Why I Quit My PhD

12 02 2011

The brilliant cartoon above is from PhD Comics and I think it is relatable to anyone who has ever been a student…

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One more change that happened in January was that I decided to leave the MD-PhD program, meaning that I’ll still be finishing my medical degree, but will no longer be pursuing my PhD at McGill (so I’ll be at McGill for four years instead of seven, and I get to graduate with my current med class, who I adore).

I believe in hard work.  I don’t believe that getting anything valuable comes without dedication and perhaps some sacrifices.  This is why I stuck with research despite never truly loving it.  I told myself: one day, it’ll all make sense for me, and it’ll all be worth it.  When I find the right project, I will love research.

But that day never came.

Despite doing research in a variety of fields and working on fantastic projects, something never felt quite right.  Being in the musical helped me realize what was wrong.  For the show, we had Saturday and Sunday rehearsals, and I would have to wake up in the mornings after an exhausting week (never getting to sleep in), but I would still be so excited to work on this show.  It never felt like an obligation.  I realized that if I truly loved research, I should wake up eager to do it, just like for my rehearsals.

But I never was.

The last straw was when I was late for a research deadline at McGill and it was in no small part because I had procrastinated on it.  I felt so guilty and ashamed of myself, for being so irresponsible and so contrary to my perfectionist and ambitious nature.  I realized that by my own standards, I was only ever a mediocre researcher, when I could be and should be a stellar something-else.  That is when I decided that I must leave the MD-PhD program.

I think part of the issue is that I have a genuine love of science, and I never want to let that go.  Being able to work as a healthcare professional is a dream come true, but medicine is not science, and I don’t want to give up my scientific roots, the thrill of discovering new bits of information about the world and understanding why and how life works.  I love reading science news on a daily basis, and I want to leverage that passion to contribute to society.

But I realize now that doing my PhD in neuroscience wasn’t the way for me to tie science into my life.  I’ve always believed that basic research discoveries are directly applicable to society, which is why I try to share science news with my friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis, hopefully demonstrating the relevance of science in everyone’s lives.  I’m also passionate about the need to turn science into public policy, so that changes can be made to laws and governmental programs based on well-researched opinions and beliefs.  I always thought that my passion for relating science to the public meant that I should be focused on the research side, but I was wrong.  I need to and my skill set lies in working with people, which I think means that I need to focus not on the research side, but perhaps on the scientific journalism side, or the public policy side.

I think that the MD-PhD looked perfect for me on paper: a structured, obvious route that neatly ties all my passions into one career trajectory.  It is a well-recognized career path, and I sold myself on all the perks of that.  I think a part of me always felt like this road was not quite right for me, and yet I never wanted to confront this hidden self.  The MD-PhD is such a wonderful program, and choosing not to continue with it would have meant that I had to carve out my own path – a less well-tread one – and I was frankly too scared to make myself face this possibility on top of all the other changes I was already making (i.e., starting a new life in Montreal).

The MD-PhD program is like a prestigious train to a beautiful location that I wanted to hop on before I missed this golden opportunity, so I didn’t think it through as much as I should have and I silenced the part of my brain that nagged at me because everyone tells you that you should be honoured to be on this train and heading to such a wonderful destination, and you feel the same way.  And by the time you do realize that this might not be the train for you, it had already left the platform, and you feel horrible inconveniencing the conductor, the driver, and all the other passengers, especially when you being on this train meant that you had taken someone else’s spot.

The downside of loving structure and planning as much as I do is that I am easily drawn to ready-made programs and paths that seem almost perfectly suited for me.  The key word in that sentence is almost perfect.  The truth is that I’m finally at a stage of my life where I know what I love and what I do not love, and I’m unwilling to make myself do any less than what I feel that I deserve and that which makes me happy.  I also finally have the experience, knowledge, and most importantly, courage to carve out my own journey in life.

Maybe that’s reckless, young, and naively optimistic, but if that’s the case, I hope I continue being this way forever.

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12 responses

12 02 2011
Annie

June,
Great post! I am admire you and am so proud of you. I know that you will be AMAZING at whatever you put your heart to.
Love ya!

12 02 2011
June

LOVE YOU, too! I miss you so much!!! Reunion soon, please – along with Ms. Angeli dela Rosa! =)

12 02 2011
Annie

I admire… (not I am admire…)
Apparently English is not one of my strengths in life….

12 02 2011
James N

I enjoyed the read, June. It takes a lot of mental strength and self-reflection to make a good choice like this. I can really relate to your love of science, but it still makes sense to me why you would not choose to pursue research.

All the best…

12 02 2011
Courtney

It sometimes takes more courage to quit than it does to keep on – so glad you were able to make the tough choice, I am certain you’ll find it was absolutely the right one!
xox
C

12 02 2011
Jocelyn

wow. I’m really happy for that you came to this realization now, and not 3 years into your PHD. It takes such great courage and self-assessment to come to this conclusion and I’m sure that whatever path you choose, you will be shaking things up!

Much love!

13 02 2011
Courteney

Wow, June! I came back to read your blog after a month or so, and realise I’ve missed a lot going on in your life! I think you made a very courageous decision, not necessarily the quitting your PhD part, but the fact that you not only had the clarity and took the time to self-reflect enough to realise that your heart wasn’t in research and step away from what might appear the ‘golden’ track to explore everything that McGill has to offer. I think you put it perfectly when you said “if I truly loved research, I should wake up eager to do it, just like for my rehearsals.” I remember when I was deciding whether to apply to graduate school and one of the best pieces of advice someone gave me was to choose a good project – one that you are passionate about and believe in. Because there will invariably be days when you don’t want to get up/go to work (believe, they DO exist!) and it is the fact that you love your project/find your project fascinating that will get you out of bed. And believe me, doing a PhD, you need that to preserve your sanity and keep you motivated. I believe you made your decision for all the right reasons and you are on the right path to achieving a happy and successful future!

