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A PhD student of my advisor (I am a master student), having been enrolled the doctorate program for less than a year, is now unsure about whether or not to finish it.

One of his concerns is that if he continues, but eventually quits the doctorate program, and applies for a normal job, the future interviewer, during interview, may suspect his lack of ability due to the record of an unfinished PhD program.

However, if he does not write on his CV about the years during PhD program, the interviewer may further question about the absent years.

So, does a record of an unfinished PhD program makes employers doubt a person's ability? Or are there other negative consequences in it (besides, of course, the opportunity cost of the time interval)?

In addition to helping me reassure him, such information also helps me to decide whether to get a PhD in the future. (Not being anglophone, if I misused some terms in English please correct me.)


Edit: Wow, to my surprise, this is probably the most popular question among SE questions I have asked (in all sites). I appreciate every answer and have read all of them, but chose Mr Romik for being the earliest among all good answers.

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    If someone starts something and doesn't finish it, there's invariably a reason: it could be lack of time, lack of motivation, lack of ability (at that task) or something else. People may start to suspect lack of ability (at that task) if they can't see (or indeed aren't presented with) any evidence of things like lack of time or lack of motivation. – Stuart Golodetz Aug 12 '17 at 13:08
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    This depends a lot on the job, and is probably too broad to answer well. There are many jobs where the reaction could be along the lines of "You're smart enough to make it to grad school and understand what you want in a job enough to leave and come to us? Great!" And others where Dan Romik's comments would very much come into play – Mark S. Aug 12 '17 at 17:01
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    This might receive good answers on workplace.se – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 14 '17 at 4:50
  • What is the field? That is probably important. The harder the perceived difficulty of the field, the easier it might be to put a positive spin non-completed Ph.D. work. Anyone who can start a Ph.D. program in physics almost automatically impresses me. This isn't the case for some of the softer disciplines. – John Coleman Aug 14 '17 at 12:06
  • Maybe not exactly a duplicate, but see this: academia.stackexchange.com/q/16552/72815 – John Coleman Aug 14 '17 at 12:32
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does a record of an unfinished PhD program makes employers doubt a person's ability?

I very much wish it were not so, but the honest answer is yes. Employers, within the restricted context of reviewing job applications, are forced to rely on very partial and superficial information given to them in CVs and job applications. Moreover, they are given huge numbers of applications to select from under time pressure. They respond to this in a way that I think is completely rational, but nonetheless extremely frustrating (to them as well as to the candidates), which is to assign a highly inflated significance to each piece of information given to them: positive things appear much more positive than they should, and negative things appear much more negative than they should.

In particular, both an unfinished PhD and a long period of seeming inactivity in one's CV are likely to be perceived at least somewhat negatively, certainly if they are unaccompanied by an explanation, and possibly (to a smaller extent) even when an explanation is provided. It wouldn't kill someone's chances of getting a job, and can be overcome by many other positive things one has to say about themselves, but I'm pretty sure it will have at least a small negative effect.

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    @Ian that's a good suggestion, and of course talking to people personally is a good thing to try to do, but "the competition" will also be using such strategies. As I said, an unfinished PhD will certainly not kill someone's career or job prospects, but sadly it is likely to make it just a little bit harder for them to sell themselves to employers. – Dan Romik Aug 14 '17 at 7:15
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    I don't challenge your argument at all. The thing is, I am always frustrated to see how people think sending out CVs is the best solution to finding a job, especially when you have things to explain about yourself. – Ian Aug 14 '17 at 7:16
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    @Ian oh I see, thanks for clarifying. You are correct that when I wrote my answer I had in mind primarily a "generic" CV-based job search strategy, so thanks for pointing out that there are other approaches. I would still argue that the basic premise that an unfinished PhD makes things a little bit more complicated is still correct even in that broader context, but certainly it's true that explaining one's history and choices more in detail (as suggested in Nicole Ruggiano's answer) is the best way to address and preempt such potential negative perceptions. – Dan Romik Aug 14 '17 at 7:25
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    Certainly amongst computer programmers, this is just wrong. Some of the strongest engineers I know have not completed their PhD - this is such a common experience, only the most foolish of employers would reject partial PhD candidates. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Aug 14 '17 at 10:37
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    "when they are comparing job candidates who dropped out of a PhD program after 3 years to others who graduated ... I claim the ones who dropped out will be at a small competitive disadvantage" - and my experience is that even this is not true. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Aug 14 '17 at 14:34
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There are many reasons that people do not finish doctoral programs other than incompetence or lack of motivation. For instance, one may become disenchanted with the soft deadlines of academia and would like to work in a non-academic setting, where deadlines and tasks may be completed in a more timely manner. Also, one may like the income security that a non-academic salary may provide, rather than having to chase after grants for summer pay. Yet another example is that one may like fixed hours in their employment, rather than spend evenings, weekends and sometimes holidays working on manuscripts or grading papers. So, it would be advisable to include the doctoral studies to demonstrate graduate training (especially if it is in the area of the non-academic jobs one would apply for) and give a reasonable and respectable explanation for leaving academia. I often suggest to non-academic job candidates in this position to write their reasons for leaving academia in their cover letter so that there aren't any unanswered questions that may damage their ability to even getting to the interview.

