Mastering out of a biology PhD program

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Mastering out of a biology PhD program

Postby GDC » Fri Dec 15, 2017 11:45 pm

I am currently in my fourth year in a developmental biology PhD research program. I really never had an interest in being a PI, but I was under the impression that if I wanted any kind of real career prospects even outside of academia, I would need a PhD. So, here I am, 3.5 years deep. I proposed my thesis a year ago, and my research simply is not going well. It is very high risk, minimal reward type of project, and I've grown to loathe it. I am receiving minimal to no guidance from my PI, and I'm frankly quite miserable.

I know this type of question has been answered in an FAQ here, but it looks to be from 2011. What was a fleeting urge to master out has now become a real possibility for me. What I'm wondering is, what are the job prospects for a PhD program dropout, now, in 2017/2018? I have lab experience mainly in molecular biology and imaging. I have no problem with continuing to do lab work in a more well defined environment. I also want to leverage some soft skills I have (hopefully) developed, such as written and oral communication. I have no problem with leaving research for good either. I fear that being a dropout with a masters looks much worse than if I had simply completed a masters program. Additionally, if decent job prospects exist, how do I get started?

Really, any advice is welcome right now. I am at a total loss here in terms of moving forward, whether it be sucking it up and finishing the PhD or quitting and finding a job.
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Re: Mastering out of a biology PhD program

Postby D.X. » Mon Dec 18, 2017 4:01 am

GDC wrote: So, here I am, 3.5 years deep. I proposed my thesis a year ago, and my research simply is not going well. It is very high risk, minimal reward type of project, and I've grown to loathe it. I am receiving minimal to no guidance from my PI, and I'm frankly quite miserable.



Based on the above I recommend you take the Masters and save your mental health and energy. You have a higher risk of coming out more miserable if you continue on, which could have more severe Impact to physical well-being which could be more limiting to you with a PhD, and than without.

I propose you investigate what career Options you're interested in and map it out and I would advice you start to Focus now and take some decisions. One can be taking a decision on remaining in reasearch vs. not. Another can be in academia or not. You have enough knowledge and experience to now start to rule out Areas where you don't want to apply energy and Areas were you want to divert Attention.

Once you're start narrowing down your choices then start mapping your plan. I don't think much has Change in 2011 vs. 2017 or soon 2018 about leaving with a Masters. The Story is the same, it's about how you Position yourself.

It's ok to re-inquire about a path you took and certainly you can communicate that. This can happen in any career and at any Interface, for you it's at the Level of Walking out with your Masters vs. PhD, for others it can be switching a function or management Level.

i've know a few who took the decision to leave with their Master's - they had in common a disinterst in pursuing further Research-based PhD Training. One became a School teacher, another when into projecct Management for a big biotech, while another went to law School and into patent/intellectual property law working in-house at a big pharma. All of These can in common a Need to apply energy - which they were able to save and redeploy by not doing a PhD.


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Re: Mastering out of a biology PhD program

Postby Chris » Thu Jan 04, 2018 5:19 pm

Hi GDC - I'm going to offer a slightly different perspective than D.X. It is VERY common for people to have major doubts about their PhD around the 3-4 year mark. I spent the fourth year of my PhD dreaming of joining the FBI and working on the X-files (yes, I'm old). I've seen many students hit this wall. Some muddle through, some decide to leave with a Masters, and I don't want to try and persuade you to do either one. What I will suggest is that the people who leave to pursue another goal/career/etc. seem to do better than those who leave to escape something they don't like.

With the knowledge that most fourth year grad students loathe their projects and are miserable, take some time to think about what you really want to do. If you have an end goal in mind (with a plan B just in case), you can then decide on the best next step.
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Re: Mastering out of a biology PhD program

Postby PG » Mon Jan 08, 2018 3:34 pm

As Chris says almost all PhD students that I have known goes through at least one period of hating your Project, feeling that they are hating their Project and questioning whether they have sufficient skill/endurance to complete theri studies and continue their career. Having said this it is important to try to find some type of objective measurements. My advice would be to try to find someone to talk with. THhis can be your PhD supervisor, a collegue, a friend (preferably someone who knows science) or somebody else. Based on the information in your post it is difficult to say what type of progress you are actually making.

Another general advice is to do what my PhD supervisor tried to do. His setup was to have students and postdocs work on both high risk-high reward Projects as well as what he called bread and butter Projects ie Projects that had lower risk although also thereby also a lower chance of being published in really high impact journals.
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Re: Mastering out of a biology PhD program

Postby Christian F. » Sat Jan 27, 2018 6:49 am

Hey GDC,

interesting e-mail! I am a former foreign graduate student. I did master out of my ph.d. program 10 years ago. I would like to give you some feedback. Maybe I can even privde you some good advice.

I did master out of my ph.d. program 10 years ago. I went to an ivy league and top 5 program in the USA. evolutionary developmental biology.

I finished up med school and did a rad residency. I left with 29 and finished my residency 2 years ago. Looking back and also evaluation my options then - my advice would be:

1. The doom an gloom phase is really prevalent at your stage. 2-3 after starting my ph.d. i felt the same. this kind of seems to be normal and a lot a people go through it. dont be disheartend.

2. if you decide to switch mastering out is not a bad option. if you really have a solid career track as an alternative spending another 2-3 years of your life for the Ph.d. is loss of life, nerves and money. But be careful. do your homework really well. dont idealize the alternative route.

3. talk with other graduate alumni. i my old school out of a cohort of 10 some 3 person switched into med school afterward - 2 ended up in law school.

4. dont be too negative and feel beaten down by the doom and gloom. now looking back after 10 years and researching careers paths of my former class mates: nearly everybody ended up having a job and quite many did get faculty positions. many of them in smaller schools. indeed i even think that being a college professor at a 4 years school is more rewarding that being in a big tear research school. most of them who stayed on track are happy with their decision. do a real broad research and check your opportunities. i am kind of envious of lot of my former friends who manage to get a faculty position in a smaller school in the states.

5. If you switch be aware that there is a price to pay. going into medical school in older age kind of bars the academic path for you. and there is a lot of competition. I kind of was to old and beaten to prursue an academic career path in medicine. too much time investiment and comitment especially if you want to have or raise a family. So bascially i have to work as a "normal" practicioner, shich is not to bad but still certain career tracks are just not realistic anymore.

6. if you are an academic you have the privilege to purssue youre real interests. dont underestimate this! i kind of miss it very much. i am passionate about biology and being a prof/teacher/lecturer in a field you like might be more rewarding than being a well endowned professional in another field. I work in private practise, i have 8 Minutes for an MRI. It kind of feels like working on a conveyer belt. you do some 40-45 a day. its a 40 hour work week. you have a good income (200K in europe and i guess 400-450 k in the states). but it is not academia. you pay a price. its hard work and strenous. but by far not as rewarding as being in academia. and residency has been gruesome too. looking back and talking to friends of mine who ended up as profs/teachers at smaller schools i sometimes envy them also i might be making more money than them. well, what i wanna say is that you should really check out your options first. if you are in the doom an gloom phase - try to get some outside objective perspective. your options might not be so bad.

7. talk to some alumns who switched. maybe lawschool or mba is a shorter and better option than med school bc. med school and residency is a big decision. i kind of underestimated that.

8. be positive. you are not alone. a lot of people experienced and did the same. but before you cut your ties be certain to have aplan in place.


Christian F.
Christian F.
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