I Want to Quit My PhD. Will That Look Bad to Employers?

This is an important question we get asked with some regularity.

“If I want to quit my PhD, what will non-academic employers think?”

This obviously varies by employer, and there’s no single answer for every situation.

But let’s get one thing out of the way first: quitting your PhD is not a career death sentence. By no means.

After all, some people don’t finish their PhD because another, better, career opportunity comes along. Others work part time concurrently with their graduate studies and phase into full-time employment without completing their degree.

But even if you decide to throw caution to the wind and strike out on your own without a PhD, we promise that no major career paths will be closed to you.

In today’s post, we’ll walk through some potential concerns people have about quitting their PhD and show that none are as serious as they might seem.

1. I Want to Quit My PhD. Will Employers Care?

Perhaps the biggest worry PhD students have about quitting involves the potential loss of employment opportunities. We assure you this is not a major concern.

For all the pomp and prestige associated with earning a doctorate, it’s important to acknowledge that a PhD doesn’t really … you know … do much for you.

Repeat the following: a PhD does not prepare you for a job outside of academia.

Within academia, a PhD is like a union card—the bare minimum requirement to be employed.

Beyond academia, a PhD is also like a union card—meaningless outside that particular industry.

At our Opportunities for Humanities and Social Science PhDs in the Private Sector webinar a little while ago, Omar Abdullah put it slightly differently. He referred to his degrees, all immaculately hung on the wall behind him, as “basically academic receipts” (see 3:30 of the recording).

Beyond academic careers and certain research-focused STEM careers, no employer is actively looking for the credentials a PhD produces. In some circles, it may even be a strike against you.

(This does not mean that you should leave your PhD off your resume. You shed enough blood, sweat, and tears for that degree. Please, keep the three letters next to your name. 

Besides, if an employer really is put off by your level of education, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t enjoy working for that employer to begin with.)

The point is, don’t fear the loss of employment opportunities. Would a steelworker need their union card after the plant closes? No. Do you need a PhD beyond academia? No.

2. I Want to Quit My PhD. What About the Resume Gap?

Another understandable fear some PhD students have about quitting is the gap on their resume.

As far as degrees go, PhDs are a long-term commitment. You know this, but let’s slog through some statistics anyway:

  • Average time to completion: 7.1 years.
  • Median time to completion: 5.8 years
  • Average age of PhD graduates in the United States: 33

Source: US News; Statistica.

In addition, the amount of work and glacial pace of many PhD projects can take quite a toll on one’s mental health.

Given that many PhD students devote four, five, or even more years to their degree before calling it quits, that big yawning chasm on your resume can look intimidating indeed.

Spending six years as a “PhD candidate” without earning a PhD does look kind of awkward.

But here’s the good news. There are lots of ways to describe your time in graduate school that don’t involve terms like “graduate student” or “PhD candidate” at all.

Here are some choice terms to describe your tenure in graduate school:

  • Graduate Researcher
  • Researcher and Lecturer
  • Research Assistant (if you worked as an RA)
  • Research Fellow (if you had fellowships)
  • Graduate Instructor (if you TA’d courses)
  • Instructor of Record (if you regularly taught courses)
  • Lab Assistant (if you worked in a lab with your advisor)

You get the idea.

Remember, your resume is not a legal document. Your job title and duties are  not set in stone. You have quite a bit of leeway in describing your work experience.

3. I Want to Quit My PhD. Will My Accomplishments Be Noticed?

Finally, let’s talk a bit about the skills and accomplishments you accrued during your graduate studies.

Most employers look for skills and accomplishments, not degrees. As with your job title, there’s a lot of leeway in how you present these on a resume.

For example, as a Graduate Researcher and Lecturer at the University of X, you:

  • Published X articles and reviews in peer-edited academic journals.
  • Demonstrated excellence in communication and grant writing by winning $X in fellowships and research grants from national and international organizations.
  • Organized X panels and presented X research papers at national and international academic conferences.
  • Managed and developed learning objectives for X-many students. Instructed and guided them in analyzing evidence to form original interpretive arguments.
  • Expressed complex ideas to students clearly and diplomatically. Gave constructive feedback and mentored during research projects.

Are you worried about an education gap on your resume? Don’t be.

Plenty of jobs require specific postgraduate degrees. But as we said above, almost nobody outside of academia demands a PhD.

If you want the token postgraduate degree to fill out the Education section of your resume, you may consider taking an ‘MA along the way.’

Depending on your program, achieving ABD status may be enough for them to grant you a Master’s degree. Other programs may require a written Master’s thesis or some kind of qualifying exam.

Like a PhD, an MA won’t do much for you outside academia. But, depending on how far you made it in grad school, you may be able to pick up an MA without much extra work.

Whatever you do, DO NOT put “PhD (incomplete)” or “Unfinished dissertation” or anything like that. Why would an employer need to know that? Sorry, no brownie points for honesty here.

Conclusion

As anyone who finished their PhD and left academia can tell you, employers don’t exactly roll out the red carpet for you just because you’re a doctor.

By the same token, quitting your PhD will not foreclose any career opportunities to you.

The truth is, there is no gap on your resume. Whether you finished or not, you acquired lots of skills and did tons of stuff in graduate school.

Employers look for skills and accomplishments—not three little letters after your name.

“I want to quit my PhD” you say?

Fine.

For more on how to leverage your skills in post-academic careers, check out this post on transferable skills for PhDs.

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