Why I quit my Ph.D. (and why I returned)

—  Efraín E. Rivera-Serrano, Ph.D. —

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs

I was 20 years old when I decided to move to the U.S.A. to pursue graduate education. I had a rough childhood. You know, the dysfunctional family with limited resources and opportunities, emotional burdens, and prejudices that is worthy of a separate blog entry. I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry back in Puerto Rico and it was time to decide what to do next with my life. I had perfect grades, I was at the top of my class, and never got a bad score. The idea of, for example, medical school was never appealing to me…and I did not have the financial resources to do so anyway. Through friends, I had been exposed to scientific research and (barely) introduced to the concept of graduate school as an option. I made excellent connections that eventually helped in my journey of applying and obtaining graduate school admission. Without any hesitation, I decided to move to Raleigh, North Carolina for my graduate degree days after my last week as a college student. I left my family, friends, culture, language, and belongings behind to pursue graduate education. The first two months are almost always fun. Exploring the area, moving to a new place, learning new techniques in fancy laboratories, feeling successful… Then, reality sinks in.


“This message is to let you know that I have decided to quit my Ph.D.” That was the first line of an email I sent to my graduate advisor eight months after I had started graduate school. Why? Because those were some of the worst months of my life. I have seen a lot, trust me. I know what it is like living on an income $300/month. I have witnessed my mom attempting at suicide right in front of my eyes three times now, first time when I was 14 years old. Yet, the stress of graduate school was actually quite comparable to all those moments…combined. I was living the perfect definition of ‘imposter syndrome’. I felt like a useless exotic bird enclosed in a dungeon singing to the void. Very limited interactions with others, constant self-guilt, a toxic lab environment, and away from a supporting group or family. I was getting used to my P.I. telling me to “stop sounding like a Puerto Rican”, “your people are nothing compared to where I come from”, or the Friday special “you are lucky you are a U.S. citizen”. I internalized all those issues as MY problems and somehow decided to stick around and seek counseling – what did I have to lose, right? Answer: my core and essence, that’s what. Feeling undervalued, daily microaggressions and racist comments coupled with that sense of “I bought the ticket, I better take the ride” was suffocating. I redacted the same email, and this time I decided to leave with a master’s degree instead.

What I had not realized is that I actually had a strong support group all along.  There are people out there who genuinely care about you and see in you what you most often can’t see. Their support and constant words of encouragement were more than enough to ignite my inner grit and search for new opportunities. “I believe in you.” “This apparent failure does not define who you are.” “You are smart.” “We can start over again. Life is more than this.” I did listen to them, re-applied to graduate school and succeeded without a single negative day in those 4 years. I would have not completed the Ph.D. adventure without having a core supporting group of friends and colleagues and they deserve recognition: my husband and faculty and administration over at NCSU including Dr. Erin Banks (now at UNC Charlotte), Dr. David Shafer, Dr. Robert Kelly, and my Ph.D. advisor Dr. Barb Sherry. You have all inspired me in many ways and I wish to someday help and inspire others the same way. Why was the second time around so much better than the first? Because (1) it was the right environment, (2) I was matched (serendipitously) with the best mentor for me and because (3) I knew what I wanted in life. Nonetheless, even as a third-year postdoc, the thoughts of ‘quitting and doing something else’ with my life still lingers to this day.

I decided to create a Twitter poll (March 20th, 2019) and ask that question. The results are as I had expected. Why are most graduate students and postdoctoral researchers so unhappy during their training? Here are my two cents based solely on my experiences:

