The PhD Dilemma: Should You Quit Your PhD Or Stay?

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.

How-to-quit-your-PhD

The PhD Dilemma: Quit Your PhD Or Endure It Till The End?

Is it that bad to quit your PhD?

[Luis]

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, cant help it.

[Julio]

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. Thats 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.

Quit your PhD Bill Murray style

When is it OK to quit your PhD?

[Luis]

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, its just not worth doing. 

There are too many opportunities out there to waste time doing something that you hate. In particular if (1) it wont even bring a good salary, (2) it wont be easy to land a permanent position, which is what everyone seems to be looking for, (3) it won’t get better,.

[Julio]

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 quit your PhD in a polite way

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.

It's fine to quit your PhD

You can also be a happy if you quit your PhD

[Luis]

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, its 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…

[Julio]

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.

Do you want to be better at Academic Writing?

Is “Write Better Scientific Papers” one of your goals? Do you have trouble writing your PhD thesis?

If the answer is yes, I have something good for you. Keep reading..

Marialuisa Aliotta is a scientist, blogger and creator of the course  Hands On Writing: How To Master Academic Writing In The Sciences.

She has helped hundreds of scientists to write better, specially PhD students. She knows exactly where you are struggling with your academic writing.

With this course you will be able to:

  • learn how to ban procrastination and stay on track with your writing project.
  • finally complete a chapter of your thesis in just a few weeks.
  • draft your paper without struggles or anxiety.
  • improve your productivity and experience a sense of real achievement.
  • write efficiently without wasting hour upon hour.
  • gain confidence and enjoy your writing project.

If you want a summary of the details of the course, this is what you will get:

  • All the academic writing know-how you could image delivered via video in easy to follow modules.
  • Worksheets and templates so you don’t have to start writing from scratch.
  • Supporting materials to create tables and figures, because an article is not just text.
  • Plenty of bonus materials (for instance on productivity) for the academic writing die-hards out there.

The response from everyone has been incredible. This is the course I wish I had followed at the beginning of my PhD.

Click here to get the Hands On Writing course now

 

About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on JulioPeironcely.com.

Comments

  1. Not Your Advisor says:

    You offer an interesting perspective and I think it’s good for current and prospective students to hear lots different opinions and experiences. However, as a faculty member and graduate advisor, I take issue with some of Julio’s comments in particular.

    Specifically, advising isn’t “due” to you, especially if you are no longer enrolled in the program! If your attitude was really that the time of professors in your former lab “was [yours]” after you left the program ABD, then I do not blame your former advisors at all for their delay in providing comments on your work. Moreover, you sent a pretty strong signal about how little value you placed on completing by going on a two-month vacation when your dissertation wasn’t finished. If you thought it was ok to take off for two months, perhaps your professors didn’t feel so bad about using their time on their own research, students who prioritized their work enough to stick around the lab, or — heaven forbid — on their own free time, just like you were doing.

    I appreciate your attempts to provide a wide range of perspectives to PhD students, but the attitude of entitlement and animosity that seeps through this post is counterproductive and offensive.

    • NextScientist says:

      I do agree with you that we PhD students suffer from feeling of entitlement. To a certain degree, we spend half of our PhD angry at our professors because they are not guiding us enough, they are not helpful enough and they don’t make our PhD life easier.
      After a while we realize that it is up to us (and not our professors) to make our PhD successful. We need to come up with proposals, solutions to problems and become the experts. Once we assume that, things get better.

      Having said this, hoping I don’t sound like an entitled spoilt PhD student, professors and supervisors have duties towards their PhD students. One very important is that if the student has fulfilled all the requirements for graduation, the professor should make that graduation possible.

      In my case I had exceeded by far all those requirements. I think that shows the value I placed on completing the program.

      Moreover, the fact that I am away (in fact not on holidays, because I was without a contract and being unemployed you don’t take holidays) doesn’t relief the professor from his duties towards me, nor makes me more important than those that stay. I am just one of his PhD students that need to graduate.

      Excuses if I sounded offensive, that’s not my intention.

