I have been a PhD student (Pure Mathematics) for the full PhD time in my country (a northern European country) and am very vexed with my supervisor and the department I have worked in.

Education is state funded where I live, and currently, due to some mistreatments by the department and the supervisor (I prefer not to go into the details for the moment) I want to refuse to defend my PhD so as to harm the department's economy and my supervisor's career in pure boycott.

I have enough publications to defend and have taken enough courses with good enough performance to look good on paper.

So the questions are: How bad would this look on job applications to industry jobs? I understand that it would be easier for the employer to see my qualities and skills if the degree had been awarded, and likely that companies look better if their employees have PhD degrees. To what extent would it look bad if I disclosed that this is for pure boycott? Could this look like someone too bad to finish the degree or could this look like someone not preferable to hire for other reasons?

The version my department knows is that "I currently am in economic difficulty and have to focus on solving the job situation before working more on the thesis", which is not even nearly true. I am aware of the risk that this will lower the quality of recommendations from anyone.

Two potential employers have already answered my application and asked when the defence will happen. Can I tell them the truth?

(Please forgive any harsh formulation, as I am currently rather angry about having been treated so badly. There is a likelihood that in some time this might go over and I might want to finish after all.)

  • 23
    Would you consider asking this on Workplace Stack Exchange (maybe with a different focus, e.g. how to frame it positively)? Here, the audience is mainly academics - this might make a difference :)
    – user111388
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 16:31
  • 10
    We get it, y'all have really strong opinions about this plan. But, please do not write answers in the comments. If you can't write a real answer, at least put it in the chat. Please see this FAQ before posting a comment below this one.
    – cag51
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 22:39
  • 11
    @Vertex: some of the discussion in the chat is based around your idea that your department will get paid $100K when/if you finish. You might consider making a separate question that shares the basis for this belief and asks whether it is true.
    – cag51
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 22:46
  • 31
    Why not ask the premise of the question more specifically? if-i-quit-my-phd-would-it-make-my-advisor-look-bad (spoiler: it won't).
    – Mayou36
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 23:50

25 Answers 25


No matter how you were mistreated, this plan will make you look extremely toxic. As an employer, I wouldn't go anywhere near someone that would decide to take a personal hit like this purely out of spite.

Not having completed your PhD will always raise questions. Clearly, presenting the truth would hurt you significantly in the eyes of a potential employer. So you'd be stuck having to evade questions about this in any interview, which is bad in its own right.

No matter how you spin it this will hurt you a lot more than it would hurt anyone else.

  • 12
    People give disingenuous answers about why they left a job (or didn't finish a degree) all the time, which is expected, because many good reasons upset prospective employers to hear even if they're true (like "my boss stole my wages"). The real danger here, besides just not having the degree, is that OP wouldn't be able to use the intended victims of his revenge as references. But that might already be out of the question, anyway, since he's already "very vexed with" them. Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 22:20
  • 63
    To emphasize, the OP does give an extremely toxic vibe that I would not want around me, all things being equal.
    – anonymousx
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 2:20
  • 45
    I'll comment here since its something of a similar nature: from the perspective of the company, this looks to me like "hmm... should I hire someone who is willing to damage the entire company for a grievance against a single employee, regardless of personal consequences?" and yes I think it looks pretty bad If these grievances are so significant, I would encourage you to make the responsible people accountable rather than take the hit (which will impact them very little).
    – Pronte
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 13:27
  • 13
    Yes, exactly this. I'm not in academia, but I'm on hiring committees. This is the textbook example of someone that we don't hire, even though we can recognize great technical strength, intelligence and motivation. We would wonder: What the h will happen when they're not happy (rightfully or not) within the organization.
    – Jeffrey
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 23:15
  • 7
    A toxic person can easily ruin many people. Even if they are somehow the absolute best, say giving them a score of 100%. They just need to reduce each person they meet by 1%, then go meet 100 people in your company, and then his entire value is gone. It's not that hard for a toxic person to reduce someone else's performance by more than 1%, and also to meet more than 100 people in a decent sized company.
    – Nelson
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 1:37

You Will Burn Yourself To The Ground

I can speak directly from the perspective of industry: If you go into a job interview and tell them, "I could finish the PhD any time I want to, but I choose not to, because I have been slighted in some way I do not wish to detail and this is my revenge", it is quite possible that the interview will end that very moment. And I mean that literally: "This interview is over. Someone will show you out."

You will be seen as some combination of:

  • Arrogant, for the assumption you can finish, before you've actually finished
  • Lazy, for not finishing,
  • Vengeful, for the intent to do damage through all of that,
  • Petty, because at this point no one will make good assumptions about your causes,
  • Foolish, for thinking this is really going to achieve your purpose (one student leaving is not a "boycott" and will not do damage),
  • Foolish, again, for admitting this out loud.

