Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On quitting PhD (some case studies)

The more I stayed in my PhD program, the clearer was my undersanding that quitting a PhD, especially in the first 2-3 years, is not such a bad idea.

Below are some case studies of people I actually new.

  • Guy 1: Quit after his first year. Got out with a masters. Landed a 100K job immediately. He was a smart guy, that's probably why he quit so soon and got such a great job
  • Guy 2: Quit after 3 years in the program. Immediately found a 80K job in the industry. He lives in a nice place and swears that he doesn't work more than 9 hours a day (and of course, doesn't work on weekends)
  • Guy 3: Quit after approximately 5 years in the program. He wanted to finish, but since he had a family and funding had been lifted from him, simply could not afford to stay any longer. Found a 60K government job within a few month. Needless to say, works 8 hours a day max, great benefits, and has almost bullet-proof job security
  • Guy 5: This guy was an independently wealthy retired businessman. A millionaire. Joined the program because he wanted to teach at a university. After he quit he told me he never worked so hard even in his glory days as a businessman.

33 comments:

  1. The attrition rate for PhDs is very high. Obviously, it's dependent upon your field, but the figures are substantial across the board. In my field, 50% of people who start PhDs never actually go on to finish them. One academic I spoke to said that those who don't have the ability quit, but I completely disagreed with him. From my experiences, most of the people who quit do have the ability, and moreover, courage to admit that the PhD doesn't maximise their talents. The equation between quitting a PhD and failure is so inappropriate. Most people end up quitting for a whole flurry of reasons, and lack of ability is usually not one of them.

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  2. In my career as a PhD student I had known only one guy who clearly wasn't smart/knowledgeable enough to be in our field. Ironically, he was one of the few people to graduate. Some of the smartest PhD students that I had known did not graduate.

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  3. Yes, from what I've seen this is often the case. I know several PhD students in my department who are 'mediocre' intellects (please don't think I'm being arrogant when I say that!) who just regurgitate information for their publications and conference papers. Yet, I can say with near certainty that these people will go on to have academic careers. What it boils down to: you've got to know how to play the game. If you do, you're in. If you don't, you can forget it.

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  4. I'm seriously considering quitting (after 16 months in the program). It's just such a horrible time (economically speaking) to try to find a job. I'm honestly terrified. I'm so glad I came across your post (I feel like less of a failure now).

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  5. I know three people who want to quit their PhDs. I quit a couple of weeks ago and seem to have set off a domino effect! Regarding not quitting because of the current job market, I can tell you that the market isn't as bad as everyone makes out. There are actually jobs out there. It's all fear mongering. Yes, the economy is bad right now, but it's the people who will finish their PhDs in 2-3 years + who need to worry.

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  6. No matter what your decision is, try to think rationally. I think most people feel about quitting a PhD program and getting a industry job as a person from a Muslim family who decided to quit his religion and become a Christian. It shouldn't be about emotions, it should be more about pragmatic calculations.

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  7. regardlees of all the hardship i have in my dissertation, lazy advisor and lack of financial resources; i am not quitting because simply i am not a quitter. Yes , i can not gurantee a tenure position after graduation. But what is guranteed in this life? nothing is guranteed. It is a matter of challege that i can do it. I will never fail. I will never let the circumstances decide what i should do. I decide for myself. Just think after 20 years from today, Surley you will regret quitting your PhD. You will talk to your children and grandchildern that one day you were in PhD program with lot of regret quitting it. Hang in there, we are all in the same boat. be patient. never quit, you are almost done with your degree. Do you know that your professor want you to quit? because he is tenured; he does not care for you or your research. your quitting is such a big relief to him. he does not have the burden to help to when you stuck at your research. Show him your shinning face everyday. Ask him questions. Let him konw that the only way he can get rid of you is to graduate you

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    1. Its a matter of interest.Nothing is boring or too difficult as long as u r interested. But if u actually dont want to research, its better to show some courage and accept urself...means quit it.

