5 Life lessons I learned from quitting my PhD program

Back Camera

Three years ago I was accepted into a fully funded doctoral program in my dream field. I quit my job, loaded up a UHaul and moved to sunny San Diego.

Then, my father was given months to live. Prostate cancer. And my mother, who had long suffered from bipolar disorder, stopped taking her medication. I flew to St. Louis, Missouri and drove hours until I reached a remote hospital near the Arkansas border. I scooped up my mother, like I had so many times growing up, and brought her home.

Assignments now competed for precious time with my ailing parents. In an instant, reading and writing about preventing chronic disease became meaningless.

And I began to question everything. Why did I want a PhD? Did I really want to become a professor? Would academia provide the necessary vehicle to change the world?

I had answers. The PhD, those magic letters that would appear at the end of my name, would give me credibility. I imagined breaking into a board room of old white men who were about to rule against the little guy and, even though I was young, and a woman, they would listen to me because I was Dr. Katharine Alexander.

In addition, my own experience growing up on welfare with a single mother left me with an almost unhealthy self-appointed mandate to serve the poor. While an undergrad at UCLA, I taught HIV/AIDS education in South Africa, helped run a mobile clinic for the homeless in West Hollywood and created Proyecto Chalco– a student group that traveled to Mexico City’s post NAFTA urban sprawl to conduct health assessments– all while maintaining a rigorous load of science courses in preparation for graduate school.

I had big plans to change the world, and I needed a big degree to do it.

My professors proved to be relatively flexible with my assignments and I finished my first semester. A few days later, as I was holding his hand, my father took his last breath. This was a profound loss and I was deeply grateful for those final moments with him.

I returned to my program in January, motivated to get back on course. But it wasn’t long before the questioning returned.

Why was I pursuing this degree? What was the point?

When I scratched the surface even further, I became aware of my deep, irrational fear of being destitute. I was terrified of being poor, and that fear had played a role in pushing myself towards a professional degree. Now, this same fear of poverty was keeping me from leaving.

In addition, I was told that my independent funding would allow me to create my own research project. I drew up a proposal and got verbal approval to move forward. But a week later my adviser rescinded: I was to work solely on her research. I was crushed. It felt like the program was not about nurturing me as an independent researcher, but about training me to be a cog in the academic machine.This, and my existential crisis, left little motivation to continue, and months later I withdrew from my program.

I had no money, no job, and no degree to strive towards. My source of identity was gone. I had spent the last decade deriving meaning from the work I did, and without the work, I had no meaning.

This is what I learned:

1. Face your fears head on

Dropping out of my program — with no job and no money — was one of the best things I did. I was living my greatest fear, confronting it head on. After a few weeks, I got a job through a temp agency and I was not destitute after all. In addition, I now know that I can take risks in my career, walk away from jobs, etc. and I will land on my feet.

2. Family is more important than career

When it came down to it, my parents needed me and I was there for them. I have no regrets around my father’s passing, although I would have regretted missing out on precious time with him due to slaving away at a career I didn’t really want.

3. Question your motives

Why are you on the path that you’re on? Is this really what you want to be doing? Although it may be a difficult process to uncover the answer, it will be worth it in the end.

4. You don’t need grad school

I was waiting for graduate school to deliver a magical career on my lap and take away all my problems. It doesn’t work like that. In fact, grad school can actually get in the way of finding meaningful work.

5. Be true to yourself

The months after leaving my program involved the deepest soul searching I have ever done. Everything was under scrutiny. I let go of what I had thought was important to me, and was left with a glaring, empty canvas. What to replace it with? How could I be sure I wouldn’t fill it back up with more of the same?

Enter: the beachwalk. I would walk for hours along the ocean until the critical self-talk in my head was slowly replaced with the calming, rhythmic sound of waves crashing. One day, a whisper came. ‘Be true to yourself’, it said. I walked and repeated those words to myself over and over again, like a mantra, while the backdrop of waves endlessly lapping on the shore reminded me that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, try to control everything and be everything. Whatever my path will be, I need to carve it out in a way that honors who I am.

