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From PhD to Life

It’s OK to quit your PhD


Occasionally I’m asked about quitting, particularly “quitting” a PhD program. This happened several times last week, when I was in Vancouver.

Contrary to what you may hear or what your own internal critics tell you, there’s no shame in moving on. I remember a long post on a Versatile PhD forum from “PJ,” an ABD thinking about leaving instead of spending another two years (minimum) to finish their PhD. In response, one commenter wrote, “But the real question is, do you want to be a quitter? Now, not everyone will view that question the same, and I’m sure many will say that equating quitting a PhD program to being a quitter is not valid, but in reality, it is.” No! Thankfully, most other commenters on the thread offered more nuanced and helpful reflections and advice. “Finishing is not just about the destination,” one former tenure-track professor pointed out. “If that’s the only thing you want, then it’s a tough few years ahead.” Indeed.

Before you make the decision to leave, separate your inner critic – who may well be reflecting outer critics in your life – from what you know is right for you. Trust your gut, not your gremlin. In my experience, this is a decision that individuals make and re-make over time. I’ve worked with a few clients who’ve contemplated not finishing their PhD programs. While you figure out what you want, it’s ok to be ambivalent, carrying on the work but distancing yourself psychologically and emotionally from academia. What are your goals? Once you know them, you can determine the correct strategy to move toward them. (With thanks to Harvey P. Weingarten’s recent post.)

The “no one likes a quitter” attitude that exists in graduate school and perhaps in academia writ large isn’t warranted. There is nothing inherently good or bad about completing a PhD. It’s only a good move for you if it is a good move for you. While individuals who depart sans degree will come to their own personal conclusions about their decisions, the wide world rarely cares. It’s instructive that in PJ’s original post, they mentioned that their former undergraduate professors were unanimous in advising them to quit. I’ll let English professor (and graduate advisor) Leonard Cassuto speak for ideal advisors everywhere: “Most of my advisees finish their dissertations and get jobs. I’m proud of them. But some walk away – and of that group I’m just as proud” (Graduate School Mess, p. 121). I feel the same way about my own clients, whatever path they choose to take.

A while back Christine Slocum reflected on her career journey in a Transition Q & A post. She’d completed an MA and then two years of a PhD program, then moved on before achieving ABD status. In her post she explains there were several reasons for her choice, including feeling burnt out, lack of community in her department, and desire to start a family. Pursuing the doctorate no longer meshed with her goals: “After some soul searching, I remembered that the reason I was pursuing sociology in the first place was to better understand the mechanisms of social stratification because I wanted to better understand how to undo it. ​Four years of graduate study [later,] I felt like I had enough that the next five years would be better spent working for an NGO, nonprofit, or government position getting practical experience in the field.”

Heather Steel made a similar decision when she decided not to continue her PhD in the midst of dissertating. She learned important information about herself during graduate school. “There were parts of my program that I enjoyed very much (classes, having the chance to read and think, teaching, and my colleagues), but in the end,” she realized, “sitting for hours in front of a microfilm reader to write something that few people would actually read was not fulfilling.” Heather learned that she enjoys “research in small doses, not projects that take years to see results.” When I did an informational interview with her during my transition, I learned that she didn’t regret her choices. Her career has continued to progress since then.

When I was in Vancouver, a graduate student in the audience at one of my talks shared his own story: He’d been enrolled in a PhD programs years before, then left. But here he was back doing another doctorate! He was nearly done, and this time around he knew it was the correct path for him. I know several people who’ve done similar things, for a variety of reasons. Fascinating, eh?

If completing your PhD is the right move for you, carry on. Get support and help wherever you can find it, go part-time, or take a break or leave or absence. Make whatever changes you need to smooth your journey. But if the doctorate no longer makes sense — your goals have changed, you’ve learned more about yourself over the years — then I’ve got your back (in spirit) in deciding not to continue. You’re not “quitting” or “leaving”; instead, you’re embarking on a new, better-for-you path, taking what you learned and experienced and applying it in a context that’s more suitable to who you are, how you work best, and where you want to go. That’s risky and brave, but it’s also just you standing up for yourself. It took me until after my PhD to do that. Feel free to do as I didn’t.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. sue bloch-nevitte / January 29, 2016 at 13:11

    Very helpful, and applicable to many starts, stops and regroups along the career pathway. I feel better already!

