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Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

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Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby James Tyler » Fri Nov 16, 2012 3:44 pm

A few people on this forum have mentioned that my explanation for dropping out of grad school is a possible red flag, so I wanted some advice on this, since I’m pretty worried about what employers who interview me will think.

To give you a quick idea of my background, I’ll just copy and paste what I wrote in another thread:
“I have a BS in microbiology. As an undergraduate, I was a research assistant in an academic lab for 6 months. After I finished undergrad, I attended a Ph.D. program for about 1.5 years and then dropped out without getting any degree. In grad school, I rotated in a bunch of labs and joined a lab very briefly. After I dropped out of grad school, about half a year later (in May 2012), I started working at a company as a research assistant, which is where I am now.”

One of the reasons I gave for dropping out of grad school was that I preferred to do bench work and I didn’t want a supervisory position (like a PI) which would be away from the bench. I was told that this was a possible red flag.

Another reason I gave for dropping out of the Ph.D. program was that I initially wanted to be a PI in academia and funding became an issue with me. I said that funding is very hard to get nowadays and I didn’t want to have a career where I would have to constantly apply for funding and if I couldn’t get funding, my career could possibly be over. Would that also be a red flag or would that be considered an acceptable excuse? Or should I word it differently? If that’s an acceptable excuse, should I not mention the bench work explanation?

Also, why wouldn’t me wanting to do bench work hold up as an explanation for dropping out of grad school? Should I say that I enjoy doing benchwork?

PG- you mentioned in another thread that you’ve hired Ph.D. dropouts, so I’m really curious- for the people who you interviewed who were Ph.D. dropouts, what were their reasons for dropping out? I just want to get an idea.
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby PG » Fri Nov 16, 2012 4:33 pm

Anything works as long as it seems like a correct explanation and can be supported by references. The ones I have hired have had reasons such as finance (personal or PI), relocation due to partner getting a job somewhere else and maybe something else.

Wanting to to a certain type of work or changing fields of science would work for me if you give me your previous PI as a reference which would indicate that you are not trying to hide anything. My problem with the previous explanation is that most PhDs around here tends to do laboratory work for a number of years after their PhD and at least within industry there is no real requirement to stop doing bench work if you are good at it and wants to continu even if you have a PhD. Funding on the other hand is something that everyone will understand and not being able to compete for academic grants often doesnt have anything to do with how good you will do in industry.

I also should add that when people are screening lots of applications ie when you apply for an advertised position the person doing the screen will look for a cause to put an application in the no thank you pile which means that anything that might not actually be anything major can be viewed as a red flag in this type of screening.
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby Andrew1 » Fri Nov 16, 2012 6:16 pm

Having a positive reason why you decided to drop out (e.g. to pursue something specific) is much better than a negative one (didn't want, was worried that... etc). Also keep it simple.
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby Derek McPhee » Sat Nov 17, 2012 3:00 pm

Andrew is right on with this one - you want "positive" reasons for this kind of career change, not negative ones. The bit about quitting grad school because you don't want to be a PI sounds like not being an actor because you don't have a fireplace mantel to put the Oscar - at that stage you a long ways away from being a PI
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby XT » Sat Nov 17, 2012 6:57 pm

A matter of wording. Be positive. Sound active not passive. Try something like:

During my first year of graduate school, I discovered what I enjoyed most about science was hands on benchwork and the feeling of accomplishment upon performing a successful experiment. Rather than pursue an academic career, I decided to leave graduate school to pursue a career as a lab scientist in industry.
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby PG » Sun Nov 18, 2012 3:41 am

The suggestion from XT would work. I would contact you PhD supervisor for references and if he/she has positive things to say this is no longer a problem.
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby E. Johnson » Mon Nov 19, 2012 5:11 pm

I work with a couple of people who didn't complete the Ph.D. due to different reasons. Many of us have started something we didn't finish because we learned something. We all change career paths either willingly or not- at least you didn't finish something you didn't want!
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby James Tyler » Tue Nov 20, 2012 6:38 pm

About using my Ph.D. supervisor as a reference. That might actually come off as a red flag. I did a rotation in his lab during fall semester, then I ended up joining his lab for a little over a month during spring semester. He accepted me on the condition that I could get on a training grant because he had no money to take a grad student since he was already taking a post doc. He accepted me because there were 5 slots for the training grant and 5 people applied, including me. But after I joined the lab, more people applied for the training grant and eventually I found out that I didn’t get on the training grant, so I had to leave his lab. I did another rotation and I wasn’t accepted into the lab because it wasn’t a good fit. At this point, I didn’t want to do more rotations to find another lab because I already realized that grad school wasn’t what I wanted, so I voluntarily withdrew.

Would that come off as a red flag? Should that be the explanation I give if they ask for references or if they ask about what happened in grad school? Or should I modify my explanation? I had an interview in early 2012 (in an academic lab) and I told that explanation to the PI who was interviewing me, and she didn’t keep asking questions about it. She just said something along the lines of at least I didn’t get a Ph.D. and then realize that it’s not what I wanted because some people do that and they regret it.

Also, what would happen if I don’t list my Ph.D. supervisor as a reference? I currently have 2 rotation PIs listed as a reference because my supervisor was always in his office and he almost never interacted with me. I plan to replace one of those rotation PIs with my current boss. So my references will be my current boss, one of my rotation PIs, and my undergraduate PI. If they just see a rotation PI, would that come off as a red flag?
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Re: Reason for dropping out of grad school being a red flag

Postby PG » Wed Nov 21, 2012 12:53 am

First, if you state that you started as a PhD student and then dropped out for any reason the company will most likely talk with your PhD supervisor before they hire you regardless if you listed him as a reference or not. If you dont think that he would be a good reference dont list him but offer to give his contact information when asked.

Second, not getting a training grant isnt a red flag at least not in my eyes. To many factors that are irrelevant for an industry career goes into that decision. If you remember finance was a reason I mentioned already in one of my previous posts. I can also fully understand that you didnt want to do multiple lab rotations without anything happening. Coupled with the fact that you came to the conclusion that a laborative position is what you want and that you could get that without doing a PhD is a perfectly acceptable explanation.
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