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I’m three years into a Ph.D. program in scientific computing and I’ve just received my M.S. I’m thinking about leaving school to go to a programming bootcamp and become a software developer. I’ve done pretty well with my coursework, I enjoy learning (at my own pace), and I’m good at teaching, but I have doubts about my ability to do solid research. I’m working in an interdisciplinary area and I don’t really have a deep understanding of any of the fields involved, so I am pretty dependent on my advisor for direction and ideas. I’ve put in a lot of (mostly coding) work on a project, but haven’t published yet. I always tell myself that if I stay, I will dig into papers and textbooks and learn as much as I can, but it feels like a pretty big mountain to climb at this point. I’m already in my thirties, having been a teacher for many years, and the lack of money is starting to get to me. I also have a serious hobby I’d like to pursue, but I’m not sure how realistic that is.

So why would I stay? Partly a desire to finish the project I’ve started. Partly a conviction that this research is at least tangentially related to some very important problems (climate change). Partly a fear that my domain-specific (mostly mathematical) knowledge will go to waste. Partly a bias for academic over business pursuits (my parents and my sister are all scientists). And partly a longstanding habituation to an unstructured schedule, with freedom to study what I want when I want. Are any of these good enough reasons?

closed as off-topic by Johanna, Massimo Ortolano, Wrzlprmft, Enthusiastic Engineer, Bryan Krause Jul 17 '17 at 21:28

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    In my opinion, most of the PhD candidates pass through this step, where they feel that everything is gone, no chance to finish the work in time. I personally had the same feeling, my colleagues as well. The one who could assess whether we should continue or just leave is our supervisor since he is experienced. Without knowing details about your case, I suggest working harder in the remaining months to finish your PhD (especially because you already spent 3 years). – Younes Jul 17 '17 at 8:46
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    Just forget the programming bootcamp, it's probably targeted at a very different audience ;) You can hone your skills while doing very valuable work in the program, and may still become a software developer after finishing the PhD (if you wish to do so). I can confirm (as @John pointed out) this is a phase many, if not most PhD candidates go through. Yes, even the financial part ;) – jvb Jul 17 '17 at 11:07
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Only a partial answer but a fair warning, if you have not been keeping up with the news with respect to coding bootcamps: avoid it at all costs, seriously. Learn to code by yourself through books - you have the "smarts" for this judging by your PhD in Sci Comp candidacy - or take CS courses at your school to pick up enough depth and breadth, which is what bootcamps severely lack (but make grandiose claims about). I urge you to Google search some articles about this disastrous outcome that many bootcamp candidates are facing, e.g. stigma that they are unqualified coders. E.g. Google, I think, now automatically desk-rejects applicants with bootcamps on their resumes, after hiring one too many failures. Good luck.

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Your decision should factor:

  • your job prospects with PhD (i.e. the job market for your degree)
  • the job market for software developers,
  • how much you enjoy to code, or do research in your field,
  • personal (family) situation,
  • how much money you need for your other plans.

I believe that switching to a developer job could bring you happiness. But, it really depends on how good is the software developer market where you live. If it's a good market, you'll make good money with reasonable amount of work and your job will be safe. There are exciting things happening in IT right now, so you will still be challenged. It still depends on the level at which you would want to be challenged, so your mathematical knowledge might not go to waste. I had a colleague exactly in your situation, and she was happy at her new company.

Giving up on research at some point is normal for people who have trouble making the transition from student to independent researcher. I must point out that your particular kind of trouble is quite common and you could have your PhD and still not be independent. A lot is asked of you during a PhD and most of those have steep learning curves. To become independent researcher, you need to master the tools used in your field, be up to date with the state of the art, plus you need to be able to present your research and come up with ideas. If you are missing one of these, you'll feel insecure, and dependent of your supervisor. Even if you are already independent, you will still feel insecure simply because of the lack of experience.

If you want to continue with research, you should be starting with addressing your insecurities. Start with the things that you aren't comfortable doing in the ascending order of their difficulty. For example, if you feel you don't have ideas of your own, start doing a literature review in your field, and write down the main research direction, and what is important and why. Just by doing that you will have a sense of what may be interesting as future research. Also, go to summer schools and conferences and discuss what you do and read with your colleagues and supervisor(s).

There are a lot of answers on this site on how to deal with the transition from student to independent researcher. Some deal with the impostor syndrome -- see here or here. Some deal with the transition to being independent researcher such as this.

If you are just burnt out, I'd suggest taking a work and stress free vacation, and think about all these afterwards.

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I did that last year, dropped my PhD for a full time permanent job. My program was 6 years ahead and I couldn't afford it anymore. Before dropping consider that if you have less than 2 years to finish your PhD, it does NOT worth it to drop, you better finish it and enjoy your degree. If you have more than 2 years before graduating.. I would say go for a full time job, there are too many PhDs out there anyway.

Whatever you decide, only hard work will get you wherever you want to go. Good luck.

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