Walking away from Grad School
Exactly two years ago, I decided to make a move that has drastically improved my life, even though at the time, everyone told me not to do it.
So let me tell you a story about how I quit graduate school and got a great job, and a new outlook on life.
How did I end up there?
It was December 2010, and I’d just finished up my first semester of engineering graduate school. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do with my MS or PhD, but I was on a track to graduate many years late, just like my lab mates.
It wasn’t a bad gig financially. I worked in a professor’s lab and went to class, and he paid tuition and even gave us a small stipend ($1,500/mo – pretty high-rollin’ for a grad student).
Anyway, I’d done alright on my exams, so I wasn’t worried about grades. But I had no idea what my “research” was supposed to be, or what I was supposed to do. I was lost because I’d been given a task with little to no support from my adviser.
But the worst part was that my adviser was just a mean dude. The guy came off as friendly and caring when in public, but holy shit did that guy turn into a monster in the office! He even exploited foreign grad students who couldn’t quit! (without getting deported).
The bottom line is that he treated people like commodities instead of giving them an ounce of respect. Not the sort of person you want to learn from for 5 years.
Why does anybody stay?
It was the kind of place where there were no actual deadlines, but if you didn’t show up on Saturday and Sunday to do “work”, you’d get a passive-aggressive email questioning your loyalty. Not exactly a stress free working environment.
I decided to try to get inside the minds of the grad students who’d been taking the abuse for years, and seemed to be out the path to graduation within the next year or two. They must have figured something out that I’d just missed.
While setting up equipment, or getting help with homework, I started asking probing questions. They were harmless at first.
“How are you balancing homework and completing your research?”
and eventually I worked my way to the harder hitting questions.
“If you are constantly unhappy at this lab, and you’re here literally every day of the week, why don’t you quit and get a job? You’re a bright engineer!”
I’ll never forget the response I got to this question. It still haunts me to this day…
“I hate it here, but what if I quit and I’m not good enough at anything else to get a job?”
The moment of truth
Wow! That’s when I knew I needed to quit. It was certainly the most informational conversation I’d ever had.
Because he thought he might not be good enough for a different job, he decided to stay in a position he absolutely hated…
I knew right then and there that it wasn’t how I was going to live my life. It doesn’t happen very often when you know something with absolute certainty, but this life-shaping experience certainly put me on a better path.
When I told my friends and family that I wanted to do something else, they all told me I was crazy. They told me that i had a good gig going, and that I should just keep my nose down and stick with it.
Even my Mom told me to stay in grad school. My normally ultra supportive Mom didn’t want me to take a risk! But it didn’t matter because that eerie conversation with my lab mate had already made up my mind. I was out of there.
The job search
Like I said, it was December 2010, and I was suddenly desperate to find a job. Any job would do, but I was really hoping to get into the clean tech/sustainability field. I didn’t really know what type of job I’d do, I just knew I wanted to contribute to a company, not my crazy advisor.
So I expanded my network. I asked friends and relatives for advice and contacts in the industry. They were able to set me up with some interesting folks in the clean tech wold. So I was able to spend my winter break figuring out an action plan to get out of grad school and into a job.
Starting January 1st, I submitted 10 applications/day. I would do my work in the lab, get home and immediately start sending out resumes. It was an all consuming passion, because I just needed to get out of the abusive situation.
I applied to new jobs everyday of the week, networked, and job searched for 60 days before I heard back from a company (I didn’t know it then, but the only company to call me back at all). It was a company I’d never heard of, but they wanted me to work on “sustainability” so I jumped at the opportunity.
They scheduled a few phone interviews, and then eventually a couple of in person interviews at their corporate offices. After a few days of stomach-knotting panic and doubt, I got the all important acceptance call.
My starting salary was >2x my grad school salary… a nice little raise.
I got my papers in order and went to the university’s administrative office to tell them I was quitting grad school. For a few minutes they tried to persuade me not to leave. They thought I was dropping out because I could no longer pay tuition.
Once I explained that I’d found a job I’d always wanted, they were actually supportive and showed me where to sign and how to quit.
My adviser was not quite so friendly about it. It’s not a good situation for him when a student quits because he loses some funding, and it looks bad on him (but for some reason he was always super mean to his students…).
Anyway, let’s just say that it wasn’t a pleasant exchange. He told me that I was a bad person, a bad engineer, and that I’d never amount to anything… I thanked him for his time and walked out of his office FOREVER!
So what now?
So now that I’ve been at my current job almost two years, I absolutely love it. The people are nice, the work is engaging, and I feel like I am making a positive impact on the environment. The doubled salary is also a nice perk.
The point I’m trying to make with this story is that there is always a better way. You shouldn’t let people treat you like shit just because they don’t think you’re worth much.
Sometimes, when everyone is telling you to stick with the safe bet, you just have to go out and prove them wrong by succeeding on your own terms.