Background: In school in USA, US citizen, male 26. Have B.S. in chemistry, and another in applied math & stats (but my main focus was chemistry), from reasonably good public school. After graduating, looked for a job in my field for a solid year with no success before entering a masters program for one semester because I saw no other alternative. Left the masters program after one semester because money was tight but I got into the PhD program (funded) at the same university. I do not, and did not then, have a super solid idea of a career path in mind (but I did want it to be within my major, at least), but I was hoping that graduate school would help me refine my interests, but also I was trapped in the "can't get a job without experience" loop.

I am ending my 3rd year in a chemistry PhD program. In my program, year 1 is only courses and choosing a lab, which all went well. Year 2 semester 1 is starting in the lab part time to learn the background lab skills + another two courses, which also went well. After that from semester 4 onwards, there isn't really a set path anymore.

I have not made very much research progress since semester 4 started. I have started various side projects, but they all got stuck and seem like they would go nowhere. Maybe they could lead to an individual isolated publication (hasn't happened yet, of course) but not lead to a serious actual dissertation topic. My PI is not interested in any of them and I don't get much guidance from him. I was never able to find find a real thesis topic to work on. I don't really know how to do so, and my PI only gives very vague general advice which is not practically useful. He is nice but does not seem at all interested in actually mentoring/advice/guidance/whatever. The area I am in is so niche, that there are almost no other professors to talk to at my university about it. My committee, besides my mentor, don't really know much about it in detail.

This went on for about a year: a steady decrease of hope, enthusiasm, motivation, and money (I am funded for 2 more years, but you know what PhD stipends are like...). An increase in anxiety, worry, thoughts about taking a masters and leave, and a severe and unexpected resurgence of the ADHD disorder I had as an adolescent. However it was a bit of a "boiling the frog" situation where it happened gradually. However quite recently, my PI suggested I join another group, as I'm taking too long and he doesn't have the time to give me the support that he thinks I can't do anything without. I think that's partially true, although not as much as he thinks. But he is also leaving the school, and I'm sure this is his primary motivation. So I have to change regardless.

So here comes my dilemma: change groups to a group that is totally different from my previous one, or leave with an M. Phil? I spoke to a few other professors with funding for me about their groups. I found their research interesting, but frankly I don't think any of them have research interesting enough for me to really want to spend years on it at such a high level of effort. However, when chatting with their grad students, it was suggested to me that I am too anxious and depressed which is going to make the research seem less appealing to me. Maybe that's true. I don't know. However the fact remains that all the profs I talked to expect me to be there for 3 years minimum and most of them said probably closer to 4, due to me essentially starting over (minus coursework). However they seemed optimistic about my prospects of graduating eventually... but I don't think I want to wait for "eventually".

Instead I can leave with an M. Phil after I hit a certain set-in-stone mark in december. I have already done about 80% of the work to do this (since it's part of the PhD program as well, so I've been working on it part time the whole time I've been here), so if I don't join a new group, getting it done by then will be pretty easy. My specific field of research (or rather, the one I will be leaving) is of interest to me, but it's not exactly a "this is exactly what I want to do and it's my dream!" situation. I think that a lot of the coding and data related things and skills I have gotten will make it reasonable to change to data science or programming. I've been reading up on the kind of work these careers entail, and I find it vaguely interesting, in the same way I find the other profs (the ones whose groups I may go into) vaguely interesting.

Now, that was a lot of negativity. You may be thinking "clearly he wants to leave the program, why don't you just make it official?". I sort of agree with you, but I'm very anxious about making that step. Some reasons that are stopping me from puling the trigger and announcing that I'll be leaving with an M. Phil are, from strongest to weakest:

  • I do genuinely have an interest in my field. It was never a "this field is my dream!" situation, but I do enjoy casually reading about it, although all this recent anxiety has caused me to avoid it like the plague (that's probably just burnout at the moment, though). Counterpoint: Almost all the things I have enjoyed learning about in the my field are sort of at the 3rd year undergrad level. I have not much enjoyed reading about the super high level research.

  • The professors whom I have met with seem more interested in their PhD students than mine was. I also chatted with their students a bit, and most of the groups say they get a good amount of guidance. Counter: all these profs are at different campuses than mine (and different from each other). I am stuck in an iron-clad apartment lease for nearly another year so I would either have to put up with adding about 40 minutes each way onto my commute (which was half an hour/40 mins to begin with), or leave my apartment while still on the lease and probably have to pay rent while not even living there until they find a replacement. I asked the housing company if they expect to find a replacement easily and they said it really varies depending on luck. I don't want to let something like an apartment situation influence a decision like this too much, but on a PhD stipend, I can't ignore this issue. Plus, searching for a new place takes time, so that'll just be another delay in the whole process. Also if I had to move it would certainly end up being a downgrade in the neighborhood situation. Counter2: The research in all the other prof's groups are within the same subfield as my first one's but basically on the other side of it, so besides general coding skills etc, there isn't much useful knowledge that would carry over.

  • The weakest reason of all (or is it?): I am scared of ending up in a 9-5 wageslave situation if I leave. The only job like this I've had was a 3 months summer internship before graduating college, which I handled fine but is probably not long enough to really get that dread into your soul. It's not like I've enjoyed my time here that much, but PhD has some perks. Lots of flexibility. People don't count your sick/vacation days. I haven't had to wear a suit at work in 3 years. I'd miss some of that. Counter: one of my biggest sources of unhappiness in my PhD program was the constant pressure (a lot of it coming from myself) to be working, no matter how much you'd worked. Spend 2 hours working and then played video games all day? Spent a normal 7-8 hour day working and go home after? Spent 14 hours frantically looking at experiment results, setting up new ones, forcing yourself to read difficult literature? In all cases, most of the time when I go home, I just feel like I should be doing more, because I have no set hours. I have some friends in data science and software engineering, and they don't seem too stressed like 90% of the PhD students I know, even if they can't just take a day off because they feel like it.