The only possible inference a hiring manager (much less a human resources staff member) can make is that you don't even understand what a toxic indicator this behavior is, so you will probably do it again in the future. You will come across as the kind of person who, in a system administrator role, leaves logic bombs in network set to go off a few weeks after your termination.

And I assure you, ain't nobody got time for that.

But what you also haven't thought through is that you're telling one story ("I carry vendettas to extreme lengths") to your prospective employers, and another ("I have money issues") to your academic supervisor, which by your admission is pure fabrication.

You've mentioned letters of recommendation. This enables, at least in theory, the possibility of communication between these two parties. Imagine what might transpire in such a conversation, which will of necessity be about you, but will not include you.

I think perhaps you might need to hear this from people who are not random faceless people in a Q&A forum. I'm not sure who that would be-- perhaps a trusted friend (outside the academic scene, if possible), or an older relative you respect, or someone with an obligation to privacy like a therapist or counselor or religious figure that you can go into details with.

Because this is not just a bad idea, it is so bad an idea that it makes me worried for you, even though I am just a random faceless person in a Q&A forum.

  • 6
    I think this answer is in the right direction, but goes over the top.
    – user111388
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 15:43
  • 18
    Then you are welcome for the much-needed industry perspective on hiring openly vindictive employees.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 19:25
  • 22
    @user111388 - I don't think it's over the top enough. OP sounds like they're mentally unwell and is planning to do something life-changingly stupid.
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 18:15
  • 2
    @valorum, just to reinforce your comment, this is what I meant by my last bolded sentence. And, really, the paragraph before it.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 23:25
  • 7
    @user111388 I can only make (educated) guesses at the decision making process at other companies, but I've been on hiring committees in mine, and if this story came up the candidate would be immediately crossed off and blacklisted. There is no way to make up for the immense risk this candidate clearly poses if hired. This has nothing to do with caring about academia or not.
    – Servaes
    Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 9:31

Why would a company want to hire you if they know anything about the circumstances? You've spent time working toward a doctorate and failed to earn it. You've demonstrated vindictiveness toward superiors. Those are elements of a truly poor employee.

I suspect that if you start on this path it won't be possible to go back on it.

I recommend, strongly, that you finish as soon as possible and then take some time, perhaps a year, and then complain about the situation if you still feel it necessary. Otherwise you have wasted several years of your life and damaged your career.

How bad? About as bad as it could be.

  • 63
    @Vertex Please pay attention to the answers you're getting: it has absolutely nothing to do with your skills or what you could possibly achieve, it's that your plan of action is the plan of a jerk/bad employee. If I were looking to hire you, I'd assume that in the middle of a project somewhere you'll decide you've been mistreated by me or your coworker or a manager in a different department and harm the project. These arguments are common in the workplace. I'd rather hire someone who never had the opportunity to even start a PhD program but is reliable on a team.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 14:49
  • 18
    @Vertex - perhaps you could of graduated, but you didn't and no longer will have the opportunity. Without the PhD diploma in hand, you have no way of showing what you accomplished.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 15:12
  • 50
    @Vertex - my HR folks aren't going to look at any of that. Do you have a PhD or not? Simple question, they expect a Yes/No answer, not 'kind of, sort of'.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 16:10
  • 36
    @Vertex If you tell the prospective employer this, what it says is "Revenge for [perceived or real] ill-treatment is more important to me than my title or my career, or a constructive future." Maybe your department really mistreated you. Maybe you perceived it as mistreat, but it was something normal, unavoidable or just the usual dose of daily toxicity one has to live with. We don't know. Your prospective employer will worry about whether this may end up applying to them. They will not touch you with a barge pole. Those who hire you might expect to walk on eggshells. Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 18:11
  • 13
    @Vertex: first off, I absolutely agree with everything in all the answers here. Your proposed action would signal to every employer that you are a risky employee. Unless you have truly exceptional and rare demonstrable skills, they will rather interview someone who does not send out this kind of signal. To your question about transcripts, preprints etc.: (a) HR managers will not go to the trouble to dig deeper if you have already disqualified yourself. (b) Look up the sheepskin effect. Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 18:37

In addition to the other reasons why this is a bad idea, it wouldn’t even work. Your department is used to people starting a PhD and then not graduating, so they wouldn’t really care that much about your boycott.

In other words, it’s not so much “cutting off your nose to spite your face” as it is “cutting off your nose to spite someone else who barely cares if you have a nose”.

