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Quitting School and Getting a Job to Reapply to Schools Next Year


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Hi everyone,

I started attending a great STEM grad school this fall, and I decided to quit the program to get a job before I reapply to schools next fall. I've thought about this for the past two months, the whole time I've been here, and I'd like to hear about your advice on how to approach this issue.


The first time I got here, I wasn't happy with the location. However, I decided to prioritize my research career. I went to a small school, in which research was not so active, and after spending some time in a big research university, I realized how unprepared I was when I was applying for graduate schools. I LOVED being a graduate student. I was so happy to do homework, teach students, talk about science with other students, and spend time in different labs. I also found one lab that I really liked, and I thought I was set to stay in this place.


However, I was talking to a student in the lab I'm interested in the other day, and I came to a big realization. I realized I have no reason to stay in the school and that I'll be much happier somewhere else:

1) The group I'm interested in is working on a topic I'm very interested in. As you know, there are multiple aspects in one topic. The problem is, the lab's primary focus itself is not what I feel passionate about (Let's call it A). It's just that I luckily have a chance to study the aspect I'm interested in (Let's call it B ) within the topic they have been working on. I am going to be the first and only person focusing on the aspect, and even though I'm happy to take charge, I believe I will be able to learn a lot more if I join a lab that primarily focuses on B,  not A.

2) I want to do translational, practical research. The lab does translational research, but my project itself is going to be probing fundamental mechanistic problems. I want to find a lab in which I can do translational research myself.

3) Now that I'm not so happy with the research, even though I love the people here, I have not much reason to stay. (I was not so happy with the location in the first place.)


Having made up my mind, I haven't told anyone in the school about my plan, but I've been thinking of how to make the transition. The three possible scenarios are:

1) Contact a different school in which I interviewed but got rejected and ask them to reconsider me as an applicant. The benefit will be that if they accept me, I'll be able to start grad school ASAP. They also have a lot of labs that are very interesting to me. However, this is not exactly the top program, so I think if I'm going to change school anyway, I may as well spend one more year working as a RA and go to a top school.

2) Find a job ASAP and work there for the next 1.5 years. Then I'll be able to apply for schools next fall and start my grad school life in 2018 Fall. I'm willing to wait till then, but I'm afraid if I will be able to find a good enough job to let me get into the very top schools (like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley). It is risky.

3) Stay in the current school for the next 1.5 years and get a MS. The problem is, things will be very awkward and uncomfortable and unethical for me to stay knowing I will leave. I'll have to inform the PI next fall to get a recommendation letter, and things will not be so fun for the following year (until Fall 2018). I know the new school will not be so happy about me moving to a different school after spending time in a graduate school.

4) Honestly inform the current school of my plan to leave and look for a PI that will allow me to do a short project. I have not found a PI like that, and this is risky. The school may not like me, and my next 1.5 years may be very stressful.


And here are my questions for you guys.

1) When would be a good time for me to inform the school of my decision? The earliest date to join a lab is early November, and the only lab I'll be willing to join is popular, so I won't be able to join unless I show clear sign of my interests.

2) What do you think will be a good plan to stick to, among 1-4?

3) The program in Plan 1) is a quite renowned program, I guess top 10, and I'm totally willing to wait one more year if I can get into top 5. The program is top 10 for its specific field, but it is not as comprehensively good as top 5. I'm happy to wait for one more year, but do you think it's too risky? Would getting a job in a good lab ensure me of my acceptance to top 5 programs? I'm afraid experience as a RA would not necessarily be fantastic and interesting so as to make me a very strong candidate.


I have been thinking about this issue the whole time I have been in this school. I am very grateful that my time here has narrowed my interests and reassured my passion as a researcher. I just want to maximize my learning and experience as a graduate school by going to a place where I can find more exciting research.


What do you think?

Edited by Laptopcase
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In response to Pink Fuzzy Bunny, I don't think most courses will transfer. At least in neuroscience, it's very rare for a grad school to accept coursework done at another institution. Maybe if you got a master's but even then it might not transfer. 


I'm also a bit confused about why you're leaving. The only real complaint I can glean from your statement is that your lab doesn't focus exactly on what you want to do and isn't quite as translational as you want. I'd just like to say that your lab doesn't have to do exactly what you want in order for you to study it (you mention that you could work on B even if most of the lab does A). As long as your PI is supportive of this, I see no reason why this is a detriment. Most grad students end up expanding the scope of the lab's research in some way (otherwise everyone would be doing the exact same thing). I also don't know what you want to do after grad school, but it probably won't be what you do for your dissertation. I wouldn't worry if the project doesn't fit the most narrow definition of your research interest. Personally, I think mentorship and fit in the lab is way more important than the actual research. Most people are more flexible than they realize in terms of what they're 'passionate' about, and indeed this often changes over time as you're exposed to different kinds of research. I guess I'm suggesting you ask yourself what your overall fit is with the program and what your chances are of finding a better fit somewhere else are? You've only been in the program a few months. Are you really sure what you want is to leave?

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I will also say that it is very likely that your courses will not transfer. If you want to go to a new school, you're likely going to start over again, at year one.

