Grad students: You’re not trapped!

In this guest contribution, originally published on Katie’s blog, the author shares a story of a practical change that vastly improved her life as a grad student. All too often, we may come to accept unacceptable conditions as part of the “package” of grad school misery. Here, Katie reminds us that if you are unhappy, it is okay to make a change.

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Almost exactly a year ago I felt my whole world falling apart. Well, my PhD world anyways. I had moved myself and my fiancé halfway across the country to pursue what I thought was my dream PhD with my first choice of advisors. In fact, I didn’t apply anywhere else. I had taken almost 3 years off from school after undergrad, worked and interned and thought I had figured out exactly what I wanted out of my PhD.

At first, grad school seemed to be going well. Initially my lab was working for me, I was doing well in classes, and getting great responses from grant applications. However, as my second year of my PhD program progressed I was starting to realize that what my advisors had in mind for my program, for how grad school works and their expectations were becoming more and more opposite of what mine were. Somehow, and I’m still not sure exactly how, we had polar opposite visions of what my future as a PhD student was. I felt miserable all the time, hated going to school, and lost my fight – because I felt I was in a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t environment”; there was no winning no matter what so I just stopped trying. Those that know me know this as a huge warning sign for me, as I am extremely competitive (sometimes too competitive), and I love to prove people wrong if they tell me I’m not capable of something. But this situation was different. I didn’t want to try to prove them wrong, I just didn’t think the fight was worth it.

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A pair of legs with brown boots ascends a dark grey metal staircase.

I was told that I just didn’t have “it”. That I was a failure, a quitter, that I was a bad, lazy student. That my priorities were all wrong. That I needed to suck it up, this is how it is. That maybe I should get a Masters or just walk away.

I thought about my options, thought about getting a Masters instead – maybe a PhD isn’t for me. But I knew that wasn’t what would make it better. I thought maybe I need to just suck it up, maybe this is just what grad school is like. But I couldn’t see myself feeling that miserable for 3-4 more years. Something needed to change. I knew I wasn’t all those things I was being told I was, but when people in a senior position tell you those things repeatedly, it’s hard to not question yourself. I saw my whole world, this dream I had, falling apart.

I reached out to the graduate advisor for my department on campus, as well as a committee member and a few faculty members who knew me well as a graduate student. I reached out to my peers in my cohort, and to my family. I am so lucky and forever grateful to all of them for helping lift me up, helping me realize that I was not trapped, that, as a graduate student I had a choice. If I was unhappy in my lab – it was okay to make a changeI did my best to rectify things with my old lab, but we were not only on different pages about my future as a graduate student, we were in two different books.

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In the middle of nowhere against a backdrop of distant mountains, a pair of yellow signs indicate a dead end and two arrows pointing in opposite directions.

People have different philosophies on mentoring, different expectations of the graduate school experience – and that’s okay. You will probably not always see eye-to-eye with your advisor, that’s okay too. But if you find that your and your advisors’ philosophies are getting further and further apart – it is also okay to make a change.

Graduate school is tough, but in the end it should make you happy.

Whatever you decide to do should make you happy.

After 2 years of graduate school, I made the scary decision to leave my lab. At this point I didn’t even have a new lab to join yet, I just knew that this was what was best for me. It was terrifying, empowering and freeing at the same time. I would not be bullied into staying in a situation that was not best for me. It is my education and I have a choice in the matter. It is one of the best choices I’ve ever made – my new lab and new advisor now match what my expectations of graduate school are, I am happy, working on a project I am passionate about, and I look forward to my work, to meetings, to the next 2-3 years of my program. This unexpected, trying, terrifying detour of my PhD has turned out for the best – but it was difficult and took a lot of time for me to deal with and fully process.

Sometimes, through a detour, you’ll end up right where you want to be. As my dad always says, “The process of doing will get it done”. When I started to tell other graduate students that I had left my lab, everyone said that it was really brave of me to do that, and that they knew other people that had done that too. I assumed I probably wasn’t the only grad student to ever change labs, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one who found that a change was needed.

Since then, a handful of my friends have made changes. Some have also changed labs, for similar reasons as mine, some have decided a Masters, both thesis and non-thesis, better suits their goals. Just because you started on one path doesn’t mean you’re stuck on it.

Talking with friends who have made changes, we’ve all said how we felt “trapped in our PhD”, since we started and committed to it we were stuck with it, even if we realized it wasn’t for us. I think this is a more common feeling than grad students let on, and it is not discussed nearly enough.

If someone you know had started a “regular” job, and after two years decided they were just miserable and didn’t like it, would you say, “Well you started this, you have to stick with it, at least for another 3-4 years.”? Hopefully not. Hopefully, you’d say, “well, then, make a change. Look for another job”. Grad school is no different.

This is your life, your dream, your career, your education. 

Grad students, if you’re unhappy it’s okay to make a change – you’re not alone.

If you are feeling unhappy in your situation, here are some suggestions:

  1. Talk to a psychologist: I was nervous at first to use the Psychological Services provided at my university, but I realized I needed help to deal with this overwhelming situation. I didn’t start until a few months after I left my lab – I wish I would have gone sooner. It helped me tremendously. Almost every graduate student I know has, at one point, talked with a psychologist and, honestly, I think every grad student should. I cannot recommend it more.
  1. Self-reflect: Why are you in graduate school? What do you want out of your program? Are you happy? If not, why not?
  1. Talk to an ombudsperson: An ombudsperson is a staff member in your department or in the office of graduate studies that you can talk to in a confidential matter. You can talk candidly to them about your situation and they can help you figure out what you need to do to move forward.

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Kathryn (Katie) Wedemeyer-Strombel is a PhD Candidate and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso. Check out her website!

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