  • 5
    I think that's right... perhaps sadly, but, still, self-immolation rarely makes an impression that changes anything. Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 20:40
  • 9
    @Vertex: Don't you mean they received 100,000 dollars during the course of it by effectively being treated as an employee (not as a bonus at the end)? Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 1:56
  • 24
    @Vertex what I am sure of is that PhD students dropping out of their PhD before they graduate is a common occurrence (particularly in pure math). Since it happens regularly, it is unlikely to bother anyone greatly or to cause the department financial hardship. Of course, your adviser may still be disappointed at a personal level if you don’t graduate.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 3:07
  • 26
    @Vertex this answer is not specific to any country. The principle holds that PhD students frequently quit. Your supervisor is not an impartial party, and they do have a vested interest in helping people obtain a PhD, so it wouldn't be unheard of to oversell its importance. However, losing out on one person isn't going to wreck them. Just like Toyota didn't go out of business because I decided to buy a Honda.
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 5:21
  • 13
    Certainly in the UK both the individual and department pass rates do matter for getting future funding for PhDs, however a single failure isn't going to move the needle much. Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 8:23

I think this is a straightforward question.

  1. If you don't defend the PhD but don't disclose the true vindictive reasons why you hadn't, it may slightly lower your chances as you would be a less qualified candidate. Still, you can land a nice job.

  2. If you don't defend the PhD and disclose that you have decided to boycott the department, then clearly as other answers correctly mentioned, you are going to be unemployed for a long time.

  • Regarding #1, it will create a gap between graduation and employment. That doesn't do too much to hurt your ability to pass a job interview, but it will cause your resume to be more likely to be screened out before it gets that far.
    – Brian
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 13:59
  • 2
    @Brian A gap? Can't you still write up working at a research project at a University for that time in the CV?
    – BlackJack
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 16:45
  • 1
    @BlackJack: If you listed it as a failed PHD, I'd count it against you. If you listed it as a a "research project" but failed to mention you were really there for a PHD, I'd probably consider that to be misleading. And sometimes that sort of trickery is catchable even without explicitly checking references. Mind you, once I've screened a candidate, I mostly stop caring about their resume unless their other factors end up being very border-line.
    – Brian
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 17:28
  • 3
    @Brian I woudln't PhD's are hard. Not everyone is cut out for it. Though the closer someone got to reaching the end of the PhD before they quit, the more eyebrows I would raise.. I will admit it certainly isn't a positive factor.
    – Questor
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 21:58
  • 1
    @Brian You are right about the trickery, but unless the job strongly desires a PhD and you are trying to still fit in, I don't think most people will count a properly disclosed failure to finish a PhD as a bad thing. Lots of people drop out without finishing for lots of reasons. My wife suspended hers for health reasons and then didn't go back. No employer has counted it against her yet as long as the job didn't actually require a PhD. Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 1:30

It might give the impression that you are fast-reacting and that you struggle with conflict resolution. All over academia, people put up with deficient supervisors, bad projects, etc. still end up defending for the most part. If you have the necessary papers, course credits, etc. to defend but choose not to because of personal conflict with your hierarchy, to punish them, you risk being seen as reactionary. The private sector likes team players.

  • Absolutely.....!!
    – Ghosal_C
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 15:25
  • 5
    This also goes for the public sector.
    – G_B
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 1:39

These three letters will give you $10-20k higher salary, every single year for the rest of your work life. You're going to forgo that amount of money for what? Because you're mad at the university? That seems like a pretty stupid decision to make.

  • 23
    As I am a PhD holder, could you tell me how to obtain the additional money? ;-) I earn the same as my non phd collegues which do similar work (phd not needes for our work).
    – user111388
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 16:29
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 22:42

You never know what you might wish to do in the future. Even if you don't need a PhD certificate now, it may become useful later, even if only to satisfy some bureaucratic requirement. For example, a PhD degree is worth extra in some points-based immigration systems, such as this Australian visa.


"Two potential employers have already answered my application and asked when the defence will happen. Can I tell them the truth?" They do not care about the truth. They are asking just to know when you will be available.

Tone down your ego, but remember a PhD is about you, the financial hit for the department will be minimal, even not finishing your PhD will have minimal implication for you.

The issue is the revenge need you have: it is a department failure to allow for vexation to happen, it is your duty to defend your PhD and bring all the vexations to the surface to prevent others from suffering the same way.

It seems you are ready to suffer to achieve your revenge goals. Think about it: you can suffer in a constructive way or in a destructive way.

You are enraged with your supevisors and academic environment because you suffered: making them "suffer" with a boycott will just increase the general level of pain. If you disclose the behavior that made you suffer, your level of pain will not change, but there is a small possibility that in the long term the general level of pain for everyone will be less.

Be empathic, if not with yourself at least with the next people stepping in your shoes, try to leave them a marginally better environment.


How bad would this look on job applications to industry jobs?

Asking the question is already a part of the answer.

