The day I defended my thesis was one of the best days of my life. At that point I’d been in school for a total of 23 years, and I’d finally reached the end of the road. Surrounded by family and friends, I received the title of “Doctor”. It seemed I was finally ready to embark on a career that would be challenging, but fulfilling. It was and is a major achievement, and I’m still very proud of it.
So why the hell would I want to walk away?
The fact of the matter is that I never wanted to be a scientist. When I first started college, I chose to go into science because I knew I could do it, and it was more practical than the other majors I was interested in. I just knew too many unemployed English majors to think it was a viable career choice. But one of the downsides to going to such a small state school was that there were no research labs, so I had very little experience actually doing science when I graduated. Not only did this set me back when trying to get into grad school, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into in the first place. Had I been able to spend time in a real research lab, I may have figured out much earlier that I don’t like doing lab work.
And it’s not just the monotony of labeling a million little tubes or doing an experiment over and over again until you get it right. When you do research for a living, you’re never truly “off”. There’s always another paper you could read, data to analyze and re-analyze, or abstracts/papers/grants/theses to write. And there’s always a presentation to prepare for, whether it’s lab meeting, journal club, student seminars, poster sessions, or conference talks. Maybe it’s just me, but if I wasn’t doing any one of these things, I would start to feel bad about not working hard enough, so my downtime (what little there was) was tainted with guilt. One of the reasons I was so happy about graduating was that I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this anymore, and yet even as a postdoc this has been true. There’s just no escape from it.
Now, I’m sure this is the cost of any high pressure career, but in general there are some sort of benefits to outweigh all of the difficulties. My experience is that this isn’t true in science. For starters, the financial rewards are minimal. As a grad student I was being paid to get my degree, which admittedly is a pretty good deal and hard to complain about. However, I was only making between $26-28k/year, while dealing with all of the above pressures and putting in 50+ hours in a week. Before grad school, I was waiting tables and selling video games, and made ~$36k/year working less than 40 hours/week. And when work was over, it was over. A postdoc salary is a little better, ~$43k/year, but certainly not commensurate with the amount of time and effort that goes into obtaining a PhD in the first place. And I still don’t make as much as Jen; in fact, I just caught up to where she was three years ago. She still makes a full third more than I do, in a career that only requires experience. All of a sudden that fancy degree hardly seems worth it.
The other big one is that it’s a “rewarding” career, work that actually makes a lasting impact on the world. This is certainly true for the pursuit of science in general, but on an individual level it rarely feels rewarding (for me at least). It’s been suggested that half of peer-reviewed articles are read only by the authors and the reviewers, and while that’s most likely wrong, there are still only a handful of people in the world who are capable of taking what’s found in those journals and turning it into something useful. It’s incredibly frustrating to spend hundreds of hours working on something that feels like it has no practical value, and will simply be released into the ether, noticed by no one. And even if you do stumble on something exciting, it could be decades before that gets translated into something that will actually help someone, usually by somebody else.
The other half of this equation is how it’s affected my personal life. To put it bluntly, graduate school was hell on our marriage, and it barely survived. From the beginning Jen was opposed to living in Eugene, but the University of Oregon was the only school I got accepted into, and I felt I needed to get my PhD so that I could get a “decent” job. At the time I was really down on myself for having two bachelor’s degrees in science, and yet was still waiting tables and working retail. I thought a PhD would be my ticket to a better career, one that would take care of us both financially so that Jen could pursue whatever she wanted. So I insisted that we move to Eugene, leaving behind family and friends at the promise of a better life at the end. It ended up being six years of hell, with both of us constantly stressed out and fighting all the time. There were times Jen would say to me that she wished she could just fall into a coma and wake up when I graduated. We both saw that day as the end of the tunnel, when we could get out of this holding pattern our lives were in and move on.
But that hasn’t happened. Instead, I’m back on another 5+ year path to a job that I think is the one I want. Meanwhile, I’m still not being paid well, I still hate being in lab, and I’ve actually had to start taking classes again. Maybe I’m looking at it wrong, but I feel a certain level of indignity at being a 33 year old PhD who still has to ride the bus to school and do fucking homework. It feels like moving backwards.
I know that most people hate their jobs, yet they just grit their teeth and grind through. Fine. But there’s no reason why we have to make that same choice. At this point, we have no kids, no property, no debt; in short, we’re not tied down to anything. Neither one of us is living our ideal life at this point. But as it turns out, the only reason we aren’t is because we simply haven’t chosen to. Jen wants to travel. I want to write. So that’s what we’re going to do. I’m leaving science because it gives us the rare opportunity to pursue what we really want in life. It may turn out to be the worst decision we’ve ever made, but as of right now it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. It feels good. Real good.
It’s time to start living.