grad school rulz #21: when to quit

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I strongly believe that most people who enter graduate school can successfully complete the program. However, it is also important to know that academia is not the right choice for everyone – even among those who possess the talent to complete the PhD degree. Think of this post as a guide for answering the question: “how do I know this is really the best choice for me?”

Let’s start this discussion with two obvious points. First, graduate education is the training school for a specific profession – being a professor. That means the program is set up to help you master an academic discipline, produce research in it, and teach it. This is job training and if you don’t want that job, then there is no point in continuing. Second, there is no moral obligation to get a doctoral degree and it’s ok to switch to another career. Just as it’s ok for an accountant to switch to lawyering, or an actor may quit the theater to start their own business, it’s totally ok for a graduate student to switch to another career. Finding the right job is a totally normal aspect of life.

Ok, so how can you decide if you should continue in your program? I’m not going to give you a simple rule because career switching is a very personal choice, but you have to know what the academic profession offers. Here are the main advantages of the academic career:

  • You get to be part of a larger scholarly & intellectual community and work on cool ideas.
  • You get to decide the topic of your work.
  • You get to work with smart people and young people.
  • Professoring is a well regarded profession.
  • Compared to most industries, the faculty have extremely stable jobs that will support a middle class lifestyle.

Here are the disadvantages that are specific to the academic career:

  • Usually less pay than peers in similar “real world” jobs and huge opportunity costs.
  • Small labor markets – you don’t have much of a choice where you teach and mobility can be limited.
  • Poorly defined personal boundaries – it’s possible that you can get into the habit working all the time, even at home.
  • It can take a while – grad school, post-docs, assistant prof – to get well established.
  • It can be hard, especially for women, to juggle family issues with academic life because academia demands much early in the life course.

At the very least, you should consider these issues when thinking about spending the next five years of your life training for the academic profession. Given these advantages and disadvantages, let me now turn to bad reasons for quitting. These are situations that are stressful, but, in the big scheme of things, really short term problems. To repeat: these are not good reasons to interrupt your studies.

  • I hate my department/adviser/cohort/university/dissertation. In a few years, you won’t have an adviser, and you’ll be at another place with different people, and you’ll finish the diss and move on to other topics.
  • I screwed up this test/grad exam/course/other hoop you have to jump through. Not a big deal – with a little guidance from faculty and extra effort, most people will get through the program.
  • It sucks to be a poor graduate student. Yes it does, but once again, there is a solution – graduation. Though academia does not offer high salaries, outside a few areas, the paycheck is enough for a modest and comfortable life.
  • The stress of teaching and research. All jobs worth doing are stressful. People expect high quality output from you, just as we expect lawyers and doctors to do their job as best they can. In the big picture, academic life is probably much less stressful than, say, being a surgeon, or a litigator, or starting your own business.

Finally, let me get to some genuine reasons to quit:

  • You truly find the academic mission irrelevant for your personal goals. Academia is all about things like decoding the true meaning of “Being and Time,” or looking for natural experiments in surveys, or reframing Chaucer. If this sort of intellectual work truly bores you, then maybe you should look for a new career.
  • The rewards of academia are incompatible with what makes you truly happy. In other words, if you need at least X to be happy and your discipline pays 1/2 X, then don’t do it. Or maybe you are interested in real world impact – it’s hard to do in many academic areas. Also, if moving to a new area is truly incompatible with your happiness, you’d better think twice about the job.
  • Ability – once in a while, you get into a situation where you’re not up to it, or not at the level that’ll get the outcome you want. No shame in that. Nobody is good at everything. You may not be cut out for academia, but you are probably cut out for success in some other area. And remember – academics are people who would probably screw up other jobs. Life isn’t about being good at everything – it’s about finding what you can be good at.
  • Inability to work independently. Once again, no shame in that. Some people just really need a more structured environment than academia. In my own case, I spend most of my time working on projects that I design and am responsible for. There is no “boss” and most deadlines are imposed or selected by me. Some people just can’t do this, just as some people would go nuts with a traditional work environment. So if the years are passing and you can’t concentrate long enough to write a dissertation chapter or two, then maybe you should think about it.

