Should you quit your PhD or should you stay? That’s a question we all have once (or millions of times) during our PhDs.
It occurs mostly half way a PhD. It feels like for the last 2 years you haven’t done any progress. If that is true, it means that you only have half of a PhD to come up with all the sound results and to write a thesis.
At that moment you doubt whether you should quit your PhD or not. Is t going to get better in the second half of my PhD? Couldn’t I be at a different job instead of wasting my time here?
Some people surrender to the temptation and decide to try their luck in some other job. Others are tempted but continue. In any case, quitting your PhD is a thought that crosses the minds of most PhD students.
I was no different. Neither was Luis.
Today I would like to share two personal stories that you probable don’t know of me. They have to do with quitting a PhD and not finishing it. And Luis is going to help me convey them to you.
Why am I writing this? Because I think my stores can help others that are also struggling with their PhD. And because Luis wrote me an email that resonated with me.
Luis Martinez is a reader of Next Scientist and he sent me an email a while ago. We started a great discussion about quitting a PhD.
I think Luis raised some questions that are common to many PhD students. Quit your PhD, yes or no? Good or bad idea?
I thought you would like to read what he has to say. Btw, Luis is also into academic blogging, check his blog Quantum Red Pill.
I will also share my opinion and personal experiences on the temptations of quitting your PhD (aka Fuck This Shit) and taking a job before graduating.
Let’s get cracking.
The PhD Dilemma: Quit Your PhD Or Endure It Till The End?
Is it that bad to quit your PhD?
I personally think that PhD students need to read things that help take pressure from their shoulders. Some days ago my boss told me “when people move onto another job without finishing their thesis, often they end up never finishing it, and I think that’s a disaster”.
I simply disagree. “a disaster” is such a dramatic thing. Dying at 30 is a disaster. But not finishing the thesis? I’m sorry, but I find it a joke. I have a very strong (negative) opinion about many things in academy, can’t help it.
Not finishing your PhD because you start a new job when you are really close to the end. Is it a disaster? No. Is it something you will regret on your death bed when you look back at your life? Most likely.
I think that when you have little left to do, like writing the introduction of the thesis, it’s not a big deal to start a new job. As long as you don’t need to generate new results and several publications you will be most of the times safe. That’s what I thought for my situation.
Here comes some revelation. This is my first personal story.
It took me 21 months between my last research work and the defence of my PhD … 21 months!!!!
By the end of 2012 I stopped doing research. I thought I had enough for a PhD. That, and also my PhD contract ended.
- I had written 3 peer reviewed publications and a fourth one was ready for submission.
- I had the introduction and conclusions chapters of the thesis half finished.
- What could go wrong?
My reasoning was: I travel now 2 months through Australia and Fiji. During flights and idle time I work on the introduction and conclusions. I come back I start looking for a job outside academia and send the whole thesis to my professor and wait for his feedback and hopefully his approval to defend my PhD.
- I did find a job in industry in a couple of months, yayy!! (You can read more here about finding a job in industry after my PhD)
- I got the feedback 12 months later, ouch!!
- I defended my PhD 21 months later, WTF!!!
How did this happen? Come on professor, you only had to read 30 pages, which were already reviewed by other assistant professors. Do you really need 12 months for that??
It seems he does. And he is not the only professor so slow giving feedback. That’s common among many professors. They just put too much on their plate. But what was it my professor’s fault or my mistake?
My mistake was not to be around. I was not there, at the faculty, at the lab. People forgot about me. Their busy agenda took priority over my graduation. I was not there to make pressure, to complain, to ask for what was mine.
You have to hustle till the last second of your PhD. And nobody does it for you. Remember that. Everybody is busy with their own things. You are gone, you don’t exist.
When is it OK to quit your PhD?
I think that PhD students need to know that leaving a PhD half done is ok, it’s not the end of the world, (and it could actually be the beginning of good things). If they hate it, or turns out to be like a torture, it’s just not worth doing.
