Things I Learned after Quitting my PhD

Things I Learned After Quitting my PhD

A little over a year ago I decided to take an academic leave from my PhD, which eventually lead to quitting it. The experience has been nothing like I expected it to be and I have learned a lot along the way. One year was enough time to let me see some of the misconceptions I had about life and work while in grad school. Here are the top things I learned over the past year.

1.Even if you decide to quit your PhD on your own terms, it will be one of the most difficult decisions of your life.

I grieved my PhD, especially during the first couple of months after leaving. I felt cheated by the world of philosophy: I felt as if I was once given a great promise of what my life could be like and then was forced out of it by the same system that promised it to me. I had friends and mentors I was leaving behind as well as a whole lifestyle of being an academic in training. 

I was worried that I would lose the friendships I have developed in grad school because I could no longer speak “philosophy” to my colleagues who continued their studies. Once an insider to a particular academic circle, I felt that I no longer belonged there and I missed being a part of it.

2. Pursuing anything very seriously, like a PhD, shapes your entire worldview. When you change course, it will take a long time to undo some of the habits and views you developed over the years but that no longer fit your lifestyle.

10 months after leaving grad school, I found that I could not read my favourite philosophers without getting very upset. I seemed to inhabit a perspective that to read philosophy meant to read it in an academic context only and now that I was no longer a graduate student, I somehow no longer had a say in what philosophers mattered nor could I read them on my own. I felt like a fraud trying to read philosophy for pleasure. 

I could not work up the courage to read philosophy on my own, so I would reach out for “easier” reads that I found to be relevant at the time. I actually felt guilty reading books for pleasure that I always wanted to read and used to have no time for with my workload during a PhD. I felt guilty because they weren’t the academic texts I was used to reading.

3. You work fewer hours during a full-time job than you do while in your PhD, but you feel less freedom on the daily basis.

It took me some time to get used to working ‘9 to 5.’ I only work about 7.5 hours a day in my job, but two months after getting it, I could not deal with the monotony of the schedule.

While in grad school, I used to feel like I was working all the time. I had no weekends that were entirely school work free. Some days felt 10-12 hours long. However, I could break my day up as I pleased during my PhD: schedule a coffee date in the morning, take a break after lunch and go for a run and then work until very late at night. 

I can’t break my day up at work and work outside of our office hours and I definitely cannot take off for a run after lunch. As the result, I feel like I have less time for myself.

4. You will feel more freedom outside of work.

On the bright side, my job is dynamic and busy when I am at the office, but I am not required to take any of it home. This means guilt-free evenings and weekends with no feeling of anxiety about the projects I should be working on at every waking hour. I remember how much I hated Sundays in grad school: when the anxiety about the week ahead settled in and I felt like I was fighting against time scrambling to get things together. I no longer experience this anxiety and it is probably a very healthy thing.

5. Getting a full-time job is not the end of your life as you know it.

For a long time after leaving academia, I felt that I was at my best during my PhD because of the ways I have been challenged academically, creatively, socially. When my PhD ended, my greatness as a human being ended because there could be no career in the world that could challenge me in the same way.

I was so WRONG.

The misconception I held was that being an academic is the only way I could be at my best. I loved reading stimulating books, the challenge of writing and teaching, and being surrounded by people who valued similar things. I thought that the only way I could have those things in my life was through academia. That is not the case.

Although I am still growing into my career field, I certainly get to do a number of things that I love and that challenge me creatively both at my work and outside of it. What I do contains many of the elements of grad school that I enjoyed: I am in a position to advise and mentor others, I write and edit daily, and I continue to stimulate my learning and growth. I believe that we all can find a way to do what we love.

A job as an academic might be an ideal scenario for you, but it is not the only one. I find it that because grad school is so specific and training intensive, most graduate students have no idea what other options are available to them. You don’t know what you don’t know. Trust me, there ARE other options and there are many GREAT options for you.

6. You are not your PhD

Who you are as a person is more than your research interest and the hard work you have taken so far to get the credential. This is not meant to reduce the significance of what you have accomplished while getting a PhD. It is meant to help you realize that there are many other great things ahead of you. You might feel lost at first, but this is usually a sign that you’re embarking on a new adventure, entering an unfamiliar situation. This means more learning, growth, and self-discovery.

