Leaving a PhD program: Part 1 – Are you crazy???

On March 19th, 2010, I finally parted ways with the world of science and academia.  After 8 months of doubt, deliberation, and debilitation, the chains of an unpleasant and unhappy future were broken.  For the first time, I find myself in the great unknown, but my dreams are in sight.  I hope my story inspires lost souls to look up at the stars and believe it’s possible to pursue their passion.

Flash back to spring 2009.  I am 21 years old, about to graduate college, and I’m looking ahead at the fork in the road of my life.  Where to go?  What to do?  At the time, attending graduate school in neuroscience made perfect sense.  I was graduating from Indiana University with a degree in psychology and a certificate in neuroscience. I worked in a cocaine addiction lab at IU, and I also interned in the pharmaceutical industry at Eli Lilly.  I had the experience.  On top of that, graduate programs in medical sciences typically pay PhD candidates to go to school.  It’s a great deal; they pay full tuition, offer a healthy stipend, and provide free health insurance.  Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I needed financial stability because my girlfriend and I decided that we would remain together as we moved to a new place.

I never did much soul searching in college.  Maybe the social life of a Big 10 school kept me distracted from figuring myself out, maybe I wasn’t far enough away from home (Indianapolis, IN) to feel truly independent, or maybe I was just lazy and immature.  I did find an interest in psychology and human behavior early on, so I stuck with it.  I got involved in neuroscience and found a lab to work in; I always considered the work to be alright.  Not something I was crazy passionate about and not something I really looked forward to doing, but it was okay, and the free schedule of a researcher and decent pay kept me in it.

Senior year rolled around and I still had no idea what I wanted to do, but I did have a qualified resume at this point, a solid GPA, and plenty of experience in research.  I knew if I applied to graduate school, I would have a good chance of getting in.  The way I saw it, I would get a stipend which would finance a move and keep me afloat, and I would have the opportunity to further my education.  If I didn’t go to grad school, what would I have?  There was no way I was moving back home to get berated by my parents.  And at the time, I just didn’t have the balls to go out on a limb and find what I love.  Partly due to my upbringing, I was led to believe that pursuing what you love isn’t as important as financial stability.  So I crossed my fingers and signed on to join the Program in Biomedical Neuroscience at Boston University as a doctoral candidate.

[Flash Forward: Part 2 – Believing in the American Dream]

Back to last spring.  My girlfriend and I undertake a 10 day, 90 mile white water canoeing adventure on the Rio Grande in southwest Texas.  I always had an interest in the outdoors; I loved camping and I had a soft spot for Mother Nature.  But the Rio trip, it was different; it just felt right, and it changed me.  That trip was the light at the end of the tunnel I had been searching for.  I never found it at IU, it never appeared to me in the lab, but out there, among the wilderness, I felt at home.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, then and there is where my life would take a huge turning point.

Just weeks before my girlfriend and I moved out to Boston, I still wasn’t sure I was making the right decision.  I knew a PhD program takes an incredible amount of time – in neuroscience it takes at least 5 years of diligent, hard work.  If you hope to graduate, you need patience, commitment, self-discipline and dedication.  But most importantly, you need the passion.  I wasn’t exactly convinced I liked neuroscience to the point of spending the rest of our lives together.  What did I get myself into?  I dismissed it as nervous jitters.

Moving to Boston to attend graduate school ironically was the push I needed to leave the science world.  For the first time in my life, I was truly independent, financially and spiritually.  I saw myself mature and develop as an individual and I started defining concrete interests.  The iron fist of my parents was so far away I could barely feel it, the woman I love was by my side and always supportive, and I had enough money to get by.

School, however, was another story – two months into grad school I clearly knew I made the wrong decision.  It was a disaster.  Classes that required every inch of my mental strength, midterms that left me on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a social environment that I did not fit into, and research that I found minute and uninteresting.  I found myself completely turned off by the world of scientific research – the endless research seminars and journal articles – and it was getting harder to pretend.  In the little spare time I had, I read up on environmental issues, I started making personal changes to reflect a greener lifestyle, and I occasionally went to community roundtables that focused on conservation and sustainability.

Eight months of confounded misery left me feeling like I was personally rotting.  I was working long, intensive hours that were testing my patience; I was learning skills I had no desire in learning.  As soon as I left campus I would forget about work, and in the mornings I dreaded coming in.  I admitted to myself that finding my dream would be impossible with school taking up 10 hours a day.  I asked myself if a miserable existence is truly worth the financial stability.

