Why I am Leaving Graduate School

Forward

I originally wrote this about midway through August 2013. I wasn’t quite sure that leaving graduate school was the right decision until I experienced that sleepless night when I spewed this out. Quite a few things have changed between writing and publishing, but I’m going to leave the original text in as pure a form as possible. I hope that the rawness of the writing makes up for the naivety. -SAY 12/27/2013

Introduction

Some students hate graduate school. I am not one of them. Grad school is the place to learn how to do scientific research. You don’t have distractions like “off-duty hours” or money. I’m saying that without sarcasm or bitterness; it’s simply the truth. If you are absolutely sure that research is what you want to do with your life, then grad school may be the place for you.

I’ve realized over the past few weeks that research is not all that I want to do in life. I came to this epiphany while teaching “Modern Physics for Engineers.” I have realized that my potential as an educator exceeds my potential as a researcher. This is directly related to the fact that I’m happier when teaching than I am when doing research.

I have two main motivations behind making this post. The first is so that I have all of this information organized and available for when people inevitably ask me why I am leaving. The other is that I have a solid record of my thoughts and reasons in case I ever need a reminder for having made this choice. First, I will address what I stand to lose in leaving grad school, then I will go into all that I have to gain.

Reasons for Staying in Graduate School

This decision was not an easy one to make. Several factors have played a vital role in guiding me towards and nurturing me through grad school. In particular, I feel like I have been held here by a sense of obligation, a desire to teach at a high level, an ego that is too easily bruised, and, most importantly, the strength of the scientific community. I’d like to touch on each of these topics and how they’ve played a role in my life over the past few years.

Obligation

I must open this segment by praising my advisor, Dr. David Toback. I came to Texas A&M University specifically to study under Dave, whom I had first worked for during the summer of 2009. He has been a nurturing mentor, especially over these past two years. When I told Dave about my decision to leave, he was completely understanding and has done everything in his power to help me find my path. I’m certain that I would not have made it this far without Dave’s help and I am extremely grateful to him.

In choosing to leave graduate school, I feel like I am abandoning Dave and the rest of my colleagues, particularly George and Teja. All of our plans had assumed that I would be around for a long time; I feel horrible throwing a stick into their wheels. Beyond the guilt, I also feel as though I am shirking my duties. I am sorry that they must deal with some of the repercussions of my decision, but I honestly feel that I have made the right choice. I am also confident that my absence from the workplace will not hinder any of their future successes.

Desire to Teach

Naturally, this point is also on my list of reasons to leave grad school. If you had talked to me a few months ago, I would have told you that my life goal was to be a professor at a small liberal arts school. If you had asked me more than a few months ago, I would have been too scared to answer. I didn’t want to risk looking like an idiot if things didn’t pan out “properly.”

Yet the probability of ending up at this city-on-a-hill seems to shrink with each new piece of literature I read. Amidst a glut of Ph.D’s, a dearth of tenure-track positions, and an uncertain future for liberal arts schools as a whole, dropping out of the rat race seems like a better option.

And I do not hesitate to use the phrase “rat race.” The number of hoops that a candidate must jump through to get an academic position is outrageous. The reward for these efforts is the stress of scrambling for tenure. Even then, the job security of successfully achieving tenure sounds nice, but chasing grants to stay relevant and to support students doesn’t.

Some of you may say, “Well there’s no chance of making it if you give up!” Sometimes this advice is sound. When a person is working at the thing that he loves best, these words are what he needs to hear when he stumbles on hard times. A position as a professor at a liberal arts school still sounds like a kick ass job, but the price I’d have to pay to get (and to stay) there is too prohibitive. The people who belong in these positions are the ones who do not view all of these intermediary steps as hoops to jump through.

Pride

This is easily the hardest point to write about; it involves bearing my darker side to the world. I think, however, that openness and honesty here are very important. For so much of my life, I was unable to willingly show any kind of weakness. It’s still something that I’m not comfortable doing. Fighting that paralyzing fear in such a personal, yet public, manner is crucial to my growth as a person.

