Where’d the spark go? When it’s time to break up with your graduate program.

Remember when you first met your graduate program? You got that little thrill whenever they emailed you. You started measuring the graduate student office for new drapes. You just wanted to spend all your time in the lab, and couldn’t be happier doing so. As time went on, you learned a lot about your field and about yourself. You grew as a person and became more confident in your work. Eventually, the relationship started to stagnate: you got tired of working on the same old projects, ran out of interesting classes to try, you felt like it was never going to get the next level and, well, you got bored. It happens to everyone, and it’s important to recognize the signs (1), before the relationship becomes negative.

I have seen it before. Graduate students have trouble finishing up projects and getting manuscripts published, their PIs change the subject when the time comes to set a defense date, they feel like a perpetual student, until they become frustrated at the creeping feeling of no control over their life or the pace of their career. And eventually, many of them reflect this frustration outwardly by complaining about their PI, their department, their university. This is detrimental to yourself and to the quality of your work (2) (3), to the other students around you who still have several years of graduate work to look forward to, and to prospective students (4).

And more than that, it doesn’t help you to find your next position, because you find yourself complaining to people that you probably shouldn’t open up to: people you meet at a conference, a candidate interviewing in your current department, the interviewer for your prospective job. No one likes to hear someone rag on their old boss if they might one day be the boss you are badmouthing on social media.  Nor they do they want a team member who is going to bring down the tone for the whole group.

When you are ready to move on in your career, you know, and you need to take responsibility and control of your trajectory to make it happen. Set a timeline and stick to it, sit your PI down and set a defense date, curate your CV and start applying for jobs. Not just the two jobs that you really, really want, but any job that you think you might be interested in. The post-doctoral job market is small, and it’s difficult to find a position. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as you may find yourself stuck in that particular graduate program if you’re not able to find a new position. The process will hone your skills as well, especially if you can get an interview. Use each opportunity, and if you don’t get the job, politely ask the interviewer how you could make yourself more competitive, or if there was an aspect of your work that was underwhelming or poorly explained.

The point is, don’t wait until you are sick of being a graduate student and can’t wait to get out, keep an eye out for your next move and be proactive about it. So put away those free t-shirts you got from vendors, get yourself some new business attire, get your CV in shape, and you’ll be surprised at how many interviewers ask for your number.

Here is another relevant and entertaining blog post on the subject.

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