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I'm a chemistry graduate student (analytical) in my first year (second semester) of a PhD program at a significant R1 university. I have a bachelor of science degree in Chemistry and Mathematics, and recently I've been thinking about leaving the program.

There are several reasons for this:

  1. I chose the school I'm at because of a boy - a manipulative one that I no longer date. It was a horrible choice, really. I chose this school to make him happy and not myself. I broke up with him the summer before I even started grad school. It's not the choice that makes me want to leave, it's the plain and simple fact that there is very little (okay, zero) research here that I am interested in.
  2. Leading on from number 1, I'm not interested in any of the work I do. Not a single bit. I'm in my third research group (we do rotations here) and it's my last shot and I still can't force myself to pretend to like the work that I do. I enjoy doing lab work, because that's doing something. I detest going to talks and reading papers because I can't force myself to be interested in what I'm supposed to be learning.
  3. I chose to go to grad school because I didn't know what I wanted to do and it seemed like an easy and natural next step. My advisors in undergrad all pushed me in that direction and I won several university and society awards for my work as an undergraduate student, so I was convinced that my advisors must know best. So I marched off to grad school like they thought I should.
  4. Chemistry just isn't a passion of mine. I chose chemistry as an undergrad major because it was one of the only things that I didn't get particularly bored with, and I was pretty good at it. In undergrad, I loved my chemistry research because it was agriculturally based (that's my passion) and very applied. I couldn't get enough of it. Now that I'm at an R1 school where all the work is very fundamental and "novel," I'm so miserable and bored, I can't handle it.
  5. I'm burned out. I started undergrad when I was 17 and went to school year round (through spring and summer) so I could graduate in 4 years. During that time I was a co-op at a major chemical corporation working 20 hours a week during school and upwards of 40 during the summer. Now that I'm in grad school, I'm exhausted and I really wish I would have taken the gap year.

It's gotten to the point where I just don't want to do anything anymore. I force myself to teach, force myself to go to classes, and force myself to do lab work. I had a feeling that chemistry grad school wasn't for me for quite a while, since October. It's not even just grad school in general. It's chemistry. I see my roommate (who's also a chem grad student) be happy and cheerful and excited for all the things she is doing and always has something chemistry-like to chat about. I'm super jealous. I've never felt that way about my field and I want to be excited for something like that too. I still want an upper level degree, I just don't want to do chemistry-related research anymore. What I would love to do is quit and leave with my master's in chemistry, take a year off to regroup and get my head on straight, and then apply to a master's program in agronomy and soil science.

I've told my family about my feelings and they are very supportive of my decision because they want me to do something I'm passionate for and this is very comforting that they do not see me as a failure for not completing what I set out to do initially (which is what I sometimes feel like). What I'm most concerned with is this:

  1. In order to finish my master's degree, I need to finish two more classes. This means hanging around another year, which I am okay with because it'll help with my decision making process. The problem is that I need to select a research advisor to get through the next year because my rotation cycle is ending. Do I choose an advisor knowing full well I'm leaving and not tell him/her? Do I pretend it's a "surprise" a year from now? It seems so dishonest, but I do not want to leave here without gaining something from my time here. I don't like to lie and I'm concerned about the quality of the letter of recommendation I might receive if I ask said advisor to write one for me for my next graduate degree.
  2. How do graduate programs look at applicants that have previous master's degrees? (Note: In Chemistry, grads typically do not have master's degrees, especially from R1 universities. These degrees are usually given to students that either leave voluntarily or are separated from the program because he/she did not pass the candidacy exam) I'm concerned that future programs will think that I'm "flighty" or that I couldn't cut it at my previous program. Does anyone have any insight on this?

I apologize for making this so long. Any help is most appreciated!

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    "I loved my chemistry research because it was agriculturally based". Follow your passion! Switch to a school that does the research you want to do. Here is a grad-agricultural chemistry group agchem.ucdavis.edu. Consider programs outside chemistry. Some "plant sciences" and "agricultural engineering", "chemical engineering" programs do agricultural chemistry work. You will never make it through a PhD if you don't enjoy your research. – WetlabStudent Mar 5 '15 at 0:38
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    Contact your undergrad advisor, ask them for a list of research groups that work on projects similar to the ones you loved in undergrad. – WetlabStudent Mar 5 '15 at 0:46
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    My (R1) university has a grad student who dropped out of a computer science PhD for reasons similar to yours, He's now in his third year of a math PhD, and doing very well. It's perfectly possible to get accepted to a new, good program after dropping out. – Johanna Mar 5 '15 at 1:29
  • I supervised a student who stopped with an MS in math and then went on to a social sciences PhD program in "Science and Technology Studies" and has done fine. It is certainly possible to change course. – Brian Borchers Mar 5 '15 at 1:52
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Most faculty I know have gone through crises of confidence. They know that sometimes you set out to do something that your heart isn't in, and we've seen it plenty of times in students in the department who we wished decided to leave the program for their own sake instead of being miserable for several more years.

So if your heart is not in it, tell the people you care about. Most departments will be happy to accommodate you and step you down from the PhD track to the MSc track. The worst that could happen is that you lose your scholarship. But it may also be that they think that you're only going to be with them for another year and look the other way that you're not satisfying the requirement to choose a research adviser.

Talk to the graduate adviser in your department, I'm sure a solution can be found. On the other hand, don't choose a research adviser without first talking to the person in charge in your department -- people invest time into you and they'd be disappointed if you pretended to be interested and then just leave.

As for future options: We get applications all the time from people who change careers because their heart wasn't into what they were doing before. I think most of us actually look rather positive on this as it usually means that the applicant really knows what they want and are not, like you in a former life, doing what others suggest to you but then don't love it. I don't see a stigma in leaving with a Masters -- I'd rather think of it as a plus.

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