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    This is somewhat useful information, but it doesn't answer the question. – Dan Romik Aug 12 '17 at 15:31
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For an industry job, I don't think it is a big problem (unless it is a research position where PhD is required).

It is very likely that the candidate found out that he/she does not like to do research, and it might have taken them a while, like it took me.

Of course, I have no idea of what kind of opportunities I would have had if "PhD" in my resume did not have "abd" next to it, but from questions that I had about it and amount of time interviewers spend on those question (if they asked at all) it seemed like a fairly minor point. My previous experience and technical skills get much, much more attention.

And just to be clear I started my first job, while I was still in the PhD program.

I do believe that it is a negative, but a small one, so if your friend does not have passion for research, they should get out, ideally get a job first and then get out.

Also, they should put PhD experience on the resume, being part of PhD program is a plus, this is a lot better than having unexplained gap.

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I would say the longer the time spent without success, the more damaging.

In particular if one has three or more years but no degree to show for it, then that has to be read as a problem to be explained.

Quitting early is read much less harshly, perhaps especially by those who got their PhD but then left academia for industry. They understand how one can get into a PhD program, perhaps precisely because of natural talent, and discover that it is not fulfilling.

Two of my most effective staff started PhDs and dropped out after just over a year. I didn't read it as a negative and nor has it proven to be.

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    if one has three or more years but no degree to show for it — Shrug. In the US, getting a PhD can take 6 years or more. – JeffE Aug 13 '17 at 14:55
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    @JeffE: I'd guess Keith is from the UK (where three years is the normal time for a PhD). US doctorates are expected to spend significant amounts of time teaching; in the UK there are expected to just "do the PhD". For a US employee, replace "three years" with "six years" (although I'm still not convinced it's that bad). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Aug 14 '17 at 10:40
  • Or in many places in EU where 5 years is minimum and you need to complete an MSc to even be considered to start a PhD. Can quite often take 7-10 years all in all. – mathreadler Aug 14 '17 at 21:10
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    I can't speak for Keith but I would tend to agree with him regardless of the usual length of a doctorate. If you've spent 3 years or more without anything to show then that's a red flag and would need a very good explanation. Less than a year then a "I realised it wasn't for me", is actually quite positive. Shows maturity. – Alex Aug 15 '17 at 9:44
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It may also be a question of timing: if he applies for the job while still being enrolled (and within the traditional time of doing a PhD in your country) then it is not (or at least is not likely to be) an issue.

I did this myself, joining a company (there was a fantastic opportunity) when I did not have my PhD yet. The company was fine with me finishing it later, but would not have cared if I did not finish it.

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As an employer I would be more worried of hiring people who might have gotten their degree but got burned out as well. Or who passed the requirements, know lots in a very narrow field but acquired almost no new skills broadly applicable in work. Any wise employer would also know the mechanics of pressure to finish can be a double edged sword. Anyone in too long could be more worn out than one careful enough to hop off before that happens. After all (work) life is a marathon, not just a sprint or a leap or you know..

The research aim in a PhD is often thin as a needle (rather specialized). But there is a fair chance that the skills acquired during the time of the studies are useful in many other areas and contexts. Even if the work did not pass the requirements to graduate the candidate might have learned many valuable skills as well as a systematic approach to perform work and have gotten valuable ideas and visions.

Look for skills, ambitions, visions and experience (save).


Forget about your silly whim

It doesn't fit the plan

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    +2112 for an employer's view. – TripeHound Aug 14 '17 at 8:46
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As a person who hires people, I tell you that it depends. I'm in software engineering, and I've hired any number of ex-Physicists who decided that writing code was more rewarding that smashing particles or whatever.

The idea that hiring managers are drowning in resumes is very context-dependent. If you are in a field where supply of people far exceeds demand, the resume-level exclusion described in other answers makes sense. But if you are aiming to work in a field where that isn't true, sensible hiring managers will have questions for you in interviews, but won't be tossing your resume into the recycle pile.

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I spent 5 years working toward a PhD in physics. Around year 4.5 I decided I couldn't cut it in the department I was in (a combination of department politics, my advisor being farrrr too busy to give me the attention I needed, and my wife wanting to start our lives outside of school), so I got an MS and got out. I just got a real job, slightly unrelated to the field I was studying, but it's close. During my job search I told them directly that I decided the PhD wasn't for me, so while they were hiring a guy with an MS physics, they were getting someone closer to a PhD physics or a PhD physicist on a budget.

Don't hide that you have time spent toward a PhD, an understanding hiring manager will realize that spending time learning what you don't want to do will put you a couple steps closer to knowing what you DO want to do.

I think for anyone who understands what a PhD actually is, they will understand that ability is rarely the deciding factor of making it through a full 4-10 year program, it's motivation. Or more specifically, people lacking in ability will usually be weeded out in the first year, while people lacking the dedication to finish will last far longer.

Interesting side note, when I started grad school there was a guy in at least his fourth year, when I graduated he was still there (9+ years), and I just checked, he is still there (11+). The point of this is that you shouldn't feel bad about getting out early and doing something else.

  • Interesting you can just get an MS if you hop off. Over here it's a requirement to have an MSc to even be allowed to start a PhD. – mathreadler Aug 14 '17 at 20:54

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