In offering these comments, my goal is not to push people. My goal is to help people find the career that works for them. The only way you can do that is by seriously asking yourself if the job that you are training for is really the job you want.


Written by fabiorojas

March 26, 2009 at 5:49 am

42 Responses

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  1. Excellent list, methinks. Thank you for formulating the pros and cons of my career choice so well. You made my day =)



    March 26, 2009 at 7:57 am

  2. Nicely and preciselu said — for those whose goal is to teach at university. That level of knowledge is also available and important to those whose goals are to have consequential careers. My BS is in criminology. My MA will be in social science. This semester, I have a cognate elective in international monetary economics and next semester (spring/summer), I will take international entrepreneurship. These support my career goal of management and enterprise in a global market for private security. Were I to complete a doctorate, it would deliver the opportunity to complete original research in an area of human action that has direct benefit to people.

    My interest is in the private sector. However, for a public police officer to return to school after five or eight years to complete a master’s in public administration or criminology or sociology is to gain additional knowledge that makes intelligent management easier … perhaps even makes it possible. Similarly, for an officer who retires at 45 or 50 to return for a doctorate in public policy, etc., is to empower an experienced — and hopefully wise — producer with a wider set of abstractions and tools to manipulate them.

    Knowledge is not to be hoarded — unless, perhaps, as the trade secret formula for a soft drink. To say that only those who want to be college professors should pursue advanced degrees is to admit that the inventory is worthless — its only marketability is in the university where it has no application. If understanding organizations and markets is consequential (and I believe that it is) then it is to be applied to human action, as would be electronic engineering, or cellular physiology.


    Michael E. Marotta

    March 26, 2009 at 9:32 am

  3. That is a great post. I wish I had read it several years ago.


    New Ph.D.

    March 26, 2009 at 12:15 pm

  4. Great post. I would add one extra thing about the academic mission. You have to be willing to accept the constraints on the “attention space” (Collins’s term) for new ideas. That is, much of the time you will be “rehearsing” old arguments, and positioning your work in the context of established orthodoxies.

    It is not so much about having brilliant ideas as (to use Kuhn’s image) solving standing puzzles (which sometimes merely means sorting through all those blue pieces and filling out a bit of the sky). It’s important work, but it’s not as glamorous as some people think when they begin grad school.

    The glamorous end of the sword: novelist (not scholar), spin doctor (not political scientist), executive (not organization theorist) … etc.


    Thomas Basbøll

    March 26, 2009 at 12:23 pm

  5. … pundit (not sociologist).


    Thomas Basbøll

    March 26, 2009 at 12:24 pm

  6. Thank you again, Fabio, for a terrific and needed public discussion on these issues.
    I’m wondering if you would be willing to talk more about this argument, insofar as you think it is insufficient grounds for leaving a doctoral program: “I hate my department/adviser/cohort/university/dissertation. In a few years, you won’t have an adviser, and you’ll be at another place with different people, and you’ll finish the diss and move on to other topics.”
    I ask because my first instinct is that there may be multiple reasons behind one’s hatred, and some of them will persist into the career (and be dysfunctional there).


    Jenn Lena

    March 26, 2009 at 12:37 pm

  7. Following Jenn’s comment, Fabio, might there be a separate sort of decision about whether or not to switch universities (or even fields)? The “hate my department/adviser/cohort/university/dissertation” situation seems ripe for considering a switch.


    Dan Hirschman

    March 26, 2009 at 1:01 pm

  8. “Ability – once in a while, you get into a situation where you’re not up to it, or not at the level that’ll get the outcome you want.”

    I think this is very true but there’s also the risk of false positives with “impostor syndrome.” The fact is that a lot of the things we do are so complicated that we don’t really understand what we’re doing on an intuitive “I get it” kind of level and so we think we’re frauds even if it actually works out such that we’re doing it right. In my own experience, being able to plausibly fake it comes first and only years later do you backfill the deep intuition. This deep intuition helps you perform the operation a little better, but not that much better. I think this applies equally to methods and theory.



