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Careers Café

It’s okay to quit


The imminent beginning of a new academic year seems like a good time to broach this difficult topic. Before you make another tuition payment, it’s a good idea to make a conscious decision about whether doing a PhD is still the right path for you.

How do you feel?

This is a serious question. Is the approach of the beginning of term making you feel physically ill? Is your sleep being disrupted? Are you anxious?

Do not ignore any of these signs nor their million cousins. Go see your doctor or counselling services and talk about those things. Whether you decide to quit or continue, it is not normal to feel distressed. Do not stop to think about whether you are feeling bad enough.

Okay. Now comes the hard part.

A PhD is a big commitment

When you signed on to this thing you thought it was the right decision. And it was. Yes, I mean that. At the time you made the decision, you made the best decision given the available information, what was going on in your life then, and so on.

If you have a good argument why I’m wrong about that, stop reading this article and quit now. Don’t waste any more of your time.

Even if it was the right decision then, it may not be the right decision now. It takes at least five and often up to 10 years to go from deciding to register for a PhD to actually completing and defending a PhD. A lot can change in five to 10 years.

You have new information about the program, about where the program might lead, and about yourself.

You are not throwing anything away

When I say “It’s okay to quit” I mean it. It is okay. You have permission.

There is more to a PhD than a certificate at the end. Every month you are in the program you gain knowledge, skills, and experience. You have extended your networks.

You may also have passed significant milestones:

  • Passing comprehensive exams
  • Successfully defending a proposal
  • Writing a chapter
  • Collecting data

These count for something even if you don’t complete the degree.

There are very few jobs for which you absolutely need to have a PhD. If you quit now, you save yourself time, money, and a lot of anxiety about whether putting PhD on your resumé helps or hinders your job search.

You have options

It may not seem that way but that’s mostly because you have no idea just how many different jobs there are out there, much less what skills they require or whether you would find them rewarding. This is normal.

Transitions are hard. Quitting will not magically transport you to a new place. It will shift your focus to discerning a new path and working towards a goal you actually want.

If you want to hedge your bets, investigate whether it is possible to take a leave of abscence from your program. Really dive into exploring your options and re-evaluate next summer.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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  1. Stacey Mayhall / August 22, 2012 at 11:20

    I finished my PhD in 2003 after considerable angst and worry that affected my health throughout my degree and after. That worry carried over into a concern about finding a permanent job. After a series of contract gigs, I opted to sit back and think about my skills as distinct from my education. As a result, my full time job now is as the Executive Director of an AIDS Service Organization. I still teach at Nipissing University in the Gender Equality and Social Justice Department part-time, but I have to say that a much wider body of the skills that I possess are being used in my ED work. Working in an ASO still means doing research and using academic connections, but the purposes of that research is much more community focused. My advice, for what it is worth, is to be thoughtful about why you want a PhD, to reflect on your skill sets and to think of those skill sets before, during and, if you complete your PhD, after you finish. The PhD is a path to the next step, but the path is not usually straight and the next step is just that, one step.

  2. Reuben Kaufman / August 22, 2012 at 12:49

    I’ve had the privilege of supervising quite a few grad students during my career. On only one or two occasions, within 2 years of the student beginning, the supervisory committee had to recommend that the student not continue in the program. Although the students were disappointed in that decision, saving them from another ~5 years of potential grief was the best favour we could have done them.

    • deep / December 27, 2013 at 07:51

      Rather than helping those students finding what they want, you arrogant guys remove them? What kind of non-sense supervisors are there in this world. People are sad. Really sad.

    • nico / March 11, 2014 at 13:29

      I think it is very helpful and wise that 1) there is even a supervisory committee (not always the case) 2) the professors and committee researchers take the consideration and time to give student recommendations saving them from further waste of time and/or embarrassment and 3) that you posted this experience reminding the reader that this is not something that happens every day. I am in my last months of my PhD in France. I am American and found that in the states even my Masters degree had many more checks and balances (supervising committees etc.) insuring that a student is not completely lost, alone and/or in the dark regarding the progress of their work and the ability to continue. Here it is not the case.

      With that said, to those PhD students out there thinking about quitting, I tell you this: every other day I think about quitting, but not because I don’t want to finish, or don’t know deep down that I can, it is out of fear, plain and simple. Don’t let fear dictate any part of your life. Be strong, believe in yourself and prove that you are not afraid to finish what you started and do the best possible job you can. If you are lucky, there will be others around who will tell you if your best is not good enough and/or either help you to do better or be honest enough to recommend you to stop. I can hardly get my director to proof an article (laying on his desk for over 4 months now) and he just smiles like everything is cool (I’m not sure if that means it is good or it is so bad he doesn’t even want to look at it, or he is just too busy and time will just fly and soon it will be too late). Trust yourself and appreciate any help you can get, even if it is criticism. Be thankful that you have the guidance around you, ANY GUIDANCE.

      • Enzo / April 14, 2017 at 15:58

        I’m not afraid. I just don’t want to do this anymore. But nobody in academia ever takes that sentiment seriously, ever. My hunch is that it’s mostly other people who think about quitting, don’t want to, and take out their own fear on their classmates.

  3. cat / October 16, 2017 at 04:50

    Frankly, after 2 years in PhD, i find that PhD is just another degree, which is very complicated, very politically motivated, need to follow the supervisor, who is the boss or king, need to do a lot of reading, writing, publishing, conference, attending courses, learning new skills and knowledge, following standards in everything, complying with all requirements. Anyway, take it easy, after all, in history, nobody is able to bury themselves at graveyard attached with PhD degree certificate, or bring PhD degree to heaven for extra awards from God. it is just another academic process, progress and journey. If you can passed all exams, all defense, VIVA : congratulations for successfully getting out of hell…but if you stumble at one milestone, never mind, quit, redo, correction, whatever, it don’t kill you. it is ok. God is still loves us, even if we failed horribly in PhD, in all exams. in all job interview or jobs. it is ok, because the awards in heaven, has nothing to do with our PhD, cash or earthly success stories, correct?

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