We’re told from day one that we will learn a TON of skills while in grad school. These bits of knowledge come in the form of things that happen to us, or others, advice that’s passed down from one grad student generation to another, or via the PI, among others. We learn about when to talk to our boss about vacation, or ask for money to go to yet another conference this year, or what’s the best way to get that secretary or admin person to show you some mercy when you’re submitting documents for whatever even though you know she/he hates students, especially you. We also learn about where to get lunch for free almost every day of the week, and who to choose for your thesis committee (or not).
But one of the main skills we learn (or develop) is which battles we choose to fight, and which are just worth abandoning. In particular this was very helpful when I had to submit one of my papers and also when it was time to leave (though my boss was extremely supportive of me getting out ASAP, so it wasn’t like I was fighting a lost cause, it was more of getting the stupid committee together for a few hours … the bane of every grad student’s existence).
Through the years I’ve met people, at different stages of their graduate careers, who know when it’s worth doing something, and when it’s best to just leave. And I’ve tried to learn from what they’ve experienced. See, I ‘ve never a quitter. When my 4th grade math teacher hated my guts, I could have switched teachers but did’nt. When the choir director wanted me to sign as an alto, when I’m clearly a mezzo, I kept doing the alto part, or when the boss wanted me to try a program I knew people before me had tried for months on end without a positive result, and I thought I had the magic touch, I kept at it. Luckily I gave up on this quickly (by some miracle of nature or something) and thankfully that was one of the first battles I decided not to keep fighting. This entry isn’t that much about me. It’s about how people I know have chosen to quit, or stop fighting (while in grad school) to either get their degree, whatever it is, and one who hasn’t. One of my best friends in grad school decided to join her MS lab because she loved the type of research done there and was sure it would keep her happy for (what she though would be) the duration of her PhD. This same friend had done a rotation in said lab, and witnessed a few fights between the boss and one of the techs. I mean, it was a screaming match that half a hall could hear. She knew the boss had a temper, and I remember her saying that she wouldn’t tolerate any kind of screming (luckily for her they never fought). She was confused about whether to stay in that lab or do an extra rotation. I remember telling her that if the screming was a deal breaker, she should cross that lab off her list. She eventually joined the screaming lab, passed her qual and continued full-speed ahead with her thesis research. By year 4 of our PhD stint said friend confided that she’d lost her zest for the lab work, there was no direction for her research and the boss (who is an MD and had rounds and all those things that occupy the MD life) was taking her time to help her put together a committee meeting to see what progress could be made in a thesis that was stagnated. My friend needed input to see where things would lead, but her boss, due to whatever reason (I’d say for time reasons and also fear of being told she was an incompetent by her PI peers) was not very keen on that idea. Long story short, friend did schedule a meeting, the committee saw all her effort and gently reminded the PI that a) they should have met ages ago, b) the research was too far off the original scope of things and was going nowhere, c) the PI seemed lost, and d) she’d better get her (the PI) act together and start looking for guidance and feedback from her fellow profs, or soon her lab would be empty due to a lack of care (on the PI’s part) and the student’s losing all interest in their projects. By then my friend was tired, and started exploring options outside of academia. She didn’t want to be shackled to her boss’s presence forever, and more importantly, she chose not to keep fighting the PhD battle. After some soul-searching my friend eventually found a job as a math/biology teacher and left the lab. Two postdocs finished their fellowships and left, a rotation student left for another lab, and another labmate left with a masters (my friend also left with a MS). The lab closed and the PI returned to her clinical practice. When my friend decided to leave with a master’s I was shocked. here was a brilliant scientist, basically giving up on her dream of having a PhD due to an incompetent PI. As the years have gone by, I can now see and appreciate why my friend did it. She’s much happier teaching and feels more fulfilled. She also has time to enjoy life with her hubby, go on marathons with him in ways she couldn’t during her stint in school.
Not all the cases I know are that extreme. I have a friend that, after doing a post-bac for 1.5 years, decided to apply to the PhD program. She did, got in and took all her first year and part of her second year classes. She joined the same lab she’d worked for during her post-bac time, and seemed to do very well. She’d gotten a publication out of her post-bac project, and was en route to write a second paper with the results she’d gotten after officially joining the lab as a PhD trainee. My friend then started questioning why she was going to get a PhD rather than a master’s. After much deliberation, and almost two years into her PhD she decided to leave instead with a masters, not bother with the qualifying exam, and forget about continuing in academia (as a prof, this friend is now teaching in a nutrition program at a small college in the South).
Those cases are from people who decided to cut their time short in academia and focus on something else. But another critical time in which to examine what to do and whether to continue or leave, is when you’ve finished your course work, passed the qual and are close to being done, or are at least knee-deep in data that’s either not cooperating, or you have no idea what to make of it.