    • Jennifer Polk / February 1, 2016 at 14:38


  2. Dr.Doinglittle / February 2, 2016 at 17:02

    Of course it’s okay to quit. If fact, I would encourage anyone to quit who would clearly be better off leaving a program and getting on with their lives. Life is precious and there are a lot of better ways to spend it than wasting away in a grad program.

    It’s a sad statement on higher ed that an article like this has to even be written. Why should a student feel obligated to work away on a degree, when there are little to no job opportunities with the degree in hand? Especially if they don’t have funding and are going into debt?

    I heard an employer once say that they’d be more likely to hire someone who quit a PhD program, since it would demonstrate that they could see it was not a good use of time and resources.

  3. R. E. Watkins, Ph.D. / February 3, 2016 at 14:41

    Years ago I was an ABD. I was married with 3 children and struggling financially. I was offered a position at a very attractive salary. I accepted the position and left the Faculty of Graduate Studies in “Good Standing”. A few years later an opportunity arose at my workplace which allowed me to complete a Doctorate at a different university in a different program. Leaving the original program and university was not the end of the world.

  4. Fictional / February 3, 2016 at 15:37

    What is being ignored here is the nobility-like status of being able to add “Dr.” in front of your name. Even if others find it laughable, internally, this could be a motivation and feeling that you have achieved something in life that the majority of others didn’t (not saying they couldn’t but they didn’t!).

    Also, throughout your life you are likely meet individuals who would show tremendous respect to the fact that you have a PhD whatever the field might be, even if they don’t offer you a job or pay you more money.

    The internal and sometimes external respect and the sense of belonging to a select group is important in my view, and at least for me was an important part in motivating me to pursue my PhD was the fact that I could put “Dr.” in front of my name and belong to a select club.

    • PhDAmongMDs / February 10, 2016 at 15:47

      I see what you mean, but I also think the value of the “Dr” is over-inflated in academia and those of us who are from that culture. Don’t get me wrong. I still get a kick out of being called a Dr… at the same time that it’s incredibly awkward. Depending on the company–for instance, if I’m around people who couldn’t access postsecondary education, let along secondary, which I do at times in my work–it can feel embarrassing to flaunt my title and my privileged access to (and resources to finish) a graduate degree. And I don’t need the title, at least not always, to get respect. It has strategic uses, but almost 3 years after graduating, I’m more energized when people recognize the work I do currently, which is outside of academia. I do want my more senior colleagues to address me as Dr. in professional settings, but only because it is appropriate–I work with many medical doctors and getting them to recognize that “I’m a Dr too!” has been a bit of a struggle.

      Talking to friends who are in the process of finishing their degree (with a very real possibility that they won’t due to various barriers), I see the reverse of the pride and prestige associated with the Dr status rear its ugly head — shame. I think THAT more than the prestige of the title itself is concerning. Those of us who managed to finish our degrees should definitely feel proud of what we did and relish that title. But for those who did not finish their degrees to feel shame or be shamed is really unfortunate… because we achieve so much more than our degrees in our graduate programs, that are not recognized by the academic industry (because the truth is, education IS an industry). Defending our dissertations is just one milestone among many.

      So yes–I agree that we shouldn’t undermine the value–external and internal–placed on the Dr status. But I also think both can happen at the same time: recognizing the prestige of the status AND moving away from shame-based discourse around not finishing/quitting/leaving the PhD process, whatever the reason might be.

      • Sheli / February 16, 2016 at 15:08

        Very nice to hear this discussion. I, like the audience member in their second doctorate program, quit my first then went back to complete a second doctorate. Unfortunately when I finished, I realized that my motivations were not the best ones for such an investment of time and money. So I learned, later than I wished, that sticking with the first decision to quit was actually the better one. No on should feel ‘less than’ for reevaluating their choices and finding what works; there are so many great adventures out there!

  5. Dr.Experience / February 3, 2016 at 18:03

    There were parts of my PhD that were fun and there were parts that made me want to quit and give up. Part of the process for me was learning which aspects of my academic program appealed to me and learning to be resilient regardless of the situation. I graduated and now I work for a company that recognizes my degree.