How should I explain my unfinished PhD (3 years in) to employers?
March 23, 2018 7:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm leaving my PhD program in Switzerland to go back into industry in the U.S. While I was there, I took a medical leave of absence for six months. I came back for a year, but have decided that this program is not for me, and am eager to rejoin the workforce in the same field I was in before I started my PhD (which does NOT require a PhD to succeed). Since my employment gap is three years, is this too long to admit that academia was not a good fit for me?

There are a number of reasons I'm leaving, but I need to come up with a concise way of explaining my decision that doesn't raise additional questions. Prior to my leave of absence, my advisor was extremely verbally abusive and caused my problems with homesickness and imposter syndrome to spiral out of control resulting in serious depression. While my advisor approved me coming back, his abuse instead turned to neglect, and I struggled to gain any traction with my project. Unfortunately there really was no option for me to change advisors based on my funding, so I tried to find secondary advisors without much luck, as my advisor forbade me from consulting other groups despite having zero knowledge of the area I was working in (preferring to keep everything in house, and forcing me to reinvent the wheel). The people that he did permit me to work with were largely unavailable due to other huge projects going on within the group. As such completing my PhD requires a level of supervision that he is unable/unwilling to provide, and I refuse to spend another 18 months (and a yearly contract) in this limbo. My project has changed objectives so many times due to my advisor's whims that it's been impossible to focus on realistic goals that will satisfy his demands (it went from a theoretical project to theoretical/experimental without any additional support).

Personally, I think saying I had medical issues that would have prevented me from finishing within my funding period will raise huge red flags for employers. I also do not want to get into the petty details of my professor relationship, as it's possible that some of the firms I will be looking at will have knowledge of my advisor's research. While hindsight is 20/20, I obviously wish I had taken the situation for what it was and withdrawn earlier. Since PhDs here typically take 3.5-5 years, I'm on the longer end for looking like I just abandoned ship at abd (my field is architecture/structural engineering).

I was on the fast track within my industry (I worked as a bridge/building designer) before I decided to pursue my PhD, and I'm fortunate that I have leads on several jobs (and other goals to work towards, like gaining licensure and getting an MBA). While I have work samples prior to my PhD, I cannot show much of what I worked on during it (only got 2 small conference papers out of it). So while I think I will at least be able to get my foot in the door, the question is how to address the long absence from industry without a lot of research to show for it.
posted by pianohands to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Did you have an employment title while in Academia? "Research assistant", "Technician" etc? I would put that down, with the University as your employer.
posted by saucysault at 7:26 AM on March 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

"I ran out of funding" followed up by chatting about your research topic would be just dull and final enough to reduce follow-up questions.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:30 AM on March 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

@saucysault, technically my title is PhD Researcher. I'm not planning on lying on my resume, so I'm hoping my personal contacts will be enough to get me past the HR shredder. I'm more looking for what to do once faced with an interview.
posted by pianohands at 7:31 AM on March 23, 2018

If your past/future industry is even remotely cross-pollinated with academics, I think "I thought I wanted a PhD but I realized that academia and ex-pat life were the wrong choice for me" is a super, super common and easy-to-understand story. I doubt you need to explain much more than that, and I honestly wouldn't volunteer much more information than that. Your story is pretty much what people will assume happened - it's so, so common in so many fields.

It might hold you back a bit that you weren't actively working on industry stuff during those three years, but there's nothing you can do about that.
posted by mskyle at 7:33 AM on March 23, 2018 [26 favorites]

I would just say that you decided that academia is not for you, and decided to go back to industry. Say positive or neutral things about your experience and just keep it focused on the fact that you've decided that route is not for you. 3 years is bog-standard for PhD abandoning in my experience, and I abandoned a PhD after several more years (albeit with a Masters - but I don't think that was critical) with nary a raised eyebrow.
posted by peacheater at 7:34 AM on March 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

"I thought I wanted a PhD but I realized that academia and ex-pat life were the wrong choice for me" is a super, super common and easy-to-understand story.

As a hiring manager, probably not in your field, I second this. I wouldn't bat an eye at 3 years of pursuit of a PhD the person ultimately decided not to finish. I wouldn't look at it as an "employment gap" either. Three years of working toward a PhD is not a gap. It's just a different path, like a job in another industry from the one I'm hiring in.

Keep your explanation low-key, leave out emotion completely, and steer the conversation back to why you want to return to this industry and what you bring to it from your time in academia.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:44 AM on March 23, 2018 [15 favorites]

No one outside of academia cares about this as much as people inside academia think they do.

"I decided I didn't want to stay in academia, so left before my dissertation phase" or something similar is all you need.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:45 AM on March 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

You might find this previous discussion (link to my answer) helpful. Long story short, the magic words are "I realized a PhD and academic career wasn't for me". We are Legion.
posted by Nelson at 7:55 AM on March 23, 2018 [12 favorites]

Many applicants try to over-explain things like this. Resist that temptation. Too often details and explanations begin to sound like excuses or prevarications. You don't want that.

The above answers you've marked best are perfect. If they want to know more, they will ask (though they shouldn't).

You are especially should not go into health details. If that comes up simply say that you had a health issue and do not offer more information. If they don't accept that, you don't want to work for them anyway. The only exception would be if your condition would actively affect your new work and/or require accommodation.
posted by bonehead at 8:18 AM on March 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

A lot of folks in industry are kind of leery of academia anyway so saying "I realized it wasn't for me" is perfectly fine. If you follow it up with something along the lines of "I realized I'm a person who needs to produce a tangible product!!" (or whatever is appropriate in the industry you're applying for) they'll lap it up.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:18 AM on March 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

2.5 year PhD withdrawal here. "It wasn't for me, but check out my skills" worked just fine.
posted by knapah at 1:12 PM on March 23, 2018

I dropped out of a Ph.D. program. I explain it as "I realized I could do [the same thing] while working as part of a team (instead of alone) and being connected with [the real action]." It's one step beyond "I realized that academia wasn't for me" -- more like "I realized that non-academia was far better for me."
posted by ruff at 1:48 PM on March 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

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