Why I Didn’t Pursue a PhD
I’m a part of two groups on Facebook related to Academia: one called “The Professor is In”, which is is all about what it’s like being immersed in academia. The second called “The Professor is Out” is all about why people are leaving academia. (Another called High Impact PhD memes if you’re in Academia and need a good laugh, but that’s neither here nor there). The latter inspired me to share my story in case there are others out there who are on the fence. I hope that seeing reasons for why someone did or did not pursue a PhD helps you in your own process.
Today I’ll talk about why I did not.
Any one with a doctorate is a doctor, even if we associate the word “doctor” with medical doctors.
Before I start, I want to say it’s an incredibly impressive feat to get your doctorate. If anyone introduces themselves to you as “Dr.____”, please call them by their respected title. It took a lot of work for them to get there regardless of whether they studied medicine, planetary science, education, or psychology. In the US in particular doctoral programs can be really tough — low pay (think <$20,000) to live on annually in exchange for oftentimes world-renowned research including archaelogical discoveries, effective clinical programming, and in Marie Curie’s case, the discovery that atoms in the air around uranium conduct electricity . PhDs in the US take about 5–7 years to complete. Sometimes people have to do master’s programs beforehand in order to be competitive enough to enter a PhD. Environments in academia can be really great or really toxic, and a lot of it depends on mentorship. Having great mentors that identify with you and see you for your experiences can be really difficult to track down.
Shout-out to Dr. Ann Kring (UC Berkeley), Dr. Courtney Baker (Tulane University), Dr. Liz Raposa (now Fordham University), and Drs. Natoya Haskins and Cheryl Dickter (William & Mary, see footnote 1) for being great mentors. All of these mentors I highly recommend as strong researchers, excellent female mentors, and dedicated allies to diverse groups.
I decided to leave academia after completing my master’s. There are always personal reasons to leave a commitment. I originally entered my master’s program looking to apply to PhDs in clinical psychology. I went through the process in my second year interviewing at some really great schools and ultimately getting an offer.
Here’s what I learned in my decision-making process to turn down a PhD program:
- Financial: Personal factors can make it impossible to live on a minimum wage stipend. Maybe you’re unwilling to commit to more student loans (the average borrower — which is about 13% of Americans, has $30,000 in undergrad loans, and potentially $70,000 more in graduate loans ). Getting a PhD in another country like Spain or Germany may actually be cheaper.
Recognition that my passion for research doesn’t have to stop.
2. Research: I felt like the only way I could continue with research for a while was through pursuing a PhD. That’s simply not true. If you have a passion for research and a drive to continue, you can always reach out to universities and seek involvement, this is particularly true if you have a master’s degree, but is also true if you have a bachelor’s degree. I continue to do research with Dr. Dickter, and have had most of my papers go to press after I graduated from my master’s. I’ve also worked at a start-up like VitalFlo led by Luke Marshall, where I got to work on an NSF grant, write a follow up for a grant, and conduct research. You can continue being involved in research even without a PhD.
I can always keep learning, and I will.
3. Coursework: I am an avid learner. I love to learn, and I love to be challenged in learning. But I don’t deal with high stress levels. I reach a point in a high-stress environment where I break. I lose all motivation, and I just need to hike or run or paint until I feel okay again. I am currently enrolled in an online master’s of analytics program at Georgia Tech. If you’re interested in Analytics, you’ve likely heard of it, and so far, I’d recommend it as a good part-time option in which I can still make a living but also continue in a structured learning program. There are also tons of open courses online that are free if you’re able to structure your own time in online coursework to commit to learning.
It’s okay to recognize and reduce your stressloads and prioritize your health.
4. Stress: I realized during a particularly stressful series of events in my master’s program, that maybe I don’t need to put myself through this. It’s okay to know your own boundaries. I’ve always been good at being productive and creating work for myself and implementing lessons into practice. Combining multiple stresses at once wasn’t in the cards for me. It was too much: research and coursework to start, financial instability, sharing housing, dedicating time to friendships and having likely even less time dedicated to an international relationship during a pandemic. Eventually I want to start a family, and balancing that on top of these felt impossible.
5. The competition may be saturated: For the last 5+ years, articles [3, 4, 5, 6] have come out about the saturation of PhDs increasing. However, there’s one convincingly critcal article I encountered that disagrees . I think this can be true if you’re hoping to continue in academia as a professor seeking tenure.
It is certainly not impossible, and the better you can make yourself competitive in your program, the better your chances are. If you’re not continuing in academia, as long as you can market your skills, there are many great industries PhD candidates (or even if you decide the best option is to leave your program, that’s ok too) can move on to, and very successfully.
For many the PhD route is the right route. For some, including myself at the time, it was not.
Either way is okay if you’re honest with yourself.
I’m particularly prone to finding myself vulnerable to stressful situations — I tend to like to work with meaningful missions that require a lot of help, or challenge prejudicial systems, or in novel areas. I also tend to prefer that over working for a corporation just to make more money for already rich owners. But there can be a balance. You can still find meaningful work while making a decent wage. If this is you, I’d recommend looking into fairly established startups that prioritize work cultures (check out angel.co). Or if you’re open to a corporate job that still does impactful work, consider working at Accenture Federal Services. Many of us are eager to see more former academics contribute their experiences in a way they feel best valued.
There is always hope, regardless of where you are in your journey.
- Dr. Dickter and I continue to do research together and are applying for an NSF grant with additional professors to further develop my master’s thesis on Cultural Competence.
- Mark at Pilot. (n.d.). Marie Curie & her world-changing Phd thesis. The Document Centre. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.document-centre.co.uk/marie-curie-her-world-changing-phd-thesis/
- Helhoski, A. (May 20, 2021). How many Americans have student loan debt? NerdWallet. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/loans/student-loans/how-many-americans-have-student-loan-debt
- Malloy, J., Young, L., & Berdahl, L. (2021, June 22). Inside higher ed. How the Ph.D. job crisis is built into the system and what can be done about it (opinion). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/06/22/how-phd-job-crisis-built-system-and-what-can-be-done-about-it-opinion
- Bloomberg. (2021, January 4). America is Pumping out Too Many PhDs. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-01-04/america-is-pumping-out-too-many-ph-d-s
- McKenna, L. (2016, April 25). The number of ph.d.s keeps rising despite bad job numbers. The Atlantic. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/bad-job-market-phds/479205/
- Mervis, J. (2016, May 19). ‘Employment crisis’ for new ph.d.s is an illusion. Science — Careers. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.science.org/content/article/employment-crisis-new-phds-illusion
- Lane, R. (2021, July 14). How much do graduate students get paid? NerdWallet. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/loans/student-loans/how-much-do-graduate-students-get-paid