Every grad student is unhappy at some point; existential angst is basically required, hence the success of PhD comics. A surprisingly common reason for grad school unhappiness results when students feel they have diverged from the path they want to be on - that they are somehow in the wrong lab, learning the wrong thing, or working with the wrong person. That they dislike their research. Some people might argue that few people start in their dream job, but grad school is more like an apprenticeship than a 9-5 job: a place to obtain skills and experiences rather than a source of income.
Every unhappy student is different in their own way, but there are a few predictable causes. The path between undergrad and grad student is highly stochastic. Most undergraduates make choices about grad school while under-informed about their options and unclear on where their interests truly lay. Choosing a lab for a PhD or Masters is a huge commitment for an undergrad who has had comparatively limited interactions with ecological research. Academic labs tend to be so specialized that even if an undergrad has had the opportunity and motivation to interact with a number of labs as a student, they have experienced only a tiny fraction of the areas available for study. Students in schools with general biology programs, rather than specialized EEB departments, may be more limited again in the ecological experiences they can have. I can’t help but think that few undergrads are really equipped to make a definite, informed decision about what they want to spend the next 5 years (or more) of their lives doing. Even if they are, a successful graduate student should grow as a researcher and their interests will naturally expand or shift. Expanding interests and changing foci are part of a successful graduate experience, but what initially felt like a good fit may suddenly feel less comfortable. Students may also end up in uncomfortable fits simply because their choices for grad school were limited by geographical constraints or the availability of funded positions, causing them to compromise on their interests.
My own experience moving from undergrad to PhD student was pretty much in line with this. I knew I wanted to go to grad school and I felt reasonably prepared – I had good grades, three years of research experience in a lab, I researched and contacted a few potential supervisors – but I hadn’t specialized in ecology and didn’t exactly know what my interests were. It took more than a year as a PhD student, reading deep into the literature and taking classes, to realize what I really was interested in was completely different than what I was supposed to be doing. This was accompanied by a period of unhappiness and confusion – I had apparently gotten what I wanted (grad school, funding, etc), but it wasn’t what I wanted after all. No one prepared me for this possibility. Eventually, but with some hassle, I changed labs and was lucky to have the opportunity to get the skills I was really wanted.
I don’t think this outcome is anyone’s “fault”. I think most departments and many supervisors are sympathetic to these sort of graduate student issues. Formal advising of undergraduates at the department level, in addition to the usual informal advising that grad students and advisors provide, should be focused on guiding students in determining what they want from grad school (or if they really want grad school at all!), how to identify areas of interest and programs/supervisors that would suit their interests. In particular, they need to be empowered in how to contact potential supervisors and how to discuss the supervisor’s expectations and approach, what changing interests mean on a laboratory and department level, and what resources are available for student who may wish to obtain particular skills not available in the lab. Supervisors benefit too when their students are informed and more likely to be happy and engaged.
The lab rotation system, which some departments have, also seems like a good way to expose students to their options (although I have no personal experience with it). In addition, when grad student funding comes through the department, rather than from individual supervisors, students can change labs with less difficulty. Some supervisors have very relaxed approaches to grad student projects, allowing students to explore their interests well outside of the lab’s particular approach. But other supervisors (or funding sources) are very much organized around a particular project, making it difficult for students to do anything but the project they were hired to work on.
So what is a student who realizes they want to be working with a different system, approach, sub-discipline, or supervisor, supposed to do? How much does unhappiness really matter in the long run? This depends a lot on what a student wants to get out of grad school and what they need to achieve it. One thing students need to do is elucidate what they hope to achieve as a grad student. Though a student may ultimately be unsatisfied with some aspects of their position, they may be able to gain the experiences they want from grad school regardless. There are many tangible and intangible skills students learn in grad school. Students may decide that they want to obtain particular quantitative skills (statistics, ArcGIS, coding and modeling experience, etc, etc) that they want for the job market; if these aren’t available, change may be necessary. On the other hand, even if a student is less interested in the particular system they are working in, it may be possible to obtain experimental and technical skills that are transferrable elsewhere. If students wish to remain in academia, but realize they are interested in a different subdiscipline than where they work, one consideration is whether it will be easier to make the shift now compared when finding a postdoc and attempting to convince a potential employer that their knowledge is transferrable. This is a difficult question – having read a large number of Ecolog post-doctoral position ads, it seems that the request for system-specific experience occurs in about 50% of ads. The need to have a particular skill set (say, Python and R, or experimental design) tends to be mentioned in every ad. So if you want to go from a protist-microcosm PhD to a postdoc in kangaroo ecology, it seems difficult to predict how well your experimental design skills will trump your lack of understanding of Australian ecosystems.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer about what to do. Sometimes, unhappiness will pass, sometimes it won’t. Students need to be proactive above all. The truth is that sometimes it is better to be willing to drop out, to change labs, or take other drastic action. Students commonly fall victim to the sunk-cost fallacy, the idea that they’ve spent 2 years on this degree, so they might as well not “waste” it. Sometimes it is worth sticking it out, but there should be no stigma in deciding not to.