to stay for a Masters, but certainly doing an entire PhD just because you don't want to offend your advisor is a bad idea. I understand wanting to justify the time and money that have been invested in you, but at the end of the day you have to do what's right for you. Remember, others have all kinds of other goals in mind -- you should have your good health and well being at the top of yours. It sounds like your original reasons for wanting a PhD were not necessarily the right ones, and now that you've tried it and realized it's not the right decision for you, there is no reason to prolong your suffering.

If you trust your advisor, you could bring this issue up with him. He might find ways of helping you do research that better suits your interests, or he might be able to help you think through the advantages and disadvantages of leaving now vs. staying for a Masters. You'll notice that I still think it's a mistake to go on for a PhD unless your circumstances change drastically. A PhD is hard enough to do when you're happy with your environment and topic and it's almost impossible when you're unhappy with both. If you decide to leave, give him enough notice so that he'll have a chance to recruit someone during this admissions cycle who could take over your duties. If he's just now building his lab, I'm sure he would appreciate the heads up very much - especially if he's not tenured yet. That said, you should be your number #1 priority. Do what's right for you first, then worry about how it affects your advisor.

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  • 3 weeks later...

If you hate it, LEAVE.  Life is far too short to spend 5 years miserable and absolutely hating what you do.  Leave your program, and if you still want to do research, go do a master's degree in your area of passion and then apply for PhD programs later.

Professors understand that when they are taking on students, they are taking a risk.  Do not feel guilty for having to leave just because he is paying you.  People leave jobs they are getting paid for all the time.  If he's insulted by you telling him that the program is not for you, and you are leaving to pursue your interests, that is a personal problem on his part.


Seriously, go ahead and leave now before you get too invested.

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I agree with what others have said. Staying an extra semester would give you time to figure things out, ease the transition for your prof, and maybe look less "wishy-washy" on a resume -- though I'm guessing on this -- so you may want to stay through spring. Talk to your advisor about your concerns... You don't have to frame it that you dislike his research; you could frame it that you didn't realize your fiance wouldn't be able to join you, that you miss behavior based stuff, or something like that.

I think liking research vs. liking learning are a bit like enjoying playing an musical instrument vs. enjoying going to concerts. Both are valid, but you can enjoy the latter without enjoying the former. There may be a way for you to get a job that allows you to learn what you want on the side. Zoo & aquarium education doesn't pay well, but it's good for people who like to learn and explain things.

As a side note, I have a friend who couldn't get into an animal behavior program in spite of good creds, but did get into an ecology program, where she's focusing on animal behavior ("threat perception in feeding behavior", or something like that). So if you do want to do research, going into a related field isn't necessarily a bad strategy, IF you know you'll be able to focus on what you like.

Good luck!

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