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Danielle Marias is a PhD student in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter @danielleemarias or at her website.


With sunshine on our faces and soft snow under our skis, we reveled in powdery turns on our descent off Tumalo Butte. On the hike back up, I chatted with a new friend about our PhD programs. We were both in our 4th year and ready to finish up our PhDs, but felt disenchanted with academia since starting grad school.

I recently went through what my partner and I refer to as my “mid-PhD crisis.” I originally came to grad school to become a professor at a small liberal arts college, like my undergraduate advisor. However, since arriving at my university four years ago, I have become less interested in pure research, teaching, and the tenure track. This was unnerving and led to great uncertainty surrounding my future career and what I would do with my PhD.

I found this uncertainty to be paralyzing. From a young age, I was always a planner, a goal-setter, and always had some dream career in mind: hairdresser, soccer player, marine biologist, medical doctor, professor. So, when research and teaching no longer excited me, I had no concrete career goal and questioned everything: why I was in grad school, why I study my subject, what I was doing with my life. My shift in professional interests combined with the bleak outlook on PhD job prospects made me interested in alternative academic and post-academic careers. However, it was paralyzing to have so many options outside the ivory tower with (what felt like) a high risk of being under- or over-qualified with a PhD. This made it difficult to focus on persisting through my PhD, where it seemed I was only gaining training to become a researcher in academia.

My friend and I agreed that the uncertainty surrounding the PhD is paralyzing, but he had another perspective on the PhD, too. He had also entered graduate school with a set career goal: to be a researcher at a national lab. However, he found that a straight and narrow career path felt too restrictive and inflexible. In light of this, he was able to view the uncertainty that comes with a PhD to be liberating. “Liberating” was a new word that I had not used to describe my PhD. This reminded me that a PhD allows us to exercise creativity, flexibility, and apply the analytical skills gained from earning a PhD to many different positions.

This reminded me of a TedTalk by a graduate student who proposed viewing the PhD as a passport, giving PhDs the ability to pursue many different careers. I had listened to this talk while making predawn measurements in the greenhouse and feeling frustrated with my data. I realized there was something special about being outside in the fresh air with the sun, snow, skies, smiles, endorphins, and good company that helped me see the liberating side of the PhD much more clearly.

Since then I have gained peace of mind about my PhD. I am more confident that I will be able to apply my training to diverse careers despite the uncertainty and the meandering career path that I'll take.

Do you have your own mid-PhD crisis? Do you feel paralyzed by the uncertainty? Here are some tips that helped me get over the feeling:

  1. Talk about it. Sharing your feelings and thoughts with friends and peers is a good reminder that you are not alone. My friend helped me see the liberating side of uncertainty.

  2. Write about it. I find writing to be therapeutic and putting my thoughts on paper is a great outlet.

  3. Don’t think about it. Do something else! Get outside, go for a run, turn off your computer and phone, play an instrument. Endorphins and unplugging has been essential to my grad school experience. This helped me accept the liberating part of my PhD.

  4. Be okay with it. Reflecting on my history of career goals, studying plant physiology was never one of mine. This reminds me that certainty is an illusion, that most of life is unplanned, and that my future holds options that I am unable to imagine now.

  5. Just keep swimming. You’ve made it this far in your grad program. You’re talented, successful, and motivated. You will be okay. Your journey to a PhD will have ups and downs with bouts of uncertainty and liberation no matter what, so try to enjoy the ride.

What suggestions do you have for those going through a mid-PhD crisis?

[Photo by Flickr user Demi-Brooke and used under Creative Commons License]