Why I Walked Away from my Ph.D

"Ever feel kind of down and out

You don't know just what to do?

Living all of your days in darkness

Let the sun shine through..."

- 'Lady Day and John Coltrane' - Gil Scott Heron


Writing about failure is hard. Even if the failure is only a perceived failure.

I officially walked away from my PhD program at a large R1 institution about a month ago. Writing the words "I officially withdraw" to the administration of my program was an incredibly difficult moment. I felt a large sense of loss, like I had just lost a family member. I was officially laying my PhD to rest.

I went into a prolonged term of mourning. Nothing felt right anymore. I felt like I didn't know WHO I was anymore or where I fit into the world. I used to introduce myself as "Veronica, neuroscience graduate student"; now I'm just "Veronica". Not having a way to identify myself to others made me feel worthless. I felt as if I was no longer contributing to the community or society and had become a burden to all those around me.

My days were filled with uncontrollable tears, screaming, rage, anger, and a sense of defeat. PhDs are hard; that's what we are told when we begin. I know it is hard. It WAS hard but I could have done it. I WAS doing it. I had been doing it for 6 YEARS. I survived cervical cancer while in grad school, while being a mom to two young children. On top of that, my surgeries left me with extensive nerve damage that affected several internal organs which has led to prolonged health complications. But despite all of that, I WAS doing it. I passed my prelims with my cohort despite taking close to a year off for treatment and recovery. I successfully gave my fourth year seminar about the work I was doing in my lab. I WAS doing it and doing it well.

So why did I walk away? What led me to this place? Honestly, I am still not sure. I am at a loss. But what I can say is that I did not walk away by choice. I was forced into it.

I think most grad students can agree with me when I say that in grad school you spend most of your years figuring out what you are supposed to be doing and the last year or so scrambling to do it. I was at the point where I was mid scrambling. I had run a lot of experiments and was drowning in data. Now was the time to put it together into a cohesive story and write a paper and I was having a real hard time doing that while still running experiments, dealing with my rapidly declining health, and being a present mom.

Let's back up for second. Some of you might be thinking, "Well isn't that what your mentor/PI is for?" Isn't that person supposed to help you? Yes. Yes they are. Unfortunately, my mentor/PI was wrapped up in their own world and personal issues. This had been the case since I started in my lab. I can't place the blame on my PI for having personal issues to contend with outside the lab. That had become the story of my life, after all. However, I can say that when my PI did meet with me, it was clear that my success was not a priority. From not looking at the data I sent or answering the questions I asked and simply brushing me off to figure it out on my own, I was not given the mentoring I was promised as a graduate student.

In hindsight, I should have walked away from that lab a long time ago. I was warned against joining and even when I had joined; I was consistently told by many that it was not an environment where I would receive mentoring. It was one of those labs you go to when you don't want to be bothered by your PI very much. We all know those labs. But I thought it would work for me. When I rotated a year prior, things weren't perfect, but I felt I had received enough support from the PI when I needed it. So despite the warnings, I thought I knew better and joined.

I could ramble on and on about my time in the lab but that is not the point of this particular blog piece. When it came time for me to reach out to my mentor and find direction and guidance, I was met with resistance, aloofness, and doubt. Every time I met with my PI (via skype because he was away on sabbatical) our conversations consisted mostly of him asking whether I felt I was capable of finishing my PhD, instead of focusing on my data. Yes, I was moving slower on my experiments because of my health but I had written and received a grant to hire another set of hands to make up for my lack of ability to work at the microscope for long periods of time. Despite all of that, my PI seemed convinced I was incapable of doing the few experiments I had left despite the large number of experiments I had already done.

As a chronically ill student, I was already insecure. So having my mentor constantly question my abilities did not help. However, I was determined to finish my degree, so I sought guidance from outside my lab. I went to other faculty that I saw as mentors to help me find a way to communicate to my PI that I was indeed capable of finishing, I was just moving slower than other students.

Now I know some of you are probably thinking "Well maybe he's concerned about all of the financial support he's provided and having to support you for longer." Let me address that by telling you I had been supported my entire graduate school career by fellowships, grants, scholarships that I had hustled and applied for and been awarded.

So here's where things got ugly. By seeking help and guidance from academic (non-research) mentors, my PI became convinced I was trying to get him in trouble or fired and turned on me. I won't go into specifics because I don't want this blog to be a petty tirade of my numerous issues with my ex-PI, however, communication with my mentor broke down to the point where I no longer felt comfortable interacting with him. I sought help to attempt to finish without having to engage with my PI, but I was told that my "PI holds all the power" over whether I get my PhD based on the nearly 5 years of work I had done in that lab. Sadly, all plans petitioned to the PI were rejected, and so I was given three choices by both my program and the university: go back, keep my head down, and trust that the PI has my best interests at heart; find a new lab and start fresh which means another four years at least; or walk away.

I agonized for weeks about what to do, but ultimately I decided that for my mental health and physical health, I needed to get away from this toxic situation. So I left. I wanted to finish my degree, but I was not willing to "keep my head down." Essentially, the only way to graduate was to suck it up and not stand up for myself when I felt wronged? I teach my daughters the exact opposite of that. I've lived my life the exact opposite of that. I wasn't about to start now.

So that's how I got here. That how I got to the point of turning my old blog 'Portrait of a Grad School mom' into Ph.Denied blog.

Where am I going from here? I'm not sure. Will I stay in STEM? I have no clue. But I do know I made the right "choice" for me given my options. I know that no matter what path I walk down next, I'll never compromise what I know and believe. 

I discuss this in episode 12 of the Science in Color podcast.