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I'm a year and a half into a PhD at a top university in the Uk. Doing some good work but not enjoying academia and I think this is more than second year blues. I have quite a bad advisor which doesn't help, for example I've already had my work stolen by a collaborator and my supervisor is reluctant to rock the boat or say anything.

My PhD is in applied Math and computational physics and I have access to London. My current plan is to leave with an Mphil and find a job in the city - trouble is I don't know what I want to do.

I would like a career that uses my mathematical and programming abilities and is more commercial, i.e. not all technical. A career that I can go places with - but has a good work life balance. I've always wanted to be a professor, but the reality of academia has really put a pin in that, I can't stand it, I hate the politics, I hate the way I'm treated by my supervisors, the university staff and colleges, I hate the academic culture here where I'm expected to let my research take over life and that just by considering other opportunities, I'm not worthy of academia - I came TOP of my class, I worked incredibly hard, I feel I deserve more respect than what I get as a grad student.

So I've been looking around and a few careers have caught my eye - though I want something with a better work-life balance.

Has anyone themselves quit a PhD? Were you happier?

  • 2
    You will be more or less happy depending on how your situation aligns to your goals. I have seen all four combinations of quitting (y/n) and then being happier (y/n), and of course there are infinite shades of grey (I haven't seen that many) and also multidimensional happiness. In short, decide what do you want (and can get)(in academia, banks, love, whatever), go for it, and best of luck in the pursue of your goals. BTW: The way I did put myself through is: "If I'm so clever, this should be easy for me". If you are not worthy of academia, it should be a walk on the park for you, shouldn't it? – Trylks Nov 20 '13 at 16:07
  • Besides ibanking (which is more networking and doesn't require this level of math), are there any other areas of finance you're interested in? – user389823 Nov 20 '13 at 16:09
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    Also: regardless of whether you leave academia altogether, you should definitely leave your current department. Don't walk. Run. – JeffE Nov 21 '13 at 3:38
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    Try looking at data science. I moved to it after finishing my PhD and my only regret is I that I hadn't moved earlier. (Of course - your millage may vary; but in data science I am getting much more freedom, respect, and almost no politics.) – Piotr Migdal Aug 12 '15 at 11:23
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    Just wondering if you ended up quitting or sticking with it. Are you happier than you were when you asked the question? – Michael Lai May 19 '16 at 23:38

12 Answers 12

89

I have strong urge to respond to user9590's comment: No one who quit a PhD ever felt bad for quitting a PhD. Well, I do. I always feel bad after I quit PhD. Although I had good personal reasons to do so, I always regret my decision. I missed everything in academia: the professors, the classroom, the research, the teaching, even the campus. After I retired from industry, I had to choose a place to live. Do you know the street name of my current address? Academia Road !

The reasons you're thinking about leaving academia:

I hate the politics - Do you believe there is no politics in industry?

I hate the way I'm treated by my supervisors, the university staff and colleges - Do you believe your managers, the human resources and the company in industry will treat you very well?

I hate the academic culture here where I'm expected to let my research take over life, - Would you love the industry culture to let making money take over life?

I feel I deserve more respect than what I get as a grad student.. - Do you feel you deserve more respect than what you'll get as an employee of an industry company?

If your answers to the above questions are all positive, industry is your place. In particular, please run to industry if you love to make money. Otherwise, please reconsider quitting PhD. Good Luck!

