About one in three PhDs decide not to finish their PhD. These decisions aren’t taken lightly. And sometimes they aren’t taken at all, and you might keep plodding along even though you have come to the conclusion you’d rather not, because there is tremendous pressure to finish.
Once you have started you have to ‘keep going’, or so it seems. Because now it is ‘too late’ to stop. Quitting means failure. You didn’t ‘make it’, and everyone will judge you for it… it won’t look good.
I have a question for you: what if quitting your PhD could be an entirely positive decision? What if there was no shame involved, no sense of failure? What would your decision be, if proceeding or quitting had the same value? What if you could feel good about quitting? What would you do?
Imagine writing a PhD to be like climbing a hill (definitely not a mountain, you can absolutely do this), which has windy trails, and a lot of dead ends which can make you feel a bit (or a lot) disoriented. You know you ‘should’ be going up, but sometimes the path leads you back down. Sometimes you don’t know whether to turn left or right to get to the top, or which side of the hill you are even on anymore. If you’re on the right hill, but took a wrong turn, no worries, you will find a new path. But what if you find out you’re not enjoying this climb, and maybe it is not for you? Social pressure within your institution (people on the same hill) will tell you getting to the top is what matters. And you may tell yourself the same: getting to the top is what matters and you should be much further up the hill by now.
But what if you zoomed out and looked at the bigger landscape. Wouldn’t that change your perspective? Wouldn’t you ask yourself first and foremost: ‘Am I on the right hill?’
Finishing your PhD is a great accomplishment, no question. At the same time, it may not be an accomplishment that adds much value for you. Maybe there are better hills to climb. No time to waste…
If you are thinking: ‘I started it, so I should finish it,’ – that’s a harsh message to give yourself. It reduces the PhD to some sort of race, a test of character. (Many people in universities love this way of thinking.) And if you quit, you fail and you are a loser. Ouch.
What would happen if we take this concept of failure out of it?
What if not finishing the PhD has benefits such as: not spending years of your life on a topic you no longer want to pursue, not spending years of your life in academia if it is not where you want to be, or where you will be able to find a job, no longer forcing yourself to do something you no longer really want to be doing?
What if it allows you to get off the wrong hill? What if life outside of academia is shinier and better? It may well be…
These are possibilities.
Outside of academia, the added value of having a PhD may not be so apparent. It’s shocking, but maybe it doesn’t matter either way (not saying that it doesn’t – it all depends, but it is a question that should be asked, at the very least).
Now, sometimes it is definitely a good idea to finish. Maybe you are already nearly there… The last stretch can be difficult, but it’s so worth it. And difficult stretches are par for the course, so it is wise to factor those in. No need to question everything you are doing, just because you hit a rough patch, or took a ‘wrong’ turn. Also it is fine to finish ‘just because’. No pressure there to have it all figured out.
And of course, finishing the PhD will give you the title, the label of expert in a certain field, professional opportunities perhaps, and a sense of pride (and graduation pics with you wearing a cape…).
No matter what your decision will be, that sense of pride is yours. You have lots to offer, your skills are valuable and your contribution is too. You are allowed to make positive decisions about your life. Changing course is never a failure, it is only a new beginning.
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