——–

I still want to radically make the world a better place, but I am going to attempt it in my own way. I’m not sure exactly what that will look like. I do know that I’ve committed to the wonderful journey of figuring it out.

24 thoughts on “5 Life lessons I learned from quitting my PhD program

  1. Kathi Olsen

    I love your blog! You are a natural born writer. I hung on every word and wanted to read more, more. Bravo to you on your brave journey, choosing being true to you and wholeness and the path with heart. You are a trail blazer and a star–lighting the way. Congratulations on this new venture. Blessings to you and your good work. And much love, Your GM, Kathi

    Reply
  2. Liz

    I just discovered this blog from Penelope Trunk’s writing course! Thanks for telling your story. It is so interesting to me that you decided to branch into the direction of helping poor people. I went another route because I was tired of (and needed to get away from) the ‘chronically broke’ mindset that seemed to reinforce impoverished financial situations.
    Can’t wait to see your next post!

    Reply
  3. nicholehastings

    Yes.

    Thank you for sharing your story, fears, hopes and realizations. It’s always interesting when one path leads to another and the universe magically aligns to give you what you need when you need it, both positively and not, but there are lessons in it all. Thank you for sharing yours.

    I look forward to more.

    Reply
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  5. Joanna P

    Dear Kat,

    Your post spoke directly into my soul.. I am at a phase that I realize that starting a PhD was probably both the BIGGEST mistake in my life, and the thing teaching me the most important lessons about Myself.

    Im my post I want to thank You for speaking also for me, but also warn potential candidates to think REALLY WELL before starting a PhD.

    I have been doing my PhD in Health Psychology already a year now. Right now I am at a breaking point where I am struggling to find a way to escape it, and also gather whatever pieces are left of me.

    Doing research in Psychology always intrigued me, and with my grades and performance it was kind of expected of me from everyone… After my master’s I was working in an unrelated field to Psychology, while the pressure of the crisis and my “future career” made me consider pursuing a PhD. I got accepted by this very position that IS ofcourse within the broader field I studied, but the specific topic never really interested me. That is exactly why I actually rejected the position just after the interview…

    …Only to contact them half year later, having been unable to find anything else and having been rejected by projects that REALLY spoke to my soul… I got accepted, for the second time…

    Now, a year later, I am completely burnout and almost half the person I used to be. I feel crushed, broken and struggling not to lose Myself. The only thing that matters now is how can I get out of this ASAP. For myown good. Before it is too late for me.

    Fellow great students, someone had told me before I started that, doing a PhD is like a soul rape for 4 years.

    IT IS! EVEN when u just love your topic. If you don’t… Then it will not just be a struggle.. But a risk to your own identity, world, relationships. Everything.

    The lesson however, is like Kat says:
    BE TRUE TO YOURSELF!!!!
    If I manage to get out of this, I now prpudly know that I will never again push myself into something I don’t really want to do. Never.

    It is a lesson learned the hard way, but still…

    Reply
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  7. richardhuwtaylor

    This piece addresses a lot of the feelings that I’ve wrestled with over the months after starting my PhD. I actually made the decision to start my postgraduate programme shortly after the death of my mother, and I find myself constantly second-guessing my decision to stay in academia. Like you, I feel that I cling to this lifestyle because my work as a student had, for years, been how I defined myself (at least in my own thoughts).

    Thanks for these helpful and comforting reflections on a very difficult choice, Kat.

    Reply
    1. Kat Alexander Post author

      Sorry for the loss of your mom, Rich. What a tough decision you had to make.

      I think second-guessing in academia is normal, especially when staying in involves considerable sacrifices with family, health, mental well-being etc. Most people choose to put their blinders on when the doubts get too loud. Underlying desires for prestige and affirmation are powerful motivators for many- they certainly were for me.

      Stepping out of my program was the most difficult and freeing decision I’ve ever made, and I know I made the best choice for my overall fulfillment. I’m structuring my life in a way that enables me to research and study what I’m most passionate about (empowering marginalized women and girls around the world), and I will be able to shift from research to action if and when I choose, either by aligning with an organization that does work I believe in, or by designing and implementing my own.

