Life after dropping out of grad school?
February 12, 2009 7:46 PM   Subscribe

So I finally did it - I dropped out of my PhD. What now?

So I’ve had therapy, I’ve had medical leave, I’ve had personal leave, I’ve changed topics, I’ve sought advice from careers counsellors, study aids, academics… and I’ve finally admitted to myself that this is just not for me. I have little interest left in my field right now, let alone my topic. I don’t want a PhD, I hate the isolation of research and the pomposity of academia – I’ve only held out this long because I’ve been too afraid to admit I’m heading in the wrong direction, and have wanted to postpone the decision of what to do with my life for as long as possible. I don’t really have a clear idea of what else I’d like to do; work, obviously; travel, ideally; start acquiring some skills in a different area, hopefully. Get involved and make a social contribution somehow, I guess; the contribution and practical engagement I feel was so lacking in my research life. (I have a decent part-time job at the moment, and am actively applying / having interviews etc for others… but have no definite career map or goals whatsoever, really.)

I’m now in the exciting but scary position of having the “freedom” that I’ve been dreaming of all through my miserable grad school existence… and not knowing what to do with it. Leaving an institution where I’ve spent the better part of eight years, where I have a place, a position, a community, and a relative amount of status and privileges (well, relative to being unemployed I suppose), to launch alone into “the real world” – where all my academic skills and networking seem almost completely irrelevant and I’m competing for entry-level positions with fresh undergraduates who seem to still have their self-esteem at least partially intact. I seem to have finally burnt my bridges with my advisor, who appears disappointed (understandably) and even hostile after all the time and resources he's given to me... after depending on his approval for so long, I now feel alone and abandoned.

So has anyone got a story about walking away from their PhD and managing to “de-program” from the academic cult that tells me I’ve totally failed and my life will be filled with regret?

What I would like from the Hive Mind is some recommendations on how to smooth this transition, and to look forward to it with excitement and courage, rather than regret and fear. How do I get over the feeling that college is everything, that I’ve wasted years, and that life will be empty without those ever-present intellectual deadlines to keep me going? How do I start making the kind of step-by-step career decisions I should have made years ago, before I ever started grad school? Do I essentially pretend the last 8 years never happened & start over again?

Sorry for the vagueness of my questions but any input or advice is totally appreciated. I feel lost. Posted anonymously because I feel like a self-indulgent whiner.

Oh, and one more thing – my college has a new degree called a Master of Studies. The academic advisor has agreed to give me credit for my research work so far, such that I would only have do 6 months of further coursework in order to receive the Master of Studies. But is it logical to get a Masters, for no other reason than just to have “something to show” for the past few years? Or am I just repeating myself by getting a qualification I don’t necessarily need, just for the status of it? Am I falling into the same trap by feeling more education is “The Answer”? Should I just get the hell away from grad school & never look back?

Thanks in advance for your wisdom...
posted by anonymous to Education (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
"life will be empty without those ever-present intellectual deadlines to keep me going"

You needn't underestimate your personal motivation to seek intellectual challenges and continue to learn just because you've finished with formal education for now. It will be in a different format but it will be just as valuable (maybe more, since you don't have a lot of attachment to what you've already done).

Have you completely burned your bridges with your advisor? Are you sure he couldn't get you a job or at least a contact in your field - or a semi-related field? It never hurts to ask.

Finally, if I may offer this advice: you are catastrophizing about The Real World as it's really capitalized like that. I know it's scary but it may feel remarkably similar to academia... except you will be healthier, happier and much more calm if you're working in an area that genuinely interests you.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:58 PM on February 12, 2009

I meant to say: "as if it's really capitalized like that" in my last paragraph.
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:03 PM on February 12, 2009

I dropped out of a PhD program, moved to NYC with less than zero dollars and no job, and here I am, only a few years later: happier than I have ever been. I refused to spend another second of my life getting an MA I will never use, for what that's worth.

I started by getting a job. Any job will do. You just need to buy some time to get your bearings and start to figure out who you are outside of the context of academia. Don't plan to start your new life-long career tomorrow. Just plan to spend some time doing things that actually make you happy in practice (fuck theory). Be you. Go back to the books you read when you were a kid (John Bellairs!). Enjoy life. Enjoy your friends. You need to get rid of the habit of doing things because you "should." Do things because you want to.

That's my advice. I think eventually you'll stumble upon something that makes you happy and puts food on the table. I did.
posted by prefpara at 8:34 PM on February 12, 2009 [5 favorites]

I dropped out of a PhD program a little over a year ago and time will prove to you that life does go on. Lots of people (prospective employers, for instance) will find your graduate study impressive even if it didn't lead to the doctorate and all that jazz. (Especially if you can articulate what you got out of your studies and why you feel the need to leave academia and pwn the real world.)

