The Road Not Taken: Myths of Failure in Grad School

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.  

-Robert Frost

In the 5 years I spent in grad school I almost quit twice. The first time was after my qualifying exams. The second was after a natural disaster destroyed 30% of my dissertation data. That second one really did me in. Couple that with two family crises (one of which was the passing of my brother—which coincided with the loss of data), and getting my PhD just wasn’t worth the emotional toll it was taking on me. I started looking for jobs using my Masters degrees. I applied to said jobs. I’d made up my mind that if I couldn’t recover that data at the start of the next school year (I research during the academic year in middle schools), I was out. And anyone who knows me knows that once I make up my mind, I stand by my decision.

I told my parents and my closest friends that they needed to prepare themselves for the possibility that I would leave my program. They of course, protested. Chief among their complaints was ‘the time already invested’. They felt like I’d worked so hard and invested 4 years so I shouldn’t just quit.

I was supremely annoyed at them. I wasn’t quitting. I was making the best decision for myself at the time. There is a difference between quitting and making a new choice. Unfortunately, many high achieving people can’t make that distinction.

This post is about change. About admitting you made a mistake. About learning and making informed decisions. About finding the courage to stand up for yourself when everyone seems to disagree.

One of my lab partners in grad school left at the end of her second year (the end of my first). My only other lab partner was 3 years ahead of me and in a completely different phase of the program (though she was and continues to be a fabulous supporter, friend, and statistical advisor). When *Erica left, I remember thinking: ‘Wow! I am very impressed with her. It takes courage to admit this isn’t for you.’ Erica handled it with class. She informed our advisor a semester in advance and then told me shortly thereafter. When I asked her why she was leaving, she replied ‘this isn’t what I thought it would be.’ Truer words were never spoken.

Erica wasn’t the only person I saw leave. In the year ahead of me, a male student left after our debacle of qualifying exams (that’s a future post about the lack of guidance in a PhD program). Also in that year was a male student who’d left a PhD program in Political Science after 5 years to start a new PhD Program in a different field. I also watched someone three years ahead of me fail his dissertation defense. My own cohort member had to deal with her advisor leaving the University after our first year, and manage the effects of not having a primary advisor for the remainder of grad school.

I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen people flip off their committee and walk out (yes, that really happened). And I’ve watched others struggle through difficult situations and still push on. I always wondered if they stayed in the program because they felt invested, they still wanted that PhD and all that came with it, if they simply didn’t know what else to do, or if they didn’t want to be viewed as a failure.

I always wanted to walk up to those people and say: ‘You didn’t fail; you learned. That’s what grad school is all about, right?’



*Erica is a pseudonym