I do not negate the fact that you may have been mistreated: power abuse, condescending/disrespectful behavior do exist in academia and I do not have all the elements and data to judge. It is human to have a desire of revenge. However, this has to be turned into a positive and sane way.

The best revenge you can get is by having a successful career, in academia or in industry. This will send a message like "whatever you did to me, it has no effect since I got success despite it".

By not defending you PhD, you will simply hurt yourself. For the university, you would neither be the first nor the last to leave a PhD program and it would not affect the career of your advisor. At best, unless all his/her students leave before defending, it will raise questions. Think about yourself and the future.


I do understand that the power relation in a PhD can be extremely abusive!
It may have had damaging effects on your mental or in consequence even your physical health.

However, as you seem to able to stand up for yourself...
Why not show them your revenge by being successful?

As others have outlined, you won't be able to hurt your advisor in a meaningful fashion other than badmouthing. You only have three options:

  • Finish and be successful, despite the mistreatment.
  • Don't finish, but downplay the situation, i.e., only explain that you didn't finish your thesis. Thus, you will appear like an ordinary dropout, which won't help you, but since it isn't that uncommon, it won't significantly hurt you more than not having the PhD in the first place (so there will be a difference in salary for sure).
  • Explicitly try to tell any employer that this is your revenge, which needs explaining, could be for any number of other reasons the prospective employer might assume, and seems stupid in light of the other, more convenient solutions.
  • People are welcoming to someone doing good to others.
  • People are OK with someone doing neither good or bad to others.
  • Peoople are tolerant to someone doing bad to others for own gain, to an extent. There are known protection strategies and the person may be useful overall.
  • People are quite reluctant to engage with someone who is going to suffer harm in order to impose harm to others. A bit of empathy is possible, engagement is unlikely.

All these facts are obvious to every more or less adult person and their application extends way beyond the academy.

And then,

  • People interested in you are going to know both what you did and, to a great extent, your intent. In today's connected world keeping a life-changing secret is not really an option anymore. In small proffesional communities, it was never really possible.
  • Chalking a feat like this as "youth's mistakes" will take a while.

I want to refuse to defend my PhD so as to harm the department's economy and my supervisor's career in pure boycott.

You are looking at this from a wrong angle.

Defending your PhD is NOT very much about your support for your department or supervisor. Instead, it is much more about proving to you, all your potential employers, and everyone else that you truly deserver a PhD after years of hard work. You should earn your PhD as you have invested lots of time, money, and energy to it.

You would hurt your future careers and job perspectives more than anything else by not defending your PhD.

So, definitely, you should go ahead and defend your PhD to get it over with. Then, you can move out of that department, forget about your department/supervisors, and get a good job elsewhere.

Two potential employers have already answered my application and asked when the defense will happen. Can I tell them the truth?

No companies or organizations would want to hire you if you tell them the truth that you want "to harm the department's economy and my supervisor's career."

  • 3
    Does anyone care to explain the downvote or disagreement ? That would be more helpful. Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 2:40
  • 1
    This seems like good advice to me, not sure why there is a downvote. Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 16:08

I have worked in industry and hired people at Master and PhD levels for industry roles in the US for over 10 years and my concern would be identification of a reference. References, it seems, matter in academics and workforce - and since the question broaches both aspects, I think this is a sound answer.

Any applicant should be able to provide a reference from their longest/strongest working relationship. As a hirer, I take note of it. I consider the applicant's most recent, longest, or most challenging role and whether the reference is a direct manager or at least a close colleague. If I feel a suitable reference is missing, I might ask the applicant to provide a better one if possible, and if the applicant has worked under a less than supportive supervisor for a particular role, I might recuse them from providing them as a reference. If they cannot provide a suitable reference, it is a cause for concern.

Whether one is a freshly minted PhD, or an ABD who is turning to industry, I expect to see their advisor as a reference. Whether the applicant or their reference has industry experience or not doesn't matter, I (as the hirer) want to know from the most qualified reference whether the person can perform satisfactorily from the perspective of a supervisor. There are basic questions - do they show up on time, can they work independently, do they build positive collaborations with colleagues and supervisors?

Your plan is not wrong because you are thinking of walking away from academia. Your plan is wrong because you think of it as a threat to him or her. This is downright dreadful. If I knew of this kind of thing, I would not hire anyone for a role no matter how smart, how capable, or how experienced. The slogans about how toxic team members dissolve morale is way more than virtue signaling and fugazi, it's very much real and something to notice. In this case, if your supervisor was a missing reference, this would be my cause for concern and I would mention it outright in the hiring decision. Given the factual matters, the concern would be fully justified.