    March 26, 2009 at 1:25 pm

  9. Great list — I would add one thing to the advantages of being an academic (at least thus far in grad school): your time is relatively flexible. Although we do spend a lot of time working (sometimes bleeding into personal time), it is relatively easy to build a personal work schedule that is not as rigid as a 9-5 type job.



    March 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm

  10. Gabriel raises a very important issue. It is true that you have to be willing to “fake it” at times. But one cannot take the “backfilling” on faith, i.e., that successful faking will eventually and automatically be backed up by years of practice. I’m reminded of a great piece by Jacob Brackman in the New Yorker from many years ago called “The Put-On”. Here’s a key passage:

    “[The put-on artist] doesn’t deal in isolated little tricks; rather, he has developed a pervasive style of relating to others that perpetually casts what he says into doubt. The put-on is an open-end form. That is to say, it is rarely climaxed by having the truth set straight—when a truth, indeed, exists. “Straight” discussion, when one of the participants is putting the others on, is soon subverted and eventually sabotaged by uncertainty. His intentions, and his opinions, remain cloudy.”

    Norman Mailer cited it in his critique of the New York intellectuals of the 1960s. Now, it may have been objectively true of that establishment at the time, but there is a general, more subjective, point here. If you come to feel, not only that you are putting everyone else on (on matters of theory and method) but that they, too, are putting each other on, then you are in the wrong field. Even if it is true (hopefully it most often is not) you will not enjoy yourself in a discipline you feel that way about.

    So, my proposed addition to the rulz: If your intentions, and your opinions, remain cloudy too long … I’m not sure how long you should let it continute, actually, … consider switching fields.


    Thomas Basbøll

    March 26, 2009 at 3:45 pm

  11. “First, graduate education is the training school for a specific profession – being a professor. That means the program is set up to help you master an academic discipline, produce research in it, and teach it.”

    I think the comment points out two major issues Sociology as a discipline has now and will have in the future taking that approach.

    1. If it is indeed the case that graduate programs in sociology are meant only to create the next generation of professors, too many graduate students are being trained. There are not enough jobs (particularly tenure track jobs) in community colleges through R1 programs to possibly absorb all of us.

    2. This insular view that sociology PhD’s should remain in the academy will prevent us from being seen as relevant. The irony here is that sociologists do some off the most publicly relevant research around: from criminology to aging to education to work and occupations. Yet because we are not taking jobs outside of academia (in the way that economists who study similar areas do) we risk being seen as irrelevant.

    As a grad student, I entered graduate school for the training in and mastery of sociology as a discipline, and for the ability to produce original research. Part of this is learning to teach sociology. While I have interest in becoming a professor, I know that there are many public and private sector institutions where my research skills and disciplinary perspective would be invaluable. Given what higher education is currently facing, thinking that all graduate students should remain in academia is a disservice to us.



    March 26, 2009 at 4:03 pm

  12. I very much agree with the above comment. People have been saying for years that sociology programs need to focus more of their energy on preparing graduates not just to be professors, but for jobs outside academia (which are often much better compensated). In fact, when I look at my grad school cohort, and the cohorts just before and after, significant numbers of people are working either in academic research institutes or in (gasp!) the corporate world. I also know people who left sociology programs to work at non-profits and thinktanks. Although they did fine, it’s too bad that they spent years in a PhD program without getting the final degree. It seems like there should be a way to speed up PhD programs for those who want the intellectual background and advanced training in research methods, but maybe don’t have the time or desire two or three years writing a dissertation. Other fields like econ and poli sci have much more crossover between people working in and outside the academy, and I think this widens people’s career options, broadens their intellectual perspectives, and probably helps to raise salaries.



    March 26, 2009 at 6:31 pm

  13. I think Gabriel has a good point about false negatives and the “impostor syndrome.” One of the biggest reasons that I see for people contemplating leaving grad school is because they worry that they aren’t good enough, their ideas are too sophomoric, and they’ll quickly get booted out of the program anyway. I’m constantly surprised at how many promising colleagues feel this way. But if a student walks around saying “I’m not good enough” all the time, maybe someone will actually take that student seriously and start a self-fulfilling prophecy. In such a case, being able to “plausibly fake it” relatively early on in a grad career has a lot of real and tangible benefits.

