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I am currently working in education but also looking for job prospects in more technical/mathematical fields. I signed up to a STEM job site and I am not sure how to give a good response to the question "Could you tell me about the circumstances behind you exiting your PhD?"

Basically, I quit a PhD 8 months after starting for the following reasons:

  1. I hadn't fully developed the soft skills needed to be able to tackle one (e.g. time management, organisation, resilience) which resulted in slow progress.

  2. I was struggling to manage myself in a lot of ways (e.g. money, food, mental health)

  3. The area ended up being quite a bit out of my comfort zone (i.e. more pure mathematics compared to an applied mathematical background) and was chosen more based on fanciful ideologies rather than what I was traditionally good at, and it took me a long time to do things that my supervisor thought were straightforward.

  4. I didn't have a break before starting my PhD and felt consistently burned out/depressed having gone straight into it after my Master's degree - not the best decision to make in hindsight.

I know the reasons in my head for dropping out of the PhD are sound, but I am struggling to come up with a way that explains what happened without potentially giving off an impression that I made a bad decision. I want to make a transition out of high school equivalent teaching (having been doing it for 2-3 years) into something more technical but would appreciate some guidance on how to answer the question I've mentioned above.

Furthermore, suppose I did find a niche of an area I was truly passionate about, or found a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) which I felt could truly advance my career in some way (say, being able to access some very technical and well-paid STEM role). How would I explain to potential PhD supervisors that I already quit a PhD without them thinking of it as being too much of a red flag?

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  • What is wrong with mentioning the reasons you give here? Except maybe the second reason. But mention how you've addressed these issues in the years since and why at that point in you life, the PhD was just the wrong choice for you.
    – Jeroen
    Nov 18 '17 at 19:28
  • Well there isn't anything wrong with the reasons I mentioned above as far as I can tell, though maybe the second one could ring alarm bells. But if I wanted to do a different PhD (say) would these ring alarm bells for potential supervisors?
    – user32670
    Nov 18 '17 at 20:19
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I wouldn't go into a lot of detail. The person asking you this wants one single answer, and it should be something that puts you in a good light for the new opportunity and doesn't provoke hard follow-up questions.

  • If you want to go into the workplace, I would say "My previous program focused too much on theory without useful application and I really wanted something more applied. I like to work on projects that have useful application in the real world."
  • Alternatively, if you want to be in industry, you can say that you realized you actually don't want to work in academia and your previous program was interested in keeping you in that realm, rather than preparing you for the workplace.
  • If you are pursuing more education, you may focus on differences between the field you quit and your new one. Something like: "I realized I'm really much more passionate about computer science than I am about pure mathematics."
  • You should do nothing to mention the issue in anything that you give to everyone. That's information to be conveyed in an interview, if at all.

It's a given that there were probably other things going on and your interviewer will assume there is more to it, but they are not your therapist and do not need to understand the whole situation. Only give them what is sufficient and positive.

I was kicked out of a Ph.D. program at a very late stage because I simply was not performing well. The main reason for my poor work was personal issues that are embarrassing and were my fault but were not directly related to my studies. Later I re-applied to a program in the same field. When they asked why I dropped out I said that my advisor was travelling my whole last year and unable to supervise me well and that I had a compelling offer in industry. Both of those are true and were significant factors in my outcome. I didn't tell them I was also having personal problems at the time that negatively impacted my ability to focus on my work.

I got into the program and finished my Ph.D. On the job market people again asked me why I did a few years at one school before finishing at another. I said various things similar to the above but was never in a position where I really had to explain it. I did some studies at one school, went into industry for a while, and then went back and finished at a different school. That's as much as people know. To this day my colleagues don't know what the deal was and have never had enough interest to find out. That's the way it should be---professional conversations should be kept professional and private information rarely has a place in them.

I have seen people play the "I was young and immature" card and seen it work out, but it's a big risk. My advice is to be honest with people, but don't undermine your future by dredging up potentially harmful issues from your past. Instead say things that are true, put you in a good light, and will satisfy the asker.

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  • I think it's good to show some ability to reflect on past makes and learn from them. To paint your current self in a positive light is not the same as pretending everything your past self did was perfect. Lastly, what you did was straight out lie, which may or may not work. Jan 5 at 16:50
  • Timon, if you were referring to me, I have never lied about my experience. Like most such events, my failure to finish was a result of several interacting factors. I see no reason to bring up personal, private issues as answers to general career questions unless there is no alternative. You don't want to be one of those people who brings up private or embarrassing issues in inappropriate times.
    – farnsy
    Jan 5 at 17:49
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tl;dr- Sounds like something went wrong in your past. Prospective employers would likely be interested in understanding this prior event to inform their consideration about whether or not you'd be suitable for a new role.