  • 1
    What is "ABD" ?
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 8:24
  • All But Dissertation - google is somewhat friendly
    – civitas
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 11:38
  • 1
    Fully agree, matches my feelings after hiring for 20+ years. Immediate no-hire decision.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 14:37

I'll analyze a few angles here:

  1. Will officially having a PhD vs. not make a difference for getting jobs?
  2. Will refusing to defend make you look bad when getting jobs?
  3. Is refusing to defend an effective way to get punish your supervisor/department?

You're obviously not asking about jobs where the PhD is required, but a "nice to have". For entry level jobs when you don't have much experience or portfolio, the PhD is moderately helpful. It shows you're smart, determined, blah blah blah. In reality, it's a nice way of plugging an experience gap and reasonably effective at preventing HR from throwing your resume straight in the bin. Once you get to the interviews, people will judge you mainly on how you interview. People without PhDs, when deciding on whether to hire people with a PhD, rarely have strong opinions on whether the PhD makes you better at the job. Generally speaking, people who have not completed a PhD are totally mystified about what a PhD actually entails, and they will not be very receptive to learning during a job interview. People with a PhD might slightly respect you (or not, they left academia too remember), but it will still not make up for lacking job-relevant skills. If you do demonstrate skills and get to the offer stage, the PhD may help you negotiate it up slightly, especially if the hiring manager is themselves a PhD or is familiar with them. On the whole, I would say that having a completed PhD is a slight positive for an applicant vs. no doctoral schooling background (smart etc.), while being a PhD dropout is a slight negative (giver-upper, etc.). Not worth losing much sleep over, but I'd say if you're almost there, you might as well swallow your pride and get the piece of paper so it doesn't become an annoyance you have to deal with for the next few years (until you accumulate enough work experience that your education becomes irrelevant to hirers).

If you do refuse to defend, and when asked give the reason in your OP (rather than some opaque and generic "I just decided it wasn't for me"), it will make you look pretty bad. A minority of people will respect you for standing up for your principles, but even some of those will wonder if tomorrow they will find themselves at odds with those principles. I would say a majority of employers are allergic to insubordinate, "principled" candidates in entry level or junior positions. HR may say they want idealists, but they're usually thinking of some cutesy catchphrases you say when called for, not actually challenging the norms of their organization. It's sad, but people love hiring doormats. And this is if they are convinced of your sincerity. A lot of people will assume you were the problem and are making excuses for it. Plus the task of convincing them will eat up valuable minutes of the interview, which you could be using to talk about all the skills you have that are applicable to the job. I caution you from being too inspired by people proudly labeling themselves dropouts (Bill Gates, etc). Once you've worked 2-5 years, your education stops mattering, but if used right it can be a valuable tool for getting the first 1-2 jobs. The people who brag about dropping out are usually mid or late career. They play by different rules than you.

Will refusing to defend be a big deal to your advisor? Probably not. You're already denying him the biggest prize: You're exiting academia, you won't publish papers, you won't give conference keynote speeches where your pedigree is announced during the intro. That stings as well as you could hope, might as well stop there. The defending vs. not defending, people will not care. If the department ends up pressuring your old prof about it, with you gone, he will have ample room for damage control and reframing to make it go away. Remember, he's been in this biz (academia) for decades, much longer than you - he probably knows how to bounce back from a minor screw up. The department will not care at all, unless it's something like they were founded 2 years ago and have 3 faculty members.

In conclusion, I would say:

  • Defend if you can. Getting the first job out of school is hardest and the degree will help a bit.
  • If the advisor is being really bad and defending will be extremely difficult for you, then cut your losses and drop out. It will be a bit harder, but not by much, and after a few years it will not matter.
  • Do not tell people about the boycott during interviews for entry-level or junior jobs. It has a small chance to help you, but a huge chance to backfire. Ideally, find a way to be 100% positive about everything in the interview.

Your frustration with the matter is understandable, but deal with it privately. Get therapy, vent to your friend, take up kickboxing, whatever... But don't let it define your (new) career. The moment you stop being a PhD student, you have a chance to leave it all behind you - don't squander that.

  • 1
    "For entry level jobs when you don't have much experience or portfolio, the PhD is moderately helpful. It shows you're smart, determined, blah blah blah" I guess different fields, different perspectives. I'd much rather hire someone with a bachelors. They have less bad habits. And both take the same amount of time to bring up to speed. But I guess in fields where industry and academia haven't diverged so much it might be a positive (I would still prefer work experience).
    – Questor
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 21:45
  • "People with a PhD might slightly respect you (or not, they left academia too remember), but it will still not make up for lacking job-relevant skills." I dunno, I feel like it's the opposite. People without a PhD often think it's some kind of certificate that you are a super smart person, while with a PhD hopefully understand that that's not what it is. Otherwise, good answer. Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 21:52

Simply put, you'd basically be burning any offer letter for future jobs before you even get to see them.