My personal mental breaking point – the decision to leave – occurred over spring break, in the beginning of March.  The prospect of telling the administrators was nerve racking, and the prospect of telling my parents was unthinkable.  It carried such a heavy baggage of stress that I fell ill for over a week.  At times I felt like I was losing my mind with anxiety as illness overcame me.  That was the final straw; no more.  I was not going to let graduate school get in the way of my personal health.  I was not going to be a walking time bomb.  I had no desire to start an anti depressant regiment soon, and I was not going to slave and stress over something I didn’t want to do and was not good at.

In desperation I was somehow able to find the remote ounce of self confidence I needed to make my move.  The following week I walked in and confessed three times to three different administrators.  I called my parents and I conceded.  I took on the aftershock confident I made the right decision.

I like to say that I never quit, but rather withdrew.  Up until my last day I was in school, listening to another never-ending seminar, attending a blood curdling biochemistry lecture.  I took time to meet with those who provided me with this wonderful opportunity, and it hurt me to disappoint them.  They were upset but understanding; academia and neuroscience is not for everyone.  With bridges intact, I left with my head up.

My experience at Boston University did provide some positives.  For starters, it gave me the financial opportunity to move away from home; a move that led to personal self discovery.  I also left with a heightened self esteem and newfound confidence.  I figured if I could simultaneously loathe yet pass PhD level biochemistry and physiology, two classes I had no undergrad experience in, I could probably be pretty good at anything.  I can follow my dream, and I can succeed.  I can enter the fields of environmental sustainability and conservation, and I can make a difference.  I am young, I am optimistic, I am talented, and for the first time in a very long time, I believe in myself.

“When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenge; we overcame it. We did not avoid our responsibility, we embraced it. We did not fear our future, we shaped it.”   That’s an Obama quote.   I harbor no regrets about the past, only optimism for the future.

Read Part 2 here.

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11 Comments

Filed under Inspiration, My Personal Journey

11 responses to “Leaving a PhD program: Part 1 – Are you crazy???

  1. Go Igor!

    Great post, and I love that you had the courage to make the moves that will ultimately lead you to happiness.

    I wish you all the best in your next chapters!

    Sincerely,

    Mattius Rexius

  2. Igor! I’m so glad you told me to check out your blog. I had no idea you were into environmental preservation, if only recently. My passions are very similar to yours in that respect! I’m about to finish my BFA in Photography, and the professional field I’m looking into is eco-photography (basically nature conservation through photographs). We need to team up somehow! Save the Earth!

    • Thanks Lindsey!

      I totally appreciate you taking the time and checking out my blog, especially since I’m just getting started. Let me know if you have any tips 😉 I think what you’re doing with eco-photography is awesome. Pictures do a great job of communicating the beauty of nature. Can’t say I have any idea where this road is gonna take me but at least I’m in the driver’s seat and I’ll just have to wait and see where I end up! In other words, if things work out I could totally see us teaming up to save the world! Keep in touch, I will too. What’s your location nowadays?

      -Igor

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  7. Jeremy

    Igor,

    I am in a PhD program myself, and to be honest, I am going through this exact same thing. I feel as if this article could be my own, except I’m in the midst of the scary part. If you find the time, I would really like to talk to you about your experience and how you went about finding a new path. I hope you can see my email address below, but if not just reply to this post!

  8. Ileana

    Hi Igor,

    I am in a PhD program as well, and I am going through every single thing you wrote about. The end of my first year is 2 weeks away, and I have come to the realization that this lifestyle is simply not for me. I am doing well in the coursework and in the rotations, but I don’t have the passion for it. I can’t imagine enduring this dread for five more years. I’m so unhappy. I can think of countless things I’d rather do that would be more fulfilling than graduate school. I’ve already spoken to my family and they are fully supportive of me, but I am worried about not having a back-up plan (most of all, facing likely financial instability). Upon withdrawing from academia, what did you do? How has life fared for you?

    • Well, at this point life is treating me well. But it wasn’t an easy journey. I started this blog and I started writing and making videos. Little did I know that this is what would draw me as a career. But people were moved by my story. I was interested in communicating about outdoor travel and environmental issues. For a good year and a half, I built connections, worked and wrote for free, made videos for free, and established myself in this world. Now I have a full time job doing this and several side projects I am very excited about. But for that year and a half, it was a roller-coaster. One way or another, things worked out, but I did have to take on a number of odd jobs to support me. And at times I was broke and depressed, anxious and stressed. But breakthroughs came, slowly, and it was probably the period where I learned the most about myself, to date. I fully support taking risks because even if you don’t succeed you will come out of it stronger and knowing more about yourself as a person.

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