Personally, I'd guess that the best way through this is to help prospective employers to understand what happened and how this information should inform their evaluation of whether or not you're the appropriate candidate for the job.

Most of the following's written in the first-person. This is meant to reinforce the point that I can't really speak for hiring managers in general as there're many diverse viewpoints and philosophies. So, the following should be understood as my own thoughts and perceptions. Also disclaiming that none of this is legal advice; for example, there may be relevant laws/regulations/etc. involved in interviewing interactions and disclosures that aren't considered below.


I know the reasons in my head for dropping out of the PhD are sound, but I am struggling to come up with a way that explains what happened without potentially giving off an impression that I made a bad decision.

Sounds like you did make a bad decision at some point. Still, unless you're trying to convince someone that you're infallible, that's not the worst thing in the world. Then on the plus side, you avoided making the sunk cost fallacy: the decision to stick with a path that's no longer optimal merely because resources have already been spent on it.

Personally, if I were considering hiring you, I'd want to know the following:

  1. What mistake(s) did you make?

    • I'd be extremely interested in this question, so you'd probably want to help me figure out the answer. If I couldn't figure it out, I'd likely perceive there to be an unqualified risk, and probably opt to avoid that risk by not hiring you.
  2. What do those mistakes say about you at the time you made them?

  3. What do those mistakes say about you now?

    • What, if anything, have you done to correct for their causation?
  4. How concerned should I be about any potential problem areas that they may reflect on?

  5. How should I evaluate your response to these various problems?

    • While causing problems may reflect negatively on you, fixing them can still reflect positively. You can earn points here.

It sounds like you've already given these some thought. However, you might want to give it a bit more thought. For example:

I hadn't fully developed the soft skills needed to be able to tackle one (e.g. time management, organisation, resilience) which resulted in slow progress.

That sounds pretty bad. And while I'd give you kudos for recognizing it, I'd still want to feel confident that this problem is resolved, or at least manageable.

A major point here is that, if I hire you, I want to feel confident that I made the right decision. So I need to understand exactly what happened and why, despite those facts, you're still the right person for the job.


Thoughts

So, here're a few of my first thoughts on seeing your points. I'm speaking in the first-person here because my perceptions are my own; I can't generally speak for any hiring manager who might be considering you, though I hope that these may be helpful.

  1. I hadn't fully developed the soft skills needed to be able to tackle one (e.g. time management, organisation, resilience) which resulted in slow progress.

Apparently you had trouble managing your time and working at the expected pace. That's a pretty big problem in most positions in which you'd need to manage your own work flow.

  • Have you done anything to fix these problems?

  • Are they still problems?

  • If I hired you, how should I expect them to complicate things in the future?

  1. I was struggling to manage myself in a lot of ways (e.g. money, food, mental health)

If you were a PhD student struggling with money or food, that's not so unusual or hard to understand. If you're applying to be a PhD student again, it'd be a big point to address because it seems like you might have the exact same problems this time around, too. But if you're applying for a higher-paid position, it'd seem less relevant (though you might still comment on if it'll be a problem, and if it won't, why not).

As for issues with "mental health", that's alarming. Poor mental health can truly wreck people, and there's often very little an employer could reasonably do to help fix it. No employer wants to be in that position, so you may want to:

  1. Think about all the ways in which your mental health might adversely affect your employer.

  2. Try to figure out how you might correct for any of those problems before going into any interviews.

  3. Explain these to the interviewer.

Note: There may be various laws/regulations/etc. surrounding mental health disclosure, discussion, hiring consideration, etc.. I'm not a lawyer and I'm not offering legal advice. I am not asserting that anything here or in this answer is compliant with any given legality's rules or regulations.

  1. The area ended up being quite a bit out of my comfort zone (i.e. more pure mathematics compared to an applied mathematical background) and was chosen more based on fanciful ideologies rather than what I was traditionally good at, and it took me a long time to do things that my supervisor thought were straightforward.
  • Is this a concern for whatever you'll be doing in the new position that you're being considered for?

  • Does this reflect on any sort of inflexibility that might result in an unwillingness to perform some future job function?

  1. I didn't have a break before starting my PhD and felt consistently burned out/depressed having gone straight into it after my Master's degree - not the best decision to make in hindsight.
  • Could this be a problem now?

  • Are you prone to burning out, such that it might be a problem a few years down-the-line?

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