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How To Know If You Should Leave Your PhD Program

Mar 09, 2021

The majority of Ph.D. students think about leaving during their time as graduate students.

Initially in graduate school, I felt like I didn’t have any control over my life. Every little setback made me feel like a complete failure. I felt like I didn’t belong in my Ph.D. program.

It seems impossible to be able to objectively look at your own progress while you are going through graduate school. Therefore, I want to share some advice if you are thinking about leaving your Ph.D. program.

Reasons I Wanted to Leave

If you are debating whether to leave or not, I want to share reasons I wanted to leave graduate school and the reasons I didn’t. If you want more personalized insights, take the Should I leave my Ph.D. program? quiz!

Being Overwhelmed

In graduate school, there are so many responsibilities being placed on you. It can feel like you are being pulled in a million different directions.

Suddenly, you have to manage your own coursework, teach classes, and perform research. There is no course that helps you to manage all of your responsibilities.

When I was overwhelmed, I always thought that leaving graduate school was the only way to fix the problem.

After completing graduate school, I learned that anything you do can be overwhelming. It is your choice to take control back, manage your responsibilities, and limit your work.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, take time away from your work. Taking a break can help you renew your excitement for your program and research.

Research Setbacks

The second major reason I wanted to leave graduate school was when my research would fail.

Since research is unknown, there will always be setbacks and failures. However, when your research fails, it can make you feel like you are a failure and that you will never be successful in graduate school.

If this is happening to you, recognize that you are not alone. Succeeding in research often means becoming comfortable with the unknown.

Yet, our entire education system trains us that there is always a right answer. Unfortunately, in research, there is not always a right answer, in fact, there may not be a known answer at all.

Lastly, it is important to separate your identity from our research. Many of us can think of our research as an extension of ourselves and therefore if our research fails, we are a failure.

This often leads us to feel like we need to leave graduate school when our research fails.

Dissertation Crisis

When you start writing your dissertation, you can feel like everything is just too big and it will never end.

For all of us, there will be a time that we debate if it is easier to leave grad school than it is to complete our dissertation.

When you feel this way, create a dissertation plan for what you need to accomplish and when you will accomplish it. This plan will help you to manage the stress of completing your dissertation.

When You Should Leave

When you get accepted into graduate school, you are so excited about starting and doing research. However, after time passes, you may realize that you are not enjoying performing research.

The fact is that we are all different. Some of us are really excited about doing research, while others are not excited about research.

There is no shame in recognizing that a Ph.D. just isn’t for you.

This recognition is not that you are not good enough for a Ph.D. or that you are a quitter. It is a recognition that you tried something and recognize that it is not for you.

An analogous situation is if you are trying food for the first time. Let's say sushi, for example.

If you try sushi for the first time, and you absolutely hate it. You may swallow the first bite, but you don’t live a life dedicated to only eating sushi.

This is the same in starting a Ph.D. program. If you realize that this life just isn’t for you, you shouldn’t dedicate yourself simply because you tried a Ph.D. program.

Now, there is a sticky point to this. What if the sushi you had was made by a really bad cook or if the fish had become spoiled before it was served to you?

This is analogous to your Ph.D. situation. Whether your advisor is toxic or your research is not interesting, you have to recognize whether it is your situation you dislike or research in general.

One way to do this is to dive deeply and analyze if you actually enjoy asking research questions and doing the work to answer them.

Talk with others about their experiences. Sometimes it is important to just know that your situation is not the only situation in a Ph.D. program.

In the end, if you decide a Ph.D. program is not for you, then it is time to make plans to leave your program for something that will allow you to have a fulfilling life.

How To Leave Your Ph.D.

If you decide that you want to leave your Ph.D., I do not suggest just putting in a resignation letter and creating a plan afterward.

Even if you are on the fence if you want to leave or not, start looking for and applying for jobs that are interesting to you. This may also include looking into other educational programs that differ from your current program.

The more that you are leaning toward leaving your Ph.D. the more jobs you should apply to.

When you are in the interview phase of these positions, there are a couple of things that will happen.

First, you can determine if leaving is the best idea by determining how excited you are for a job you could possibly take over your current Ph.D. program.

Second, when you are in the interview stage, it is a good time to tell your advisor about your situation. Especially if you are interviewing for multiple positions, you want to give them a heads up to keep a good relationship with your advisor.

The Benefit of Waiting

Once you make a decision to leave, it may seem like you are just delaying the inevitable by leaving. However, especially if you are being paid as a student, it will make your life easier to move from your Ph.D. program into a job than into unemployment.

This allows your Ph.D. program to be a backup plan in case you are unable to find employment in other places.

Remember, you always have the ability to leave your Ph.D., but you will not have the ability to return.

This also gives you time to work on wrapping up your research in your Ph.D. program and decide if you want to pursue a master's degree for the work you have already completed if you have been in your program long enough.

Ultimately, if you are thinking if you should leave your Ph.D. program, decide why you want to leave. If it is the situation you are in, look for solutions to your problems (take the quiz to find these solutions).

If you realize a Ph.D. is just not for you, apply to other positions. While the application process is playing out, make a plan for wrapping up your research.

Then, when you have interviews, start telling your advisor and others about your plans for leaving.

The results of this will allow you to transfer out of your Ph.D. into a position that you know is better suited for you without burning bridges in your current program.

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