Any employer would wonder why you spent so many years working towards it, only to not finish. Particularly if you only have small pieces left. And you would basically have to remove the PhD piece entirely from your resume. Since you didn't cross the finish line, it was like you were never in the race to start with. And if you tried to explain your situation, any employer would see you as highly vindictive. What's to stop you from getting mad at a coworker or superior, and then taking any work related documents on a server and just deleting them all? What's to stop you from lying about anything else. Any employer would see that as an immediate red flag, persona non grata.

Life is hard, I sympathize with having a tough PhD situation or any work related thing. But you're better off working through it as best you can, maybe consulting a therapist, administrator to help ease the situation and then finishing. Then you never have to go back, and if anything, it'll help you in future job prospects, "I had a terrible situation that I wanted to quit, but I persevered and still finished." If you go about your current plan, there is no going back. And you'll almost certainly wish you could.

  • 1
    While I agree with your general suggestion, I think saying "it was like you were never in the race to start with" goes a bit too far. Advancing on the studies gives you some experience in the subject even if you don't finish. And comparing to "deleting files from a server" is quite a reach: it's not like they're sabotaging the other operations of the university here, they're not removing any possible pre-existing publications they might have contributed to, or the work of others, etc.
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 8:37
  • The thing about the university not getting money for a finished degree would also come up even they just decided that a PhD is not for them, or got (unrelatedly) ill enough to not be able to finish. At worst, that's on par with getting hit by bus or just deciding you don't like your work and want to move to the countryside, not active sabotage.
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 8:38
  • 11
    I don't think failing to get a PhD once started is as big of a problem. Everyone in industry made a decision at some point to leave or not even participate in academia at some point, they aren't as fixated on academic milestones as academics are. It's common for people to switch jobs frequently in industry before a given task is finished. No, you won't get credit for leaving a PhD early, but it's no worse than time spent on another job with the same responsibilities (besides missed opportunity). The vindictiveness red flag is what will destroy OP's chance, nothing else matters in comparison.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 14:48

My brother had reached ABD status and never completed his PhD as he had to take care of our mom when she was sick. He now works as an educational aid in a job that would just really only require a bachelor's degree. This is fine work, but it doesn't fit what he was planning for his life.

So not finishing has consequences. I'd really urge you to finish, if you can.

One must always remain sunny and positive in job interviews, so I'd bring this up as little as possible, and just say that you value working over academia, if you don't finish. But again, I'd finish if I were you.


There are two points to my answer, and the second is the most important here.

I did my full PhD tenure (3 years in the UK) and got improved funding for it from EPSRC in Chemical Engineering. I got several publications out of it, and I attended some really prestigious conferences. When I finished the funded period, I became a bar manager because every grad scheme in my field refused to accept me (too qualified, under experienced) and I had a real hard time; I was signing on at the dole office.

My friend contacted me about a company he was trying to start in Dubai (I was still in the UK) and I spent boring shifts behind a community bar figuring out how I could help. I ended up with a complex job.

There are lots of reasons I could give for refusing to submit, from the low job prospects, the fact that big pharma basically annihilated my area of research, conflicts with a co-supervisor, issues with the fact I was already working 16 hr days and so on...

However. Your attitude sucks if you want to present that to an employer. You can absolutely get jobs in industry but you need to be able to justify why you walked away. It's a big life decision and your approach to justifying it might be far more important than the topic of research itself - I still have to list 3 years of my life on my CV. I work with lots of astrophysicists now trying to sell clothes etc.


Sorry to hear you were mistreated.

I've been tenured faculty in the past, now I work at a deep-tech startup. I am in the loop on hiring. We hire exceptional people from MSc all the way to tenured faculty.

For what is worth, knowing the truth would make me like this candidate more, not less. Because:

  1. I can always have a chat with them about their papers (done it with many people) and determine what they actually know and get a good sense about their personality.
  2. Standing up to abusive superiors is a GOOD trait! And a company that pushes away people with courage may not be a good one to be part of in the first place.
  3. If the candidate will indeed do a good job, having the PhD or not will matter less and less, as their career progresses: their work will speak for itself.

On the other hand, it is true that people will be wondering what happened there. Also, we do care about candidates who hop too often from job to job. That's called a pattern and it is telling. One PhD cut short is just one datapoint.

