Why I dropped out of the PhD program

Why I Dropped Out of the PhD Program

By Rob | April 15th, 2014 | 12 Comments
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Deciding to drop out of the PhD program was one of the scariest things I have ever done (yes, scarier than swimming with sharks or getting trapped on top of a mountain). I know that many other people struggle with this decision – and I hope that my experience can shed additional light on their (or your) conundrum.

If you are considering a PhD program (particularly in business), or if you are questioning whether or not you should remain in the program, I hope that my experience can be beneficial.

Why I Entered the PhD Program

Many people reading this article may ask: “Why in the world did you start a PhD program in the first place?!” And this is a legitimate question.

Some of my friends joke that I simply want people to call me doctor (and yes, I may have a name change in the future to make this happen). However, there were three primary reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD in business.

1. I Love Everything Business

I love business, entrepreneurship, leadership, and personal finance. Even when playing with Legos as a little kid, my brother and I would develop intricate businesses and trade agreements. Since then, my life has constantly been filled with small business ventures and ideas..

Although undergraduate and masters classes focused on coursework, I assumed that a PhD program would be comparable to the ancient schools of philosophy in Greece – where great minds discussed and shared ideas. The purpose would not be on completing trivial assignments, but on solving the world’s greatest problems.

2. I Enjoy Teaching, Writing, and Having a Flexible Schedule

As I am far more social than I should be, I enjoy sharing my thoughts, ideas, and opinions with others – nonstop. Furthermore, I enjoy having a flexible schedule. Therefore, the idea of spending the school year engaging students in the classroom and writing exciting articles, and then having my summers to travel and start new businesses sounded too good to pass up. Nine months of work that consists of talking and writing! What could be better?

3. I Wanted to Change the System

Although I have had exceptional teachers, professors, and classmates, classrooms have always been boring to me. I’ve always felt that much of what I want to learn we don’t study, and what we study I don’t want to learn!

Nearly everyone I’ve talked with feels the same way. Although a college degree is often necessary for a job, the value of the coursework itself is debatable. Furthermore, our generation has discovered that putting in the hours to get the degree does not guarantee the job! So we end up stuck, without a job, and without any useful skills.

Therefore, I decided to join the system so that I could change the system. I concluded that, as a professor, I could teach skills that would truly be of value.

What Do You Do When Expectations Don’t Match Reality?

Two weeks into the PhD program I knew that it was not what I wanted. When I thought I would finally experience creative educational freedom, I ended up more enslaved to the system I already despised. Where I thought I would experience the free-flow of ideas, I was indoctrinated with “academic business” – something with limited relevance to “business practitioners”.

Essentially, I realized that the PhD offered me none of the opportunities that I had originally anticipated – and focused around activities that seemed irrelevant to what I thought was important. I was left with the decision to either pursue the degree because I was already in the program, or withdraw and risk looking like a failure.

Don’t get me wrong – there is value to a business PhD. I have a lot of respect for anyone who completes such a program. However, it was not offering me what I wanted.

I was spending 60 hours a week studying topics that I had no interest in. It was not making me a better leader. I did not feel like I was contributing to society. It was miserable, but I had committed to this program – so what was I to do?

Why I Was Nervous to Quit the Program

Although I was ready to quit from the second week, there were three reasons why I didn’t:

  1. I never want to quit something simply because it’s difficult.
  2. I was nervous about how other people would view me.
  3. The PhD program was providing a stipend and I wasn’t sure how I would pay my bills if I simply quit.

I’ve always been a relatively optimistic guy, but for six months I failed, time and again, to convince myself of the relevance of what I was doing. Not only did it seem incredibly boring to me, but it was hurting my health and social relationships. However, the thought of becoming a “failure” kept me in the program.

How I Made the Decision To Withdraw

Making this decision was not an easy one, and it involved 6 months of serious thought and prayer. However, there were a few questions that helped me make my final decision to withdraw.

1. Will the PhD provide opportunities that I can’t find elsewhere? A PhD is all about research. For me, teaching and writing about business were much more interesting than analyzing thousands of data points. Personally, I concluded that I could still teach and write about business without a PhD. It might look different, but it was still possible.

2. In 4 years, where do I want to be? I realized that I didn’t want to be 30 years old with minimal “real life” business experience. I would much rather teach from experience than from textbooks, and spending the next few years working, rather than studying, would provide me with more useful content to share with others.

3. Which decision would I regret more? Having just gotten married, and being passionate about people, I realized that I would regret seeing my twenties disappear as an unhealthy recluse. I can always transfer into another PhD program in the future – I can’t regain time, relationships, and health.

