By Jena Pitman-Leung, Career Consultant, Propel Careers
I recently had a conversation with a 4th year Ph.D. student who was struggling in her lab. Our conversation focused on a question that many of you may have grappled with at some point – Is it ever okay to leave your Ph.D. program?
The student in question was facing a challenge that many Ph.D. candidates encounter. At the start of her 4th year of study she had not published a first author paper (an official or unofficial requirement for many Ph.D. programs), did not have a great relationship with her advisor, and was not working on a project with a high likelihood of success. She was struggling with the decision to cut her losses and leave her Ph.D. unfinished, or spend several more years with an ambiguous outcome toiling away at the bench... when she had already decided that she did not want to pursue a career in academia.
Her desire to leave academia is an important piece of the puzzle. Graduate school is not simply a training ground for future research professors anymore. Recent classes of Ph.D. candidates are more informed about alternative careers in science, they are less likely to pursue a career in academia, are less likely to find a job in academia if this is their choice, and many actually enter Ph.D. programs with the explicit purpose of gaining the skills they need to begin their career in areas such as policy, editing, industry, and clinical affairs. The student in question falls into the last category. She valued the experience that a Ph.D. would bring, had a love of the scientific process and a respect for higher education, but never planned to become a research professor. While pursuing her Ph.D. she has involved herself in "extracurricular" pursuits to diversify her skill set, including interning for different businesses, volunteering for community organizations and non-profits, and involving herself in student organizations.
With this in mind, I asked her to consider a few important factors in her decision:
1) Did she have a current job opportunity that was "too good" to pass up?
2) Does the career path she is considering require a Ph.D?
3) Does a Ph.D. improve her chances of landing her "perfect job"?
4) Does her Ph.D. program award a Masters degree if she leaves midway?
5) Can she recruit another member of her thesis committee or department to mentor her through this difficult time?
6) Can she switch to a project with a higher likelihood of working?
7) Is she being asked to do anything unethical, or is she being bullied (i.e. is her work environment toxic)?
The decision to leave a Ph.D. should never be taken lightly. Any advanced degree comes with its share of hard work, dedication, and heartache. A Ph.D. can be especially challenging – the long hours, growing list of failed experiments, pressure from your advisor, and abysmal pay, can be agony – especially if you are not fully committed. But in the end, a Ph.D. is more than a few letters after your name. It's an acknowledgment that you are one of the hardest working, dedicated, and stubborn individuals on the planet. It shows that you're an expert in the scientific method, and that you know how to think, to reason, and to plan and organize at an advanced level. Do you need a Ph.D. after your name to prove to potential employers that you are a good thinker? Absolutely not. But, having a Ph.D. gives you a certain amount of assumed "credibility" that you would have to work harder to prove otherwise.
So, what was my advice? Ultimately, the decision to leave a Ph.D. is very personal, and involves a cost/benefit analysis that is impossible to complete within the timeframe of a 30-minute discussion. But with the information I was given, I suggested a few options before leaving her Ph.D. program. First, I advised her to pick a secondary project with a higher probability of success that she could work on in parallel with her main project. Sometimes those "easy" or "boring" projects end up taking an unexpected direction into "high-impact journal" material. Second, I suggested that she identify a mentor in her department who she could talk to and bounce ideas off of. Third, since she did not have another job offer I advised her to keep expanding her non-research skill set while she works on her Ph.D. This includes communication, writing, presentation, collaboration, etc. Finally, her lab environment was ok, and she wasn't being asked to do anything unethical, so I suggested that (while it may be painful) a few more years at the bench wouldn't delay her career trajectory to the point where it would become harmful. She is currently working hard to finish her Ph.D., but keeping an open mind, should other opportunities arise that are too good to pass up.
I need to disclose a bias – I completed my Ph.D. After 3 years of postdoctoral research experience, I chose not to pursue a career in academia, and having a Ph.D. has opened doors for me that may have been otherwise closed. However, if the student asks my advise on whether or not to pursue a postdoc... well, that will be a topic for another post!