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  8. professors usually want to have more 'successfully graduated phd' students, rather than make them quit. In my case I've lost interest in what I've been doing in my 2nd year, carried on until 3rd, now took extension into 4th... 5th year has started this month up. I don't want to be doing it anymore since a long time and now as it's time to push harder one last time to get it over with, I prefer to get it over with in a different way... I really want to quit. I'd like to change the direction of my career from something highly technical and specialized to more general marketing. I know what I want to do after.
    I have no idea how to finish phd (I know what to do, how to do it, but am not doing it). Perhaps I should just quit with Mphil or nothing.

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  9. what happen to phd student in case prof. quits job ?

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  10. What do you do when you hate your dissertation topic and don't seem to be making progress in the past year as I have felt. I have done so many little projects and experiments here and there but advisor doesn't think it culminates into something considered a significant contribution to the field. I mean, what is defined as significant? Deserving of recognition? How many dissertations are ever read again after being published? Does anybody really care about what my dissertation says? I figure a significant contribution is something not done before. How useful it really is, that's a different question. But who judges that and when?

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  11. I feel the same way - I am 3rd year PhD student, and I have gotten results on my initial questions, but my advisor doesn't think they are "interesting enough", or publishable in a top journal - so I have been scrambling to try further experiments, but I will never have the resources to have big enough sample sizes to be very convincing or novel. My advisor refuses to publish in anything but the top 3 or so journals - and this seems unattainable to me. 3,4,5 years of work could go into this project, and until we see the results we don't know if they are up to those standards - does this mean I haven't had good ideas and put in enough work along the way? It seems counter productive, and it is not what I want to get out of this program, I would be happy publishing in smaller journals and feeling like all of my work is amounting to something and that I am moving towards being done. It's incredibly hard to stay motivated, and I am considering quitting/changing to an MS - I don't know how to ever answer the question about what is the "right" choice, or if I will regret not finishing, and where I might end up - but you can never know! All I know is I am miserable! The tone of this blog (which I am loving) seems to be that you have to re-evaluate and make the choice that seems right for you - plenty of examples of people who moved on to more fulfilling things. I don't know if that is just what I want to hear right now or not, but I am grateful for the sounding board. For the past year, it really hasn't sat well with me that it seems that everyone in a PhD program just "has to go through this" - why is that necessary? Why make everyone feel like an inadequate failure, with no life, and no accomplishments, and no end in sight?

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  12. It's depressing to hear that Ph.D. students feel like their graduate experience is horrible. I don't want to come out of this hating my experience. As Ph.D. students we all got into this because we have curious minds and want to learn new things and possibly make a difference in the world in the process. From my experience and what I read from these blogs, universities are failing at helping students be the best at what they enjoy and are good at.

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  13. Finally, i defended my dissertation last wedensday. It is long trip but it is worth completing it. My advice is if you are in the middle of obtaing your degree, then do not quit and struggle till you get it. it is absoulutely normal to have quit thoughts.

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  14. Ph.D is overrated all the really smart students do one of the following.

    1. Med
    2. Law
    3. Business/Trading/Finance
    4. Quit their Ph.D and move into any of the above field.

    You might enjoy your Ph.D experience. But your degree is worthless. Find a job that can't be outsourced to Chinese and Indian kids.

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  15. wow...here's a list of excuses from quitters. nuff said.

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  16. I am a Ph.D.student studying for the qualification exam for the last year. The exam is next week and I am completely burnt-out. My mind is completely empty. It seems I can not remember anything. I just want to quit today. Normally I am not a quitter type of person. But I just want to give up today and have some sleep. I can not even give a healthy decision to stay or to quit. My family is even sick of my attitude. My house looks like a barn. Normally, I am not a hesitant person. All I want to have is some sleep, but I can not sleep anymore. I know I need help but do not know where to get it.

