I have been receiving some thankful e-mails regarding a comment I left recently concerning dissatisfaction and malaise in the later stages of a PhD program to a post at Green Gabbro (Hi, Maria!), and I have been implored to lift this comment up to a post here at DrugMonkey. We always try to give our readers what they want, so here you go!
In her post at Green Gabbro, Maria explained her decision to, at least for now, put off completing her PhD and stop with a terminal Master's degree:
Within a year, I was thinking about grad school. And within a year of starting grad school, I was thinking about leaving. This time, I'm swearing that I will only go back after I have figured out what's behind my love-hate relationship with academia. I am convinced that I'm smart enough for any career I want, including a research career, but at this point I can barely even remember what it was like to want one of those.
She went on to explain in further detail some of what was underlying this thought process:
I am largely indifferent to which things I am learning, exactly - or rather, I am interested in almost everything. The process of choosing just one or two good questions to focus on has not been my favorite part of science.
This is typical of extremely bright people. You should not in any way consider this a sign that you aren't cut out for a PhD.
It's also worth pointing out that, while it is necessary to focus in order to earn the PhD, once you do so, it is possible to chart a much broader course in science. This is true both in academia--particularly as a PI--and in other professional science contexts.
Regardless, the PhD is, to some extent, a key that unlocks many, many doors that will otherwise remain closed to you. And behind those doors are many, many fascinating and diverse career pathways that bear little resemblance to being a grad student focused on completing the PhD.
Bottom line: Having a love-hate relationship with being a PhD student does not mean you have a love-hate relationship with science or academia. It's hard to see this when you are a PhD student, but trust me: it's true.
Another thing to keep in mind, although this is not applicable to Maria's situation, is that by the time you reach the end-game of grad school, are finishing up the last few experiments, and are beginning to write the thesis, it is highly likely that you will be pretty much completely disgusted with the science underlying your project, life in the laboratory, and science as a career. This state of mind is a natural consequence of the grueling process of earning your PhD, and does not reveal anything particularly salient about how you really feel about a life in science.
It is similar to how Army recruits feel at the end of basic training: drained, exhausted, miserable, and wanting to quit. But this is no time to make life-altering decisions, such as leaving science for some other profession. As soon as the thesis is accepted, a huge weight lifts, and over the course of a few months, you begin to remember the joys of a life in science.