Should I Quit My PhD? How to Know When It's Time

It’s real talk time. Should I quit my PhD?

It’s a question we get asked quite a bit, especially these days.

As the academic job market continues to collapse and tenure-track positions are cut down like grass, more and more PhD students are reconsidering whether finishing their degree is worth the effort.

With the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling fieldwork, shuttering labs, and forcing classes to go virtual, this question is more important now than ever. (Be aware that the article linked above was written pre-pandemic.)

We also sincerely appreciate the difficulty in even asking this question.

After all, many PhD students devote half a decade or more of their life to their studies. They carefully cultivate their academic CV, present at conferences like crazy, and assemble an impressive personal library of books and articles.

A lot goes into earning a PhD, which makes the apparent ‘sunk cost’ of quitting that much harder to accept.

But here’s the deal. If you’re consistently unhappy, you should quit. Full stop.

There are plenty of reasons why asking “should I quit my PhD” is not only warranted but highly encouraged. In this article, we’ll explore several such scenarios.

To be clear, we’re not encouraging anyone outright to quit their PhD. If you genuinely like academia and enjoy your research, that’s plenty enough reason to see your degree through to the end.

Rather, we’re saying it’s perfectly fine to quit your PhD if you don’t enjoy or take satisfaction in the work.

Basically, if you just googled “should I quit my PhD?”, this article is for you.

1. Should I Quit My PhD if I’m Unhappy?

This one’s easy. Yes.

Just because you start something doesn’t mean you should finish it. Do you have to finish a bottle of whiskey or a pack of cigarettes just because you opened it?

Uh, no. Stop when you’ve had enough.

In the case of your PhD studies, “when you’ve had enough” means when you’re no longer happy or taking satisfaction in your work, and don’t see any prospect of that changing anytime soon.

If that’s the case, it’s time to seriously reevaluate whether finishing your degree is worth the time, effort, and costs involved.

A good rule of thumb when contemplating quitting is to think of your PhD as an end in itself, never as a means to an end.

After all, these days a PhD can’t be a means to an end for the vast majority of people. Academic jobs and postdocs are the only things that explicitly require a PhD, and those have never been more scarce. It’s the same old math; no need to rehash it here.

So, if you genuinely enjoy your academic work, keep it up!

If obtaining a PhD (along with “all its privileges and obligations” as some diplomas put it) has inherent value for you, go for it!

But if not, don’t feel obligated to finish. There are plenty of ways to learn beyond the academy. This might not be the right way for you. Academia does not offer anything that can’t be found elsewhere.

2. Should I Quit My PhD if I’ve Hit a Wall?

This one is a solid maybe.

By ‘hit a wall’ we mean that your research is at a standstill. Your dissertation is half-written but there’s no plausible scenario under which the second half will get done anytime soon.

In this age of COVID-19, this has become a real problem for many grad students.

If you’re a scientist or engineer, your lab may have been forced to close during the pandemic. Perhaps you can’t get the materials or funding you need, or travel to the location of your fieldwork.

If you’re a humanist or social scientist, the books and manuscripts you need may be locked away in libraries on the other side of the ocean. Travel restrictions are still in force and accessing archival materials is no simple matter.

But even not counting the pandemic, research trajectories hit walls all the time.

Here are the three most terrifying words a PhD student can hear: “it’s been done.”

Has your advisor ever told you that? You’re not alone.

Sometimes you’ll find that a previous scholar has already addressed the topic or answered the questions you’ve been working on. Some fields of study are so oversaturated with researchers that, quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot left to do.

And sometimes it takes years of research and study in your chosen field to reach the point where you can recognize this fact.

As with so many things about the academic career trajectory, this has nothing to do with you. All the intelligence, hard work, passion, and enthusiasm in the world won’t help you if your project has already been done.

So, if you ‘hit a wall’ and honestly believe, in your own expert opinion, that your research is unfeasible, already done, or not worth the effort, that’s totally fine.

3. Should I Quit My PhD if My Career Plans Have Changed?

This one is up to you.

If you enjoy your dissertation work, enjoy your teaching, and generally like being in academia, that’s often sufficient reason to ride out your degree to the end.

Sure, graduate student stipends aren’t anything to write home about (put mildly). But depending on the type of funding you have, you may receive some pretty decent health benefits, deferrals on student loans, and so forth.

Even if you’ve long since ditched your plans of chasing a tenure-track job, spending a little longer in your graduate-student cocoon can be a wise move (assuming you can secure funding).

Having said that, most jobs PhDs have (apart from faculty positions) don’t require an advanced degree. Getting a PhD can be a great education, but it’s often not the best training for a post-academic job.

Moreover, making the leap from the academic to the business world can be a steep learning curve for many. The sooner you start your transition, the sooner you’ll land your first post-ac job.

Remember this: being an academic is a job, not a way of life.

So, it’s up to you. If you like your studies and want to keep at it for a few more years, fine. If you want to seek new opportunities, fine.

Conclusion

The moral of this article is simple: if you’re unhappy, you hit a wall, or you’re looking to change careers, don’t be afraid to quit your PhD.

A PhD, like all degrees, has no intrinsic value. It’s value stems entirely from how people perceive it.

Do you value the idea of earning a doctorate? Great! Go for it. Do the costs seem to outweigh the value? Fine.

A PhD is an end, not a means to an end. It’s entirely up to you to decide if the end justifies the means.

And remember, no matter when you leave or why, there will be positive ways to spin your transition story.

When people ask us “should I quit my PhD?”, they talk about quitting your PhD program like it’s some kind of momentous, life-altering decision. But it’s really not.

You’re leaving a job to find another. That’s it.

For more advice, check out this post on how quitting your PhD will not hinder your career prospects.

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