      • Not Your Advisor says:

        Hi and thanks for elaborating. I agree that advisors should facilitate graduation for students who have completed all the requirements of the program! I suspect that where we disagree is what it means to have completed all of those requirements. While you felt that you were done once you’d sandwiched your already-completed papers between an introduction and a conclusion, your advisor may not have agreed — and it was your responsibility not to leave campus until you had discussed what was required, and on what time schedule it was to be completed, with your advisor. If you had done this and you followed the agreed-upon program but your advisor did not, then much of the responsibility shifts to him/her. But if you left without agreeing to a clear plan, then I think your expectations were unreasonable.

        As for whether being away from campus changes your advisor’s responsibilities towards you, yes — it does! If you are not enrolled in the program, you are not officially your advisor’s responsibility. Students who are enrolled are the advisor’s responsibility. There is a clear difference. If your advisor is out of funding for your project and has asked you to make other arrangements while you finish writing your dissertation, again, that is a bit different — but at least from the story you posted, there is no indication that was the case for you.

        In terms of the signal you send to your advisor about the priority you place on your own graduation, planning to finish your dissertation on the plane to Fiji doesn’t make it seem like your degree is your top priority. That might not be the case, but that’s sure how it would look to me.

  2. Hi guys,

    It is very interesting what you’re saying about PhD students’ dilemmas. I read a lot articles like that and I started to hesitate if I should enroll to the PhD program or not. I have graduated this year and I started a job related to my studies (I work as a programmer). In fact I like what I am doing in a company and I can’t complain about the salary. However it is still my childhood’s dream to write PhD thesis and to work as a scientist. I did talk to the professors at my university and all of them told me, that once I start the job in the industry, I will never think about coming back to the uni. It is related to the independence that money you earn gives you, to the different approach in the companies and so on. It is kind of true, I can say I have learned a lot during my first two months at work about programming techniques, which have never been mentioned by my teachers at the uni. The people’s attitude at the company is different too.

    Taking into account all these things I am in real struggle. On the one hand I would really like to continue my student path, on the other – I like my job. I don’t understand people who are doing their PhD to find a better job. In my opinion it’s absolute misunderstanding of an idea of PhD. If you are willing to become an expert in one scientific area, you shouldn’t assume that you will be considered as a better job candidate…

    Many questions, even more doubts…

    Regards

    • NextScientist says:

      Hey Lukas,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      A couple of questions from me:

      – If you go for a PhD and you end up disappointed, could you find a way back to your previous corporate life?

      – If money is an issue, can you do a PhD that pays you a monthly stipend? Or can you generate a passive/alternative income while at graduate school?

      I think the 4 Hour Work Week book can give you some tips to figure out if you should switch to a PhD or not. In that book they talk from the point of view of somebody in a regular job that wants more freedom, yet the principles are easily applicable for (future) PhD students.

      Good luck with your endeavours.

      Julio

  3. former insider says:

    The lead times in academia are ridiculous. Having worked as a assistant professor on the way to complete my tenure track well before the deadline, I’ve seen why colleagues don’t give feedback on student work. It’s not because students are not around to remind them (btw: why should they?! You’d expect a professor to be able to manage his own workload and agenda. And come on: reasonable lead times as a “personal favor” instead of the professional standard to aim for? Really?!!)
    A lot of my former colleagues go after their own success and neglect the interest of phd students. If the grad school does not impose a KPI on the professors for making sure that phd students finish on time / get feedback on time, then sadly enough phd students will be the last priority. I don’t know whatever happened to human decency in academia; in my opinion it got lost as most professors put their own quest for status and prestige far above human decency. How ironic that those who should do good for society mainly aim to look good on paper. (yes I left because of this and am doing well for myselfin the real world).

    My advice: unless you have an advisor who is good in doing research (check publication list) and who is good in supervising phd students (check how many started, how many quit, what the average time to completion was, and what jobs that have now) don’t start or if you’ve started then don’t be afraid to change jobs. The topic is secondary in my experience, the supervisor is key.

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