As time passes the good stuff academia gave you will rise to the surface; for example, you're realizing you might need meaningful intellectual deadlines to be productive. You can embrace that, and use that knowledge to guide your job search. You have plenty "to show" from the last eight years and you can use what you learned in grad school in the real world, sometimes in ways that would surprise you. Keep an open mind, I guess is what I'm saying, and feel good about what you bring to the proverbial table.

Just don't be afraid that your intellect will wither and die outside ye hallowed ivorie halles. You'll still be reading, thinking, conversing, observing, growing, etc.

Keep in touch with the people worth keeping in touch with but don't be surprised if a lot of folks evaporate. (...and don't feel guilty if you don't feel like maintaining relationships with some people now that you're not stumbling over them in the grad lounge every day.)

Good luck and feel better. I totally understand that it feels like you've gone nuclear and have to rebuild civilization cinder block by cinder block but after a little while you'll regain your equilibrium. And you're way, way more awesome than callow undergraduates.

Take care of yourself!
posted by Neofelis at 8:34 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dropped out of a science PhD program with a Master's to pursue a PhD program in sociology of science. Dropped out after a year because academia...yeah. Not for me. Had nothing better to do than pick up and move to New York City ("if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere") and look for jobs, stumbling upon where and what I was actually meant to be. Really, it's okay. You feel lost, maybe, but there is 100% value in knowing what is *not* fun and interesting to you, and then being free/able to capitalize on that. I guess my advice is to do something dramatic. Make a good story out of it. Forget a smooth transition. If things are rough, you might as well have something excellent to show for it.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:36 PM on February 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

I dropped out of a PhD program, and no one besides me and my immediate circle cared (and no one to my knowledge thought badly of me for dropping out). Get on with life, and use your advanced graduate training to your advantage! You've gone further, and seen more, than almost anyone else.
posted by zippy at 8:50 PM on February 12, 2009

Dropped out of a PhD in history four years in. I miss nothing about the academic world except for the library's eight week renewable loans. Once I got over the hangups about status, about being plain old Mr Fiasco instead of Dr da Gama, it was obvious to me that the 'Real World' rocks boxes over academic study, in almost every way I can name.
I'm now in a job I enjoy, but for which I don't ever have to take work 'home' if I don't want to. My time outside the office is mine. Mine. MINE. Does that have any appeal for you, if postgraduate study was for you anything like it was for me? If so, you're going to love the rest of your life.
Don't pretend that the last eight years didn't happen. You're just separating from an institution, not from your intellect. You'll leave your frustrations when you get away from campus, but you'll be taking everything you got there with you.
And compared with recent graduates entering the job market? Man, they're scared of you. If you've survived postgraduate study, you're already a kung fu master of dealing with the petty administrative bullshit of the world of work that will drive them crazy.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:04 PM on February 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

As to how to make the transition smoother: just know that you're no less or better a person for not having finished, just older. Hopefully wiser.
On the masters: Shouldn't you be granted a masters just by walking out the door with a passing qualifying exam? Do you really need the additional coursework? I would enquire with someone other than your advisor (who may have a vested interest in keeping you around) before committing to anything.
All should be contingent, of course, upon finding a "real world" job that will fill the vacuum of transition. You must find something that occupies you, at the very least, such that you don't pre-occupy upon what you've just left. More money seems to wash concerns away too. Just make sure that you go to something that works for the longer term rather than something that makes the temporary situation seem better. Use your patience and determination to make the next step ideal. (or the next step after that) That should be your new intellectual deadline.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:38 PM on February 12, 2009

I didn't drop out, but I know a heck of a lot of people who did.

Only one ever came back, and everyone except that one was much much happier after leaving. There is life after academia, and you know what? They usually pay you better for it.

If I were you I'd see if you can get the credit towards the Masters but not actually do the 6 months now- now you should get started on a new career, and figure out whether or not that Masters would even help. If your school will let you, maybe you can go back and finish it later if you find you need it. Honestly, I doubt you will; if you find you want a masters in the future you'll probably want it in a specific subject.

Think broadly about what skills you've learned in your PhD; for many people, the most useful skills have nothing to do with the subject matter. I'm a physicist, but most of the physics folk I know who left grad school are doing something totally unrelated. If you're a science person you've learned problem solving skills, data skills, possibly people and lab management skills. If you were invovled in extracurriculars or ever helped organize a conference you've learned event planning and people skills, perhaps even some fundraising.

If you're a humanities or social sciences person you may also have experience in other languages, possibly extensive teaching experience (useful even if you won't teach-- it's communication experience!), and strong analytical skills. You probably know how to read and absorb a vast amount of material in a short time. Probably lots more I can't think of because, welp, I'm sciencey.

