Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Quit My PhD

I quit my PhD.

Some of you already know this, and have been impatiently waiting for me to write about it. Others of you, assuming I haven’t driven ALL of my readers away with my slothful inactivity around here, are probably surprised by this. Please allow me to relate the circumstances, and how I reached this decision.

At the end of my field season, around August 9 of last year, I returned to Guelph. I was basically optimistic about the specimens I had collected over the previous many weeks and kilometres, though I did have some trepidation based on a few emails I had received from my PhD advisor. While I was in Resolute, I had been informed that one of the cryoshippers I was using had failed, and that the specimens it contained had thawed. Based on the smell reported by the person who did me the favour of moving the specimens I shipped back to a -80 freezer, the opinion was that these specimens were rotting and ruined. Genome size estimates rely on fresh tissue, and the only reliable methods yet developed for this type of histology work all start from cells only recently extracted from a living organism. Our hope (i.e., mine and my advisor’s) was that flash-freezing in liquid nitrogen (or its vapour, at -176°C) would be a reasonable alternative to working with fresh tissue. If the specimens are killed in liquid nitrogen, but then thaw to temperatures where biochemical processes occur again, they will rot. Cell membranes and organelles, including the nuclear membrane, are particularly fragile things post-mortem, and will decay rapidly even without the activity of decay-inducing organisms such as bacteria and fungi.

Nearly immediately upon my return to Guelph, after I had placed my High-Arctic specimens in the -80 personally (and verified that they had not also thawed), I was informed by my advisor that I would be having a committee meeting in approximately 1 week, and that at this meeting I would be expected to describe in some detail my summer activities, as well as provide answers to some rather hard questions surrounding the loss of valuable specimens. Somewhat taken aback by my rapidly deteriorating circumstances, I set to work preparing for this obviously important meeting.

I haven’t blogged about the progress of my PhD much, for a number of obvious and perhaps less-than-obvious reasons. In any case, at the University of Guelph Department of Integrative Biology, graduate students are evaluated every semester by their advisor, often with input from the advisory committee; this is one reason why the department is so insistent on the particular schedule of committee meetings and other deadlines. There are 3 possible grades for each semester’s evaluation: Satisfactory, Some Concerns, and Not Satisfactory. There’s a little piece of the regulations for grad students at U of G that states the advisory committee may insist on the withdrawal of a student (i.e., they get fired) after 2 evaluations in a row of “Not Satisfactory”. This is intended as a tool to assist professors in getting rid of unacceptable graduate students, who are notoriously difficult to fire. Unlike out in the real world, it’s rather hard to simply dismiss somebody inside academia.

During the 4 semesters of my degree up to the end of April, 2008, I had received 1 “Satisfactory” (my first semester) and 3 “Some Concerns” evaluations. The “Some Concerns” result comes with a requirement that the reasons for these concerns be explained, and that the student and the advisor (and generally the rest of the committee, too) come up with an action plan to correct the problems. Dr. Gregory and I had been implementing a series of Action Plans under this framework, and up to this point I was under the impression that progress was definitely being made, though perhaps the rate of change or the specific results of these Plans were not as earlier envisioned. Anyways, it’s not like I was completely surprised by my reception at Guelph; it was the magnitude, rather than the direction, of the “welcome” that was surprising. Plus, I was badly surprised by the loss of the specimens.

The lost specimens included essentially everything I collected in Churchill in 2008. This represents a serious hole in the quasi-transect I conducted during the summer, and it would be difficult to plug this hole with another field season – budget and logistical constraints notwithstanding (though they are severe), inter-annual variation provides additional noise that I was trying to extract a signal from. In other words, an obvious question to be raised by any putative reviewer of any putative manuscript would be “why no 2008 Churchill data?”. I don’t have a good answer for that question, though I do maintain that the failure of the cryoshipper was not foreseen, and I think I took reasonable steps before the field season – I tested all 4 cryoshippers before I left for Part I, though I did NOT test them for 3 weeks straight, under simulated field conditions including long-distance automobile journeys and handling by VIA rail baggage-throwers. Still, a valid argument could be made that such testing was required, and that I could have forseen such rough treatment of my equipment.