Currently there are 3 other profs whose lab I have considered joining. My current plan is to spend a week in lab A, a week in lab B, etc. Soon after this period however (before fall semester starts) I need to actually make the choice, because I will be forced to de-register if I don't have a mentor (but I can still go for the masters at that point). My expectation is that after spending these weeks with these labs, I will not have any more clarify on this choice as before, but it couldn't hurt to try them out.

So overall, as you can probably tell from this great wall of china of text, I have been basically paralyzed and extremely indecisive by this choice. If you actually read all of that, I apologize for being unable to compress my thoughts, but I would really appreciate any thoughts on the matter.

much needed tl;dr version: Ending 3rd year in Chemistry PhD. Advisor leaving uni. I have no publications and little research progress. Can't decide whether to find a new group and spend a minimum of 3.25 more years in the program and finish the PhD, or take the masters and leave in 6 months to get a job.

  • 1
    The people who know you best advise that your mental state is clouding your decison making. Perhaps get some counseling from the university counseling center, as they will be skilled at dealing with stressful decisions just like this.
    – Dawn
    Jun 27, 2018 at 16:23
  • Possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/a/95751/56938
    – Dawn
    Jun 27, 2018 at 16:25
  • @Dawn I'm trying, but they can't meet for a few weeks, and I only have a few more weeks than that to decide. And those weeks will be filled with these little test runs with other PhD groups.
    – iammax
    Jun 27, 2018 at 16:39
  • I'd also ague it's not a duplicate of that question because there is no "changing labs" component there, which is probably the biggest issue in mine
    – iammax
    Jun 27, 2018 at 16:47
  • 2
    @iammax "What should I do" questions are not on-topic here. You might be able to narrow your focus to one or two specific, answerable questions to help guide your decision, but we can't make choices for you.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 27, 2018 at 18:06

2 Answers 2


Only you can answer this question because only you know what you want to do with your life. Things to think about:

  • PhDs aren't similar to 3rd year undergraduate reading. You need to do more than read. If you find you dislike doing the research work, you'll be suffering a lot through the PhD.
  • "Because I'm avoiding the job market" is one of the worst possible reasons to go to graduate school. You're just delaying the inevitable (you still have to get a job eventually), plus you're using the best years of your life doing something with minimal pay.
  • It is possible you'll work better under a different PhD supervisor. Only you'll know the answer, since only you know what your feelings about doing research are.
  • Re: accommodation - if you quit and get a job, you still have to stay in that place, no? So the commute might not be better (80 minutes of commuting each way is fantastic regardless).
  • You will have to find a job someday. You can't avoid growing up forever. Yes, you might be afraid of becoming a 9-5 waveslave, but you (mostly) can't avoid it. Imagine you choose to stay, it works out, and you complete your PhD. Then what? You either have to leave academia and find a 9-5 job, or stay and do postdocs. Imagine you choose the latter, it works out, and you become a professor. Now you're still in a (mostly) 9-5 job, and have to wear suits too.
  • The difference in the two scenarios above is what you actually do at your job, and what you've invested to get there. You might like being a professor much more than other jobs, and are willing to work through years of low pay to complete the rest of your PhD and postdocs. Are you, especially knowing how few PhD graduates become professors? Again it's up to you to figure out.

I suggest checking out the available jobs in your vicinity (use a jobs portal, and your university's career center if they have one) to see what options are available to people with an MPhil in chemistry, as well as what are available to those with a PhD in chemistry. Imagine yourself doing those jobs, see which ones you like the best, and then consider if it's worth investing the years required to get the PhD. You could even simultaneously search for jobs while continuing your PhD, and only quit if you find something you like.

  • +1 for comparing non-academic jobs with and without a PhD
    – Dawn
    Jun 28, 2018 at 15:00

It sounds to me like you are trying to get a degree while stranded on a desert island with no communication with the outside world. Not a good plan. In my view, and my personal experience, you need to find a professor with whom you are more compatible. That was my biggest block in working for my doctorate and was only overcome by changing universities. In my case it was because I wasn't brave enough to demand a different advisor from the department chair. It cost me about three years of work. The first advisor was an Assistant Professor fighting for his own tenure and so not much interested in anything else.

However, the change and the extra time were worth it. I eventually found an advisor who was a fount of ideas so it was easy to find something interesting to work on. He also gave good guidance. I went from being at the back of the pack to one of the big dogs in the department. It also helped, in this case, that the new Professor led the research seminar, rather than being a relatively junior member as with the previous advisor.

I suggest you move soon on this if you really want to stay (as it is pretty obvious you do), so that you don't reach the burn-out phase and simply accept a dreaded fate without a fight. Your advisor now might be good, but he ain't good for you. Find someone who will give you ideas, look at your progress, tell you if it is good or not and give hints about next steps. If the advisor is invested in you, then life will change.

  • Thanks for replying. I'm not going without a fight, I think, since I am doing week-long stints in a few labs in July (which is as soon as I could arrange this for). As to "pretty obvious you do (want to stay)"... well, I don't know what I want, but I kind of expect the opposite to be true. I don't have a current advisor, so I either need to pick a week before fall semester starts (which is early... August 20 I think) or irreversibly go on the masters and leave route.
    – iammax
    Jun 27, 2018 at 22:37

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