Is My Chemistry PhD Program Right for Me?

I started a Ph.D. in chemistry last year at a prestigious university, in a productive and friendly lab. I think my project is a fairly good one, and will yield data for good articles. That is, if I ever manage to put in the work to acquire data.

I find I’ve been doing anything but actual benchwork for the last many months – helping others write grants, reading papers about science outside my field, attending seminars, hiding in the bathroom reading blogs about productivity and cooking. I know I am not doing what I should be, but I cannot convince myself to start something that will most likely not work.

I like my coworkers and my boss (who is sending me to a fancy conference to help give me additional motivation) – but I am not getting my research done.

Am I in the wrong field, or doing the wrong job? Am I thinking about this problem in an unhelpful way?

4 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I think you need to understand the cause of not doing the work. You need to figure out if you are not doing the work because it bores you or you are not doing the work because you are scared to commit to anything. I have a feeling, just from the tone of your email, that you are bored by the kind of work that is required of a chemist.

    Here are a few suggestions for figuring out the problem:

    1. Take a personality test. There’s one available online for free here:

    If your personality type is one that clearly should not be in a science PhD program, then you should probably find something else to do for your career.

    2. Start doing the work in your lab.
    If your personality type is actually a good match for lab work, then you have to force yourself to do the lab work to know how you feel doing it after a few weeks (give yourself time to get used to it). Right now you know how you feel *getting ready* to do it — you feel anxious. So you don’t start.

    But there are many things in life that we are anxious to start but we feel good doing. If you feel good doing the work, then you have anxiety issues that you can treat and still stay in your program.

    3. Try doing something else.
    If you do not feel good being in the lab and doing the work, try doing something else. You don’t need to drop out of your program to do something else. You can do it on the side — at night, early in the morning, on the weekends — do it at a time when people would not expect you to be at the lab anyway.

    See how you feel doing other things. Try a few. Maybe five. Not very many people pick the perfect thing for themselves on the first try. It’s okay if you don’t get it right at first. You need to keep trying though.

    4. Go to therapy.
    If you cannot find something you like in the lab. And you cannot find soemthing you like out of the lab, then you have a problem. It’s not an uncommon problem. Many people take from age 21- 30 to solve this problem. But you are facing a PhD candidacy at a good school, so the stakes are higher and the timeframe is crunched for you to figure things out. Your university will have a free psychology/social work service. Use it. I’m sure the people there have seen this problem a million times, and they will be able to help you figure out a next step.


  2. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    A feedback loop of anxiety and procrastination is extremely common in PhD students (I am one). The best idea I’ve got for solving the problem is to have someone to be accountable to.

  3. Phil
    Phil says:

    You need to do something. If you’re doing synthetic chem you need to pick an easy one, related to your target, out of something like org syn and just get the glassware from the stockroom along with the starting material and do it, clean it up and get it characterized. It’s just cooking. Ask around and learn from your co-workers how to use TLC to monitor reactions. You don’t have much time because your advisor is about to kick you out. They know what you’re doing and you have to show some interest in the subject.

  4. PhD Chemist
    PhD Chemist says:

    Obtaining a PhD in chemistry is a non-trivial task which is often undertaken with little forethought.

    There is a perception that there are not many options for undergraduate chemistry majors. If you quit with your BS in chemistry, while there are many options in industry (most of which fall outside the field of chemistry), your professors will tell you that in order to become a “real chemist”, you need to go to graduate school.

    So, you pick a graduate school based on the school’s ranking and reputation, and then you choose an advisor based upon the whiz-bang propaganda that the advisor uses to describe his/her cutting edge research to you, the lowly first year interviewee.

    Once you hit the lab bench (usually in your second year), reality sinks in, and you realize that your project really isn’t all that earth-shatteringly important and that it is quite likely to fail. The actual molecules in your beaker refuse to behave in the theoretical manner predicted by your advisor on his/her white board. This is where the rubber meets the road.

    It is at this point that you may finally start to question why you are doing what you are doing. This is where you appear to be at the moment.

    Your condition is not helped by the fact that you are living in a surreal academic bubble where institutional priorities, daily activities, and the behavior of your mentors have nothing to do with the real world. Your decision to go to graduate school has deferred your entry into the real world by two years (if you bail with a Masters degree) or by five years (if you stay for your PhD). Nevertheless, the real world awaits you. Further obscuring this reality is that all the “brilliant” people around seem to be planning for a career as a tenure-track professor at another location within the surreal academic bubble. That is, everyone around you is attempting to avoid the “real world” for the rest of their time on this planet.

    So, you need to take a long, sober look at what you are doing with your life. Your options are as follows:

    1) Bail out now. If you choose this path, at least get your masters degree so that your time spent thus far doesn’t completely go to waste. Everybody (perhaps including your advisor) will shun you once you announce this decision. However, with an MS in chemistry, you have at least proven to the real world that you can do advanced math and can pronounce long chemical names correctly. This is more than most in the general population. Start networking immediately for that job in industry (not necessarily within the chemical industry). Spend your remaining time taking useful classes (i.e., don’t take a specialized course in quantum chemistry, take a foreign language, take an engineering class in 3D drafting, learn to write software, etc.)

    2) Go for the PhD with an industrial target in mind. Swallow your pride, rid yourself of any delusions of grandeur, admit that your project isn’t important, do the necessary bench work even in the face of failure, ignore the petty and arrogant behavior of those around you, and just get the PhD. All the while, realize that the PhD is just another academic credential. It isn’t nearly as important as those around you in the academic bubble think that it is. Spend your remaining years in the university taking one useful course per semester (see note #1 above) that has nothing to do with chemistry (even though everybody around you will say that you should be focusing on your “important” research and not “wasting your time” on these other courses). And when you or your advisor pays for you to go to a “fancy conference” for motivation, spend your time at the conference talking to the vendors at the exposition instead of wasting your time listening to the lectures in the symposia (again, your colleagues will wonder why you are wasting time speaking with those commercial, low-life salespeople…but remember, those low-lifes are the ones who can help you network to get a job in industry).

    3) Drink the academic Kool-Aid and go for the PhD with an academic career in mind. The odds of success are low, but if you can somehow weasel your way into the academy, you can spend your remaining years living the “life of the mind” and wholly insulated from the real world until retirement. But I suggest you read a few other blogs before you take this path (such as the infamous “100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School” and the many links on their homepage).

    Have fun deciding what to do with your life.

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