The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) asked why doctoral students do not give up their research despite the difficulties that they often encounter. In their words:
A few years into earning their Ph.D., it hits them. They hate their topic. They are disillusioned with academia. They dread the years they have left to their dissertation defense and the years of brutal competition after that. They are convinced they are denying themselves a real life with sane hours, time with loved ones and a defensible salary. They start to feel like they are doing it for the wrong reasons.
There are so many reasons to stop. And, in fact, half of all doctoral students do quit. But what is the story with those who don’t? To find out, we asked scientists to write and tell us what got them over the “I’m dropping out” hump and what steadied them on their paths to the Ph.D. Here is what they said.
Below is my response to the question. It was also published by ASBMB Today.
As part of my doctoral research, I developed a conceptually new network inference algorithm and published it as a single author. This publication resulted in multiple recruitment offers by top financial firms and a possibility to continue the quantitative aspects of my research at Google. I chose to continue my experimental research in biology for two primary reason.
The first reason was a cost-benefit analysis. I was extremely excited by my experimental research and did not think that the extra money could compensate for not being able to do the experiments that I was burning to do. Furthermore, I expected that the aspects of academia that I dislike the most and find most disappointing — the career-building priorities, and the egocentric, self-serving politics — are likely present in all intellectually-stimulating and thus competitive careers. If I am to endure political shenanigans as the price for pursuing intellectually-stimulating work, I might as well pursue the line of work that I find most meaningful and exciting.
The second reason was that I saw leaving academic research as a weakness and a betrayal of my ideals. I saw it as missing the opportunity to contribute ideas that can accelerate scientific research and open new fields. I saw it as a failure to contribute to education, which I consider of prime importance. I believe that many catastrophes in history — including the despicable evils of the Third Reich — happened because a majority of well-intentioned people did not resist staunchly enough a minority of ill-intentioned people. Thus, I will be deeply unhappy if I see myself as not being strong enough to stand up for my ideals and values. This is not as idealistic as it may sound; it is also self-serving because living up to my values contributes to my own happiness.