My guess is that you’ve landed on this post because you’ve thought about quitting your PhD program?
Believe it or not, many students have been in your shoes.
In fact, for a while, I was one of those people who wanted to quit her PhD.
I didn’t quit but I know at least three people personally who quit and live fairly satisfied lives.
While I cannot talk about why some PhD students quit, I can talk about my reasons for seeing it through.
Towards the end of this post, I will also share three introspective questions to consider before you quit your PhD.
Why I didn’t quit my PhD
I was an international student
International students in the United States hold F-1 visas that only allow you to continue living in the States as long as you are a student. I came to the US as an international student and my family did sacrifice a lot for me to get to that level of education.
Thus, even though things got tough during my PhD and there were days when I really wanted to quit, keeping the sacrifice my family had made for me in mind kept me going.
Now, I know that this goes against the “if it is not making you happy then you should quit” philosophy. I know! If you no longer want to read this post for this reason, that is okay. But please realize that while the above is a nice, motivational bit, not everyone has the luxury of doing so.
In my case, visa restrictions and the fact that my family had given a lot for me to be in the US played into why I did not quit.
I wanted to increase my chances of landing specific roles
My PhD is in the biomedical sciences and while you can certainly land good-paying roles with a bachelor’s or master’s degree, I knew getting my PhD would allow me to shoot for the top.
For instance, in the biotech world, you could work as a scientist with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. However, most senior scientist roles or leadership roles require that you have a PhD. A person with a masters may get to the same level with years of experience and competence, but I learned quickly that (sometimes) having a PhD gets you there much faster.
Furthermore, one of my career interests involved teaching at a university. Most of those roles required a PhD as well.
So yes, I am one of those people who went through with my PhD because I wanted to improve my chances at being chosen for the job.
I learned I didn’t have to stay in academia
I think I did a dance when I learned I did not have to stay in academia when I finished my PhD.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I taught community college for three semesters and I loved every bit of it!
But I honestly did not want to have to think of research projects and constantly write grants for research.
I did not want to stay in a place for ten years chasing the trophy of tenure while making less than I knew I was worth.
So the day I did a Google search and found out I could take the skills from my PhD and translate them into another career path, I was ecstatic. I started learning everything I could about medical writing and I researched medical science liaison roles. Informational interviews became my favorite thing to do. I even started a freelance writing business on the side to practice my skills. That side business became handy when in 2018, I was suddenly laid off from my post-doc due to funding cuts (ha, I told you academia was unreliable).
The skills I was learning in my PhD and in my post-doc were valuable and they were usable in other industries.
Today, I know I would not have built up those skills if I had quit in the midst of my frustration.
Should you quit your PhD program?
If you want to quit your PhD, I understand you.
Perhaps, if things I had been different for me and I had figured out a career path I could be happy with, I would have.
Take this from someone who cried on her way to school one day because the rigor of the program finally got to me – I get you.
If you’re thinking of quitting your PhD, I challenge you to think about these questions.
- Are you experiencing stress? As PhDs, we study subjects and topics very few people in the world are studying. This in of itself can feel mentally isolating. And this isolation can have an impact on your mental health. Is this what is happening to you? If it is, then you should take a break. This may involve speaking with your PI. It may also involve you seeking counseling with a professional. Please don’t feel like you just have to “suck it up”. You may find that after you take a break and get counseling help, you are better equipped to handle the stress that comes with a PhD program. If these don’t help at all, quitting might be the right path for you.
- Will a PhD change your prospects for a fulfilling career? Of course, a PhD is not required for a fulfilling career, in general. But for the purposes of your goals, will a PhD change or improve your prospects? In my case, I found out that it did. This where you have to do your research. Are there people in your field, doing the kind of work you want to do without a PhD? Find out how they did it. If you can repeat their process, quitting your PhD may be the right thing for you.
- Should you change what you’re studying? Maybe, it is not your PhD program. Maybe it is what you’re studying. Sometimes people change what they are studying at the PhD level and voila, the problem is solved! Or perhaps they decide to go to law school or medical school instead.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, I know three really smart people who quit their PhD programs and are thriving in life.
Quitting your PhD program is not the end of everything. Life goes on and it can be beautiful.
So once you’ve made the decision to quit, I encourage you to take the plunge and carve a path that suits you.
All I ask is that you think about the three questions above and answer them for yourself before you do.