    As many of you have suggested, whether or not someone has the ability to succeed in this profession is a process. We (should) improve and get better over time. The people who I see talking about quitting due to a lack of talent are usually early in their careers, and they still think that talent is somehow innate. (Some things may be more innate, but I think most is learned.) Fortunately, these students usually stick around long enough to realize that their skills are growing and will continue to grow, so they don’t make rash decisions about leaving.



    March 26, 2009 at 7:16 pm

  14. “This insular view that sociology PhD’s should remain in the academy will prevent us from being seen as relevant.”

    What solution do you propose? The sociology PhD is the best training for being a sociologist, but is not the best training for any other job. While it might be nice for us to have more sociology PhDs in government and non-profits, for someone pursuing such jobs there is far better training available than a sociology PhD.


    Thorstein Veblen

    March 26, 2009 at 7:19 pm

  15. partly following up on my own comment and partly on noah’s reply to it, i just realized that there may be a gender aspect to this. in my experience boy grad students aren’t systematically more competent than girl grad students but they are systematically more confident. you might imagine a leaky pipeline effect from girls being more apt to give in to impostor syndrome rather than just plow ahead with an inflated ego and a confidence that eventually you’ll get it.



    March 26, 2009 at 7:35 pm

  16. Excellent rulz post. I might add, outside the US, PhDs also go to institutes — I know it’s common in Germany.

    Some go to Google or Microsoft too …

    Another reason to quit — your family circumstances change and you can no longer accept the debt load you think you’ll need to get to the Phd.



    March 26, 2009 at 9:33 pm

  17. Great post!

    I had dinner with three colleagues/friends this evening and we spent much of the dinner discussing that prospective grad students often don’t realize what they are signing up for and what a grad program at a top program is training people for. If all soc PhD programs were more clear during the admissions and recruiting process that the training is pretty narrowly focused on producing academics, I think we would being do the profession and prospective students a great service.

    I think the current situation is partly an issue of miscommunication; many profs, particularly senior folks, don’t realize that many prospective graduate students don’t fully understand how the programs are designed and what the goals are. That said, I agree that we should be considering whether our programs are too narrow given how few tenure-track positions there are in our field. Sociology is in a better position than Classics or English, but there are still too few positions for all, or even most, of the graduates of the top 20 programs, nevermind less highly ranked programs.



    March 27, 2009 at 3:10 am

  18. I also agree with Gabriel’s posts regarding impostor syndrome. And I think that Gabriel is probably right that women as well as possibly minority students and students from lower SES backgrounds are more likely to feel they are not talented enough even when they are. This points to the really crucial role that faculty can play in providing encouragement and positive feedback, particularly during hard periods like dissertation proposal writing.



    March 27, 2009 at 3:14 am

  19. “It seems like there should be a way to speed up PhD programs for those who want the intellectual background and advanced training in research methods, but maybe don’t have the time or desire two or three years writing a dissertation.”

    There is: it’s called the MA. Maybe the ASA needs to do more to try to convince non-academic employers that an MA or MS degree in sociology is worth something. Maybe more departments should do a better job of training students in research methods that have real-world applicability, although I’d guess that most of the top 20 departments already do with courses on quantitative research methods, networks, etc.

    But, I don’t accept the premise that we should water down the PhD requirement so that students can finish the program in 3 years and the discipline can be more attractive to credential-seekers who don’t have time or desire to write a dissertation.



    March 28, 2009 at 4:34 pm

  20. Krippendorf – I agree with you that the ASA ought to do more to legitimate the MS or MA degrees. I know someone who served on an ASA committee that discussed the status of sociology Masters programs. Despite all members having at least some interest in promoting the MA or MS degrees as a professional credential, there was very little consensus among the sociologists on the committee as to how to use that credential to establish a stronger footing in the job market. The other problem is that the committee was almost entirely constituted by people from departments lacking PhD programs and so the committee didn’t really address the potential for using Masters degrees as exit points within traditional doctoral programs.