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  17. It's really nice finding this blog. I've been thinking about quitting my PhD (and quitting science) for a while but it is so taboo to even try to discuss it. I also think that going through a PhD shrinks your social world so much and you really can't commiserate about quitting a PhD with all your pals who are loving the experience. It's still my first year...I'm not sure what to do. I find science interesting and the main reason I pursued this path was because I wanted to teach at the university level [not for the research at all]. However, I am thinking I may have to accept that I won't be teaching at the universities if I decide to leave my PhD :(

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  18. I completed my PhD mainly because I am not a quitter. If I had known what I know now I never would have applied for a PhD program. I make less money now than before I got my degree. If you care even a little about making a decent wage and being treated with respect then a PhD is worthless.

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  19. Ok, I have had my doubts about continuing with this Ph.D. but I think I might see a light at the end of the tunnel. Next week I have my comprehensive exam. I'll officially be a Ph.D. candidate instead of just a Ph.D. student. Official university rules say I can graduate 6 months after I pass the exam. So I'm hoping by next May, a year from now, that I will be graduating. I hope this comprehensive goes well. It's like pre-dissertation defense.

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  20. I am in my first year. I will have my defense in a couple of months. I feel clearly that phd is clearly not for me. I really want to switch to master. The problem is I do not know how to say that to my advisor. I am the only person who has been assigned this project. The committee members have been assigned. Is it too late right now to quit and switch to a master?! How should I tell my advisor?! He would definitely be unhappy.

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  21. I quit my PhD after going into my 3rd year. I thought PhD was all about having a curious mind and exploring stuff, but I got duped! PhD and academics in general has nothing to do with pursuing knowledge. It's all about:

    a) publishing, no matter how useless or hackneyed the theme is.

    b) successful academics know the editors personally, hence you'll get published more.

    d) the key to success is having good paper writing skills and excellent english and how to present fake or incomplete results in a novel light by obfuscating the reader.

    Academics is exactly the opposite of what it looks from the outside.

    in my third year, I just knew I had to quit this fraud. I had no career options or job opportunities in hand. After mulling over it for almost a year, I just stopped showing up and then one day packed my bags and left with nothing in hand and no future prospects. Fortunately "real life" welcomed me with open arms. I applied to every job opening that came my way and told each employer about my sad story, thinking that they'll sympathize with me, which they did because they were normal people (unlike academia where sympathy is considered in a negative light). After randomly applying, one elite private high school offered me a lucrative job as a Chemistry teacher. I took that and started an evening academy as a side business. I quickly started making a lot of money.

    Apparently my PhD experience helped me. It makes you a lot more resilient and robust in real life, the very fact that you survived your PhD and were intelligent enough to quit it before it made you insane speaks volumes about your intelligence and your ability to take shit. My advice for anyone would be to join a PhD program and then quit it. Your PhD would be the most horrible time of your life, and when you quit, everything would just look awsome in comparison. Having a really bad experience in life helps you appreciate the little things in life. Therefore go for that PhD.

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  22. Most of the folks on here seem pretty sympathetic, but to the few who still buy into the stigma about "quitters":

    People quit things all the time--we just call it something other than "quitting." If you never quit ANYTHING, you'd still be enduring sloppy, inept kisses from your high school boyfriend.

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  23. Going into a meeting with my professor in ~3 mins....the PhD is slowly killing me like the research area is interesting and I've no problem in putting the pieces together and even have a few work in progress papers (one published) on a contribution...I'm fully funded and data collection is sourced and agreed upon.

    But it's still destroying me. I've 2.5 years left and there's just no way I can keep at it, I mean I could if I had to...but the thought haunts me to spend so much of my life doing something I don't like doing. It's not that I dislike being here (people and resources make it so) but i do not 'like' being here. Hopefully there is more to life... and so to my mentors office. gulp!

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  24. Well I have been on a LOA after fizzling out during the start of my 3rd year. I just couldn't take the pace. I am taking a class this summer & seemed to have gained a bit of momentum back, but I am not 100% convinced I should go on. I just don't know what else to do & can't jump into another career without a big loss of income. I also wouldn't know where to start if I changed fields. My dissertation topic has lost it's luster. I think it may be purely a pride thing. I hate to not finish.

