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:
- I never want to quit something simply because it’s difficult.
- I was nervous about how other people would view me.
- 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!
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.