If you quit your PhD …

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):

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
(click on the image to get to the comic on Cham’s page — it’s larger there)

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.

Good luck.

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.


  1. I think you are entirely correct, there are plenty who leave phd programs before they have finished. I think it’s one reason many graduate programs don’t publish attrition rates. I also agree with the idea that it’s not one persons fault when it doesn’t work out. I know this from personal experience, I am leaning toward leaving the one I am in at the end of this semester and I definitely feel alienated and not involved in my department. That coupled with the lack of funding this semester, and likely will not get anymore, and the crummy job prospects it feels like the right decision. This is despite spending 3 1/2 years of my life pursuing this.

  2. Hmmm … as someone once wrote: No job is worth getting burned out in the process. ‘Funny’ thing is — when I heard supervisors talking — most of the time they pointed out that this person ‘did not want to do a PhD anyway’. I guess it was true in the end … hrmpf … Academia …

  3. Thank you for this article. I completely agree. I was extremely motivated when I first started my PhD (mind you, FOUR years ago). I don’t think I truly understood the importance of selecting the right adviser (i.e, very thorough background check). What’s very frustrating is that a group of faculty tried to encourage me to work with them instead of my adviser because they felt that my adviser was incompetent. The latter was not made clear AT ALL to me, as I thought they were just being friendly and thinking about our potential future academic relationship. I feel angry at the department for allowing our pairing to happen. I do not find it amusing to not take this matter seriously of the LIFE PLAN of a 28 year old woman (at that time) into a, “lets try to see if we can get her to work with us” secret (that I was not made aware of until it was too late). Of course it did not help that my adviser was the chair of the department (i.e., everyone’s boss). Thankfully, this person no longer is. Working with this person was a horrible experience (incompetent: check, mean-spirited: check, fraud: check) and everything just took way too long. I thought I could complete the degree after finally stopping working with her after a few years, but life came along (e.g., had a baby, ran out of money) and it’s just not working anymore. I’m tired of the stress (among other political/financial school issues) and will hopefully find a career (thankfully I do have a clinical profession) that will make me happy.

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