Thursday, February 24, 2011

Graduate School: What happens if you get shown the door.

Every graduate student fears being voted off the graduate school island. There are always vague rumors of people who have been down that road. It is almost always implied, if not directly stated, that whatever happened was 100% the graduate student’s fault and that it was because s/he was a horrible excuse for a graduate student and perhaps even a human being.

This week, a dear friend, a brilliant friend, was voted off the island. He’s crushed. I can’t blame him, since I was once voted off the graduate student island myself.  It was one of the most soul crushing moments of my life and something that I have never talked about in great detail with anyone except my husband. Hearing my friend relate his experience to me brought back the conversation I had with my old advisor several years ago. It made me realize that some of the things I have struggled with this second go-around at the PhD are a direct result of how I feel about myself as a result of that horrible, horrible day when I was voted off the island. The words from my old advisor’s lips are things I need to move beyond. That is harder than it sounds. I have thought that maybe describing my experiences will help me move beyond this and help my friend understand he isn’t alone. I thought I would break my thoughts into a couple of different posts to address both the advisor and the student side of this issue.

Part 1: What you’ll feel right after the break-up w/ your advisor

The very first thing you have to remember, should the worst happen, is that you are still a good person. It sounds cliché, but when you are told to pack sand by your advisor, it’s hard to remember that you are a valuable human being, graduate degree or no. All I had ever wanted was to be a geology professor, so when I was told “your passion isn’t enough” and that I wasn’t any good as a scientist, I was devastated. Like my friend, it happened early enough in the semester that I couldn’t just skulk off into that good night. I had to show up to my classes the next day. When you feel like a worthless human being, it is hard to get out of bed and shower, let alone go to class.

This desire to dissolve into a wall somewhere is intensified in graduate school, because most departments are more gossipy than most high schools. Everyone seems to know everyone’s business and depending on how discreet you, your advisor and/or the faculty is, the news may or may not spread like wildfire. Once is does, everyone seems to start treating you differently, more distantly, maybe questioning your performance in other areas. It compounds the depression and worse still, makes you question your judgment about yourself, your career and whatever was said when the break-up between you and your advisor occurred. Whatever you do, do not give into the depression and do not assume that perception is reality. There are still a lot of people who think well of you and are willing to help you into a soft landing. You need to keep putting in the effort to make this a reality.
The first couple of days are going to be the worst, so give yourself some time to grieve, because you will grieve. Do not make all of your life’s decisions in this time.  Once you are feeling better, it is time to polish your resume. Every school has career services, so you should check with them for help if you need it. Then, you will need to look for a job. It’s important to find/create a positive spin on what happened. I happened to have been dealing with a breast cancer scare when I was shown the door. That wasn’t the whole reason, but it is a solid sympathetic reason for leaving my old job (graduate school) was key in getting a new job. Take your resume and shop it around. Ask people in the department if they can help you and if you are interested in environmental, contact Aerotek Engineering. They do a lot of environmental recruiting and I’ve always had good luck with them. Find a space where you can envision this as a positive step in your life and go get that job. Remember, the best revenge is living well.

Then, once you know you’ve secured a roof over your head and food on your table, you need to take time to evaluate what happened. Some proportion of being fired IS your fault. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. Recognizing your own mistakes and changing is vital to overcoming this setback, especially if you want to make a second academic run later. That said, it is NOT ALL your fault. Some proportion of what went wrong was likely beyond your control. Recognizing that other factors played a role in your setback will help you accept what happened and maintain a positive self-image. Sometimes the advisor is part of the problem. Sometimes financial, health or other factors may have played into the situation. These are not your fault.

Ultimately, I found that leaving graduate school was a good experience for me. I don’t like to talk about it, because I do worry that people will still view me as a loser. That’s  my problem. Honestly, working 8-5 at a couple of good companies with good people gave me an opportunity to see that I am a good scientist. I learned how to manage my time better. I learned to be happier. When I came back to graduate school the second time, as worried as I was that old advisor was right, each success showed me that I wasn’t that person and I didn’t have to accept anyone’s opinion of me as gospel. Getting fired from graduate school ultimately made me a better graduate student and employee.

I don't expect that everyone has had the same experience I have had and I welcome any comments about how you have dealt with being fired as a graduate student and how you made your come back.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. I'm in grad school right now in my first semester. I had no idea someone could tell me that I'm not doing well and should leave. That's so bizarre. We're paying them to teach us and they can fire us, essentially? I suppose I'm doing ok so far, but I always worry that I'm not doing enough at school or at work or at home. Thanks for sharing your story.
    PS: I like your note above the comments box. It made me laugh :)

  2. Ah, well the operative phrase that may make the difference is "We're paying them to teach us..." Most graduate students in the sciences are paid to go to graduate school, and our funding is conditional upon satisfactory progress as defined by our advisor and/or committee. I think getting fired is rare, but because no one really talks about it, it's hard to say. Most advisors seem to ignore students until they quit when they aren't happy.

  3. Hi, I was wondering if you would be willing to give some counsel on this issue - I'm being let go after my third year in my PhD by an advisor who did not want to have even a discussion with me about what went wrong (other than not getting publications out). If you could just drop me an email conspiratorialwink[at]gmail[dot]com I would really really appreciate it.

  4. Hi, this is an awesome read. I am currently going through the process of potentially being dismissed from a graduate program in speech pathology, and it sucks. Your points are spot-on. The higoher-ups are asking me to withdraw from the program, and if I don't do that, then they're gonna force dismissal on me. Which then I'm going to appeal their decision... I'm kinda stuck between a rock and a hard place. I know some of this is my fault, but they've done some pretty shady stuff on their end... I don't know... but thank you for the read. This has opened my eyes a little bit and made me see that there's light at the end of the tunnel somehow.

    1. Hey StringTheories910,
      I'm so sorry to hear you're in that situation. It sucks! Without knowing the particulars of your situation, I can't do much more than empathize.
      The tough part of the academia treadmill is that you are dependent on letters of recommendation in order to continue playing the game, even at another University. You may want to take this into account in your strategy moving forward. Are there people who are willing to put on a piece of paper that they're on your side? What can you do to keep those people on your side? It will help you move forward to know what resources you have to rely on.


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