During the week before my committee meeting, I attempted to conduct a few small experiments to help solidify the putative data-set I had collected (from the U.S.A., Northern Ontario, and the High Arctic). However, rather than actually completing any of these methods-development experiments, I ended up chasing my own tail for the most part. At one point, about 4 days before the meeting, I had booked a day on the lab’s Flow Cytometer. Anyways, I wanted to run a quick check on some deep-frozen specimens, and compare them to some lab-zoo animals (Drosophila melanogaster, Tribolium castaneum, and a few others), to look for effects associated with deep-freezing. In the middle of planning this day of FC, I was interrupted by my advisor, who wanted to know what I was doing and how I was planning to face the committee. When I told him, he very clearly instructed me not to do this. This is one example of a pattern that occurred all through that week – I would come up with an idea, plan to implement it, then end up doing something completely different.

I have read that one of the largest sources of stress in people’s lives is a feeling of loss of control. I can relate.

At the meeting, I presented a short PowerPoint talk that covered the major areas of concern prior to the field season; essentially, I tried to address the points and concerns raised during the previous meetings between January and May, including my Qualifying examinations. At the center of all this was the fact that I had to admit my methods development was not complete, and had not yet reached a stage where a dispassionate observer could be confident in any data I could produce. In other words, despite everything else being stripped away over the previous year or so, I still had not achieved a stable, reliable method for estimating genome sizes from Dytiscid beetles, Lymnaeid snails, nor Amphipods. There’s a bit of a wrinkle there, in that everyone was actually pretty happy I could get an estimate from Dytiscids, or that I was really close to that, and the Lymnaeids were not expected to provide any major obstacles. But the Amphipods had grown from a small part of my thesis to a very large part, and they were still a complete unknown.

The discussion at my committee meeting rapidly turned towards identifying the problem (my lack of progress), and brainstorming strategies to solve this problem. In essence, this came down to zeroing in on key personality traits of myself, and trying to think of ways to change my personality, one facet at a time. For those of you who have never experienced such a conversation, let me assure you it is not pleasant. I like to think I held my cool in this meeting, despite the very difficult tone of parts of the conversation.

At the end of the meeting, the committee decided I would receive an evaluation of “Not Satisfactory” for the summer of 2008, based on the lack of progress towards a reliable genome size estimation method. I was told I would be given every opportunity to achieve this task in the fall 2008 semester, and that failure to achieve this would result in a second “Not Satisfactory” evaluation, and that I would be asked to withdraw. If I did not accept these conditions, it was made clear to me, I could voluntarily withdraw and there would be no severe academic penalties; if one quits before one fails, one does not fail.

I spent about the next week thinking it over. I was given some obvious advice, along the lines of “thinking about this is your only priority” (yeah, got that, thanks), and I spent my time doing those strange little tasks I engage in when trying to make major decisions: writing lists, imagining scenarios, walking through consequences, et cetera. By the following Monday, I had reached my decision.

It’s only fair, I think, that the first person I informed was my advisor. Dr. Gregory accepted my decision with good grace, and we had a rather optimistic and upbeat conversation about what would happen next; no part of my thinking included burning any bridges! I told him I had a plan, which was in 2 steps. 1. Get a job, to pay the bills. Lacking a car or any reason to leave Guelph for any other specific place, this would have to be within walking distance of my current residence, i.e. within the city of Guelph. 2. Get a REAL job, most likely something with the government, either at the Federal or the Provincial levels. Earlier curiosity had led me to the websites concerned with employment with the Federal Government of Canada. The feds include a number of national organisations that employ biologists of various types: the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Parks Canada all received applications from me via the websites. I expected that actually getting an interview with one of these beaurocracies would take at least months, possibly longer, and some of the generic career advice I’d already met had assured me such a job-hunt usually takes between 6 months and a year. Hence part 1 of the plan.

So, after I talked with Dr. Gregory, I took my books back to the library (2 trips; I had 50 books out), cleaned up my lab bench, and took my stuff home. This process of withdrawal actually took the rest of that week, during which time I had to keep repeating to people that I’d quit. Most people did not believe me at first, but I guess as long as I maintain a straight face and intimate how serious I am, I can convince people of such surprises with only a little persistence. This gave me some time to visit the career-counselling people on campus, and peruse the job advertisements relevant to both parts of the plan.

One odd little coda to this process: I had been set to start TAing Lab and Field Methods again, the same course I had TAed the previous fall, but non-grad students cannot TA in the department, because actually-registered grad students are at chronic need of TA positions. In learning about these regulations, I talked with a representative of the teaching assistant Union at the University of Guelph. He was quite the character, and seemed to regard relations between departments and teaching staff through a lens taken from a 1930’s steelworkers union representative. Very much a labour-vs.-management stance, and very strange. It was flattering to hear the expressions of regret from my would-be co-teachers when I had to break the news that I would not be able to participate in the course.

