I quit. I quit graduate school. Some people say that makes me a failure, but I’m so happy about the decision that I don’t really mind. Every time someone would ask me what I did (for a living), I’d happily reply with how I quit grad school and up and moved to St. Louis. I couldn’t tell what shocked them more — what I did or how happily I said it.
This post is a bit late and not about the reasons I quit or moved at all. I actually wanted to recap what I liked about grad school.
1. The outreach and mentoring. One of my closest grad student friends is always doing awesome outreach by being a mentor/teacher to kids. I feel like what he does actually makes a difference in the world. We got to mentor new undergraduate researchers and teach them all about research. We got to watch them do their first dissections all the way up to presenting a research poster to maybe even going to graduate school themselves. We got to go to elementary school classes and talk about how cool science is. One of my mentors put together a program to go into elementary schools and talk about how we use computers to study evolution. The kids weren’t apathetic at all; on the contrary, you could barely get them to stop talking over each other. Their excitement could even be described as exhausting. But overall, being a role model to kids and get them excited about science – who doesn’t want to do that?
2. The community. I think I was fortunate in that I got to work in the graduate bullpen of BEACON. The area had open cubicles for the grad students and lots of white boards. This openness was phenomenal because you could always lean over and ask another graduate student (often in a completely different field!) to explain something to you. On the flip side, you could be the person teaching someone about what you do, and that always helped me solidify my thoughts or recognize where I had holes in my knowledge. There was always someone to talk to about some new science paper that came out. It was stupidly easy to collaborate on projects, and some of the neatest projects came out of just sitting there and chatting about something random. It was pretty cool that you could always strike up a conversation with anyone based on your mutual love of science.
3. The lab family. I always felt like my family was comprised of people in my lab. They were the ones that were there when you were up in the middle of the morning trying to finish writing a paper for a conference deadline. Granted, they, too, were also trying to finish their own paper, but it’s nice not to feel so alone in the endeavor. They were the ones that were the first to congratulate you on publishing a paper even though they’ve heard about it a bazillion times and probably proofread all the versions from the one where you made up words to the one where you wanted to make absolutely sure that you weren’t embarrassingly misspelling a simple word. They went to your practice talks and watched you work your way up to your thesis defense. They picked you up when you had that terrible day in lab where all the experiments failed and you wanted to quit. They didn’t judge you when you decided hey, maybe I do want to quit, but instead asked you what they could do to help you. I think I’ve been lucky to be part of multiple lab families, and that’s definitely the biggest thing I’ll miss.
4. The insane amount of knowledge. I didn’t realize how much science knowledge I picked up until I was out of grad school. Most people don’t know all this stuff about bacteria and evolution. Most people don’t even really understand how research is done in labs. My classes and peers were teaching me about cutting-edge science. Heck, my peers were doing the cutting-edge science. Where else can you go to learn about genome sequencing, wildlife corridors, developmental genes, big data algorithms, human microbiomes, robotics, microbial evolution, and on and on? I got asked about Hidden Markov Models in one of my interviews, and luckily for me, it was one of those odd things that I picked up a bit of knowledge on just by being in grad school. It wasn’t just factual knowledge that I picked up though – I also learned a lot about how you solve problems, write engagingly (and grammatically correctly!), and speak publicly.
5. The cool professors. There were a lot of cool professors, and they changed my life. They were the awesome people that introduced you to other awesome people in hopes that one day you’d become an awesome person yourself and do the same thing for others. They were the ones that worked their asses off to make sure that you had funding so you could do uninterrupted research. They were dedicated to being great teachers even though the university didn’t really care about that. They pulled the all-nighters to proofread over that paper that you left until the last possible moment. They pulled you through till the end of that thesis even though you cried and begged and screamed and stomped on the ground that you didn’t want to do it (ok, I wasn’t *that* dramatic, but you get the point). Seriously, how many people do you know that spend 80+ hours a week trying to train a group of promising but relatively unskilled people to become independent and knowledgeable scientists in around 5-7 years and then repeat the process continually? All while trying to write grants, do research of their own, teach classes, get tenure, and oh, have a life maybe? Then, on top of that, go above and beyond to actually make differences in people’s lives? It’s insane, I tell you. But it’s still one of the awesome things of grad school.
I’m not going to lie – being in graduate school definitely helped me develop as a person. It didn’t end up being the right choice for me to finish it out, but I definitely don’t regret the time I spent there. It took a long time for me to realize that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to do it. Also, quitting does not mean that you’re not capable of doing something, it’s very possible that you just don’t want to do it anymore. Most importantly, if you’re miserable, the onus is on you to change your life to make it better.