Why I tried to quit my PhD (and I'm glad I didn't)

I was once told “you’re not really doing a PhD unless you try and quit at least once”, I tend to agree and is the story of why I tried to quit my PhD and I'm glad I didn't.

First off, I’ll explain how I ended up in a PhD.

I graduated from my degree in 2011 in Ireland. I naively thought because I choose to do science in college (Genetics and Cell Biology to be exact) that I would be able to find a good, steady job. I had my sights set on pharma and I reasoned that people would always need medicines, therefore pharma = recession proof, therefore I would be beating recruiters off with a stick and would have a choice of jobs offered to me. Although I only had a 6 month internship in the way of experience (and this wasn’t actually in pharma), I had gotten good grades every year in college and therefore dare I say it, felt I was entitled to a good job post college.

How wrong I was. It turned out, jobs are lost in pharma during a recession too. Furthermore, my 6 month internship washing test-tubes was no match for years of actual experience from those who had been laid off and were applying for the same jobs as me.

I harassed so many recruiters in those months post graduating. I became annoyed (see entitled) when they didn’t call me back. “How are these people in business?!” I fumed. I later realised that recruiters work for the hiring company and getting a graduate with no experience a job wasn’t going to be too high on their list of priorities. This familiarity with rejection would serve me well during my PhD. Every cloud…..

After a month or two I secured an unpaid internship with a biotech company. A few months after working in a GMP environment (main learning: correction fluid is the devil and under no circumstances should be used), I received a message from a friend who was doing a PhD in an academic research centre and a 12 month research assistant contract was being advertised. It wasn’t pharma and I had told myself that I didn’t want to work in academia but a quick check of my job offers on the table currently (see empty table) made me jump at the opportunity.

I manged to secure the research assistant position. My boss was an incredibly relaxed man who was a true academic (read he would send scientific papers at 2 am after he had an idea for a new research angle). The work was interesting, the days flew by and ultimately I was delighted to have a job. 6 months into my contract, my boss offered my a 4 year PhD. Given the recession was still booming in Ireland and I really didn’t have a plan B after my research assistant contract ended I jumped at the opportunity to work longer hours for less money and so began my PhD journey.

I remember the first day of my PhD. I was excited to begin this journey. I was going to give it my everything. I was going to break ground-breaking scientific discoveries. That enthusiasm quickly waned and I soon found lots of reasons to fuel my desire to quit.

Reason #1 for wanting to quit my PhD: Constant failure

If constant failure builds resilience then a PhD is essentially a resilience training program. I remember one particular public holiday where I had just done a solid 7 hours work and was waiting for my qPCR reaction to finish.

My friend gave me a call. She was travelling around South America at the time, filling me in on her adventures chasing waterfalls, meeting new people, learning Spanish and generally doing all the things I thought my 20s would entail. I felt a bit deflated after the call. I wondered if my PhD was the right decision for me. I checked my qPCR reaction and saw that my experiment hadn’t worked and I had wasted 8 hours of a public holiday. I no longer had to wonder if my PhD was the right decision for me.

This cycle of failed experiments continued on an almost daily basis for the duration of my PhD. There were so many times I fought back tears in the dark room after yet another failed western blot experiment or the time I hoped the nanodrop machine was broken as it couldn’t be possible that all my RNA had degraded (spoiler alert: there was no issue with the nano-drop machine. My super efficient and tactless German colleague informed me that it was working fine for her and she had an abundant of RNA and also offered that stopping RNA degradation was a pretty basic science skill and if I couldn't even stop my sample from degrading I would really struggle getting results).

Reason #2 for wanting to quit my PhD: Lack of funds

I (wrongly) assumed that a science degree and good grades would equate to a well paying job straight out of college. During my PhD I was fortunate enough to cohabitate with 2 other poverty stricken PhD students. We became accustomed to making our money stretch and occasionally applying an additional layer (or 5) in order to avoid turning on the heating. Our friends who had manged to get into pharma seemed to be minted and when they suggested a social gathering at the weekend which involved going out for dinner and drinks, myself and the other PhDs politely informed them that we would be dining at home. As our friends progressed from graduate jobs and obtained promotions the salary gap become even larger as we were still earning the exact same amount we had been on when we first started our PhD which meant that when we took inflation into account we were actually earning less as our PhD progressed.

Reason #3 for wanting to quit my PhD: Realisation that academia wasn’t for me.

I’ve come to realise that some people love academia and those are truly the people who should stay and progress in academia. I realised relatively early into my PhD that my strengths are not at the bench (see failed experiments under reason #1). I enjoyed discussing science and even writing my thesis was quite fun* but I realised quite quickly that becoming a post doc and later on a principle investigator was not what I wanted. This realisation was somewhat helped by hearing my post-doc colleagues casually mention how they were struggling to get a mortgage due to the lack of permanent positions and also regularly complain about money. I was really determined to find a career that would offer me rewards in the way of financial stability and job security.

*not actual fun, but fun in comparison to doing experiments.

Reasons I’m glad I didn’t quit

With all that being said, I did end up finishing my PhD (albeit a bit earlier than expected) and I’m glad that I finished it. If I had quit, I know I would have regretted it. So for anyone reading this who wants to quit your PhD, based on my experience, I recommend not quitting and here are my reasons why.

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Reason #1 for being glad I didn’t quit my PhD: I now have a PhD

And no one can take that away from me. When I was doing my PhD I felt like the best years of my life were being wasted in the lab. I now realise that 3 years out my life to obtain a PhD was definitely worth it and I still had some great times throughout my PhD. Also, I can subtly drop my PhD into conversations and people instantly think I’m incredibly clever and accomplished which (let’s face it) is the number one reason anyone actually does a PhD.

Reason #2 for being glad I didn’t quit my PhD: Earning potential

It may have taken me a bit longer than I had initially planned but I eventually got a job in pharma. I went from earning a PhD stipend (16K a year) to a six-figure salary when I got my first medical science liaison job. A significant increase in quality of life followed. It was absolutely liberating to be able to spend money without counting every penny, to pay off my debts and to actually have savings. People say money can’t buy happiness but financial stability can remove so much stress caused by financial instability. Being able to save for a mortgage, and plan for the future had an immeasurable positive impact on my wellbeing. Within 3 weeks of updating my Linkedin profile to my new medical science liaison position, recruiters were calling me. This was a real dream come through based on my previous experience being ghosted by recruiters and it also enabled me the freedom to choose to move to a different company if I wanted to.

Reason #3 for being glad I didn’t quit my PhD: Job satisfaction

I was no longer holding back tears in the western blot room when my experiments failed and instead, I spent my days having engaging conversation with world leading experts about cutting edge treatments and patient care. I was never made for the bench and this was reflected in my error bars. However, talking to people, working in a strategic environment, developing relationships with KOLs and actually feeling like I could have an impact on how patients are treated really plays to my strengths and gave me a huge amount of job satisfaction.

In summary, doing a PhD is hard work, but in my case it was 100% worth it.

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