I’m not sure how to say this without coming off as a pompous ass, but I am an intelligent person. I have always taken a sense of pride in my acumen and it has played a central role in forming my identity. I am ashamed to say that in the past I often drew a sense of superiority from my intellect. While I cannot currently claim to be free of this failing, I have begun to stare down the beast in an attempt to overcome my arrogance. One of my most important lessons in grad school was on humility, and it did not come easily.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I have been reluctant to leave is because part of me viewed a Ph.D as external validation of my intelligence. This is the absolute worst reason to be in grad school! Any psychiatrist will tell you that seeking external validations is not healthy. It gets even worse when you pair this mindset with the Impostor Syndrome that plagues many grad students, myself included. My solution is to instead focus on projects that leave me feeling fulfilled.

It’s true, I’m still afraid that in the future I might get looked down upon for not having completed my Ph.D. I’m choosing to use that fear as motivation to ensure I live life on my own terms and with no regrets. I don’t think I can fully shake my pride, but maybe I can harness it to make the world a better place. At the very least, publicly confessing the existence of this “dark passenger” has helped to ease its grip on me.

Community

The scientific community is by far the biggest reason I want to stay in grad school. Scientists are the purest of nerds, which makes them absolutely wonderful people to be around! It’s a diverse culture whose members hail from all over the world. They’re united by their curiosity, their love of nature, and their nearly reflexive asking of “Why?” If you’re looking for an interesting person to grab a beer with, find a scientist. If you ask the right questions, you’re in for an exhilarating conversation!

While research will no longer be my primary focus, I don’t think I’ll be completely removed from the scientific community. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I couldn’t escape if I tried! I think that the best way that I can contribute to the advancement of human knowledge is by throwing a rope and helping others scale the cliffs that I have already climbed. Quite frankly, the view is marvelous. The world needs guides like Bill Nye, as much as it needs explorers like Richard Feynman. I feel that I am more cut out for the former role.

Reasons for Leaving

Those arguments form the core of my motivations for staying in grad school. I want to juxtapose the reasons to stay against the reasons to leave in an effort to expose the formers’ inadequacy. The previous section focused on what I stood to lose; this next one shall explore all that I stand to gain. The key points are teaching experience, time for other projects, humanitarianism, and travel.

Teaching Experience

Teaching is a word that carries some dangerous connotations. It’s too aggressive a verb for my taste. It seems to imply a process whereby I directly transfer my knowledge to a student, as if by magic. This couldn’t be further off the mark. Learning only happens when a receptive mind is actively engaged in the material. This is what makes it difficult to be an effective teacher. I must first pique the students’ curiosity, then aid them on their path to knowledge. Luckily, the universe is an exceptionally interesting place, which makes things a bit easier.

Perhaps that is the heart of what I do. I spread the message that the universe is an exciting, terrifying, wonderful place. What’s even more amazing is that humans, minuscule collections of carbon based molecules, have the tools to explore a world that is so mysterious and unusual. Think about that for a moment. We’re pretty damned impressive specks of dust.

So, I guess that it’s pretty apparent that I’m into this whole “education” thing. Unfortunately, if I stay in grad school (and follow it with a post doc, which is effectively a prerequisite for a tenure track position) my opportunities to teach will be severely hindered for the next several years. Instead, I would be focusing on becoming a researcher.

Meg Jay has an excellent talk about how the twenties are such important years for us to establish ourselves. They are arguably our most productive years and when we are most likely to produce our best work. Therefore, it’s important for me to figure out who I want to become and strive toward that goal with all my heart. In these past few paragraphs set some clear criteria for who I want to become. Unfortunately, I don’t think staying in grad school will give me the opportunity, time, or experience needed to become a world class educator.

Other Projects

Physics will always be my first love and true passion. It is deeply ingrained into my being and I can guarantee that I will be miserable if I end up in a field where physics plays no role in my life. While it is my favorite subject, it is not the only thing in my life. Leaving grad school will free me up to pursue my other interests as well.

Every time I engaged in a leisure activity during grad school, I felt lazy. Each bit of brainpower that was not devoted to my research made me feel like a charlatan. “Who the hell am I to have the gall to dedicate precious willpower towards something that isn’t my research?” I understand that no one expected me to maintain literally 100% focus on my work, but this was a self imposed mindset. Yet, there are so many other activities that are essential to making me a complete person.

This blog is the most obvious example. Even though I have yet to make many entries, these current musings have been therapeutic, and I plan to continue.

