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I started my PhD in engineering in 2018 right after finishing Master's. In my 3nd year, COVID happened and I couldn't continue my research for various reasons. I tried to switch topic, but after doing it for about a year I couldn't find the passion to continue doing research.

My family convinced me to try at it a bit longer and I did, but time passed by without significant progress. I decided to quit and am now looking for a job in an industry related to my field. (Officially, I am still in the program, but I don't have any desire to finish.)

My concern is how should I present this on my CV. As the normal duration for Ph.D. program is three years, and I extended it to 5-6 years without being able to get the degree.

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    What do you need in order to complete your PhD? If you were on the program for already 6 years maybe you have already some work done, and not too much is remaining to do to get the degree.
    – Amelian
    May 23, 2023 at 17:52
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    @Amelian, I think, that is not a correct assumption. Sometimes people quit PhDs because of the project's failure. Projects fail because the initial research and hypothesis are incorrect.
    – user366312
    May 23, 2023 at 18:51
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    @Amelian It's close to a project failure. I realized that around my 2nd-3rd year so I tried a new topic that my advisor recommended. I tried it for a while but I don't find it interesting and didn't make much progress. At this point, I don't have the mental capacity to continue that topic or start new research again. May 23, 2023 at 19:20
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    Everyone knows what BS is. MS is more of the same. PhD is Piled Higher and Deeper.
    – emory
    May 24, 2023 at 21:08
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    I think what @Amelian is pointing at is: At the end of a PhD program, just handing in something will get you a degree. Reasons for that: 1. Your work should be rewarded, no matter the outcome. 2. Its sufficient for a PhD thesis to demonstrate the ability to build on a research hypothesis, even if its not fruitful and the results are not publishable. 3. It is difficult to judge how much work goes into certain results and hard to draw a line where it is not enough. I don't know how this is handled in your field, but "just hand something in" is, I think, good advice if your time is up.
    – Cream
    May 25, 2023 at 8:03

5 Answers 5

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I left PhD after 4 years. I have my PhD time under "experience" not under "education" and I have explicit "not completed" line to prevent any confusions. In my experience, no one will care if you finished your PhD or not if you have the necessary skills for industry. In fact lots of people in the industry do not have the highest opinion of academia and they totally understand why someone would leave.

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    I used the term "Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter" -- "Scientific Assistant" for my stint in PhD studies. Noone ever questioned (negatively) why I didn't finish.
    – arne
    May 24, 2023 at 7:46
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    Only once I had "issue" with not completing PhD. When interviewing with Meta, that said that they can offer me only research engineer position and not research scientist position as that is reserved only for people with PhD.
    – tom
    May 24, 2023 at 8:30
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    Yeah well, if the job requires a PhD, it requires a PhD.
    – arne
    May 24, 2023 at 8:41
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    Well I'm a postdoc now, which usually requires PhD :) sometimes there are ways around these "requirements".
    – tom
    May 24, 2023 at 8:55
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    I agree strongly with the emphasis on "Not Completed". We had candidates apply for positions where I work and once we found out that they hadn't finished their PhD despite having it listed on their CV, we looked very unfavourably on the candidate as dishonest. It pretty much cost them the job. Honestly, it's not a good indication of a person's ability to finish a project (or know to cut it short early) if they have bailed on a project after 4 years, but if you can justify it properly and explain that you've learnt some important lessons then it's better than being misleading/dishonest.
    – Dan
    May 24, 2023 at 10:03
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PhD supervisor here. I'd suggest listing it for what it is—you have done a few years of research work and hopefully learned a bunch of useful stuff from them. The same as you would have gained by, say, working in a company R&D lab for that time.

It's sad when PhDs don't work out, but sometimes it happens and everyone knows that. There are lots of random factors—personalities, supervisors, topics, fundings, and life events, many of which are completely beyond your control. Can you change supervisor and/or topic to get to the finish line? Maybe talk to your supervisor and university to see if there are any options for you to go back and finish it later in your career? (E.g., Brian May from Queen did this!) Or sometimes if you take an industry R&D job you can carry on some of your research or something related and roll that into finishing a thesis. Talk to companies about those options?

If you just want a qualification now—do you have enough material to write up and submit something now, either as a PhD attempt or as a lesser degree like an MRes or MPhil perhaps? Did you publish anything during your research? If so—publications are generally more valuable than PhD degrees nowadays. When we hire for postdocs we are looking for publications rather than degrees.

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  • Also, in the US one is often an RA/TA or if you worked for a company while doing this so much the better. So be sure to list out anything that you got paid for, even clerical (e.g. my brother was in grad school in history but worked a clerical job for a different department). Also, list out any relevant volunteer work, or associations. May 25, 2023 at 18:18
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I left my first PhD after 3 years (out of 5 years) in 2021 due to various reasons. My official designation at the time was "Junior Research Fellow" and this is how it reflects on my CV. I'm yet to be questioned on it - I'm still in academia though in another PhD program (finishing in one year).

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First of all, let me congratulate you on making a decision and acting on it. It is a bold step to aboard any undertaking after such a long time.

From my experience of quitting a PhD mid-way, the only harm would be to not having learned from it. Compared to someone who always passed without a hassle, you know your limits -- and some companies find value in that.

How about presenting a CV where you also write the subjects of what you did when? That way, you can split your career steps within the PhD program visually into shorter sections.

Also, depending on what you did in parallel, you can list that with overlapping dates.

Prepare yourself to have one (not many) consistent explanation why a PhD didn't work out for you, when asked about it, or when you tell the story of your journey. I mean, if you get asked about it during a hiring process, you're already talking with people about what's important: you.

Don't try and hide the fact of coming out of a dead end! You never know, what background checks a company might run, what people they know in your surroundings, etc. And you'll probably tell your future colleagues about that time anyway. There is a lot of potentially non-repairable damage, if anybody later gets the feeling of a deceit during the hiring process.

Good luck!

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Since you are still in the program, you can write that you are on a leave of absence, not completed, moved to 'candidate' (assuming you passed your exams already), etc. Speaking of that, does your university offer the option of a non-thesis terminal Master's with what you've done so far? That'd take care of the issue.

There's no shame in leaving a program if you've lost the motivation for it and don't see yourself restarting a new research topic. In fact, there's a lot to be said about someone with the wisdom to know when quitting and moving on is the best option. Your family might be disappointed because it's hard to explain how stressful grad school is to outsiders. But the people that matter, ie hiring managers, don't care. They care about your skills and experience.

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    "Leave of absence" implies there is a possibility of going back. I'd avoid that phrase, as it conveys to potential employers that at some point you may quit and return to academia. I see it as neither an accurate characterization of the situation, nor as conveying a particularly helpful message. May 23, 2023 at 19:56
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    Agree totally with Nuclear Hoagie's comment: avoid phrases that are either untrue or unhelpful, this appears to be both. However, the second paragraph of cheery.beach7701's answer seems to be useful, perhaps the overall answer could be re-worked a bit? May 25, 2023 at 18:20

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