  • I thought I was the best and was shocked to find I was just like the rest – we start graduate school with the mentality that we are freaking amazing (and we are, really!). We are used to succeeding and rarely ever failing in our fields. But graduate school is all about the opposite – no one knows what will happen. That ‘big fish in a small pond’ feeling goes down the drain during the first year and is in turn replaced by imposter syndrome.
  • Sometimes the worst place you can be is in your own head – it is not surprising that most graduate students and postdocs experience high degree of anxiety and depression. It is a very stressful training phase and we aren’t used to failing over and over again. However, we are often our worst enemies and tend to self-isolate. Making friends and new connections is not as easy as back in college and most of us moved away from home. But, realizing that you are not alone is critical for your success in any role. We all need a sense of community and support. Reach out, meet people, express your feelings, be yourself. My husband is my best friend and I am lucky to have excellent colleagues and friends that support (or not) my decisions daily. Social media, when used properly, can similarly be a powerful tool to network and expand your circle.
  • Currently, training system is geared towards developing future academics – we all know the statistics and the percentage of Ph.D.’s who eventually get tenure-track positions. The system, however, is still based on archaic laboratory isolation and publishing results. We are frequently trained in a confined location with limited interactions with others. Hopefully I am not alone when I say that part of what motivates us Ph.D.’s is the opportunity of making a difference in the world and for our work to ‘mean something’ (sorry to break it to you, but your publications do not define who you are). The current system fails at connecting trainees with the outside world through, for example, outreach activities, community engagement, volunteering in museums or science fairs. But, you can still do this if you need it – ask! Not all of us dream of having our own laboratory. Some of us want to teach, connect with the community, work in patent law, science communication, writing, you name it. Your P.I. should have his/her best interest in your training according to your final goals. If they do not support your passions and needs, re-think about your choices and whether that is the right training environment for you.
  • Choose your mentor(s) and environment wisely – the key to a positive experience in graduate school is to work in a positive environment filled with respect, goals, support and communication between mentors and mentees. Even if you are already in a ‘toxic environment’ you can still reach out and find other mentors (your mentor does not have to be your principal investigator!). If it is too stressful, consider switching environments. Graduate school and postdoc’ing literally swallows your 20’s. You are only going to be as good as the people who surround you, have the courage to let go of whatever it is that is bringing you down. However, do not forget why you applied to your program and why you are still there – you have curiosity and a passion! Do not let that fire go away – find your inner strength and hold on to it.
  • You can’t do a good job if your job is all you do – stop the sense of self-guilt and comparing yourself to others. You are you and what works for others does not have to work for you. The word ‘diversity’ means so much more than physical appearance, sexual preferences, gender, or overall background. Spend time getting to know who you are, what motivates you, and what your needs are. Until you stop the self-punishment phase, you won’t be free. Enjoy your time outside work, meet others, make connections, sit under a tree, read a book or dance all weekend. Work-life balance comes in many forms and shapes – it is your life.
  • Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it – we have created an illusionary definition of success based on society’s expectations. We have been brain-washed to believe that success is defined by your publication record, getting a tenure-track position, and/or generating enough income to buy stuff we do not need. While this can and is the dream of many folks out there, it should not determine how successful you think you are. You have already made it far, be proud and embrace the path you have walked. The definition of success is very individualistic, yet it is almost always linked to your level of happiness and freedom. The best and most beautiful things in life are free, do not lose sight of that.

I understand sometimes ‘quitting’ is not always an easy option even if our lives are a living hell. Sometimes we have families, financial burdens, no where to go/can’t afford to start all over again or think we don’t have any skills besides being a trainee for the next 10 years. Keep yourself grounded and remind yourself constantly why you are doing this. We are all incredibly talented, people believe in us, and we have a passion for our subject of research. This does not mean we have to put up with negative environments or educational bullying, but it does mean that if your passion has not changed, then do not feel lost. When it gets dark in your life, there is always someone who will offer you a candle. Surround yourself with a diverse set of positive people (yes, there are genuinely nice people out there) and always be yourself. People who really like you appreciate the true you and, if they do not, they are not worthy of you staying. I have no reason to write this post other than communicate my story and increase awareness. As a gay man, I wouldn’t have the rights I have now without the efforts of every single activist and supporter out there who fought our battle. The more we talk about it and expose the problems, the more likely they are to eventually be improved. We are smart, curious, and full of drive – use your abilities to help others, but never at the expense of not helping yourself. Why I returned after quitting? Because science is my life and I could not imagine doing something else.