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    Well said. There are problems everywhere. The problems might vary, it is true, but often it comes down to what flavor you prefer. – Faheem Mitha Nov 21 '13 at 20:00
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    If you dislike your job you can look for a new one. Finding a new PhD adviser or university however is much more difficult and will likely delay finishing your Phd. – David Brown Aug 26 '14 at 20:44
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    "Would you love the industry culture to let making money take over life?" Alternative question: "Would you like to be able to retire at a reasonable age?", or the always fun "Would you like to be able to afford healthcare if something were to go wrong?". – Parthian Shot Aug 12 '15 at 1:38
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    I do have a friend who went though this kind of things and eventually he went back to his old company because they would give him a stable job and he had a family to raise. If you are single, sure, you can do freelancing all you like. If you have other concerns, I am not sure it's a good thing. Academia pays poorly. We all know that. But, you get to do what you like - the research. – scaaahu Aug 12 '15 at 12:14
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    @David Brown: finding a new and better PhD advisor (at the same university) is quite often much easier than finding a new and better job. – Peter Shor Aug 11 '17 at 11:48
22

I have my PhD in Computer Science so it's not a 1:1 comparison, but it's probably close enough.

First, know that being a grad student has it's perks, but overall, you haven't really promoted yourself much in the eyes of your supervisor by getting an undergraduate degree. You're still going to be viewed with the title of "student" until you graduate. This is unfortunate, but it's how I've found most of the world works. You should know that once you graduate, the situation does improve quickly. There will always be people who will look down on you (in any industry or education level), but for the most part, it's not so bad.

Second, remember that getting a PhD doesn't really close that many doors. There will be some companies that don't want to hire a PhD because of your title, but you can usually find a job outside of academia with a PhD. I have friends with PhDs that have gone to Google, Amazon, etc. and do jobs that they could have been able to do with a Masters degree. However, by having the PhD, they can now go back to academia if they choose to do so.

Third, at least make sure you come out of the experience with something. Those I know that abandoned ship midway through at least made sure they received their Masters degree before leaving. Otherwise, you're definitely limiting your options later. You can get lots of jobs with a Bachelor's degree, but it gets harder and harder to be promoted without more advanced degrees.

Lastly, if politics is not your thing, you're probably right that working in a university setting won't be what you want. It's going to be a very political job for most of your career compared to some of the other options.

The big question you have to answer is, what are your goals? Do you want to make more money? Don't work in academia. Do you want to have more control over your work? Then research is probably going to be more in line with what you want. Also remember, universities aren't the only places that do research. There are also companies and government labs in most countries where you can do research.

18

Don't do it.

Having quit a PhD myself, I can attest to the weight of conscience quitting can be. You will make more money, but you will see it all seep away toward bills you now don't have. And, ironically, those bills are not remotely associated with anything "fun" or "cool" or "enjoyable". Nope. They are rent, they are student debt, they are car payments—and you know, having done computational physics, that a new car does not bring fulfillment. And living in the city? You will seep money from your pores for housing that is so substandard, you would be better off as a poor man in a rural area.

And for this what do you get? Well. I don't know. Maybe you will do well. I didn't. Two and a half years into this stupid experiment, I have not a penny in the bank, I have a broken-down car, and I guess I should be happy to be able to pay rent and meet my obligatory student loan payments. Yay!

But no sense of doing something meaningful or big. No sense of moving toward something bigger, even if far down the line. I am stagnated, in a job that brings me little joy, and which allows be only to pay my bills and live day to day.

Do what you want. Others will cry to you how bad a PhD is. I am telling you otherwise. If you're going to get screwed, I'd rather get screwed in academia, where at least you get to feel like a) you do something meaningful, and b) you are moving toward something greater.

You will quit your PhD. I have no doubt. I've been there, and when you start questioning yourself this way, you already know what you will do, even if you're not sure of it. You will quit. Just know that you will wish you could go back.

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    Where did you go to graduate school that you didn't have to pay bills? – Alex Reinking Sep 3 '16 at 7:11
14

As someone who left a PhD program, I would suggest:

  • Trying to stick it out for a bit longer and see if your outlook changes if this is a field you truly have an intellectual passion for and your own intellectual development is reward enough for you. It will be extremely hard if not impossible to go back to the PhD route once you leave. Even if you never use the PhD it will still be a significant accomplishment that you can feel proud of.

  • Seeking out a new advisor/mentor. Try to cultivate some supportive relationships.