Sorry it took so long for me to talk about this here. These events all happened about 6 months ago; I suppose that’s how long it takes for me to sort out in my head what happened, and why. Or I’m just lazy when it come to blogging about non-trivial things.

Next post: the Fall of 2008, or “how much wine can one burnt-out, overeducated, underemployed man make?”


T Ryan Gregory said...

Very courteous and candid summary. Much appreciated. As we discussed, I think a lot of good came from your time in the lab, not least a renewed interest in the North for us both. Best wishes, as always!

Carlo said...

Obviously I was one of the ones that was aware of what was going on. This is a very tough situation...

Well, as you know, I was on the verge of quitting my Ph.D. back near the beginning of it. My first year was a complete waste of time, and my committee didn't like my project at all. It took a hell of a lot of work, but after 18 months, I finally came up with something more interesting to study and turned it into a good project.

If there's one thing I've learned from my experiences is that a Ph.D. is a ton of work, coupled to a bit of luck. A lot of it is being at the 'right place at the right time' (though note that you can choose where you are...).

It's somewhat frustrating that standards are applied inconsistently across students, however. I know several people who should not be doing Ph.D.s, and yet they're still here, producing nothing while remaining in the program. There's such a diversity of effort placed into different student's work that I think it paints a false picture of how much effort is actually required of a 'good' Ph.D. (i.e., one where you'll actually be able to continue on in academia with it).

What's happened is a bum deal, but I hope that you're happier now that it's resolved. You're not the first person I've met who's gone through this situation, and the others seem to have been able to do alright - and try again if they wanted to.

The most important thing, of course, is to think about what you learned from this, and how and if you'd like to approach trying out the grad school thing again. From my own experience, I know that I was only able to put in the required effort when I was working on a project that I was legitimately interested in (e.g., my Ph.D. in comparison to my M.Sc.). Now you'll be able to make a more informed choice if and when the time comes.

King Aardvark said...

Holy crap. I didn't see that coming. Too bad, since you seemed to be having an interesting time with your research. Not everybody gets to go galivanting around the continent, you know.

It is too bad that some people get a free ride through their phds who don't really deserve it. My brother's fluid mechanics prof who thought fluids flowed from low pressure to high pressure, for instance.

Do you want to try a phd again with a different project? Or is your heart now set on government science work?

TheBrummell said...

Do you want to try a phd again with a different project? Or is your heart now set on government science work?

Possibly both. I'll probably blog about this sooner or later, but for now my thoughts are that I would like to try again at a PhD, probably involving more Biogeography, which was probably my favourite part of the research I've done so far. After that, well, I'm seeing more and more options for very-highly-educated people beyond the simplistic dichotomy of academia vs. industry (or the ivory tower vs. the real world, or "professor" vs. "employee"). In the last few months I've met many people who have done things with their graduate degrees that I had never considered.

Rick said...

Does this mean you'll have time to come back to Calgary and play Car Wars? :)

Sorry to hear man, I remember you talking about wanting to pursue this field of study since Jr. High

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your blog tonight and was very glad to read it. Tonight, I have decided to quit my own PhD project. It was ... comforting to read of another who had put their hard work into a project and it still not pan out the way they anticipated. I'm talking to my supervisor tomorrow. Thanks,


Anonymous said...

I appreciated your posting here. I am contemplating quitting my PhD, having earned my first Not Satisfactory evaluation of my first 4 years of grad school (I failed my comprehensive exams). I have a great project that my adviser is continually trying to change, and find that I am always being steered towards academia, despite having made perfectly clear I have no interest in teaching at a major research university (I want to work in policy and education). My PhD has been financially devastating to my family, and I ended up taking a full-time job to pay my bills and provide for them. I lost focus on my program and failed comprehensives. My adviser wants me to try again, this time under a different submission. I'm just not sure I have it in me to keep going.

TheBrummell said...

Wow, I guess if you google for "quit my PhD" or something like that my blog comes up. Huh.

Anonymous (1): I'm glad my experiences could be of help to you, even if it means taking the difficult step of quitting something you've poured so much into. Good luck!

Anonymous (2): That's pretty heartbreaking, sorry to hear things have been so down for you. I don't know anything about your program, but I wonder if taking a semester of leave might be a useful option. Such a step was suggested to me (not by anybody directly related to my program), but the details of that project would not have permitted such an absence. Your situation may be different, but of course I don't know. I can only imagine the extra layers of difficulty associated with trying to be a real member of a family during a PhD.

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