Enter a grad student at my department. Grad student Y (GSY; and yes I’ll probably go through the entire alphabet, so deal with it) is a 5th year grad student. His lab is very prolific, getting out at least 1 student per year (this year 2 students will finish). GSYwas dealt a heavy hand. He took out a project that used a series of biophysical and biochemical assays to probe not only for the interaction but also the downstream effects of some proteins related to ageing and cancer. GSY is a great biochemist and when it was time to learn one of the biophysical techniques that his lab does not master, he was directed to a nearby lab. The thing is that after his assay was done, and his data collected the PI, who’s a master in the technique, promised to help him sort through and analyze the data. The PI did … but gave the student bad advice on how to read the results of one of the assays he did, and since the student didn’t know much about the technique, trusted the PI and went with it. About a year ago GSY, while reading a review on the technique, realized the PIs mistake, and saw that his data was not very useful, inconclusive at best. He approached his PI and the collaborator and told them what was going on. They decided that they’d tried to make the most out of it, but all he got was inconclusive. He doesn’t get a clear picture of whether what he has is a dimer or trimer, or something completely different.
A friend of both GSY and I was sitting with me at a seminar the other day and told me about the latest progress and a lab meeting that GSY had a few days ago. GSY presented his data and then spent the next hour or so rambling on and on about how his stuff made no sense, how he wished he would have picked on the error before, and how he couldn’t really put all those bits of info in a paper he’s been working for over 1 year now (he wanted to have a mix of some of the results of his assays in his PhD lab, and the stuff from collaborator’s lab). At the end of the meeting GSY and his PI met, and apparently, the PI told him that not all of his data is garbage and that if he wants to finish soon, he can. He only needs to focus on whatever he learned via the other techniques, and put the inconclusive data in the back burner for some other student or postdoc to pick up later and sort through (or not). In other words, GSY could defend in the next 3-5 months, if he puts the stuff that worked in order, forgets about inconclusive data and publishes what did work and what he can use.
I applaud GSY’s PI for sitting down with him and help him sort through his existing data and find a few strong points he can take with him, write ,submit, and defend. Not all PIs are like that. And sometimes, even with the PI’s input, a student may choose that he or she wants every single answer to every single piece of data he/she collected, and forgets that there’s a life waiting for him/her outside of the academic walls. Not all Pi’s offer this type of advice. And often times, grad students spend more time, money and effort in something that truly doesn’t work or is doomed to fail (kind of like what my first friend above experienced). Eventually, the PI may get all fed up with the situation and cut funding off comepletely to try and “stimulate” the student to get out, ASAP.
Sometimes a PI or student can get his/her mind and hope invested into a project and their peripheral vision goes down the drain. They fail to see that things just aren’t worth exploring, or that the avenue chosen is not the best, or heck! that they’ve done enough and it’s time to move on. That’s why you have collaborators, or meet regularly with your committee and lab members. Hopefully those regular meetings and talks can help you stay in track, or give you ideas about a new approach or about what to focus your attention on.
It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s hard (if not impossible) to convince a committee, let alone your boss that the project is crap and you really have done everything you can to push things forward. Sometimes it’s the other way around and the PI has to almost shake the student to see if he/she wakes up from their stupor and realize that it’s OK if your project didn’t answer every single question you set to answer. I think that you can still present data that may not be always positive or pretty and label that findings from your studies, showing what hasn’t worked, what could become a future direction in the lab and what you would suggest to test next, even if you don’t get to do it.
My best guess as far as what to do in such a situation is to prepare a strong case in your favour. Organize what you have, show it in the lab meeting, to the boss, or collaborator (in case it is you who are trying to convince the PI, or committee that the work is failing miserably). Be honest about what you’ve done, the measures taken to make progress and how and why things haven’t progressed. Chances are that if your PI is a reasonable person he/she will see your point and help you and guide you into what to look into next or who to meet to start detangling the mess. You may, on extreme cases, need to get the big guns (your committee, dean of studies, or heck! even the chairman) involved. Be prepared because it can get messy. But, if you’ve done very exhaustive research, have everything well documented and can’t devote any more time because it’s simply a dead end, you should be able to move on from this. In part, this is why a lot of students and postdocs have side projects to keep them busy while managing a difficult case or adapting things and finding out if an experiment or project works. Always document, and if things are stalled, choose to fight the battle that will get you out the door, with your PhD sooner rather than later.
Finally, if your PI is gently reminding you that it’s time to move and that he or she are satisfied with what you did, and you have enough material to present a convincing thesis, even if a part of it is about troubleshooting, go ahead and listen and stop fighting a battle that has been lost for a while now. Part of one of my projects was to determine a structure of something that was a bitch to work with. I spent a while trying to figure things out. I tried every recommendation and tip given to me. Until the lab manager, the PI and I got together and talked about my frustrations with said project. PI immediately had me switch projects and I got almost half a dozen publications from that second project. I collected data for grants, I got a paper published in one of the silent giants of scientific publishing. “Giving up” is not always easy, but it may end up being more rewarding and getting you out of trouble/school faster than you could ever think.