I think the idea that academia is much worse an atmosphere than another occupation is misguided, as others have said. When all else fails, try spite as motivation. You were TOP of your class? You don't feel respected? Well, to quote Troy McClure, "Get confident, stupid!" Go be the mathsiest mathematician you can be.

12

Part of finding out what you want to do is trial and error. If you want to do investment banking, do some investing yourself; it's never been easier to participate in a market. It might not be investment banking itself, but an individual portfolio you've created, using your mathematical knowledge would go somewhere in an interview with a financial institution, and you have London, so there's no shortage of investment banks. That career path has zero work life balance, however, if done professionally. If you want to maintain some liberty you'd need to be investing your own money your own way. This is much easier because you have much less paperwork and regulatory overhead as an individual investor than a member of an investment bank. If you don't like it, you can take a few years and make a fortune making others' fortunes and move on to something else. Having a few million affords great liberty.

I too wanted to be a professor in the States, but seeing the grim realities of the academy made me realize that I wouldn't be able to deal with the extra nonsense that goes along with it. If all I had to do was teach and research, I would dedicate my life to it. But we all know that's maybe 20% on a good day of what academics actually do. But almost all careers have this kind of extra stuff to deal with in one way or another, so don't look to avoid it just by escaping the academy. I'm in the humanities, so ymmv, but I know there's a lot of similarity.

You won't avoid these petty politics you hate outside the academy, at least not completely. It's not as if academics alone have petty fights and engage in office politics. But I do know that there is less of it outside the ivory tower. One of my mentors told me "tempers run so hot because the stakes are so low," which I found out later is called Sayre's law, and it indicates a truism about human nature; we are acutely aware of our insignificance, if only subconsciously, and fight it.

The academy fosters a tunnel-vision. It becomes impossible to imagine life outside, or that other career paths are just (and more) legitimate, or that there are other ways to make a living other than competing for an ever-diminishing piece of the grant funding. Academics tend to think in zero-sum thoughts so outside-the-box ideas, such as other careers are difficult for them to process. The institutional thinking engenders feelings of shame and fear for leaving, or even considering other options, because why would anyone want to do anything else, this is the life of the mind, the highest life!? But you can look past all that since the early-relationship glow has worn off the ivory tower.

I think you've already discerned that the academy isn't for you. You can be happy doing just about anything you find fulfillment in. If it's making million dollar trades, or laying brick it doesn't really matter. You just know its certainly not research proposals and bitter backstabbing academics who don't appreciate your contribution to the institution, yet depend on you for their status. You can work hard without an advanced degree and climb the ladder just as well. With at least a 4 year degree you'll never hit any glass ceilings anyway. I speak as an American. I know you folks across the pond have more stake in social status, so it might be slightly different over there.

But to specifically answer your other question: No one who quit a PhD ever felt bad for quitting a PhD. They usually just feel bad for not quitting sooner, or for going in the first place. They regret the lost years filled with stress and low income, and not the missed opportunity for a very, very, low chance of a tenured position.

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    "No one who quit a PhD ever felt bad for quitting a PhD": That's an extremely bold claim, I don't believe it. – Nate Eldredge Nov 20 '13 at 20:24
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    or as someone else on this forum would say, 'Citation needed' :) – Suresh Nov 20 '13 at 21:57
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    I think this answer is based on an overly pessimistic view of academia, and I agree that "no one who quit a PhD ever felt bad for quitting a PhD" is a clear exaggeration. However, there's a kernel of truth to it: there's a lot of social or self-imposed pressure not to quit PhD programs, so few people quit them lightly. Plenty of people continue when they would be happier quitting, while far fewer quit when they would have been happier continuing. – Anonymous Mathematician Nov 21 '13 at 1:11
6

I also have left my PhD. Well, it was more of a situation like this to be honest.

The problem with it? I really liked research, the issue was that my objectives/field were not matching the ones of the supervisor: I was (and still am) for a more practical/engineer approach while the supervisor wanted a more theoretical/pure mathematical one.