Letting go of my PhD made me realize how important other things were in my life. I used to be completely preoccupied with school work and other academic commitments like writing grant proposals and submitting my work to conferences. I had no idea what other things I could be doing professionally if I could not be an academic. If I had any time to spend with my family and friends, it had to be planned around my schedule and availability. PhD took precedence over everything else.

Letting go of the PhD created new space for seeing other things in my life in a new light: I cared about spending time with my family and what city and country I was living in; I learned what kinds of thing I was good at and could do for living; I had the freedom to keep up with my friends and their projects and pursuits.

These are some of the things that are on my mind a little over a year after quitting my PhD. I am sure that as the time goes by I may learn more and rethink some of these points. For now, I am curious to hear if any of you had similar experiences?


    • Hi Richa,

      Thank you for the kind words! and yes, although completing a PhD is challenging, I think we should still be able to find some joy in it, otherwise, it might be a good idea to rethink it.

  • I am in same dilemma. I have recently got a government job in non-academic field. Don’t know what to do.

    • Hi Jatin. Whether or not to continue on with your PhD is a difficult decision to make. Consider whether you can identify what specific aspects of your graduate career make it difficult and whether any of those things could be changed to make the experience more enjoyable. Taking a time off is also a good idea which will allow you to gain some distance and reconsider your PhD from a new perspective. There are many helpful resources out there too. Although, it will be ultimately up to you to make the decision, you might find it helpful to know that there are many others who have been in a similar situation. One article that comes to mind is:

  • Hi anna, reading your post transported me to your world. I am actually in that phase where i am figuring out how not to get rejects from universities for a PhD. During my Masters too i had very little time for my family and friends and working 12 hours for 7 days a week had become normal at some point. I couldn’t remember whether it was a saturday, sunday or monday.
    There used to be times when my friends used to call up and talk about where they had been for a vacation and here i was still in my lab. While aspiring to do a PhD is a good thing and i have been dreaming about it quite intensely for the past one year, i also have this small fraction of my head saying you dont need to quit your current job as a research fellow on a government project while still being close to home and friends. But majority of my heart says i can get through the struggling times during a PhD and that life will be how i want it to be after my doctoral studies abroad.

    • Hi Vinay, I can totally relate. I wish you best of luck in your application process and I hope you get in and get to have the incredible experience that pursing a PhD can be.

  • Well first of all kudos for eloquently highlighting your thoughts while you were in the college. Let me congratulate you for taking a brave step and letting go of it when you felt it was quite not your thing.
    However since I’m currently aligned towards an all academic career :P, I have to ask you few questions here.

    I have a doubt on what constitutes freedom here? I’m not aware of the field in which you were pursuing your research, but, didn’t any field in your subject excite you enough? did you check them all? or was the process of checking them gotten the better of you? Isn’t this the freedom, the freedom that you get to embellish something with an idea of your own? ( I’m not saying PhD is the only way to do all of that, but it is by far can be identified as the most systematic way right now.)

    Secondly, Of course nothing is bigger than your/one’s life, a doctoral work would define your commitment , unrelenting determination to reach something to a logical conclusion, , something which you took up as your research work which is left behind for generations to come, who could think/debate/disagree/scrap/improvise on it . With that I agree there comes a baggage of writing proposals for grants, preparing test papers and what not! But it’s something you can identify yourself which brings me to the point that, it is going to be a phase in your life, not your whole life itself. You have to make a few sacrifices to attain a higher objective.

    (Each one who I’ve spoken who’ve done their PhD have given me different views, but it’s more of an austerity or tapasya as it’s said in Sanskrit , that’s what I gathered out of all )

    I’ll end with this, last point! promise 😀

    Thirdly, I have a slightly different view on what we shape out to be if we go through a grad school, if at all PhD does anything to us, it only gives us the strength and courage to conduct independent research, a logical mind, a quest for unending knowledge. It might or it certainly will enhance your view on assessing a problem. One thing it certainly teaches is that any study you take up, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    And whatever you do, I hope you’re going to be the best in it! 🙂

    P.S (These are my views, I totally respect yours and I know where you come from when you say that 🙂 Just wanted to put my perspective on the matter )

    • Hi Sheshadri, Thank you for your note and your kind words. I think that pursuing a PhD or a Master’s degree is a wonderful thing and can turn out to be one of the best experiences of one’s life. I know that doing my MA was for me. I am also aware that had I ended up at a different institution for my PhD program under different circumstances, it could have been a wonderful experience as well. So, I don’t think there is anything wrong with pursuing a PhD, in fact, I am all for it!