Why I decided to withdraw from my master’s program
Two years ago I moved away from my hometown of Seattle to pursue a master’s degree in Bioscience Enterprise in Auckland, New Zealand. I had finished my undergraduate in biochemistry a few months before, and it seemed like a good next step to pursue a career in biotech.
However, I began to question my decision about a year into my course. I decided to press on, and I made it through six more months before I finally withdrew.
There were some reasons for my decision, so I’ll unpack them for you, and hopefully, you can learn from my experience.
The sunk cost fallacy
There is a beautiful lesson that comes from the field of economics. It is called the sunk cost fallacy.
A sunk cost is something that occurred in the past and cannot be recovered. So, for example, my time that I had invested into the master’s program was something that I could not get back.
The fallacy occurs when we try to make rational decisions about the future while considering these sunk costs. If we were completely rational the sunk costs should not factor into our future decisions since they cannot be recovered.
However, humans on a base psychological level want to minimize losses and tend to focus on the emotional investments we have made in the past. This is what makes us susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy.
This is a fallacy that we all fall into at some point.
I fell into it while considering whether I should leave my program or not. I had already spent a year and a half, what was six more months?
Here’s how I reframed my decision to mitigate the sunk cost fallacy: in six months I could have a degree that I don’t ever plan on using, or I could have a business with cash flow.
I removed the burden of the sunk cost fallacy from my thinking by reimagining my future.
I placed too much emphasis on outcome
Going into the program, I wanted to create a biotech empire and amass huge riches. I still want to amass huge riches, but my strategy has changed dramatically.
My thought process going into the program was that if I could do great work I would become successful and then I could be happy because I’d have more money than I would know what to do with.
The way I think about it now goes more like this: if I can be happy, then I’ll do great work. That great work will lead to great success. I’ll still end up with more money than I know what to do with, though maybe not as much as the first option, and I’ll be happier throughout the process.
I’d rather have a happy life now than to put it off until after 50.
I was letting the context of my life shape my decisions
Throughout my life, I have been incredibly independent. As I have gotten older, that independence has shaped itself into an individualist worldview that is my guiding light.
However, human beings are social creatures, and we are all susceptible to the attitudes of people around us. If we do not make proactive steps to define our lives, our lives will be defined for us by those around us.
I fell victim to this as well.
There is a fantastic line from a Rush song that goes ‘if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.’ This sums it up perfectly.
Whether we are passive or active in choosing our path in life, choices will be made. Social pressures and expectations of family weigh heavily on all of us.
Everyone around me saw the merits of the program I was in. My fellow students thought I was crazy. My dad reminded me of all of my time invested. My mom reminded me that I had moved away from home to pursue it.
I have had plenty of choices made for me by remaining passive. I’m sure that I haven’t seen the last of them either.
To live life on your terms requires active and vigorous participation. If you do not set your own course others will set it for you.
I was not true to my own desires
As I said earlier, I went into the course with a desire to build a biotech empire and make it big.
By thinking this way, I made a big mistake because I had not unpacked what I truly wanted. It wasn’t the money that I wanted so much as the freedom that money can provide.
I never wanted to work in a corporate salt mine. Mostly because I cannot tolerate incompetence, especially in someone who is higher than me on the corporate ladder.
I also hate bureaucracy with an undying passion. I prefer deep thoughts and quick action, not decisions made by committees.
Yet, through my master’s program, I had signed up for one of the most bureaucratic industries outside of government. The amount of regulation that biotech companies have on them predisposes them to become sprawling bureaucratic nightmares.
Here’s a quote from a letter that Hunter S. Thompson wrote to his friend that sums up what I am trying to say beautifully:
…As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to
the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
I linked the whole letter above and it is definitely worth a read. When I read the letter, I was already thinking in the way that Thompson described. Once I read his article I committed to leaving the program (it’s always nice having an external source validate your thinking).
I was trying to jam myself into a goal that I had set myself. I have since made my goal conform to me as an individual. I want freedom. I want to live on my own terms. I am on my way to that reality. You should join me.