My Life Changed the Day I Left Grad School

Finding myself when my academia made me feel lost


This time last year, I was still enrolled in my graduate program in materials science and engineering. I thought that’s where I was supposed to be, but this time last year — I was perhaps — in the lowest point in my life.

I studied chemistry in college; I really love science and I wanted to be immersed in the field that would someday solve the energy crisis. I wanted research alternative energies, create sustainable materials, etc. Everyone knows that if you wanna get a job working in that industry, you gotta have at least a masters. Me being the over-achiever that I am, I thought, “I’ll apply for the Ph.D.”

I got into top programs at Northwestern University, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University but ultimately decided on Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. For some reason, I was lured by the gem that Baltimore is and joined a lab with nice people and a seemingly nice research adviser.

Only a few weeks settling into my new life; I felt lost. At the time, I was fresh off a break-up with someone who influenced my decision of pursuing a Ph.D., so I couldn’t communicate the challenges of embarking on a new journey on the other side of the country with anyone who truly understood. The agonizing months — post break-up — clouded my focus and made coursework feel unbearable. My colleagues came from competitive Ivy League universities or from families with at least one tenured professor for a parent, so no one could relate to my background

… and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t doing well.

To top it off, I wasn’t even interested in my research lab. I was in a combustible materials lab that was funded by the Department of Defense.

I fought myself mentally every day on whether I was respecting my values by being funded by an organization that caused so much pain and destruction to the world.

I struggled with my personal life, I struggled in class and I struggled in lab. I don’t wanna make it seem like I didn’t seek help because I certainly did. I formed study groups with my colleagues to help me get through the courses, I approached my lab mates with my concerns and found help from one gracious and wonderful post-doc, and I went to therapy to talk through my past and current struggles. It seemed like things were turning around, and they were; but I was still unhappy.

At the start of lockdown last year, I went home to be with family. I intended to only be home for a couple of months until the university reopened, but I never went back to collect the rest of my belongings.

I realized while back at home, I dreaded the thought of returning to the research environment. I didn’t want to spend hours in a lab for work that seemed so miniscule compared to the many issues people face every day. I already wasn’t feeling confident in my abilities to succeed in grad school, and I wasn’t being told not to quit by the faculty that I had expressed these feelings to. My anxiety was skyrocketing from the pandemic, tensions everywhere were rising from the George Floyd protests and I was questioning what I really wanted to do with my life.

The moment I knew I needed to be somewhere else, anywhere else, was the Monday after the first weekend of protests in June. I joined the weekly lab meeting eager to see whether the group was going to address the historic marches that took place. I, myself, attended the protest at Pan Pacific Park in Hollywood and stayed late enough to witness the burning cars, non-lethal attacks on protestors and the abrupt call for a 6 p.m. curfew that threatened undocumented protestors. My camera and mic were turned off as I was watching my lab mates trickle into the Zoom call. When the meeting finally started, my adviser said to the group, “So, did anyone do anything fun this weekend?”

My jaw dropped.

One person said they took a nice bike ride, another said they finally experienced in-person dining for the first time since lockdown, and another said they went on a hike. Not a single reference was made to the George Floyd protests.

In a group with only three people of color in a lab of about 12, I shouldn’t have expected much. But their lack of acknowledgement to current events was one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever witnessed in my life.

That’s when I realized that academia has little concern for the experiences of non-white, non-male people. I’m a half-Asian, half-Latina female. I thought about whether I was accepted into this school for merit or whether I was checking a box. I’m fairly light-skinned and have faced very little explicit discrimination in my life, but that doesn’t mean the institution isn’t fundamentally already working against me. Academia may say it cares about diversity and inclusion in a long and wordy statement, but that doesn’t mean it will do anything in hiring, admissions or outreach to fix the representation failures of the past.

With the weight of all other struggles throughout the year growing heavy on my sanity, I decided to take a leave of absence. I thought for the mean time, I needed to get away from the environment that was bringing me nothing but stress and unhappiness. I signed my forms, flew back to Baltimore to sell things I couldn’t bring back on a carry-on, hugged my wonderful housemate goodbye and returned back home.

Since then I’ve thought about whether I would go back, and have come to the conclusion that I won’t. I’ve since taken several writing courses and workshops and connected with fellow ex-Ph.D.s who had a similar or worse experiences as me, and realized there’s an alternate path for us through science writing. I really love writing. I really love communicating complex ideas. I would love to be able to communicate how the inner workings of complex systems affect marginalized communities. And I still love science.

I know there’s a community of science writers who help fellow scientists break through the journalism industry. To be honest, I had been turning the other cheek on science for a while because I felt so heartbroken and disappointed in my failure at grad school. I thought science didn’t want me and I felt I wasn’t good enough for the science writing beat.

But looking back, I’ve spent the past year finding myself and realizing the wonderful things I’ve been able to learn and accomplish in less than a year — and in a panini! From winning awards with SAC.Media, to landing a freelance gig producing podcasts, to getting job interviews with radio stations I’ve always admired, and to connecting with friends and colleagues in the environmental advocacy realm. And not to mention laughing at myself for being so sad for so long over that break-up. I started thinking about science communication again.

My background is in science and I’d like to incorporate that part of me in my career. I no longer feel bad for having left grad school but understand that I was meant to be somewhere else. Sure, I worry every day about whether this career pivot will work out for me, but I’d rather take that chance any day instead of rot my brain away in a place I know has made me unhappy before.

My life changed the day I left grad school. And if I could tell myself anything last year that would save me a few anxiety attacks it’d be, “Bitch, you’re gonna be okay.”