Also, honestly, you've probably put up with some serious crap. A friend of mine who left academia was assigned to a supposedly intimidating manager. The first time this manager tried to intimidate my friend, he thought: "Heck, that's nothing! My advisor was Prof ***!"
posted by nat at 9:59 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh one addendum to the "stick around for 6 months or not" issue-- Some careers that recruit academics (particularly finance and consulting, but I would guess there are others) have a recruiting season tied strongly to the academic year. You might find sticking around for 6 months puts you on a better time frame if those are the jobs you're thinking of. (I still don't think this is an adequate argument to stick around, but you might.)
posted by nat at 10:03 PM on February 12, 2009

I have a close friend to whom I send an email (at his request) every 90 days that says "Do what you want to do because that is what you should be doing" Your faith in your own intuition may not be that strong at the moment but as a minimum block out time every week to do things just because you want to do them, whether it is getting back in touch with childhood passions, trying something completely new or volunteering to help make the world a better place (or any combination of these).
posted by metahawk at 11:52 PM on February 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

What now? Why don't you try a brainstorming session now to figure out what you'd rather be doing with your time.

You said traveling, well there's lots of opportunity for you to do a working holiday for 6 months to 2 years - most countries seem to prefer if you're 30 or under, some are ok with you being 35 and under. It would also give you the chance to try a few different jobs and learn a few new skills. It might also help you find yourself again, and help you set new goals.

Odds are that option of getting 6 months of school to complete the M. Studies degree will still be available when you get back. If you want it.
posted by lizbunny at 7:13 AM on February 13, 2009

I dropped out of my program with a masters seven years ago. I had been raised since the age of five that I would get a doctorate in "some science" and didn't question that until the first year of my graduate program.

The transition was very difficult, and I don't think you're being a self-indulgent whiner. It took me a very, very long time to get over the bit about "totally failed and my life will be filled with regret" - mostly because now I have a great job and I'm totally happy and my life is much better. It just took three or four years to get there. If you know what's important to you, it will be easier to ignore the failure feelings.

Give yourself time. It's totally deprogramming, and also, building a new network. Quite a lot of my old academic network couldn't accept my choice, because accepting it would force them to face that their own decisions might not have made them quite as happy. Once I figured that out, it was easier to ignore them. It's harder to ignore your own mother, but my mother has seen how much happier (and healthier) I am and has more or less given up on me. The new network takes me as I am and that's it. Don't underestimate how much your network can influence your self-perception. Find the friends who don't think you're a failure.

Here's a useful coping mechanism to get you through the hard parts: you can always go back if you change your mind. Just get used to pretending you're open to the idea with anyone (potential employers, mothers-in-law, old friends) who's so hung up on it. There are even special programs for working professionals.

Here are more useful coping mechanisms: Realize that you are an intelligent person with or without someone formally observing it. Look at the people who have doctorates: their debt, their missed opportunity costs. Realize that now, if you want to stay in the same city for a few years, you can. If you want to buy a house, you can. If you want to get married and have children, you can. If you're tired of learning about one thing and want to learn something else, you can. You want to travel? You totally can, now. What were you going to do with the doctorate but adjunct? You can adjunct with a masters. Get excited about everything you can do now that you're a Real Adult and not in school anymore.

Intellectual deadlines - once you've had some time to destress, you may find yourself setting your own. It's more fun now, because you get to track down your own interests. You're probably more intrinsic with goal setting than you realize.

There are some other aspects I don't want to post because they're too personal but if you want to mefi mail, I'll tell you what I did with my masters and how I'm doing my little bit to fight the System.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:26 AM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hang in there. It's disorienting when you step off the academic train, all right, but you know what? Most people do, and it's generally fine. You'll be fine too.

Some good things to focus on:

If you've been living the grad student lifestyle, there are many, many jobs out there that will support you at least as well, if not a whole lot better. So, keeping the roof over your head and food on the table will likely be OK, or better than OK.

The first job you get is not an irrevocable step down any particular path.

Most of the rest of the working world knows and understands that you have a life outside of the workplace. You don't need to eat/sleep/breathe your job, generally. That will be a wonderful change from academia!

The world is large and there will always, always be something new to learn. You sure don't need to be in school to keep learning and growing.

Remember that everyone learns, and every person's life takes turns that they hadn't expected. You're not a failure. The people who you live and work with from here on out, the people who will be your new peers, just took a different route, learned different things, took different detours. You're not better or worse than them, just have a different experience.

Be well. Enjoy the next adventure!
posted by Sublimity at 5:05 PM on February 14, 2009

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