Discouraged PhD student...advice please

Hi everyone,
I have been lurking on this site for quite some time but have never posted. I considered posting my question on SDN since it gets so much traffic but wasn’t interested in the snide comments that seem to be the norm on that site. I am hoping that one of you reading this will have some insight into my dilema. So here goes…I just finished my 4th year of a PhD program in Micro/Immun. I thought I would be finished in a year (by summer of 2006) but after my latest committee meeting I don’t think it will be possible and neither do they. They seem to think more like summer of 2007. That’s two more years. I made a poor decision in choosing the lab I did. Though my PI is a wonderful person, he has not been the best mentor and has very little money. (Actually, that’s beside the point.)
Before I made the decision to attend grad school I was also considering Med School. I was a certified surgical technologist for 15 years before going back to get my BS. All of the surgeons that knew I was considering med school discouraged me and so I went the grad school route. By the time I finished my qualifying exams (end of 2nd year) I knew that I had made the wrong decision, and that my heart was (and still is) in medicine. So, I thought that as soon as I finished my PhD I would just apply to med school. I dislike working in the lab and so have no desire to do much with my future degree. Actually, perhaps its not that I dislike working in the lab but I think I am more of a fair weather scientist. When things are going well (seldom) I do enjoy it. When things are going badly (more often) I dislike it. Anyhow, now my application to med school won’t happen for another year for a hopeful matriculation in 2 years (class of 2011). I am already almost 45 YO (albeit a very young 45). I’m really afraid that I am toeing the line of an acceptable age for med school attendance.
Before I received the bad news of 2 more years of something that I really don’t like (and am borderline miserable), I was working on several versions of a personal statement. It is my understanding that my personal statement should imply that my attending med school is part of a logical sequence of events in order to pursue my dream (or something like that). And that my PS should imply something like “I need both a PhD and an MD because I want to pursue XXX”. So, in trying to contrive a logical reason for pursuing medicine after obtaining my PhD I have tried to come up with a way to say that I will continue to do research as an MD (eg clinical trials). But, I’ve also seen advice that says to be yourself and to tell the truth. Honestly, I want to be a physician and that is all, I don’t care about the PhD. Of late, I am consumed with thoughts of quitting. So, I guess I have 2/3 questions. First, if I were to quit and not even receive a MS would that really close the door to medical school forever? What if I quit and received a MS? And second, would it be a mistake to be honest on my PS and just say that I made a mistake, don’t like research, have no intention of doing research, just want to be a physician (and should have pursued that instead) and my reason is XXX?
Sorry for long and convoluted path to my actual questions. Your thoughts and comments would be greatly appreciated!

Okay, so you are asking, how to be honest without screwing yourself? Here’s where you take a lesson from the politicians. If you listen to them carefully, they ARE answering the question - sometimes - but they are putting the most positive possible spin on it.
In your case that means that you say, honestly, that it was while you were doing your graduate work that you came to realize that as much as it had seemed the right career path, the more you did it the more you realized that you actually would be happier doing something else. I would not address your eventual plans to do research (or NOT) in your PS… I’d stick with statements like “Incorporating what I know into my clinical practice” – well, probably a LITTLE less nebulous than that but I hope you get the idea.
You need to address the fact that you have lots of clinical experience and that you were originally inclined to medicine but chose a different path - you can say, I was also drawn to this research; or, I was really torn; or even, I was too easily dissuaded by the physicians I worked with who weren’t happy with their situations (be careful how you phrase that last one, but I think it’s possible).
In other words, you want to answer the question with a positive statement:
NOT my current work sucks
RATHER I know I will like medicine even better because I can incorporate what I’ve learned in research with what I enjoyed in a clinical setting
NOT I made the wrong choice last time (because that immediately generates the question “How do I know you’re making the right choice this time?”)
INSTEAD I’ve seen both sides now, clinical and research, and I know which one is my primary interest.
"The spin-meister"

Hi there,
If you quit with nothing, you may have a difficult time explaining why you spent so many years working toward a Ph.D at the expense of the PI and not have anything to show for it. You also have to face the possiblity that you will NOT be accepted into medical school so what happens then?
If you have the option of getting out at the Masters level, you should exercise this option. At least you would have something to show for your work and you could explain why you didn’t finish the Ph.D in the terms that you stated in your originial post. You would also have the option of picking up the Ph.D after the MD if you put in the time in another lab. If you just quit, you lose that option.
Another question to ask yourself is: What if you find that medicine is not for you and what are you going to do then? Many medical schools run from applicants who have not finished graduate degree programs. The best course of action is to plot a strategy that would enable you to finish your doctoral work and apply to medical school at the same time (this can be done). Work with your PI and get the funding that you need to finish the project. Can you finish it with another PI? Take every option before you throw out valuable research.
Good luck!

I finished my PhD in 1991, worked as a research scientist, worked in science education, then went to med school in 2004 (at 42).

At the time, one of my best advisors and letter-of-recommendation writers said that with the number of things I had done, it was a really good thing I had finished my PhD. He thought that if I had not, my application would have looked like that of a perpetual career-changer, always looking for something else to do, never happy with the field I had chosen. Although at the time I thought that was unfair, I realize now that most people choose a profession early and stick with it. To those people, a resume like mine (or perhaps yours) looks flaky and indecisive. The ability to finish the things you start is very, very important.

I think the advice above is very good; I know you hate the idea of sticking with 2 more years, and I know you feel you are already too old for med school. But I agree that I don’t think dropping out of your PhD program will fix anything, and it is possible to make things worse. I would work hard to find another faculty member who can be a co-advisor or mentor for you, depending on the politics. You need someone reliable who can get you out of there ASAP. Go to a committee member and ask for advice and suggestions if necessary. They want you to get out ASAP too. Do whatever it takes to get done. And do your med school apps while you are doing so.

p.s. if you are a fair-weather scientist, you need to figure out how med school would be different. There are plenty of cloudy days when things suck. I thought that the fascination of medicine would get me through those days. I did not anticipate the sheer boredom induced by studying importins and memorizing the genes responsible for specific illnesses.

Although I’m neither a med student or doctor, but I think the advice about finishing the PhD is sound.
I seriulsy considered the same thing and was recently told by 90% of the schools that I contacted that if I started a PhD program, I would need to finish or be very close to it before they would even look at my application.

Thanks everyone for taking the time to reply. I really appreciate your thoughts and comments. I will of course have to tough it out. In the end I will emerge a stronger person. Thanks again!