In short, I realized that the only thing keeping me in the program was my pride. The program was not at all what I had anticipated, so I was only remaining in it out of fear of humiliation. Was I too arrogant to admit that I had made a mistake, or was I willing to chalk one up for experience and move on?

I decided to move on. And I’m loving it!

What’s Next?

Life has an amazing way of working itself out. Everyone I have told about my decision to withdraw has been incredibly supportive.

Additionally, I’ve realized that “quitting” is when you give up on your goals. My goal was never the PhD, my goal has always been to make a difference in people’s lives through leadership, entrepreneurship, and financial education. There are many ways to do this besides for being a professor.

Finally, about my financial situation. It seems that having some doctoral experience may look better on the resume than I thought! Not only that, but I have discovered that I can read and write about business now, and make a living from it. That’s right, in the last few weeks I have been earning as much from writing online as I did from my PhD program – and I’m spending about 1/3 of the time and having 10x more fun!

So at this point, although I am still open to landing a “real” job, I am thoroughly enjoying making a living writing when I want, and about what I want.

My time in the PhD program was a fantastic experience – and I am more than happy that I started the program. Entering the program was not a mistake, but remaining in it would have been. Unlike in video games, we only have one life – and success is living it out to the fullest.

What about you?  Working hard is essential to a meaningful and beneficial life. However, knowing what you’re working for, and why you’re working for it, is equally as important. For many people, remaining in the PhD program is the right choice. But for me, it was not.

If you’ve found yourself with a difficult decision to make, let me tell you a secret: The most stressful part of my situation was being indecisive. Once I made the decision, things got a whole lot easier.

Are you struggling with a decision similar to this one? Have you struggled with this type of decision in the past? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences below!

*Photo from here.

About Author Rob

Rob blogs at Money Nomad - where he shares strategies and tips for becoming a remote entrepreneur. When not working on his own projects, Rob writes articles for businesses and thought leaders. You can find him on Twitter @rlerich.

12 thoughts on “Why I Dropped Out of the PhD Program

  1. Rob, this is easily the best post on life transitions that I have read in a while. Excellent job! I know from personal experience that it takes a lot to make a course correction in life. It is scary. Some people will misinterpret what you are doing. Sometimes the path is less certain. But you end up being liberated to play to your strengths and to make your own decisions with the finite time you’ve got. The results are far better too. I am very excited for you as you chart your own course from here on out. I am predicting blogging celebrity and some bestsellers 🙂

    1. Thanks Bjorn! It’s great to discover that you can survive, and even thrive, without becoming trapped in something that you don’t enjoy. I truly believe that when we commit to live to the fullest, we are given what we need – and made happy at the same time.

    2. And certainly. Those bestsellers will be in the making shortly! 😉 I’m still waiting for yours to hit the market.

  2. Hey Rob, I don’t know you, but I went through a similar process with medical school. It was the right decision for me as I’m sure it was for you. Stepping into the unknown is never easy, but stepping in a direction that one know’s is right for them usually pans out in my experience. I like that you pointed out that you were not stepping away from your original goals, just finding a different route to them. This is important; stepping into oblivion without goals can be dangerous and unhealthy, but stepping into the unknown while retaining your ultimate goals can lead to amazeballs.

    1. You are absolutely right Jeremy! I’m coming to the conclusion that it really is one day at a time. Find your core life goals and commit to those. You may discover that your current position is not the best route to achieve that end. Besides, isn’t it more fun to be surprised by the unknown than stuck in the predictable?

  3. Hey Rob.

    Another good article. I can kind of relate to it.
    I dropped out of my PhD as well and I’m very happy that I did. From quite early on I realised that its something what I don’t actually don’t want to do, even if the subject was interesting (teaching creative story telling through transmedia platforms).
    I was bit scared to drop out at first. But when I got told that the demo paper, which was 4 pages long isn’t still good enough and I need to spend more time writing it, then that made me think that, there has to be more to life then writing 4 pages in a month. Some of my co-workers told me that they have spent more than 400 hours on writing 10 pages.
    I could think lots of other more interesting things to do with that 400 hours than writing an article.
    It is great to have the PhD and well done, who has finished their degrees, cause it is a hard work.
    Maybe one day I go back and finish my PhD but for now, I want to start to make money and travel.

    1. Sounds like you had quite an adventure yourself! And you’re right, it’s all about opportunity cost. For some people it’s a great decision all the way through, for others of us, maybe it’s better to come back to at a later point (or not at all). Always glad to meet someone else who was smart enough to get into a program, and brave enough to leave.

      Thanks again for reading and I always appreciate your insights Pauline.

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