    March 28, 2009 at 6:52 pm

  21. This is something I wish I had read, and discussed with colleagues before I entered my Ph.D. program in policy studies. I would have realized much earlier that my focus and experience would have been better used by seeking an MPA. My committee advised me that I should “redirect my academic inquiries”, so I used the credits that I had earned to earn the MPA. There is a certain focus and amount of energy required for any advanced degree, especially the Ph.D. Now that I have graduated, I hear from former fellow students and graduates of the program that I likely would not have succeeded because at age 60 I have much more “real-world” experience than any of my professors, I was a career Army officer, and I tended to intimidate most of them, because of that experience and somewhat iconoclastic attitude.
    I did not “fit the mold” of the Ph.D.s that they wanted to create in that program. I only had one committee member who was totally honest with me; the rest were disinterested in me as a person and were ready for me to find new pastures. At least I was spared the time and effort of the dissertation, and I can get back to the workforce much sooner. My wife was more upset than I was, but given that I seem to have received more positive responses to my resume than some of my former classmates with a Ph.D., she has come to appreciate the decision more. If this sounds like sour grapes, it is not. I think anyone contemplating the Ph.D. would benefit from a frank discussion with his or her potential academic advisor using this essay as a starting point.



    March 28, 2009 at 10:03 pm

  22. Hi! I wrote an article where I give some tips on quitting a PhD program:



    April 7, 2009 at 7:57 am

  23. […] a comment » Few weeks ago, I dedicated an edition of the grad skool rulz to the subject of when to quit. The comments were good and a number of questions were raised. Fellow blogger and awesome culture […]


  24. […] Fabio at Orgtheory has a post today (part of the grad skool rulz series) following up on a previous post about when to quit graduate […]


  25. Another downside: Teaching and working with students (including grad students at times) who do not read the assigned material or participate in class and then rip you a new one when you give them a B+. Complaining, entitled students who treat you like a 7-11 employee. Prestigious job? Ha! Ask your undergrads how prestigious they think your job is. University professors are just another service worker to the younger generation, and the notion that professorship brings prestige is 100% outdated. Whether they’re demanding fries with that or demanding a better grade that they don’t deserve, undergrads have zero respect for what we do.



    June 19, 2009 at 3:02 pm

  26. Excellent post! I’m reading it because I have just solidified my decision to quit my PhD in history after my first semester. Some of the things talked about here really resonate with me.

    I realised after talking myself into coming to grad school (and being flattered into it as well) that I needed to listen to my intuition when making this decision, and not my reason. Yes, it is flattering to be courted by a program. Yes, the funding is really attractive. But inside myself, that part of my mind that I was ignoring was telling me that what I was about to do was not right. Now, I’m feeling bitter and a bit alone. I no longer believe that what I set out to do (research in the history of psychiatry) is particularly valuable, and I’m looking at switching to an MA in theatre, a longstanding passion that I have buried under practical considerations.

    The post about “putting on” really resonates with me, as well. I feel like so many of the “discussions” I’ve had with members of my program have been huge put-ons. No one can agree what it means to “do history” and so we end up talking not about history, but about justifying the work of historians, which irritates me to no end.

    Finally, I’d like to disagree with the comment about hating your advisor/department/school, etc. Strong feelings like this should not be ignored. I realise now that my aversion to the faculty in my program should have sent alarm bells ringing – if one cannot be one’s self, whats the bloody point of working in an academic field?

    Thanks for a good discussion and a chance to comment.


    M McGeachy

    December 17, 2009 at 7:58 pm

  27. Above, should read: what’s (as in, “what is”). Sorry about that.


    M McGeachy

    December 17, 2009 at 8:00 pm

  28. Well I quit my Phd. I came to realize that it just wasn’t a healthy responsible thing for me to do any longer particularly as I no longer saw it as leading to opportunities in the future. I was never interested in an academic career and not only had the substantive topic of my thesis ceased to interest me, but unfortunately was too specific to lead into other jobs post PhD. While I had blind faith about the future when I was personally interested and engaged in the topic, I no longer had that idealism and so I could not sustain that optimism in the face of reality. Tough to deal with but the truth.

    After considerable sadness and buckets of tears I have come to realize that it was the right decision. It was not worth sacrificing so many other important parts of my life, and for that matter putting my loved ones through all of this, if I did not honestly have faith that I was on the right path. Academia in general, and the PhD process in particular, is an incredibly isolating experience and in the process I realize that I have put my mental health in danger and have risked losing my true ‘self’. I have digressed psychologically and socially through this process and as I am not getting any younger really need to change gears before it is too late.