I also want to second @Butterfly_effect's point about the importance of mentorship and research fit over research fit/passion. I always say that these two things are important for happiness and productivity in grad school, however, it is much easier to change your research interests than your PI's mentorship style and lab culture. If you find a good PI and a good lab at a school/department that is a good fit for you, I'd hang on as best I could! 

From an outsider's point of view, it sounds to me that you are focussing too much on the little differences in research topics. To me, it sounds like your "dream project" and what your lab does is very similar, just not exactly what you were hoping for. Since I don't know the terminology of your field, I'd use an analogy. To me, it sounds like your ideal grad school project is to study the best pastry making methods because you want to make apple pies. However, the lab is working on making Beef Wellington, but part of a good Beef Wellington is a nice pastry crust, so they are working on developing pastry methods too! 

My advice for new and prospective graduate students is to avoid framing your research interests as a specific topic or research question. Instead, when picking labs in grad school, think about what are the things you want to learn by the time you leave. Grad school is a training ground---I think of it as an "incubator" for us to develop into independent scientists. So, I don't really care that much whether I work on making apple pies, cherry turnovers, or Beef Wellington. My goal is to develop good pastry making skills so that I can go out there and become an independent researcher.

I also think flexible research interests is good for you personally and good for science overall. It's good for you personally because you will be able to "follow the money" and do whatever work that is getting funded. Having narrow interests in grad school means that you might have to adjust to this during postdocs and later in your career. That is, you might just get lucky and have the perfect fit project in grad school, but that's not always going to be the case later in life, so I wouldn't stress about it now. I also think it's good for science and academia in general to be flexible. If every scientist decided on research interests for life in grad school, our field won't be able to adapt to new discoveries and work on whatever is at the forefront of knowledge at a given time. 

Okay, so here is my suggestion on future steps:

1. Don't do anything now. You've only been here for a few months. You gain almost nothing from leaving the program right now so give it some more time. Do not contact the schools that did not accept you to see if they would reconsider you. They didn't accept you during the regular season, and they are unlikely to somehow change their mind. If there were schools that accepted you but you declined, then maybe there is a chance. 

2. After 1 academic year in the program (e.g. the summer), re-evaluate how you feel about the research fit and the city and the lab fit etc. I understand your ethical concerns about staying longer knowing that you will leave, but I don't think it's a concern if you fully commit to keeping an open mind until next summer. No one will expect you to know within a few months whether or not you will stay. 

3. If you do decide to leave next summer, you should tell your PI right away. This will give you the summertime to figure out the next course of action---whether it's to stay and finish the MS (and whether or not you will still be funded in the 2017-2018 year) or to just leave and take a job while applying for more schools. 

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Thanks for your advice everyone.

Yes, I agree research interests can change and that I can't expect the lab to be studying exactly what I want, but I'd like to add some details.


1. There are other programs in which my research of interest is actively done. It's not even just a specific topic I'm talking about. I'm talking about the characteristic of the overall program and the nature of research (basic vs. translational). In addition, in other places, there are multiple labs that do research of my interest, and I believe those programs will be a better fit for me than the current program overall. In other places, there will be more opportunities for jobs, and there are several institutions in related fields.

2. I'm thinking of staying in the academia. I heard quitting a grad school in the beginning before I join a lab won't harm me too much, but some others say it will look very bad on me. What do you think? Would it be worse to leave now than to leave after two years? I'm also worried that my PI will not write a good recommendation letter for me.

3. I am in a long distance relationship with my significant other. We are quite serious. She cannot leave because of the type of career she's in, and I was willing to be apart for several years as long as I was happy with the research here. However, now that I feel like I'll be able to learn better in different programs and be happier with my significant other, I feel a strong urge to leave. Because this problem is also related to my relationship, I will be able to tell my PI that I want to stay closer to my significant other next year, but I'm afraid I'll come across as unprofessional.


I really appreciate your advice. Thank you.

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Maybe I am just missing something, but I don't understand the terms "basic research" and "translational research" because I haven't heard of the second type before. Sorry if this is just a naive question. I originally thought you were using jargon specific to your field and that was why I did not understand, but now it sounds like the differences are of a scale much larger than I had thought? Or maybe not? Would you mind clarifying what you mean?

As for getting letters / leaving programs, as you say, there are several different possible scenarios. Here is my perception of how good/bad they look. I am going to only discuss the professional outcomes here, even though you should definitely consider and balance both professional and personal goals (see next section for that). I kind of rank them here, but within each section, I think there's not a ton of differences.

Best scenarios for you, professionally:

1. You finish a full Masters program at your current school (whether it's 1 or 2 years) and have 1-2 strong letters from this school, including one from your advisor. This letter should indicate that you are a strong researcher and good student, but you left because it was determined that the program cannot provide you with the training and skills that matches your goals. Maybe you even publish in these two years. (This is the best possible outcome and it will actually make you even stronger for your top choice schools in the future, I think)

2. You finish a full Masters program at your current school (whether it's 1 or 2 years). Maybe your advisor and you had a falling out because you decided to leave but you still have 1 really strong letter from someone else in the department stating something like scenario #1.

