In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end. One night in 2010, Benjamin Schulz was working late in his “grimy, depressing” grad student office when he turned his attention to the latest news on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While “staring morbidly at the oil billowing out of the undersea pipe,” something inside Schulz snapped, causing him to question his professional path. “Look at how messed up everything in the world is,” Schulz—who was in his second year of a computer science Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in Columbia at the time—recalls thinking. “What am I doing sitting here trying really hard to work out this elaborate formal calculus that just says that one wire is not connected to a different wire?”
The question was still lingering in Schulz’s mind when he attended an academic conference in 2012. One night over dinner, he posed an earnest question to a dozen or so professors and newly minted Ph.D.s from a top program in his field: “What makes you decide to get up and do what you do every day?” The whole table fell silent for at least 5 seconds, he says, before a junior scientist piped up to say that basic research can lead to important discoveries. After that, the conversation moved on to other topics. “Oh my God,” Schulz recalls thinking. “No one else knows why they’re doing this. It’s not just me.”
Going into grad school, he’d thought, “I'll go live the life of the mind. And I’ll think deep, creative thoughts about really interesting, relevant problems.” But the reality he found was different. “I felt so knocked down into smaller and smaller and smaller corners and subdomains; … it was really demoralizing.”
So, 2 months after his conference experience—still not able to shake the feeling that he wasn’t doing something impactful—he walked into his adviser’s office and announced that he was quitting his Ph.D. His adviser, whom he’d enjoyed working with, was supportive of his decision and asked Schulz what he planned to do next. “I don’t know—I just, I have to do something different,” he recalls responding.
Roughly a quarter of U.S. science and engineering Ph.D. students leave their graduate program within the first 3 years, according to data published by the Council of Graduate Schools. To some, that number is alarming—a problem to be solved. And in some cases, it may be—for example, if it’s due to harassment, discrimination, financial hardship, or other factors unrelated to personal or professional goals.
But for individual students like Schulz, dropping out is sometimes a better course of action than continuing to grind away at a program that isn’t fulfilling or that no longer furthers the student’s long-term goals. These are the common themes that came up when Science Careers interviewed nine people who left their Ph.D. programs without a doctorate.
Lost interest in research
Nearly everyone said the motivation that propelled them into grad school had dissipated by the time they made the decision to leave their program. “I was not totally present; I was mentally half checked out,” said one former student when describing his final year of grad school. “Ultimately, I realized I didn’t love scientific research as much as everyone else,” said another.
For many, it wasn’t that they lost interest in the subject, but that they found the day-to-day activities of research unfulfilling. That was the case for Ellen Martinsek, a former physics Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago in Illinois who left her program with a master’s degree after 2 years. “Big picture, I was really excited about the project I was on; I was excited about pushing our knowledge a little bit further,” Martinsek says. “But on a daily basis, I was staring at a computer screen analyzing videos, like all the time, in a sub-basement, which ended up not being a good fit for me at all.” That disconnect helped her realize it was important that she enjoy the daily tasks and responsibilities of her work, whatever it is—something she hadn’t previously prioritized when thinking about what she wanted in a career.
Part of her grad school responsibilities that she did enjoy was acting as a teaching assistant, which helped pave the way to becoming a high school physics teacher in Chicago—a job she loves. “Every single day is different,” she says. “It’s great.”
But for students who are further along, it can be harder to let go. “I was out of steam by year five,” says Mario Muredda, who enrolled in a biochemistry Ph.D. program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, in 1998. He’d spent his first year “basically showing that the mouse we thought was transgenic wasn’t. … It was a rough start.” Then, his second project was quite different from what everyone else in the lab was working on, which left him feeling like the odd man out. Those two things took the wind out of his sails, diminishing his curiosity for research, he says.
But Muredda kept plugging away thinking, “You got to get the degree; you got to get the degree.” Part of his motivation stemmed from his upbringing as a first-generation Canadian, in an Italian-Canadian family that values education. He didn’t want to let his parents down. His program also didn’t offer the option of leaving with a master’s degree, although he’s not sure he would’ve taken that route—had it been available—anyway.
So he carried on, and eventually made enough headway that his adviser told him he was ready to write up his findings. But Muredda’s heart wasn’t in it, he says.
He decided to stay enrolled in grad school but leave the lab and start a nonacademic job in health care communications, working to write up his dissertation in his spare time. But, he says, “as you can imagine, your passion doesn’t come back after you leave the lab; it gets worse.” It took a year before he was able to admit to himself that he wasn’t going to finish, and he officially dropped out. After 8 years, “I left with nothing,” he says.
The decision was crushing and emotionally scarring at the time. But with time everything gets better, he adds. Looking back, Muredda—who today is the chief executive officer of Harrison and Star, a health care communications agency in New York City—now sees it as the best thing that ever happened to him. “I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he says of his decision to quit. “I don’t think I could be happier. … It sounds corny when people say that every challenge is an opportunity, but that is a big life lesson for me.”
Pursue a different passion
For Toby Hendy, the decision to quit her Ph.D. wasn’t about disliking her research. It was more about what she’d rather be doing with her time: communicating science.
Hendy, who until January was a physics Ph.D. student at Australian National University, had gone to grad school because she wanted to follow a career path that involved teaching at a university. At the same time, she made educational videos about physics and math whenever she had free time outside the lab and posted them on her YouTube channel—something she had been doing since she was in high school. As her online following grew—she now has more than 200,000 subscribers—she realized that maybe the traditional university teaching route wasn’t actually the best option for her. “If teaching is what I want to do, I can actually reach a lot more people on YouTube than I ever could in a conventional classroom,” she says.
