Quitting a PhD

I’ve been contemplating for a while now what the first post should be after the “unfortunate change of hosting providers.” At the time, I was considered leaving my PhD program and trying to find a job as a planner. I ended up following through on that consideration and leaving the PhD program at UC shortly after the conclusion of the Spring 2013 semester.

The point of this post is to provide some insight for others thinking about whether they might leave or stay in their PhD program. I’m by no means an expert, but I know I googled “should I quit my PhD?” several times. I suppose you might say I’m attempting to contribute to the literature on that topic.

Why did I leave?

There are a multitude of reasons I cite in my head whenever I begin explaining my reasons for leaving. While there were many things I wanted to blame externally to myself, I soon realized that I was really unhappy internally. So I left because I wasn’t having an emotionally or academically fulfilling experience for myself. That by no means says anything bad about my program or my advisor, as fulfillment is a benchmark that one creates internally when dealing with the question of leaving. So, I now succinctly answer when asked: “I wasn’t happy, and I knew I needed a change.”

That doesn’t discount some of the external factors I cited above. But the most important factor was my internal dialogue. Things that contributed to that were definitely caught in the web of friendships, mentoring relationships, and expectations I had. But tracing any web should ultimately lead back to the spider.

When did I first suspect I needed to leave?

I first suspected I needed to leave following a meeting with my advisor during my second year of classwork. Nothing particular was a miss, but for a nagging sensation that perhaps this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. It was that seed of doubt that grew into a consideration of leaving that ultimately lead to my decision.

My advisor was great. I was not. I wasn’t as committed, interested, or confidant as I should have been to carry on. To the programs credit, they do everything they can to drag us kicking and screaming through academic discovery and preparation. I was really good at it, when I was committed, but I often felt as if I was going through the motions.

That’s an odd feeling when your primary mode of operation in a program is to think up new ideas spit them out and then argue about them with people constantly. It feels so productive, so right, and yet I still didn’t feel like it was something I was actively participating in. This is, perhaps the most difficult aspect of the whole thing to explain.

What did I do to prepare to leave?

Preparing to leave was and still is the most emotionally draining aspect of the whole ordeal. I had to practice some levels of subterfuge to ensure I could finish classes, maintain my RA assignment, but still find something else to do. I got lucky in that I had stayed in touch with my classmates and one of them was leaving her job to take another. But more on that in a second.

The actual decision to leave came in early to mid April after my grandfather passed away. I made a choice to not immediately tell my advisors, in retrospect I should have included them as well. But I did begin to let others know who could help me network to find a job. The process involved first updating my resume and then talking to the people I had graduated. I was fortunate to have remained at UC instead of moving schools where this preparation process would have been much more difficult.

While the job search was going on I had to sit through classes and meetings that felt like they had little to do with me anymore. I completed assignments (save for one major project) and generally went about living what felt like a dual life while dealing with the loss of a family member.

I had been applying for jobs off and on all throughout that year as my PhD funding source was about to run out. By the end of April I had landed a job as a public administration/community development specialist (which would actually let me use what I’d learned in undergrad and in my masters degree).

Do I regret leaving?

Its been almost five months since I left. I show up to work everyday, do something that feels productive (and not like I’m just going through the motions), and I go home happy. I have the occasional bad day, sometimes I let other people affect me too much. But I can generally say that I am happy, day in and day out, and that is something I hadn’t been able to say about my PhD in a long time.

More importantly, I don’t get angry as easily–I feel much more calm–and I’ve noticed an improvement with my psoriasis. In addition, I now have more free time to explore hobbies, volunteer, and generally give back in ways I wasn’t able to before. Its also gone a long way to improving my engagement and will likely make for a better marriage. According to my fiancee, she hasn’t notice a difference, but I feel like I have more time to appreciate her, support her, and notice the positive impact she has in my life–she doesn’t spend all her time on damage control because I’m upset or angry.

Will I ever go back?

I can’t say I would never go back, I’m not sure I would have the opportunity to return to UC, by the time I would want to go back I will likely not be in Cincinnati or be busy with kids and a career in work I enjoy. That being said, the stars could always align and I could find the passion I’d lost. Its hard to leave something unfinished, but its only unfinished if we view it as something to be completed–and if that’s how you view doing a PhD it may not be right for you either.

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