      There is no doubt that rigorous research has contributed significantly to improving the health and well being of the planet. And academia has aided this research. But academia is a machine unto itself, and just as corporations need to report quarterly earning to their shareholders, PhDs have to “publish or perish” above all else. Neither include the sustainable improvement of quality of life as an outcome measure, which is important to me.

      Allow yourself to question your decision. Being in nature walking for hours, over a period of months, gave me tremendous clarity. Maybe you will find you can make academia work for you, and that the pros outweigh the cons. Great. Or your questioning may lead you to step out, which is okay, too. As long as your are being true to yourself.

      Reply
  8. Oscar Guerrero

    Your post made me feel better. I am from Colombia and I was admitted to Grad School at the University of Utah. However, I always had doubts about this option even since the application because it implied to get rid of my personal life. As you can guess, the situation may be harder for an international student. My mother is a single mother and I am his single son. I did not want to abandon her for four or more years because she has many obligations here and she needs help, not only with money but with moral support. I also have very good friends and a relationship. I finished my Masters in July and I am scheduled to graduate in September. Since the PhD program begins this August, would I have had some time to take a breath? The answer is NO because the workload as a graduate student is considerable. I needed to clear my mind about me and my future.

    But then, why did I decide to apply to the Graduate Program? Well, it was due to the pressure of the academic world. They made me feel that getting a PhD was the way to be a better person, even if you have to sacrifice all other aspects of your life. Sometimes, they did not care about your life or even if you are a human being. I love research but I also love to live. The situation may be different for other people.

    Kat, you are right. BE TRUE TO YOURSELF (sé fiel a tí mismo).

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Now, I do not feel alone with this situation. Sometimes I feel bad for rejecting the opportunity but I never was convinced that it was the best decission.

    Best regards and sorry if my English tends to be kind of weird.

    Reply
  9. Amy

    Thank you to Kat and the rest of you for sharing your stories. I recently started my PhD program and am already having doubts about being here. I too thought that a PhD would give me the extra power needed to help make a difference. But the more I learn about the career options, the more I don’t want to do it. With some critisicm from a professor earlier this week, I really thought about what I was doing and why I was even here. I am now realizing that I do not have motivation for what I’ve started and may have made a mistake by devoting years of my life, trying to get into a PhD program.

    Reading your comments has made me feel better about the situation and makes me think that quitting, if I decide to do it, won’t be the worst thing in the world. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and comments, as others have said, it’s good to know that you’re not alone!

    Reply
  10. Averageperson

    Hi Kate, so what are you up to now? I’m on the verge of quitting after 6 years… my family will disown me if I do haha…. well not really but they obviously think am very gifted – and generally everyone else- so why shouldn’t I be able to finish it? I ask myself the same question…

    Reply
    1. Kat Alexander Post author

      It sounds like you have quite a bit of time invested in your program… what would it take to finish it? I left my program after a year, so I had a lot less invested. That said, this is a very personal decision and one only you can make for yourself. For me, it was important to unattached my sense of self-worth with the completion of a doctoral degree. Before beginning my program I thought, “I have to have a PhD to make a significant, meaningful impact in the world.” And I realized this was just a story I was telling myself. Once in the program I felt like my creative, entrepreneurial spirit was being crushed, and I wanted out. Since leaving my program I’ve launched a tech nonprofit– Report It, Girl– a platform to help survivors of sexual violence heal through storytelling, community and resources. Check it out here: http://www.reportitgirl.com. I see myself more as a serial entrepreneur, and am using my research background to inform evidence-based work that improves people’s lives. There are many challenges to this path, of course, but I feel like I am being true to myself. And, I’m careful to not attached my sense of self worth to this work, either. The best thing you can do for yourself right now is to go inward and reflect on what it is you really want. Take a break from the cacophony of opinions others have about whether to continue. If you can, spend a day in nature, with your journal, and write whatever comes to mind. I know you will find clarity. And in the wise words of Oprah, “There are no mistakes. There is a supreme moment of destiny calling on your life. Your job is to feel that, hear that to know that.” (Video of her talk saying that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGgb1PwH7mo). All the best!

      Reply

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