  • 1
    "Standing up" . Where is OP standing up? they are lying extremely low, if anything!
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 19:31
  • 2
    @EarlGrey Believe me, there has been some confrontations.
    – Vertex
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 19:36
  • 8
    Standing up may be good. But is the OPs strategy a good way of standing up?
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 8:26
  • 1
    It seems hiring considerations vary significantly between fields. I would have thought similar considerations would hold in deep-tech; OP has shown that they are willing to make huge sacrifices (4 years of work?) simply to spite someone that they feel has wronged them. In my sector we have extensive non-disclosure agreements and non-compete clauses. They work only because the employee does not want to be fined and sued deeply into bankruptcy twice over. OP seems like they might not mind this. That poses an immense (even existential?) risk to the company. It's a reject beyond a shred of a doubt
    – Servaes
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 0:42
  • Being in academia virtually guarantees that you will have to put up with and deal with toxic people.
  • Being in private industry virtually guarantees that you will have to put up with and deal with toxic people.
  • Being in a family virtually guarantees that you will have to put up with and deal with toxic people.

Hence, short of becoming an absolute hermit like the Unabomber,

  • Being a human on this planet virtually guarantees that you will have to put up with and deal with toxic people.

You can exact all the revenge you want on all the toxic people in your life. But, that approach is itself toxic behavior that will only attract more toxic people into your life. Toxic people are like the Hydra of Greek mythology: when you cut off one of its heads, two grow back in its place.

I am writing from personal experience. I learned too late. I am basically subsisting in an entry-level job at age 58 despite being a brilliant computer scientist who was in his prime at the peak of the biggest tech boom in history. Why? Because I thought I was smarter than everyone else and passive-aggressively always got my way, in the short term. In the long term I ended up burning bridge after bridge, until there were no bridges left.

Don't make the same mistakes I did. Accept that there will always be toxic people. Learn to forgive and move on. Take a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. Go to a CoDA.org meeting.

Purposefully hurting others for any reason, even if they totally deserve it, is toxic and it will kill you.


How bad would this look on job applications to industry jobs?

Note that I will be answering your question and not providing psychological or ethical support - there are good answers already.

TL;DR Whether or not you have a PhD does not matter

Generally speaking, the industry expects something like a Master so if you are half your PhD you are already more qualified than the other candidates. "Qualified" doesn't mean much because usually when you leave university your qualifications are only that much relevant.

You would need to explain why you stopped your PhD during the interview, and saying that you realized it was not for you because you prefer more concrete goals is the kind of response people want to hear.

Of course, there may be many various cases where your PhD matters (more research-oriented industry, someone likes PhDs, ...) but for generic employment it does not matter.

This answer is from a high-tech industry perspective, in the technical areas (R&D, IT, ...)

EDIT because I left the rest of the question hanging as @Dawn mentioned in his comment.

To what extent would it look bad if I disclosed that this is for pure boycott? Could this look like someone too bad to finish the degree or could this look like someone not preferable to hire for other reasons?

It would look terribly bad. Do not even try to make it look positive.

I am not even sure how you can say "They were not nice to me so I screwed up the whole department by not taking my PhD defense because I knew it would be a big thing to do. High five!"

  • 3
    But the question also is “Can I tell them the truth?” I think you are implying “No” but you didn’t quite say it.
    – Dawn
    Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 14:35
  • 1
    @Dawn: ah, you are right, I did not go past the title (How bad will refusing to defend PhD look on industry-job applications?) and the first question (How bad would this look on job applications to industry jobs?). Obviously OP should not tell them "yeah, I sabotaged the organization because I was angry" :) I updated my answer
    – WoJ
    Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 15:20

From my own personal experience doing industry interviews, if you went ahead with this and I was aware of the circumstances of your departure from your PhD program, this would look horrendously bad. In fact, I can't think of anything that would convince me to make a positive recommendation on your candidacy in light of it. Sorry to sound a little harsh, but I would likely assume that you were petty, vindictive, toxic, and likely to stab others in the back (including me) at the slightest provocation, and even a stellar publication record wouldn't convince me to overlook that. (Even if you aren't any of those things, that's a risk I wouldn't be willing to take).


There are lots of comments about why you should defend your PhD and move on. No doubt my comment is on the same line. I (and several other PhD students that I know) have faced similar situations during PhD journey. So my suggestions are based on what I have experienced and concluded taking with several other PhD students with similar experiences.

I would say, if you have all the papers and chapters done and ready, simply defend, get your certificate, degree, and move on. If you feel like publishing your dissertation or chapters, publish them (if they are already published, wonderful!) else you can simply let your professor do what they want or not even care about it. Journey after PhD is different and you can work with whom you want. You win against all the toxicity once you defend that dissertation. It may not affect much to your professor (especially if they are already tenured) and the department if you drop but affects you more than anyone else.

Dropped or changing your PhD department or university in early stages of PhD (~1 year) is much more effective and easier compared to dropping later on such as in your case. Thinking another way, work you did is also your effort, your reputation, your time, your belonging, and deserve your ownership. So, not defending your PhD means you are giving up on things that you already own and work hard for it.


People will initially assume you are the problem.

