In 1997, I was accepted to a gradauate program in Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Health Science Center. Of the 4 students accepted that year, I was one of two accepted early, and so I began my research project in June. Working in Paula Bickford's lab on the effects of oxidative damage in brain with implications for ageing, I enjoyed a wonderful summer especially since I lived right on Colfax, just a block from the lab. In August I began the fall classes, including Neurobiology (1), Cell Biology (2), Biochemistry of Proteins (3), Laboratory Methods in Neuroscience (4), and Seminar (5). There was also the required lab rotation, consuming some 20+ hours per week. The classes were outstanding, but I felt that the demand was too much and that too much emphasis was placed on volume of classes rather than quality of learning. Note that these were 4 very difficult classes, plus seminar, plus lab rotations. I spent every waking hour reading, working, and attending class, but I felt there was simply not enough time to master the subjects at the level I expected of myself for graduate level. I recently checked the curriculum for the program in 2004, and I found that the program had since changed and now it only required two difficult courses per semester rather than four.

I departed the university for a few days in October that year to give it some thought, and during that time I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM). This book, especially this passage, encouraged my decision to withdraw from the program.

Many years have passed since having left, and in retrospect I am glad that I made the choice to withdraw. My new career in computer software has been very fulfilling, and I enjoy the art of building projects, albeit building with code on virtual projects. The salary of computer industry is several fold greater than what I believe it would have been shortly after having obtained my Ph.D in Neuroscience, such as a PostDoc or other position. The company I work for is a leader in the software industry, and with a lot of hard work and eagerness it is easy to succeed. It was thus that I survived the round after round of layoffs during the dotcom fallout, and it was thus that I generated respect from my peers. In contrast, Biology is driven by Degrees and by blood, sweat, and tears. That is considered the normal sacrifice in that field, and in return there is very little reward other than a personal, intellectual satisfaction. I know numerous Ph.D. grads that were swimming amoung the ranks trying to get a job, and finding only very low wages (~30-35k). The academic field of Biology at Universities is steeply heirachical, and no amount of hardwork without a higher Degree will generate respect or appropriate compensation. I leave the field of Biology as a personal interest, and I hope to edge ever closer to Bioinformatics where I believe the compensation and respect for skills and hardwork is gauged well, without the Degree laden glass ceiling.

Here is my letter of withdrawal, to which I appended that ZAAM passage when presented to my graduate committee and advisor.

To the Neuroscience Program and Graduate Training Committee:

It is with regret that I must announce my withdrawal from the Neuroscience Program at the University of Colorado Health Science Center. I am thankful to the Program for having given me the opportunity for study. Unfortunately, I have found that the mode of learning necessary for success at the University is incongruous with the mode which is most effective for myself. I believe that productive learning is practiced with a slower, in-depth approach that allows for efficient digestion and assimilation of subject matter. It is my character to set high standards for myself which demand quality over quantity, and meticulous scrutiny over cursory acquisition. Although I do not often meet those personal standards with the degree to which I aim, I continually strive to do so. Moreover, my conscientiousness cannot allow me to adhere to a program that aims to cover vast amounts of material in a manner so hasty that it can only yield a superficial comprehension and feeble retention. It may be both my blessing and my curse, but I strongly believe that a task is not worth doing if it cannot be done well. In this case, it is an overload of requirements which leaves me lacking to master them at the level I feel is necessary, and such a poor mastery fails to compensate for the time invested in the attempt to meet those requirements.

It is not my intention to criticize the Program, but rather to point out the incompatibility of preferred styles of education between myself and the University. It was perhaps my misconception or my ignorance of this point that allowed me to enter the program with confidence. Upon my petition for admission to the Program, I believe I underestimated the time required to prepare for classes. As I have a passion for self-education, my spare time is often spent in unconventional pursuit of new insights, new skills, and new experiences that may culminate in peculiar knowledge that is not without merit. I find that this pursuit contributes greatly to the those aspects which lend value to the quality of life. After this short duration within the program, I have found that the time needed to meet even the minimal requirements necessarily excludes all other pursuits, both personal and social, as well as the exclusion even the most perfunctory of activities. Having previously placed myself in situations which have similarly sacrificed these activities, I have learned well their contributions towards the quality of life, and do not wish to disregard them again.

It is convention to dutifully put aside other interests while following an academic track; however, I believe that a strong intellect need not come at the expense of social contact, physical health, and emotional well-being. Therefore, I believe that at the moment I must seek out intellectual satisfaction through non-conventional means. These means are often without academic recognition and may result in a life lacking financial security or social acknowledgment, but I believe that it is the risk I must take.

I am truly saddened by the necessity of withdrawal, and greatly embarrassed of having to do so. I deeply apologize to the Program for the misuse of valuable resources and time, and for the inconvenience of those who have thus far assisted in my training. Last week, I found it immediately necessary to change my environment so that I might analyze my situation with more clarity and less stress. To my surprise, many persons have significantly expressed their concern as well as their support, and I am very appreciative and thankful for their having done so. I am particularly grateful for the advice, the training, and the friendship of Dr. Paula Bickford, Dr. Lotta Granholm, and Dr. Greg Gerhardt; and I also thank Mindy Cox for patiently tending to all my bureaucratic needs and the paperwork it required. Although I wish it werent so, I believe that situations bearing this level of awkwardness tend to strain and break previous relations. I have searched the Graduate Handbook and havent found comment regarding obligations stemming from this situation. I will honor any obligations which I may yet owe. Thank you for your attention.


Steven Erat

November 1997