Another hobby that I have picked up, at long last, is playing the guitar. In actuality, I view this as less of a new hobby and more as an extension of my love of music. I’m no Tobias Funke – I don’t expect to be a star musician, but grabbing the old six string is a always good way to take a load off. At the moment, I’m very much a beginner and many months of practice await me before the guitar really opens up as a form of self expression.

Finally, I don’t want to overlook the potential for other side projects. Whatever ideas lie in the future are exciting and I want to be able to devote the time needed to convert them into something substantive. I have been regrettably bad at this in the past. Also, getting back into good shape would be lovely. Between ultimate and bicycling, maybe I’ll actually become physically healthy again.

Helping Others

One of the worst things about grad school is how selfish I feel. I do believe that pure research is essential and contributes to the betterment of humanity. But I don’t think that I could tell a starving child that looking for dark matter is more important than her dinner.

One thing that my parents always stressed is how important it is to help others. I am very grateful to them for that. While I’m not going to completely pull roots and devote my life to charity, I am not satisfied with my current the impact on the world. Through teaching, I hope to make a difference in students’ lives. As these young adults mature, I hope that my influence contributes to the activation energy required for them to lead fulfilling lives and that they go on to make the world a better place.

Travel

I need to escape Texas as quickly as possible. Nearly all of my experience with the state is College Station, but I feel that its inhabitants have given me a reasonable cross section of Texan culture. Nearly all of the individual Texans that I know are phenomenal people and I am honored to count them as friends.

But still, the culture here is toxic to me. It embodies everything that I am not. I do not regret having lived in Texas for these past two years. I learned a lot of things that I would not have been forced to confront otherwise. A figurative (and occasionally literal) slap in face is often just what I need to wake up from my own ignorance. My time here has done much to help me understand and empathize with more conservative world-views, even if I do not agree with them on most topics. I am grateful for these lessons, however, I must move on for the sake of my mental well being and for a chance to learn even more.

I want to live somewhere new. California and the Pacific Northwest are especially beguiling. Europe’s siren call is also hard to resist. At the moment, I don’t want to settle down anywhere, although I might change my mind once I move. I want to have the opportunity to travel the world over the next few years and experience a variety of cultures. I am a physics teacher, a job which I hope will open up employment opportunities wherever I go.

At the moment, I am applying to jobs. The near future most likely involves teaching at a junior/community college. This will get me a steady (if small) income, teaching experience, and the ability to pull roots when I feel the wanderlust calling again. While the Earth is just a tiny blue dot in the Milky Way, it’s still a damn interesting place and I want to see as much of it as I can while I still have that luxury.

Conclusion

In his wonderful book, “How to Read Literature like a Professor,” Thomas C. Foster discusses the archetypal quest story, a story which we all feel like we are living out daily. He writes, “The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps it’s due to my fascination with sci-fi and video games, but I try to embrace my life as a journey. Leaving grad school will open up my options to look both outwards and inwards.

I have no idea what lies ahead, but that’s part of what makes the adventure so exciting! For those of you who have not seen me in a while, I will not be the same person you knew when our paths next cross. I can only make guesses about whom you’ll encounter, but, with any luck, he’ll be a kinder, wiser version of myself. Until then, happy trails!

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5 Responses to Why I am Leaving Graduate School

  1. Mike P. says:

    >> [P]art of me viewed a Ph.D as external validation of my intelligence. This is the absolute worst reason to be in grad school! <<

    Sean, truer words were never spoken. Unfortunately, it's a far too common reason, as meeting a few dozen tenured professors will confirm.

  2. J says:

    A good read, thank you for sharing. Godspeed, sir.

  3. mare says:

    High school kids could benefit from your enthusiasm for good science. Now THERE is a thankless planet, but HS physics teachers can often get a ( thankless) job where ever.
    Also keep in mind. None of thus is either/or

  4. Hamilton says:

    Hey Sean! It all sounds awesome! If you ever do decide to get your PhD, you’ve got decades left for that, In the meantime, you’ve picked an incredible place for your first landing!

  5. Justine says:

    This is such a fabulous, thoughtful, brave post. Well-said! And now: shared. Because other smart people ought to read this, too.

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