The end result was me leaving the PhD after 1 year and a half from its beginning.

Am I happier now? Well, you can be sure of that, I found another PhD with an approach I like and I am having a ton of fun doing it.

My suggestion? Try to understand the real reason for which you feel that leaving the PhD would be a good idea. You say:

  1. I would like a career that uses my mathematical and programming abilities and is more commercial, i.e. not all technical.
  2. A career that I can go places with - but has a good work life balance. [...]
  3. I hate the politics, I hate the way I'm treated by my supervisors, the university staff and colleges, I hate the academic culture here where I'm expected to let my research take over life and that just by considering other opportunities,
  4. I'm not worthy of academia -
  5. I came TOP of my class, I worked incredibly hard, I feel I deserve more respect than what I get as a grad student.
  1. I am not sure I understand your contraposition of commercial and technical. IF you program a commercial product, isn't that a technical task?

  2. Well, I would not expect too much, the perfect job does not exist, you'll always have to accept some kind of trade-off.

  3. Expect all of that in any and all workplaces you'll ever go

  4. pardon? you feel you're too good or not good enough? Personally, I think you're making a mistake either way

  5. Life isn't fair, live with it. ["I deserve"? you're from the US, right?]

  • 1
    "Any and all workplaces you ever go to" - have you been to all of those that OP will go to? "Life isn't fair, live with it." - In what sense is this expected to be helpful? – PKG Oct 8 '15 at 18:22
5
  1. The world is a big place and full of millions of opportunities for whatever work life balance "floats your boat".
  2. You (like 99.99% of us) want to be happy (and right now NEED to be happIER).
  3. Life is short.
4

I would suggest you to wait for a couple of months to see how will it go AND look for another PhD. You've mentioned you are in top university, I don't see major problems for another top university to accept you for PhD.

On the other hand, you are lucky. A lot of people are dreaming to do PhD and study in top university. I don't even have a chance to do PhD but I would love to do it. Doind Taught Masters now, it's harder than bachelors and MRes, so enjoy your time. Talk to someone you are in good relations with at university, they might figure out something for you.

4

I quit a top program in psychology halfway through my second year due to theoretical disagreements with the professors. Some of the difficulties I faced afterwards included awkwardly saying goodbye to classmates, resolving the identity crisis that comes with losing the status of a doctoral student, dealing with family reactions, feelings of failure and regret, confusion about my future, and most of all, getting a job.

My advice to finding a good job afterwards: 1) go to a community (not your college) career center for help with your resume. No matter how many resume examples you read online, it’s very hard to turn a long academic CV into a concise industry-friendly resume that’s 1-2 pages MAX, and shows clear work experience/skills.

2) make sure you withdraw completely from the program and are removed from the school’s website before applying to your new dream job. I was still on my school’s website as a doctoral student and I was formally on a leave of absence, which was discordant with the “withdrew in good standing” statement on my resume. This created suspicion that I was just on a break from my program and probably contributed to being turned down.

3) if you’re switching research areas (which is common if you did research on a social issue that is only studied in academia), make sure you research this new area extensively and come up with clear (even if not entirely factual) reasons why you want to switch research interests and you’re passionate about this new field.

4) I found that most research coordinator openings for outside candidates are entry level, and although they were interested in me, I was overqualified. You can’t really avoid this problem, but it can still be useful to interview for entry-level positions since you can get a better sense of what jobs are out there, and they might pass your resume onto to someone else or decide to make a new position to fit you in.

5) the hardest problem was what to tell the interviewers about why I left. The first 5 jobs I interviewed with asked me why I left my PhD program as one of the first interview questions. I wasn’t emotionally ready to reasons, so I made up a variety of excuses, from financial strain, to change of interests. These reasons were not convincing, and led to jobs turning me down.