    On the bright side, I’ve learned that my life really needs to involve regular interaction with others and that I can not be so focussed so exclusively upon living inside my own head. It needs to involve knowledge and intellect but also needs to be more applied, rather than theoretical (I am presently in a very unstructured Social Sciences program). I guess these are things we have to learn about ourselves.

    Initially I thought I was being cowardly and irresponsible for doing this, whereas now I realize that this is perhaps the bravest and most responsible thing I have ever done. Strangely, nothing would be easier than sliding back into doing my PhD, as that is something that I am all too familiar–and thus comfortable–with could avoid social embarasment, but that would also be to engage in avoidance and longer term misery.

    Instead I have decided to move on and am looking toward applying to a grad program in another field (Urban and Regional Planning). Fortunately I have undergrad training in that field and may be able to apply my Masters credentials (Public Health) to it. However, as I have been away from it for so very long I really need to re-educate myself. This is where the problem lies.

    Despite feeling better and ‘right’ about my decision my self confidence has been absolutely devastated, my inner voice says, ‘what makes you think you can do anything?’. I really worry that my self doubts as a result of my PhD experience will continue to haunt me and as a result have simply considered going out to get a menial job, but then realize I would be selling myself short and ultimately miserable as a result.

    Does anyone have any advice to offer?



    December 18, 2009 at 5:01 pm

  29. anonymous– I can’t for sure tell you the right answer but I wouldn’t go back to school right away. Get away from graduate school for a while– and if a graduate degree peaks your interest a few years later, check it out.



    February 24, 2010 at 11:10 pm

  30. I’m in the 2nd year of my phd at Dutch university and I’m seriously considering to quit. I know that it’s ultimately up to myself to take that decision, but getting opinions from people in similar situations definitely helps, so whatever suggestion you have would be greatly appreciated. Unlike many people here on the forum my research does not make me feel clinically depressed, it’s not THAT bad, but everyday research practice makes me feel slightly frustrated and discontent ALL the time. I really do like my subject (in qualtative social sciences), and I principally like the activities of reading, writing, and discussing, but what kills me is the routine of every research practice, and the force I have to exert on myself to keep it up. I’m actually not good at focussing on my reading (and summarizing of monographs, which is a large part of my work), but I’m really good at forcing myself. So what I do on a regular working day is go to the office, and try to concentrate for 8 -9 hours, of which I succeed to get work done for 4-5 hours on average. And that takes me LOT of disciple. I regularly tend to forget why I actually started to do research, it’s like the routine kills any passion I had for my research. I feel that I would be better suited to work in an environment that has shorter project cycles (a couple of weeks or months rather than 4 years).
    Additionally, I really miss my friends and family back home. I’m originally from another European country, and I have been abroad for studies (an MPhil at another Dutch university) for 3 years now (I moved three times in that period – I’m sick of that). I’ve been trying to socialize at my faculty for the past year, but it’s hard, and most people here work on really different subjects. So most of the time I’m in my own head, trying to force myself to get work done. To sum up, I really like my subject, but the grind of everyday research practice leaves me frustrated and isolated, and I don’t like where I’m living and working.
    I’m 14months into the program, so that would be a really good point to quit. On the other hand, I’m really scared of ending up in an underwhelming and boring job back home. A mistake I’ve made is not to ever have looked for a real job between my degrees (B.A. To Mphil), as I’m the kind of person who always has a plan for what to do next. Therefore I lack the experience of what professional life in fields other than academia can be. A lot of people in my grad school tell me that they are really happy about getting into a phd after having done “regular” jobs, as they found them not challenging enough. I’m scared to quit now and then be hit by the bore of everyday life in a regular job back home. Yet even if I finish the phd, I would like to go back to my country afterwards, and there’s very few research jobs in my field (qualitative social sciences – not really the background that gives you a lot of specific choices…). Likely I would be end up in a job that’s not related to my field anyway, so why force myself through another 3 years of loneliness and frustrating self-discipline? Also, changing career might be easier right now (I’m 29) rather than when I’m 32. One last thing I should mention is that Dutch phd students are normally employed by their university, and I consider myself rather well paid – at least compared to a lot of other jobs.
    My plan right now is to take 3 weeks off and return home for christmas, and then hopefully see clearer what my priorities actually are (isolating, frustrating research on an interesting subject vs. friends, family, and perhaps a boring job back home), but I would be SO grateful for any sort of comment on my situation…