There are too many opportunities out there to waste time doing something that you hate. In particular if (1) it won’t even bring a good salary, (2) it won’t be easy to land a permanent position, which is what everyone seems to be looking for, (3) it won’t get better,.
I do agree with Luis here. Quitting your PhD and staying are both valid options, as long as it is a well thought decision.
(1) True that, PhD salaries are on the low end of the spectrum and that’s if you have a salary at all. You can always try to earn a second income as a PhD student.
(2) That’s right, academia is a pyramid scheme with many people at the bottom of the pyramid (MSc interns and PhD students) and very few on top (permanent contracts). You could approach a Phd like a job. You go do your best, be professional, work hard and when you are done you move on to the next things.
(3) Can you know if it will get better? Let me express my opinion on that, but before, I would like to share with you some personal story here.
Here comes my personal story number 2.
Half way my PhD I was crossing The Valley of Shit and about to quit. After two years in the PhD, it seemed I hadn’t done any progress. But then, I only had left half of the time to make everything work. It looked daunting.
I felt out of energy, out of passion, out of the drive to make my PhD work. I started looking at everything in a negative/pessimistic way. That was really bad, because it’s like a downwards spiral; the more negative you look at your reality the easier it is to spot negative things around you.
How to stay in your PhD and regain the motivation?
Focus on doing the right things, on seeing little but constant progress and on a reward at the end of the journey. If you do this, it will feel like things are getting better and in the end they will be better.
What do I mean by “doing the right things”?
We all know what the qualities are of good and successful scientists. The have a good overview and deep understanding of their field. So do you read enough papers? Do you know that your research is new and adds something to the field?
Good scientists work hard and smart. Do you work hard enough? When you make mistakes or walk through a dead end street, do you reflect on that and try not to repeat the same mistakes? Do you ask colleagues for their best practices?
What do I mean by “constant progress”?
A typical way of looking negative at your PhD is asking “am I ready to defend my PhD?” or “did I already have a published article?”. We focus on the completion of the task at hand.
The key is to feel that we are making (some) progress towards the completion of the task. So instead of saying “am I already there?” think of “am I today a little bit closer to the end of the journey than yesterday?” or “am I doing better than a while ago?”.
What do I mean by “a reward at the end of the journey”?
Having an exciting reward at the end of the PhD journey helps to get you going. My reward was going on a very long vacation and starting a different job.
Your motivation could be going back to your country if you do your PhD abroad, or going abroad for a postdoc. It could be the crazy party you will throw to celebrate your graduation. Just think of something you’ll be able to do once you finish your PhD that warms your heart when you think of it.
You can also be a happy if you quit your PhD
For all the PhD students who have a strong dream to become scientists, or the ones who actually enjoy what they do, it’s fine. For the rest, I think it would be really great to hear success stories from people who dropped the PhD and started a career they love. Not for me, it’s a bit late for me.
But I’d have loved to stop worrying about all the terrible things and shame that will happen if I stop my PhD in the middle and go doing something else. And even more, to have an informed notion before I started a PhD, though for this I guess I would have needed to read the 4 Hour WorkWeek during college…
I have seen colleagues that moved to a new job without finishing their PhD and they are happy. Some had very few (or none) publications and their thesis was far from being close to completion. So probably they realised they would not manage to graduate.
Others found something more meaningful than research (like being a freelance salsa teacher, true story), they left and never looked back.
The truth is there are many alternative careers for PhDs and some might make you happier than staying in your PhD. In any case, don’t expect that finding a job industry after your PhD will be a walk in the park. You will have to hustle even harder than in graduate school.
In any case, as Luis points out setting the right expectations before starting a PhD is essential to avoid having to quit your PhD.
Want to know a PhD is a good match for you?
I have your back covered.
- Check this post where I describe what you should know before starting your PhD.
- Get our free eBook on the best 17 Strategies To Survive Your PhD.