17 10 2012
Jil Sanders

Thank you so much for writing this. I am a junior in undergraduate and was told that I must apply for an MD/PhD program due to my MCAT scores. However, I never considered it beforehand. All I wanted to be was a doctor, not 50% doc and 50% researcher. But I was convinced that I should apply. I was told it was a great opportunity that not everyone gets to take advantage of. But just like you, I had a voice in the back of my mind that kept saying :i hate research,” which of course I tried to ignore. You have in your post addressed so many of my insecurities concerning entering the MD/PhD program and I know now that I definitely don’t want to do it. Thank you so much.

10 06 2013
June

Thanks for your comment. I think making the decision to do or not to do the MD/PhD has to be based on your current thoughts and passions at the time the offer is made. I think I am still open to the idea of research, but it really wasn’t what I wanted to prioritize at the time, I did not have a specific project that I was really passionate about, and I also realized that I could still potentially do research with an MD only, so it would not necessarily shut the door on me for research.

I’m glad my post was helpful. I really appreciate the comment.

19 08 2017
defianteg

This is a very timely read for me. I just started my second year as an MD/PhD student. During this first summer rotation, I realized how stressed out I was (hair falling out) – though I also recognize that this lab was definitely not a good fit in terms of PI mentorship. Still, I was able to contrast that very briefly with a total of perhaps 15 hours exploring an aspect of the medical field which I had considered years ago, but which was merely supposed to be an “exploratory” experience prior to moving on with the planned road ahead. However, my heart is bursting, coming out of me with excitement every time I talk about those 15 hours, and contrasting it with my own body betraying the level of anxiety I felt in my lab experience…well, I am seriously considering everything that you have written here. And yet part of me feels like it’s crazy to leave such a great research institute, etc. Still, so many people have been telling me that when they took the unplanned fork in the road following the thing that truly lit them up, they never regretted it. Thank you.

20 08 2017
June

Hi, there!! Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughtful and meaningful feedback. I wrote this six years ago, and I definitely don’t regret my decision. But as it turns out, after deliberately taking an extended break from research after feeling burnt out from my research experiences (I did not do any research for the remaining three years in medical school), I started dipping a toe in research again near the start of my residency. I had never come across qualitative research or the idea that there is this completely different way of discovering knowledge that fits much better with my worldview and scientific curiosity. In my residency, I was lucky enough to meet a mentor and eventually research supervisor who appreciated and supported my complicated history with and ambivalence towards research. With that support, as well as feeling like I had more clinical knowledge to inspire and ground my scientific curiosity, I am actually now applying to Master’s programs so that I can learn qualitative methodology. I am writing this to you because I wanted to share the rest of my journey with you since I wrote the original post. When I wrote the post, I genuinely felt burnt out from research and my decision to leave the PhD program was absolutely the right one for me at that time. Looking back, i realized I was not ready to fully engage in research, because I was not adequately supported (which was at least partly my own fault for not asking for more help/guidance), I did not know what I did not know (e.g., that my lack of interest was not towards research in general but towards quantitative research in particular, although I very much respect quantitative research and believe strongly in combining both qualitative and quantitative methodology through collaboration), and I did not feel grounded in enough clinical experience to be inspired to engage in any specific research questions. I think if I was to extend my train metaphor from my original post, I would say that I took the wrong train. I took an early train to a destination that was not for me, and I took it because I was worried there would be no later trains. I think leaving research for a few years was what I needed because then when I came back to it, it felt like something I wanted to do as opposed to something I felt I needed to do. If your lab doesn’t feel like a good fit for you, it may be that another PI and/or mentor would be helpful, or another research environment would be helpful. I would also suggest considering that research goes much beyond the traditional bench research or clinical trial research, and I would suggest considering other types of research if you haven’t already (e.g., qualitative research, education research, quality improvement, program evaluation, etc.). It took me a long time to learn that research just means being so interested in answering a question that hasn’t been specifically asked before that you are willing to take the time and learn the skills to answer that question, and this curiosity certainly is not limited to traditional quantitative research. And if research isn’t a good fit for you in this moment (for whatever reasons), it doesn’t mean you can never revisit it in the future. Thanks again for reading. I wish you all the best in your training and your journey.

20 08 2017
defianteg

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond! I have been consulting with different faculty members regarding my thoughts and perspectives. I am a non-traditional student (35 y/o), and while I definitely have identified that this particular lab was not a good fit for me, I am also heavily weighing my options because, after 4 years of research just to get here, the medical experience that grabbed me so unexpectedly this summer (forensics, actually, which makes a lot of sense given my military background) gave me a taste of what it feels like to be truly passionate about something to such a radical extent – something that perhaps I had convinced myself I was already doing but knowing there was a voice in the background telling me something was a bit off. I know it is early in the game, but I think I may have had my “aha” moment regarding my career. Still, I do not wish to act too hastily and want to conduct a second rotation where I know there is potential for a much better fit – regardless of what my decision may be after the second rotation.
It is wonderful to hear that you have found your place, and your words of wisdom and encouragement are much appreciated! All the best to you as well! Thanks again!

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