Why I Felt Pushed Out of Science

The short answer would be that I had no support from anyone to keep going.  But the reason why that’s the case is far more complex of an issue.

I go to a mid-sized university of around 15000 people, mostly a commuter school.  This means that the majority of students don’t live on or near campus, they travel to school from up to an hour away each day.  There are a few major effects of this on how the school functions.  First, there are very few student run organizations, and those that exist are rather small.  Students don’t want to make the commute to travel back to campus to participate in anything, and most students that would be willing to put in the time to run anything are far away themselves.  This means that there are very few organized study groups, very few major-based clubs, almost no activist organizations, and even fraternities and sororities are few in number.  The effect of this problem is that students have very few reasons to get close with other students, and very few occasions to interact outside of classes themselves.  This means that despite the size of the university, it has social interactions of universities that are a fifth of its size.  Students feel isolated, most friendships that exist are from wherever people were previously, and most people are too tired to put in the effort to get to know new people, when they don’t have easy ways to interact outside of class.  What this means for me, is that when I even manage to find students who are passionate about science (instead of the majority, who wish to instead be nurses or go to medical school for the money/ to treat people) they are often living between 1-2 hours away,  have a friend group that exists outside of the school itself, and are often too inconvenienced by the commute along with school and work to do anything.  You’re pursuing your major alone.

The far more insidious and demotivating factor though is the faculty themselves.  The vast majority of science faculty are over 60.  Nearly all the faculty are also completely disillusioned in the scientific system.  Nearly all my faculty in conversations would only respond that graduate school is a horrible place, that the system is entirely broken, and would encourage students not to even try to move on.  When attempting to join any labs for work as an undergraduate, I would first be told that I shouldn’t pursue this work (assuming that the professors in question were even still performing research, which many were not,) and then next that they didn’t care to take me over an existing graduate student, as it wasn’t worth the effort.  A process that was repeated over 5 years, over and over again.

With no mentoring or encouragement possible at my school, I took to the internet to see if there were perhaps many outspoken figures in biology on twitter or blogging that could provide good advice and support.  A pretty foolish idea.  It turns out that the most prolific and active people on twitter were just as discouraged and hopeless as my own professors, even those who had supposedly ‘made it.’  The only things they seemed to be passionate for anymore was hating the system they were working within, and finding enjoyable escapes from the world of science when possible.  Any passion for their own research, if they even got to work on projects of their own, was lost.  The publishing system is broken, they spent over a decade writing grants and doing busy work for other people’s labs, and now even having gotten a position at a prestigious university they complained about being incapable of doing the research they plan because nothing could gain funding.  They spoke of environments which encouraged poor mental health, about systems that made infighting and rivalry a mainstay of their relationships with most other labs, and they had all lost the energy to fight these systems in any way beyond complaining.

Of those that were still passionate about science, they were all in physics or had instead left academia.

That was pretty telling about what my fate would be if I continued.  I had a poor childhood, largely consisting of me being abused or marginalized by those who were in a position of power relative to me (emotionally abusive teachers, wealthy students with protection from faculty being physically abusive and often older.)  I have very little tolerance for people demanding work simply based on them being in a position of authority, and I have very little patience left for people who propagate poor systems or refuse to act against broken systems they see harming others.  If I spent a decade or more in the academic system till I maybe was able to have my own lab (2+ for M.S., 4+ for Ph.D, likely another 5-10 in postdoc) I would either end up failing out, or doing something harmful.  But, I had spent my entire life wanting to be a scientist. I grew up reading science books, watching star trek, learning about the way the world worked from an early age, and I got it.  I loved the puzzles, and the ability to understand how the world actually worked.  I didn’t have to be confused about things anymore, there was a way to understand why. And now the only way I saw to keep going was to endure spending half my life in a system that was broken and I knew I would despise, and I could only make a big, meaningful difference with my life through sheer luck.

Cue a year of being miserable and losing hope.

It turns out that not paying attention to the normal science world and looking for alternative careers to give up into was a good thing.  There is a lot of world-changing scientific advancement being done, but it isn’t in academia anymore.  I was vaguely aware of how much corporations like google were really changing fields, but I was pretty ignorant about how much was actually being developed and applied in the private sphere.  But, then I started reading about Tesla and SpaceX (and elon musk in general really.)  His companies are probably doing more to transform the world than any government or institution in a positive manner.  Dozens of companies doing very good work making the world better.  But I still didn’t see a way past having to do graduate school.  Until I actually started looking into how to start a company, ways to run businesses, how startups work, how economics work.  The numbers were pretty surprising. Even better, it looked like less work and less frustration than writing grants, while teaching, while doing busy work for other people’s labs, and trying to learn new things.  And probably paid about as well too.  After a while, I had learned enough, and had enough of a breakdown over my future, that I decided it wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t going to deal with being miserable for that long, to get so little done.

So I decided I wasn’t going to do graduate school anymore, I’d try to make a difference and get things done another way.  But I need to fix a lot of things about myself first, and figure out better what exactly to do instead.

Shedding Leaves

I’ve decided that graduate school is not for me.  It took about two years of being demoralized and losing passion for working in science, but the final nail in the coffin was that even people who are successful and have ‘made it’ through the path I’d want to follow, seem to feel that the entire field is broken, and are constantly unhappy and complaining, and their greatest joys are from outside of science.

If the field I’m so passionate in is so broken that the most talented people can’t find excitement within that system anymore, I don’t want anything to do with it.

Its also becoming increasingly obvious that there is a better way to do this.  Making a scientific company is not a cheap enterprise.  However, creating an income-generating company on par with most scientific grants is far, far easier than it is to actually secure those grants in the first place.  If you want to make truly strong scientific endeavors, escape from the limitations that are imposed by a bloated and exploitative academic system, I think this is the solution.  Elon Musk showed a strong example, make your ultra-efficient startups fund your scientific mission.

I don’t want to spend the next 20 years of my life working 12-16 hour days on other people’s projects, getting them grants, to maybe have an underfunded lab of my own in my 40s.  You don’t need a Ph.D. to do good science, and you don’t have to get money the same ways to fund it.

It took me most of college to realize that I couldn’t handle that lifestyle, that I needed more control over my own future.  Becoming a scientist had been my dream for my entire life, I felt a Ph.D. was necessary.  Its time that I did things my own way, after all, everyone else did it wrong.