Scenarios that may raise some eyebrows when they review your application but will probably not going to be the thing that makes or break your application:

3. You decide to leave after the end of your first year (or maybe after the current term, depending if you have TA obligations next semester). You tell your advisor right now and they agree to write you a letter that confirms the fact that you are leaving because your goals don't match the department's focus, and not because of any failure or problems on your part. Hopefully you have done enough with them that they can still evaluate one semester's worth of research (after all, this is the same amount of interaction an advisor may have with an undergraduate researcher anyways).

4. You decide to leave before joining a lab and your PI says they cannot write you a good letter because they don't know you well enough. You contact your other letter writers and explain the situation to them so that they can emphasize your strengths in future application. Maybe you can even get a generic letter from your PI or your department to confirm that you chose to leave because of lack of research fit, instead of being dismissed for performance reasons etc.

And here are some cases where it can go badly for you in future application:

5. You stay for the full 2 years, get a Masters degree, but no one in the department writes any sort of letter for you. Also, no publications were possible. However, you can likely salvage this still by contacting old letter writers and explaining yourself in your new application.

6. You stay for just the first year and don't get any sort of degree at all. Your advisor and other profs in your department refuse to write any sort of letter for you at all. This doesn't mean you are doomed though, but it will put you at a disadvantage. However, you do have a compelling reason so contacting old letter writers and explaining your situation well in your SOP would go a long way.


Ultimately, I think you have much more to lose, professionally, by leaving now than finishing enough of the program to get some research output and a degree. It is very important, in my opinion, to have strong letters from your current program, and it would be much easier to get this in your 2nd year in the program instead of the first. Also, by staying for at least one year, you may find that your research interests change. That is, although you are not happy with your research right now, if you move to another school away from your SO whose research attracts you right now, how do you know this will still be the case 3 or 4 years from now? Will you be in the same situation in 3 or 4 years?

As for the personal reason, I don't think it is unprofessional at all. In fact, having your PI know this might help you because then it makes it clear that the only reasons you want to leave are because the research match isn't good and you aren't personally happy. (i.e. it's not a problem with them, their lab, the department, or you at all). It's just things that are out of everyone's control.

That said, it might also be a good idea to think about your long term goals. Maybe this research area is not what you want, but if the school provides a great work/training environment and has the resources to build up your skills/experience, then maybe what you are doing here will maximize your chances to work in the academic job you want in the future that is also in the location you want (i.e. near your SO). So, maybe it could help to reframe what you are looking for in grad school---instead of happiness with current research fit, what if you view your current position as the best place to train for the future position that will make you the most happy? Whether this is realistic goes back to my first paragraph here---I'm not sure I understand how different your current lab's work and your preferred work topics are. 

Note: Eventually, my spouse and I would like to be back in Canada to settle down, but for grad school and postdocs, we are willing to live further away in order to have access to the best resources/training so that we would be the most qualified for positions near our family. 

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I second everything TakeruK has said. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the terms basic vs. translational, basic research is research without obvious applications (think NSF) whereas translational research is a particular type of applied research to solve a problem in medicine, usually by testing some kind of treatment (more NIH).  

I will maintain that the line between basic and translational is often blurred though. Even if you want to do translational research ultimately, it really doesn't matter whether what you did in grad school was translational. Sometimes basic research can even expose you to a wider range of techniques and approaches that can make you more well-rounded and give you a different (and maybe better) perspective than if all you ever did was translational research. 

I totally understand that there may be other reasons to want to leave, including wanting to be closer to your SO. I guess I would ask you to think about whether the fit at the school you're currently at is bad/inadequate, or whether you're just thinking it could be better somewhere else. You'd be trading a certainty for an unknown if you quit. You say you love the people there. Are you happy? 

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3 hours ago, Butterfly_effect said:

For anyone unfamiliar with the terms basic vs. translational, basic research is research without obvious applications (think NSF) whereas translational research is a particular type of applied research to solve a problem in medicine, usually by testing some kind of treatment (more NIH).  

I will maintain that the line between basic and translational is often blurred though. Even if you want to do translational research ultimately, it really doesn't matter whether what you did in grad school was translational. Sometimes basic research can even expose you to a wider range of techniques and approaches that can make you more well-rounded and give you a different (and maybe better) perspective than if all you ever did was translational research. 

Ah, thanks for the clarification! My field has pretty much zero "translational value" since you're not going to be solving any of the world's problems or curing any diseases through a better understanding of exoplanets located hundreds/thousands of light years away :) It's just knowledge for the sake of knowledge (which does have indirect benefits, since astronomy often inspires other people to learn more about science and then they go and become a more useful kind of scientist :P).

In my former field, it would be the difference between "pure physics" or "basic physics research" vs. "applied physics", but in Canada (where I was in this field), both basic physics and applied physics were funded by the same agency ("NSERC" = NSF) and were often in the same department (i.e. we just have Departments of "Physics and Engineering Physics") so for us, it was less of a difference :)

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