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  25. You know you have been thinking of quitting for a long time when you read through comment threads about quitting your PhD and realize you already read that thread a year ago or more...

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    1. :))) well well that's very true. You just made my day. I've been thinking for so long(over a year) and I haven't got the courage to spit it out to my adviser. My years in PHD were the worst in my entire life...so unhappy, isolated and depressed to the point of losing a taste of life. I am going to talk to my adviser today about it...at least I've to let him know I'm thinking of leaving.

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  26. I'm working a full-time job and pursuing my PhD at the same time. It is exceedingly stressful and I am physically, emotionally and professionally drained. I have finished the course work and I am in a funk for months now and can't seem to get on track with writing the PhD proposal. I start and stop and in the past 10 months have had more stops than starts. I think the graduate advisor sees me as a loser and probably wants me to leave. I've given serious thought to quitting the doctoral program but have already invested so much time (5 years!) and money. I'm feeling like a real loser and don't want to be a quitter in the eyes of my family, colleagues, and self. If I stay in the program how do I get started on my proposal? Can't seem to nail down a specific research question so I am all over the place. If I throw in the towel and walk away I will feel like an even bigger loser. I have never been so depressed and miserable in my life. When I began the program the director told our class to look around the room because many of us would not be able to complete the PhD program. I never thought I'd be one of those people. I've never quit anything before.

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    1. I need to copy paste all of the above lines if one asks my story except that I am a full time student. I am feeling like stuck in a big dark tunnel with no hope of light. I have same feelings as you, how can I show my face as a quitter before my family, and friends.

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  27. Well my story is a bit different. I started my PhD in 2010, Jan at one university research group in Europe leaving a well paid job in Africa on my chosen topic. Initially i was funded by the group. But during the end of the year of my advisor left and in some more months in 2011 my another advisor left too. Now since 2011 i am working in completely another topic which i absolutely don't like at all. But i didn't have any choice during that time to leave it as i was paying my student loan which i took for my Msc studies in my country. Now the funny thing happend during all this bloody mess, i got one prestigious govt fellowship programme here which gives me funding till 2014 but my group is giving me pressure to finish it in 2013, one year ahead of it. I have lost all of my remaining interest to pursue this Phd programme as i know very well i didn't want to be in academics nor in research. My mindset has always been tilted towards working in business environments. I have just published one scientific journal but am drained mentally completely. I am so fatigued for the last couple of weeks that i just want to lay on bed and look at the ceiling. Just want to leave it and find something to do which makes me really happy.

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    1. I feel your pain. I had a similar case. I was working for 2 years in a lab and suddenly my advisor left. Now I have a new advisor which is tenure-track and which research topic I don't enjoy. I decided to take a leave of absence to rethink whether I want to continue doing the PhD. I have lost interest in academics completely! Now I just want to go to medical school and forget about research for a while. I've also started to gain interest in business as well. Do not stay in the PhD program if you absolutely hate it and do not see yourself in academia, it's definitely not worth it. I hope you find the happiness you seek.

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  28. I am in a PhD program and am doing above average compared to other folks, even some seniors. After 2.5 yrs, I have become embroiled in peer politics, advisor doesn't seem interested in graduating people, keeps moving the goal-posts. My research goals were never funded and was paid for building stuff for funded government projects. The worst happened when the advisor chided me for publishing my work and not in that process not concentrating on the funded project, I feel my research is taking a back-seat. When asked, I am told that nothing is more important than the funded project. Family pressure, research goals and my advisor have stretched me to the absolute limit of mental breakdown. I feel my personal life will be seriously affected if things continue this way. I am considering quitting the program.

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  29. It’s true that there case about people quitting their dissertation study and landing a great life in the future. But, having a Master and PhD on your name can definitely help you get a job than people who doesn’t have. So, I think it would be good if you can finish your Master or PhD dissertation. Anyway, this is certainly a good topic to talk about, especially amongst grad student.

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