I think this problem was especially bad in my situation because I was in a very prestigious program, I left halfway through the year without finishing a masters, and I was applying to full-time research jobs in psychology that were often stepping stones for others to get into psychology PhD programs (so it was strange that I was going backwards). Indeed, one interviewer asked “people would kill to get into your school, why did you leave?” and then stared at me skeptically as I tried to explain. I would recommend, if you can, get a master’s degree before you leave. A master’s in psychology is not as useful as other degrees, but it looks way better on a resume, shows some accomplishment, and is much easier to explain. Otherwise, have a brief (2-3 sentence) explanation that’s convincing and doesn’t lead to tears.

Where I’m at now: After 3 difficult months of interviews, I was offered a really great position. It was also the only position in which the interviewer (my new boss) didn’t ask me why I left my PhD. I have no idea why he didn’t ask, but I just assume it’s because he’s the BEST PERSON EVER. Anyway, I love my job. I make in the upper 30’s, which isn’t my dream salary, but it’s much more than I would make in grad school. I enjoy the work and find it very interesting, and I use a lot of the skills I learned in grad school. I also love the work/life balance that actually leaves room for healthy relationships and free time to have fun. I have no idea what my future career will look like, but I’m much happier with my life now than I was when I attempted a PhD.

3

The only thing that will make you happier is to figure out what makes you happy in the first place. I doubt that it is the PhD itself, because if you are not happy then you are hardly going to be happy doing anything.

I think the decision you make is not going to be anywhere near as important as what you do after you make the decision. So if you are going to quit, then try to make the most of the situation by starting on your next career or challenge early, and if you decide to stick with it, then get through to the end and you'll make the most of having completed it.

1

First of all, the level of happiness has nothing to do with the fact that you are a PhD student and not, it only has to do with the value between expectations versus reality and the way we see and the perception of reality. There are many things in life more important that a PhD, for example family, friends, having a moral conduct, being health, enjoy life as it is, but also having and obtaining the theoretical skills to ask questions and answer a few about the universe I think it would worth it. If you don't like what you are doing, it is expected to change something. If you plan not to quit PhD, you can also approach new fields and change the field without any problem. I have a friend who has changed his supervisor once at one year, with no major problems. Although I wouldn't recommend to change to often, try to find what would make you feel good with yourself. Also, in fact you don't need a supervisor to ask big questions in any field of study. I have a friend who has worked on PhD topic and in his spare time has approached a new exotic field and has published in leading journals without any guidance or supervision. At the end, the only advice I can give would be not to give any advice.

-2

Drop out now!

I am just about to submit after 5 years of PhD - and I have hated every minute of it. I also thought about quitting after the first year, but talked myself out of it. I am a mature age student and had worked for many years before I started the PhD. My reasons for starting the PhD in the first place were that I was a bit bored with my job and wanted to extend myself - not good reasons! Also my expectations of what a PhD was and the reality of a PhD did not match up very well. I thought I should have been discussing big ideas with my supervisors, but our meetings were generally about my style of writing - should I use bullet points or not, how should the tables be formatted, I hadn't led the reader enough (read repeated myself often enough).

At the start of this year I was lucky enough to get a tenure track job at a good university. I know I'm really lucky to be here, but I absolutely hate it. I thought I should at least apply for an academic job to see if I could get a job, and then I thought, well... I should at least try it out for a year. Even now in my head I'm telling myself - it will be better next year.

I feel like I've just drifting along waiting to see if things improve for the past 5 years. I really regret leaving my last job. If I had my time again, I would have quit after the first year and I would probably be doing something I really enjoy now! I feel stuck.

  • 8
    -1: There is nothing in this answer that engages or makes any reference to any specifics of the OP's situation. As written, your logic seems to be "I regret having spent time in a PhD program, so you should drop out of your program." That is not very logical. Obviously there are some circumstances in which dropping out of a PhD program is the right decision and others in which it isn't. – Pete L. Clark Aug 6 '14 at 6:20

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