It is better to keep things vague as possible. And after getting a job and having a bit of time to know for sure you still want to pursue boycott you can just tell your employer you changed your priorities.

What you should not do is boast to your potential future company how you messed with your previous "company".

If you are bothered by lying/misrepresentation: If you are not the guilty party after a year or so performing well in your job people will respect you enough and you can share with them the real reasons for your PhD situation. This way you can let them know if it really still bugs you. My guess that in a year you will barely remember all the nonsense related to your PhD/hiring process.

P.S. I see a lot of people attacking you in other answers, but they don't know your situation, if you want a relatively unbiased opinion you should ask some friends of fellow PhD students that are aware of your situation much more than random answer here.

  • 1
    People aren't attacking OP in other answers, they're helpfully pointing out how OP's story will be perceived. The details of their situation and the consequences for their job prospects are very unlikely to matter for that perception. I don't really see what this adds to the 24 (!!) other answers already here.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 14:26

Spoiler alert: my answer is very different from all other answers and it is gonna be the extremely unpopular one due to the mindset of people in academia, and more specifically here in Academia.StackExchange.

It’s been about 2 and a half years that I started working in industry in the US, after I quit my PhD and got a Master's degree (though I had another Master's before joining the PhD program). For the record, I work in one of the big tech companies as a software engineer. So, my experience is based on working with the best people in the whole world.

I was in countless interviews as both interviewee and interviewer and I never needed to ask/answer questions about someone's/my own PhD and the surrounding circumstances around graduation besides only asking/answering pure technical questions about what they/I did during that time and descriptions provided in their/my resume. So, in a nutshell, nobody really cares if you graduated or not, you need to just show you have experience that is relevant to the job description. Nothing beyond Master's degree is really needed in the industry (Yes, I’m talking about big tech companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc.). It’s no one’s business what happened during your PhD, and honestly nobody really cares or has enough time to talk about childish dramas with some delusional people who work in academia. These people think because of their professor title, given to them by god, they can do or say anything and not be held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, these days the universities are the new Catholic Churches, where professors see themselves as medieval cardinals and pope, who can control anyone under their power and questioning their actions and their motivations behind those actions would face a harsh punishment (Well, you’ll see that in the comments under my answer, where they won’t tolerate any different view other than what they approve of and they would do anything in their power to censor other views).

You just mention that you were a PhD candidate at that time and at some point you decided to move on to industry work and that’s it. If you have Masters or Bachelor, you mention that you finished that in the application form (that’s the only place where you talk about your educational background anyway). Also, you use that finished Masters or Bachelor for the background check if needed. For sure, if there are some people that like to know more about these kind of dramas instead of technical experience and background of the person they are trying to hire, you simply just move on to another employer because that’s not normal for sure.

So, in my opinion, if you don’t like to get a PhD degree, it’s totally fine and that’s your personal choice and will have very minuscule to no effect at all on your industrial career. If you like to be called a Dr. and have that title, go for it, but there is no other use for that. Some people here tried to scare you about circumstances of quitting PhD and the consequences of burning your bridges with your supervisor or other professors in your university. Honestly, there are extremely rare to no cases at all where you need to have a reference to start your work in the industry. Personally, I never needed it. So, don’t worry about that also. You don’t need to be nice to people that certainly don’t deserve it.

  • 11
    Dilworth's answer already covers your position on their first bullet point ("If you don't defend the PhD but don't disclose the true vindictive reasons why you hadn't, it may slightly lower your chances as you would be a less qualified candidate. Still, you can land a nice job.")
    – justhalf
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 7:16
  • 15
    I think the comments so far show that we do tolerate different opinions. It is useful to have your opinion. But this answer would be better if you properly addressed the fact that OP seems to be vindictive, and cut the parts like "I work in one of the big tech companies ... So, my experience is based on working with the best people in the whole world" (which comes across as quite arrogant) and "childish dramas with some delusional people who work in academia. These people think because of their professor title, given to them by god, they can do or say anything."
    – toby544
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 9:05
  • 12
    Impact of PhD vs no PhD on an industrial career is also very location specific. In Germany and Austria, for example, having a PhD will definitely be extremely helpful in some industrial career tracks. The same might be true for other countries. One can argue whether this is good or not but be careful to not overgeneralise experiences from the US (tech-)industry.
    – Daniel
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 11:21
  • 15
    I think you almost make a good point here. But the choice OP is making is not - get a PhD or don’t. It is get a PhD or don’t get one and tell everyone the missing degree is because he was too mad at the supervisor to finish and wanted to punish them.
    – Dawn
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 15:56
  • 5
    Downvoted as answer does not address the question ("tell my employers the motivation") and the other main point it's making (not achieving their PhD - which I agree is not the end of the world) has already been covered by another answer. Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 21:06

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