Most PhD students come to a point where their motivation is tested when pursuing a doctorate. For some people, they have dreamt about it their whole life, worked their way to graduate school and then aim for a Master's degree and then a Doctorate of Philosophy. Then when it's done, they work their way to Post-Docs with the dream of landing a job in academia. This was not my dream at all.
My goal, when in high school was to get a Master's degree and get a job as an engineer in France. I accomplished that in 2007 and then worked as an engineer for 3 years before thinking that one thing was missing in my curriculum and that had been a dream of mine for a really long time. I was 25 in 2010 and thought that it was “now or never” : I was still young and without real commitments. So I looked for jobs abroad but had trouble landing an interview because they expect you to have experience abroad if you apply for a job abroad. It is basically a vicious circle. Then I realized that the process was easier if I tried to study at the same time. So I decided to enroll into a PhD program so I could get that so called experience abroad and off I went to Canada, in British Columbia more precisely.
I got to work on an optical instrument that had to be developed in a very short period but without much supervision. The thing is that in France, a PhD program is very different from a North American one. The biggest difference is that a doctorate in France is basically a 3-year-job : you get a project to carry out, that they know you can do in 3 years and then you’re done. In North America, it starts with taking classes that you need to validate with at least a B. It’s a degree after all so you spend time taking classes and lose precious research time. Then you do your research but sometimes you don’t end up finding anything and it’s even harder without a guide. What I didn’t realise when starting is that my project is time limited but I didn’t have an official supervisor (or guide) to help me stay in line.
Then, there is that PhD proposal exam that comes where you have to present your research work. You have to present what you have done so far and also what you are going toward. I had very little time to come up with my whole report and presentation because I was trying to get a paper submitted at the same time. I realize now that I should have put more time into preparing for the proposal and more importantly preparing to answer the basic questions I was asked. At the end of it, it came out that they didn’t think I would have enough time (6 months) to finish what I was proposing. Those 6 months would have made the length of the PhD to 3 years. Anyone in the field would tell you that at 2.5 years, you are just at the beginning of your PhD but my committee wanted me to be done as soon as the project had to be done.
The lack of preparation and supervision was clearly showed through that meeting. I surely was to blame for a big part of it but I shouldn’t have been left thinking I could finish it all in time when I clearly could not. I was then asked to either retake the PhD proposal exam, leave the program or transfer into a master of applied science program (MASc).
It gave me a full week of soul searching and a lot of “what should I do ? I came here for a PhD, why take the Masters if I already have one ? What do I want to do ?”. The good thing is that my supervisor gave me a week before meeting again so I could think about my decision. At first, I thought it was the dumbest thing ever because I wanted to continue and I was pumped up to show my motivation. I got support from people in my lab, some offering to supervise me more efficiently. I was completely in shock and I learnt a lot about myself and my goals in life.
I went on the internet to see what people were doing when faced with my situation. There are very different opinions. The ones who finished their PhD push people to continue with the program, some others are crushed that they cannot continue and try to re-apply to another graduate school. A lot of students enroll into PhD programs to get funded and then graduate with a MASc because they wouldn’t have gotten any funding if pursuing a MASc. No one was in my situation but I realized that a career in academia was never my dream and then made peace with myself : do what you want to do.
It’s hard to really tell what you really want when society is telling you that the highest you go, the better you are. I always put the bar so high that I’m usually never satisfied with myself. I’m a happy person but I feel like I always need more. Did I really need a doctorate to work as an engineer ? No but it seems like it’s more acceptable to always get the top degree. Will it fulfill me in the end ? No. I had to remind myself that my goal was to work abroad and that the PhD program was just a means to it. But then, there is still the social pressure. If you quit, you are seen as a failure. But if I get a job as an engineer, how can this be a failure ? So the hardest part after making your own decision is to explain your choice to everyone you know.
That right, I chose to avoid the stress of a PhD because that wasn’t my endgame and go for the MASc. Now, most people around me don’t get it but even though I already have a masters, a MASc from North America is worth a lot in the case I wish to pursue a career someday in North America : no need to prove the equivalence of the degree. It will not change my career path and it will be better for me too. Less stress, more time to get more work experience and have more fun.
In the end, everyone is different. I know I won’t regret my choice in the future. No one should be pressured to continue to pursue a path that they are not comfortable with but the society is always judging us for everything we do. I learnt a lot from 3 years as a PhD student in Canada and most of it isn’t even related to my studies/job. I learnt from meeting young people from all over the world, from seeing how people react to something that happens to you and feel sorry for you even though you made your own decision (decision helped by circumstances).
What I’m trying to say is that we should be more open to life, to what people really are and what they really want and not project our vision onto their lives.