    December 13, 2010 at 2:22 pm

  31. Dear Kwolf6,
    I’m in the SAME situation as you are. I am a phd student in a Dutch university and I’m working on a molecular biology project.
    I am experiencing the so-called “PhD depression” least I guess.
    The fact is that I have lost interest in the subject. I think it’s partially my fault.
    When I applied for this position I knew it was not exactly the kind of research I’d love to do.
    I have always had a strong passion for ethology but at the university there were no courses at the time I was studying there. So I ended up being a Cellular Biologist…which is not so bad…I like biomoleculas stuff..but I do not have enought passion to keep on doing research on it.
    My supervisior is a very nice person and I really worried to disappoint him…but I’m considering to talk to him about my idea to quit.
    I really feel that here in the Netherland I would have the opportunity to do what I ‘d really like to do..there is a group in Utrech working on primates behaviour and I would really like to join this tipe of reseach.
    Actually I am wondering if it is even possible to apply for a PhD position once you have already quit one. can I justify this on my CV?

    I am really concerned about ending up with nothing.
    It would be a disaster if I quit this PhD and I could not get into the other lab…

    I feel so bad and worried.

    ..and also homesick! :-(

    What did you decided to do in the end?

    Any suggestion or comment about my situation will be really welcome!

    Good luck to all of you!




    January 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

  32. I am also a PHD student in the Germany on a 4 year programmme. Recently I was offered a great career opportunity to work for FAO in Rome at a Senior Professional category level. It will basically mean getting a good salary (tax free), all family related benefits, insurance, travelling, working with experts in the field.
    I now want to quit my PHD, I am still in the first semester, I have started hating the low stipend I get, I hate my thesis proposal tutor (he wants to push me towards a topic I have no interest in – his strong field), I also feel now that my research is just not relevant enough to be used in a development organisation. I have never been interested in teaching so now I am not sure as what to do. I need to make a decision my end of February. Currently there are also no possibilities of doing the PHD on a part-time basis – FAO offers paid study-leave and a grant but only after 2 years of employment. In any case some more senior directors don’t even have PHDs under their belts. I really started this PHD wiht a positive mind, but now this job offer has proven that I just don’t have academic ambitions. Please help!!!



    January 16, 2011 at 10:14 pm

  33. Marie: Thanks for writing in. In general, I advise people to be brutally honest about themselves. Are you happier at your FAO job because it really makes you happy? If so, then you’ve found the right job! No need to continue in an academic career that you’ll hate. If you are using non-academic jobs as a way to avoid the unavoidable turbulence of the academy, then you should buckle down.

    But if you have no interest in teaching and you don’t think the academic research is relevant to your interests, then what’s the argument for staying? There’s more to life than grad school and if you found a wonderful career that you like, then you should move on!



    January 20, 2011 at 9:08 pm

  34. wow reading this really made me tear up a bit. i am going through this question myself. i am a minority and female and really think this imposter syndrome is getting to me. i am feeling like such a disappointment because i am working on an off topic qualifying exam and feel so inadequate and wondering what the heck am i doing here. i am just afraid everyone is going to notice how little i know. i am going to counseling and trying to reach out to my family but i definitely do feel isolated.



    September 1, 2011 at 8:32 pm

  35. jax: Hang in there. Reach out, you would be surprised at how many people feel the same way.



    September 1, 2011 at 8:53 pm

  36. In general, a good articulate discussion. I take issue with one thing though: I believe that having a bad department/adviser/cohort/university/dissertation is a perfectly reasonable reason to quit. Anyone who tells you that being miserable for 5-7 years of your youth is worth it to achieve some credential is not looking out for your best interest. At the very least, give a genuinely honest assessment of the trade-off between 5 of your youthful years spent isolated and depressed vs. the career gains that the credential affords you. Youthful years are worth a lot more money than elder years, and our society unfortunately has that backwards.

