Because a fellow has failed once or twice or a dozen times, you don’t want to set him down as a failure till he’s dead or loses his courage.
George Horace Lorimer
A while ago I was dating an … impressive young woman who had quit her PhD and became a therapist (in training). What got me was not that she did quit her PhD, but that she saw it as a rare occurrence. Perhaps it’s the company I keep, but I think quitting a PhD is not that rare.
I also got the impression that she felt solely responsible for quitting her PhD. And I think this is also incorrect.
A former colleague once said that if PhD students quit, there were either mistakes made in selecting them or in advising them. Sure, there are things outside of anyone’s control that can happen, and it’s never only one person’s fault. And I don’t think that it is (usually) the PhD students fault.
There is an interesting piece in Nature (2006, 443(12), p. 720) by Sarah Bekessy about PhD attrition rates. She writes:
A study by Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson (Academe 6, 44–50; 2001 [wrong citation, likely 2000 instead of 2001]) found no meaningful difference in academic performance between completers and non-completers. Graduate students who don’t finish their degrees are typically less integrated into the department, suffer intimidating, hostile or laissez-faire departmental culture, and have poor relationships with supervisors.
Bekessy, 2006 [sorry, didn’t have access to the original study]
Personally, this fits perfectly to the students I’ve seen so far who have quit their PhDs. They were very intelligent and — in the beginning — also very motivated and hard working. But doing a PhD is very hard and risky work. You feel stupid doing it. Without a good adviser it’s very hard to impossible to get through. This doesn’t mean hand-holding, but advice — support in getting to know the domain and field, getting through the known parts of the domain to its borders efficiently, and the occasional open feedback and kick in the backside before the work gets out of control. Unfortunately, some advisers are really bad (toxic even) and yeah, I think the cited reasons point in this direction.
BTW, don’t get me wrong — I love science, the work, the teaching. It’s just that I cannot ignore the context in which I work. It would be much easier if I would just focus on my work and ignore the rest. But I can’t. I think science should and can do more — and it hurts to see potential wasted.
So, while it can be devastating to have to accept that you will not finish your PhD, you were not the only person who was responsible for it. Unfortunately, many students are just glad to get a PhD position, and do not know that they should be very selective when they look for a PhD position. So, even if you have invested a year or two (or more) before you fold, it might not be the worst outcome in the long run. Sure, it hurts, but probably so did working on the thesis and getting no where. And you also made your experiences and know what to look for in the future.
To end “positively”, I’d like to point to a nice webcomic by Jorge Cham (PhD Comics):
A PhD isn’t everything … nor anything when it is done under bad circumstances. Use your freedom to take stock of what you can do and find something meaningful to work on.
Update (9/5/2013): There is an interesting presentation called “Using Your PhD in the Non-Academic Job Search” by Dana Landis, which is very interesting for those who have or have nearly finished their PhDs and then quit.