Earning a doctorate of any sort is difficult. After years of study, candidates must pass a qualification exam, write a lengthy dissertation or complete a capstone project, and defend their research and conclusions in front of a panel.
And unlike most other degree programs, research doctorates – commonly known as Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D., degrees – frequently do not have precise parameters on how long they take to finish.
Uncertainty surrounding when graduation day will arrive is one of the challenging aspects of these programs, and Ph.D. students often struggle to plan for the future when they don’t have an end date in mind, says Adam Ruben, who has a Ph.D. degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
“It’s so indeterminate, how long it will last,” says Ruben, who wrote a satirical book called “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.”
“People ask you how long it will be until you graduate, and most of the time you tell them you have no idea,” he adds. “It’s not really until that last six-month stretch or so, when you have a thesis defense date scheduled, and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, that you know how long it is going to be.”
Students who have started to regret their decision to enter a Ph.D. program should carefully evaluate whether it makes sense to stay in graduate school, experts say.
“Sometimes, openly considering quitting as a real option can help you to reconnect with why you started the PhD in the first place, and why you would like to stay,” Katherine Firth, an academic adviser at the University of Melbourne in Australia, who has a Ph.D. and supervises Ph.D. students, wrote in an email.
Noncompletion and Academic Delays
Many people who enroll in Ph.D. programs leave those programs without Ph.D. degrees or take longer than eight years to finish their studies.
Ph.D. completion statistics from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reveal that only 42% of humanities Ph.D. students in the U.S. who began pursuing their degrees sometime between 1996 and 2006 had doctorates eight years later.
Research on Ph.D. program attrition indicates that conflict between Ph.D. students and their academic advisers increases the odds that students will leave grad school. Frustration that arises while coming up with ideas for a dissertation or capstone, completing that project and defending it can be a major source of stress for Ph.D. students, many of whom leave their programs after completing doctoral coursework but before finalizing and successfully defending their work, research shows.
Additionally, Ph.D. students often express a need for additional funding, mental health services and professional mentoring.
Ph.D. program alumni often say they were mistreated by faculty during graduate school. A global survey of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at academic science institutions, published in May 2021, revealed that 84% of current and former science Ph.D. students and postdocs felt that an academic supervisor had treated them abusively.
“Cases where people are facing harassment, bullying or exclusion for example, might mean a person decides the only safe option is to quit, but a better academic culture would let them stay and complete,” says Firth.
Reasons to Leave a Ph.D. Program
When a Ph.D. Won’t Help You Get Where You Want to Go
Alumni of Ph.D. programs say one valid reason to exit a Ph.D. program is if having a Ph.D. is not necessary for you to achieve your professional aspirations.
Lt. Col. Robert Solano, a U.S. Army aviator and commander for the federal Defense Contract Management Agency, exited a distance learning, predominantly online Ph.D. program in aviation science several years ago. He realized he could advance in the military and thrive as an entrepreneur and investor without a doctorate.
“You don’t need Ph.D. behind your name to show the world your self-worth and the value that you bring,” he adds. “I wish I’d understood that sooner in the process.”
Solano, who was a part-time Ph.D. student with a full-time military career and military scholarships, had acquired around $15,000 of debt to finance his Ph.D. studies, he says.
“One of my biggest deciding factors was that I felt like the dissertation process didn’t allow me to be creative and pursue research that was going to be really meaningful and impactful in my career and my life,” Solano says, adding that he submitted three dissertation research proposals that were rejected. “I could not imagine doing that for the next two to four years of my life, struggling with a dissertation board, and I think that was really the biggest factor for me.”
When Your Well-Being Is at Risk
Experts say it’s worth considering pausing or ending your studies if they are significantly interfering with other important aspects of your life, such as your family, health and relationships.
For Solano, the volume of Ph.D. reading and writing assignments he had to complete often felt overwhelming when combined with his professional duties. “I was declining in happiness and declining in health,” he says.
Solano also worried that time spent on doctoral studies would take away from time with the woman who later became his wife, he says.
“If I could have done one thing differently, it would have been paying closer attention to that and not sacrificing those two things – my happiness and health,” he says.
When You Find Another Way
Sometimes Ph.D. students receive job offers for their dream positions during their Ph.D. studies. In those cases, “they might choose to leave because they have already achieved their goals,” Firth says.
Another valid reason to leave a Ph.D. program, she says, is if a student discovers that the actual experience of obtaining a Ph.D. “is not what they signed up for, and it doesn’t suit them after all.”
What to Do if You’re Considering Quitting
Ask for Advice from Someone Other Than Your Thesis Adviser
Certain problems with Ph.D. programs, such as disagreements and misunderstandings with advisers, may be addressed by seeking help from various faculty members or administrators at your grad school and outside experts who aren’t on your thesis committee, experts say.
“There are other folks that (students) can go to for help and perspective, on and off campus,” says Jennifer Polk, a Ph.D. recipient who provides career consulting to Ph.D. students and alumni via her consulting firm, “From Ph.D. to Life.”
Ph.D. students often feel disempowered and isolated, Polk says, but “if the decision is whether to quit or not, that actually gives you power.”
“If you’re willing to walk away, you have power, so you can go and talk to other professors,” she adds. “You can go and talk to the chair of the department. … You can escalate to the graduate dean. There might be other offices you can go to before you burn it all down.”
Firth notes that sometimes changes to a Ph.D. program — such as a switch from one adviser to another or a change to a thesis committee — can address a Ph.D. student’s concerns and negate the desire to quit. Transitioning to part-time study or taking a leave of absence could make sense, and so could shifting between locations if a university has multiple campuses, she adds.
“Sometimes people think they have to quit, but they could seek out other adjustments,” Firth wrote. It’s also important for Ph.D. students in distress to evaluate whether their “current problems might go away with time or are here to stay,” she says.
Consider Whether You Are Being Too Self-Critical
It is common for Ph.D. students to have a crisis of confidence in the middle of their studies, but Ruben cautions that doubts about personal competence may simply be impostor syndrome in disguise.
Though skepticism is frequently beneficial when conducting academic research, it can become destructive if it compromises someone’s faith in themselves, he says.
“The problem is if you apply that skepticism to your own abilities and you apply it too harshly and say, ‘I’m no good. I’m the worst person here. I don’t deserve to be here,'” Ruben says. “You’re going to feel terrible and you may also make some decisions that you wouldn’t necessarily have made if you had a better sense of your own abilities and interests.”
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How to Know When It’s Time to Quit Your Ph.D. Program originally appeared on usnews.com