    Lastly, many people should consider the ways academia historically changes. My own experience is in science academia (applied mathematics and scientific computing). The space race and Cold War shapred the way science PhDs are organized now. There is a dramatic surplus of science PhDs and this led to the invention of post-docs, even at private companies. In general, organizations will look to exploit an idealistic young person who gets utility from prestige or academic credential. But in the real world, those ideas are essentially worthless. Tenure is diminishing and college education is becoming highly commodity training and it’s going online in a big way. Being a university professor is in many ways as unreasonable a career goal as is being a rock star or NFL player. And the pay is not very good. Additionally, you’ll often here people say that you get to direct your own research and drive your own career as a research professor. This is simply not true. The research professors I work with are all heavily bound by grant agencies. They can only marginally steer their work and often they spend 80%+ of their time chasing after money. More people should really consider these realities before joining a PhD program.



    January 10, 2012 at 7:34 pm

  37. Thank you for this post..!!
    I want to quit my PhD program because really, i dont have motivation to continue. I went straight to my MSc without working, and now same thing with my PhD. My MSc was not very good due to problems with my adviser and i also dont like the school. I came here because i got a scholarship and the credit crunch ment no jobs in the mining field. So i decided to go to school. Thats it. I need a real world job. I will quit soon. I just need to save a bit of money to get me started off.
    Thanx guys..!!



    January 17, 2012 at 8:53 pm

  38. Thanks for this post. I think it takes quite a bit of courage to quit a PhD program. A lot of the grad students that are currently in my program define themselves by their involvement in their field. When I started my PhD, I felt that way as well. A few years later, I am no longer able to connect with my dissertation topic and with my advisors. Teaching and chasing after scholarships and research funds are two totally depressing activities. I hope I will have the courage to quit soon enough.


    Lucy In The Sty

    February 29, 2012 at 8:13 pm

  39. I love academia and am currently a PhD student. Most days I spend most of my waking hours wrapped up in journal articles, books, or writing. I’m geographically bound for family reasons. I live in a sparsely populated state with few PhD programs. I am currently unfunded at my program. I have taught at a community college and have a few pubs but that has not been enough to earn me a TA or RA position.. I have my MS already. I can’t find a stable job that fits with a PhD student’s schedule (nights and weekends). Basically lack of stable employment is a huge stone in my passway and I am really struggling. I’ve been without stable employment for about six months. Should I bow out of academia?



    March 11, 2012 at 7:03 am

  40. THANKS for all this wonderful dialogue and perspective. With the luxury of a non-academic corporate background and an MBA I chose to do research into creativity and I totally enjoyed the coursework and student interaction etc.
    I cannot say the same for the basic pedal to the metal dissertation hoop process and am going to quietly fold up my tent and be really excited with my ABD and all that I learned as I move on.

    Good luck to everyone.



    August 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm

  41. Hi,

    I am a PhD student in Germany, in my third year. I am a foreign student, and returning home with a PhD means being over aged and overqualified for most jobs. My adviser is terrible, and I have completely lost interest in my area. Moreover, even if I complete this, I need to do a second doctorate to get a university job in Germany. On the other hand, quitting is not a good option as there are no jobs back home in my country. I am thinking of quitting this one for another PhD in Canada, a country I love (spend a wonderful year there) since that way I can immigrate. I don t mind doing other jobs after the PhD
    I am also thinking of applying to Ivy League universities because with that brand name I could find a job, ironically even in Germany.
    Is there any chance for me?



    October 8, 2012 at 5:12 pm

  42. @rp: Hard to tell… Getting into an Ivy League program is hard and no guarantee of success. Also, we know nothing of your academic record or publication portfolio. There are also age considerations. Starting a new program at, say, 28 is way different than 38. Though you are right that European academia is often harder to get into than the American version. Somehow getting out of that game may be wise. Have you considered switching advisers? Hard to do, but if s/he is bad enough, it may help a great deal.



    October 8, 2012 at 6:18 pm

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