General Education

How Do I Know If It’s Time for Me to Bow Out of My PhD Program?

How Do I Know If It’s Time for Me to Bow Out of My PhD Program?
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD August 21, 2014

Getting your PhD can be one of the most difficult accomplishments someone can achieve. But quitting a PhD is not a failure. It's a calculated and serious decision.

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Getting a PhD can be one of the most difficult accomplishments someone can achieve. And truth be told, sometimes it's not all that fulfilling. By the time you defend your thesis, which is no easy feat, you might actually feel the whole endeavor is anticlimactic.

In many ways, that point is when the real work starts — finding a tenure track job and then getting tenure. Or if you plan to pursue work in the private sector, you’ve just begun your career.

The average humanities PhD now takes nine years to complete. And only 57 percent of graduate students actually go on to finish the degree.

If you find yourself wondering if you should bow out or stick around, here are four questions to ask yourself while you make that decision:

What are your long-term career goals — and can you accomplish them without a PhD?

Many PhD programs are training grounds for a life in academia. This includes, especially at the beginning, a lot of teaching. If you're not a natural born teacher, or if you're looking forward to the days when you can pawn your students off on your assistant, you might reconsider a doctorate.

Teaching is likely going to be a major part of your career for the long haul. You really only need a doctorate for a university position or research and engineering jobs in the sciences. If you have aspirations to be anything other than a university professor or a research scientist, you can probably launch your career without a PhD.

What are the actual financial costs of staying put?

You may feel that you've already spent (or borrowed) too much money to quit your PhD program. You have to keep in mind that the longer you stay in graduate school, the longer you're not earning any "real" money. Granted, you might have a small stipend or fellowship, but you're not yet close to your earning potential. It might make sense to cut your losses and leave the program if you've put in three, four, or even five years.

How much money will it cost you to finish your degree?

How much could you earn in the meantime if you leave ahead of schedule? Even graduate students with cushy grants or fellowships sometimes borrow to supplement their income. And with the dearth of tenure track jobs at the finish line, it may not be worth it to incur all that debt. What is the PhD worth to you in terms of your long-term financial goals?

Are you cut out for the intense and rigorous hard work?

A PhD doesn't get any easier as you move forward in the program. It gets harder. When you're writing your dissertation chapters, you'll long for the days when all you had to do was turn in a 25 page seminar paper at the end of the semester. Nowadays most programs have stringent research and writing requirements.

You're going to end up writing somewhere around 300 pages, give or take a hundred.

Each one of those pages should reflect your substantial original research. It can be done, but you should be in love with your research and ready to work hard. There is no easy way around it.

Is getting a PhD what you really, really, really, really want?

Is pursuing a doctorate what you really want — or is it something that sounds good on paper? Do you just like the idea of being called "doctor"? Outside of the academy, almost no one you meet will actually use that title when they address you.

Do you want to do a PhD because it's prestigious, or because you won't be able to ever relax if you don't pursue your particular research niche?

A PhD program has many requirements and steps before you can even begin writing your dissertation. This includes a lengthy process of defending your proposal. That's after you've done two or three years of coursework in the hardest classes you've ever took. These are not years to be resentful or drag your feet. If you're not excited and in love with your work, you might consider that it's time to bow out.

Quitting a PhD is not a failure. It's a calculated and serious decision. If you do decide to bow out, think of it as dodging a well-timed bullet. Your time graduate school is not a waste. You may not achieve the final degree, but you've learned a lot about yourself, your core values, and what you really want out of life.


Cohen, P. (2010, April 16). The Long-Haul Degree. Retrieved August 10, 2014 from The New York Times Gonzalez, R. (2013, July 15). How long is the average PhD dissertation? Retrieved August 10, 2014 from I09

June, A. (2014, January 16). The Cost of a PhD: Students Report Hefty Debt Across Many Fields. Retrieved August 10, 2014 from The Chronicle of Higher Education

O'Shaughnessy, L. (2012, July 10). 12 reasons not to get a PhD. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from CBS Money Watch