“We support whatever decision you make, honey.”
I hung up the phone with my mom, grateful for the support, but absolutely quaking inside. Was I really thinking of leaving my PhD program? At a prestigious university? Something I had worked long and hard for, something I *thought* that I had wanted?
Yes, I was thinking about it. And, in the end, I did leave.
I’m writing this to let people out there who were just like me know that it all turned out OK. I thought I was the only human being in the world who had ever ended a PhD program early, and I wish I had had a story like this to provide some semblance of comfort. So here it is.
The first few months, things were great. I loved moving to a new place, being on a gorgeous campus, taking part in orientation, meeting my cohort, and starting classes. I felt that I was being challenged, academically and socially, and was so proud of everything I had done to be a part of it.
But that initial honeymoon feeling only took me so far. By the end of the first year, I knew something wasn’t right. I hadn’t clicked well with the faculty, I felt overlooked by my peers, and I was unsatisfied with the work and research I was doing. Keep going. I told myself. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re dedicating five years of your life to this, after all.
Five years. I couldn’t bear the thought.
Slowly, I started to lose weight. First a few pounds here and there, and then, by the end of the second year, more. My stomach always ached, I was nervous, anxious, and not sleeping well. I was lucky to have a supportive partner, but things were still hard.
People, in casual chit chat, would ask why I was getting a PhD, and what I hoped to do with it. When it came down to it, I didn’t have a good answer. I’d stumble and say something like “I want to help influence policy at a higher level.” They’d look at me and say—you need a PhD for that? They were sort of right. Did I need a PhD for that? Not really. And, at the rate that I was going, physically and emotionally, I wouldn’t be well equipped for any sort of job.
So, I took stock, thought long and hard, and read a million blogs on Grad Cafe and Reddit. Posts like, “Leaving a Stats PhD Program with a Master’s, Then Re-Applying”, “What looks better on a CV: 2nd Masters or Incomplete PhD (ABD)?”, or “[C] Unsure whether to quit/stay on PhD program”. Clearly other people were worried about it, just like me. Was this choice going to ruin our lives?
It turns out, it didn’t ruin my life. Things worked out OK.
In fact, nearly half of students leave their PhD program. Lots of factors influence this: financial burden, dissatisfaction, mental health struggles, program or advisor mismatch, or the reality of an academic career, just to name a few. An Atlantic article quoted Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor and academic career coach, who explained that “it isn’t usually a snap so much as a gradual disintegration.”
This disintegration, unfortunately, will happen to a lot of students in PhD programs. Roughly 40% of Ph.D. students have sought help for depression or anxiety caused by their course of study, according to Nature, and almost 45% said their satisfaction level had decreased since the start of graduate school. A University of Texas at Austin study, “Stress and Relief for American Graduate Students”, found that 45% of participants reported experiencing more stress than they could handle and—you guessed it—PhD students expressed feeling the greatest amounts of stress.
I will say–for lots of people, their PhD programs can be a great experience. Some of my closest family and friends, in fact, loved their time in graduate school. But for some of us (whether it be the program, the location, the work itself, or internal factors) it was just not the right fit.
When I left school, as scary and uncertain as it was, things started to turn around. I moved to be near my family, and found a wonderful job with co-workers I adore, doing work I am truly interested in. It didn’t happen overnight, mind you, but the post-PhD months and years taught me a lot about myself, the workplace, and how OK it is to walk away from something you once dreamed about.
So, if you decide to stay on in your program, more power to you. And if you know it’s time to leave, then that is OK too. Like my mom said, we—the collective we—support and honor whatever decision that you make.
Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.