So she quit her Ph.D. after 1 year in the program—posting a video online describing her decision—and turned her full focus to her budding YouTube channel, working from Queensland, Australia. She hasn’t closed the door on maybe going back and getting a Ph.D. someday, but for now she wants to prioritize working as a science communicator. “YouTube can be a place that people learn and get inspiration … so I feel like I’m part of something that’s quite powerful.”
Dissatisfaction with a Ph.D. program can also lead to the discovery of new passions, as former neuroscience student Luke Mitchell discovered. In 2016, 3 years into his Ph.D. at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mitchell had grown weary of the day-to-day reality of benchwork and started to look for something else that would satisfy his “geeky” passions. “I’d always been a really huge sci-fi and fantasy geek,” Mitchell says. He started to channel that passion into writing, spending evenings and weekends crafting his own science-fiction stories. “I just kind of got more and more into that,” he says. “As I was sitting there in lab, … all I wanted to do was get home and keep writing.”
Mitchell’s wife was also finishing medical school at the time and preparing to start a residency in Boston—about 500 km from Philadelphia, where Mitchell would have to stay if he were to continue with his Ph.D. Ultimately, he decided that he’d rather switch careers, move to Boston, and avoid a long-distance relationship. “I was already kind of having this affair with writing,” he says, so it felt like the right time to move on.
He left with a master’s degree and started writing novels full time. “I definitely feel like this is the thing that I don’t want to stop doing.”
Disheartened by academia
Some former students said that they became disinterested in an academic career—and in obtaining a Ph.D.—after experiencing the people culture. “I saw a lot of profoundly stressed and unhappy people in academia—and they were the ones who were succeeding,” Schulz says. That made him think, “If that’s success, then maybe I don’t want to succeed at this.”
Others looked ahead at the academic career path and decided that it wasn’t for them. “I think my idea of what an academic career really was wasn’t exactly on target,” says Andrew Racz, who started a Ph.D. in the earth science program at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, in 2007. After he was in grad school for a few years and his “eyes were opened to the true nitty-gritty of the research component,” he realized that he wasn’t interested in a professorship. “If I could go back and really explain to my 25-year-old self what research faculty do, then maybe I would have decided earlier on that the master’s is probably the right track for me.”
Racz also realized that the idea of finishing graduate school just to spend “a couple more years of being sort of in the same position, albeit with hopefully a little bit of a higher paycheck, … just wasn't something that I was mentally prepared for.” At the same time, Racz felt at home in Santa Cruz and had started a relationship with the man who’s currently his partner, which made him want to stay put and not have to move for a postdoc or a faculty position.
So, he left graduate school with a master’s degree after 7 years and got a job as an associate engineer at the Marina Coast Water District. “I still am in Santa Cruz; we just bought a house together,” Racz says. “So, it kind of worked out like a happy ending.”
For Lynne Tye, a former neuroscience Ph.D. student at UC San Francisco, academia felt like “the family business”—her mother, father, and older sister are all professors. Tye wanted to be a professor too. “When I was in college, I was super hyper-focused on doing all the things you need to do to get into a good grad school, a good Ph.D. program.”
At first, things seemed to be going well. She passed her qualifying exam and co-authored and published a paper. But in her second year, Tye began crying on a regular basis. “I really honestly just wasn’t sure what it was for many months. I wasn’t sure if I was homesick—or if I didn’t like my project or my lab. I didn’t know if I should break up with my boyfriend or move in with him.”
Her “eureka moment” came when she sat, completely disinterested, in the audience for a postdoc’s seminar—which made her realize that she was bored with research. “It was confusing to think that the thing I was doing relatively well at was the cause of my unhappiness,” she says. “It just kind of hit me all at once that I didn’t love the path I was on and wanted out.” Within a week she quit her Ph.D., deciding that she didn’t want to spend decades doing research and climbing academia’s “very linear ladder.” Instead, she went into software development and now runs Key Values, a San Francisco-based engineering staffing website that she founded in 2017. “I still think neuroscience is … fascinating,” she says. “The career path itself just wasn’t for me.”
After leaving their Ph.D. programs, many former students said that they felt like a failure. “That’s part of what made it difficult,” Martinsek says. With so few women in physics, she had an added layer of emotion because she worried that she’d let her gender down. It helped when Martinsek reminded herself that her decision to leave “doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be successful—it doesn’t mean that women in general can’t be successful—but I’m making a choice for myself,” she says. It also helped that she was happy “pretty rapidly” afterward. “But it was still hard at the time because you go into a program expecting to finish.”
Schulz recalls thinking, “Everyone thinks I’m stupid.” He also fretted that because he’d spent years working on a specialized project in grad school, he didn’t know what to put on his resume to go look for “a regular job.” Potential employers, he thought, would view him as someone who didn’t have any real experience. “How do I go out into the world at large? What do I even do with myself?” he wondered.
He ended up taking a winding path—first working as a teacher and then moving into a career in software. “I think it worked out for the best,” says Schulz, who now works as a quantitative software engineer at a mortgage company in Columbia, Missouri. “But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a lot of weird, complicated, sad feelings about it.”
Tye says that quitting her Ph.D. was, in a lot of ways, the most difficult thing she’s ever done—but also the thing she’s most proud of. “It was so liberating,” she says. “I was high on life.” She likens the experience to the movie The Truman Show: “You realize that there’s more than this little world.”
Muredda, with the benefit of hindsight, has taken the time to reevaluate his motivation for entering grad school in the first place. “I went into science, I think, partly for the right reasons and partly for the wrong reasons.” He was fascinated by the biology of life and was curious about how things work. But “for whatever reason, those three letters meant a lot to me,” he says—referring to the Ph.D. “That’s not the reason to go into science.”