Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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In Hindsight: Former Ph.D. Students Reflect on Why They Jumped Ship

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Whether it’s the bleakness of the academic job market, the price of an advanced degree, or the difficulty in finding the right faculty advisor, students don’t have too much trouble finding a reason to flee their doctoral programs. And they’re doing so at a pretty steady pace.

The Council of Graduate Schools confirmed this a few years back with its Ph.D. Completion Project, which tracked 9,000 doctoral students among 30 institutions from the early ’90s through 2004. The CGS data is now dated—it doesn’t factor in years of economic recession and shifts in the academic job market—but many of the findings remain relevant today.

Among the key ones: About 57 percent of the students who started doctoral programs in the ’90s completed within 10 years. Roughly 30 percent dropped out altogether.

As you might expect, the highest rates of attrition come in the first two years. “At that time, we see students getting familiar with and adjusting to doctoral study,” says Robert Sowell, the council’s vice president of programs and operations.

But there’s another time when attrition spikes, he says: when students begin their dissertations. By that point, they’ve already invested plenty of time and money. So what makes them decide to call grad school a sunk cost and move on? And what, if anything, could have made them stick around?

Sowell says the CGS study asked those who completed their programs to identify the factors that made things work out. “Eighty percent of respondents said financial support; 65 percent said mentoring and advising; and 57 percent said non-financial support from family,” he says.

But the council couldn’t gather enough information to ask similar questions of the students who left. “It’s difficult for institutions to find the student who has dropped out of the program,” Sowell says.

It’s not that hard, though, for us to ask around. We put out a call on Twitter and spoke with a number of grad students who got a ways into their programs before opting out. They told us about their reasons for leaving, considered what might have made them stay, and offered advice to other grad students still trying to make it work. It’s not scientific, but it’s an interesting glimpse into attrition.

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Ellen Chapman
College of William and Mary | Anthropology

How long she lasted: She began the program in the fall of 2010, and took a leave of absence in January with no plans to return. In that time, she was able to get through enough classwork to secure a master’s degree, pending approval from her department. She did not start her dissertation.

What she does now: She is currently on the job market, applying for jobs at nonprofit organizations, state departments and museums. While she is applying, she is doing freelance contract work on subjects related to anthropology.

Why I left:
It was a combination of a lot of different issues. I had several Ph.D. projects not work out, and I was tired of slogging through new subject areas trying to find a discrete project. There weren't many students in my program with similar interests in bioarchaeology, so it was hard to find peers to discuss the specifics of my projects with.

On a more immediate level, my dissatisfaction and feelings of aimlessness were really affecting my emotional and mental health and my relationship with my husband. Things were approaching a breaking point, and I knew I had three to four years before I would have a Ph.D. project wrapped up. I had seen too many students get Ph.D’s at what seemed like an overly high cost—bad health problems, tremendous stress, huge debts, loss of a 401(k) or other assets—only to get a job that didn't necessarily use their qualifications directly.

Finally, I grew to realize that I didn't want a life that stayed in academia. A lot of the college professors I knew seemed overstressed and divorced from the world that existed beyond the university. The things that I felt passionate about were, more and more, issues that I felt were best addressed in a nonacademic job.

What could have made me stay:
A larger program where there were more students sharing ideas and collaborating. More hope about the academic job market. More time for friends, family, and my husband.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
Don't assume that failing to obtain a Ph.D. is the worst thing that could happen. Make sure you aren't continuing in an unproductive situation just because you fear sunk costs.

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Grant Aguinaldo
University of California at Santa Barbara | Organic Chemistry

How long he lasted: He started his program in the fall of 2006 and left exactly one year later.

What he does now: He later went back to get his master’s degree in engineering, and started working as an environmental compliance consultant. He is now an environmental manager for a petroleum refinery in southern California.

Why I left:
When I started graduate school, I put in as many hours as I could to be the best student I could. I wanted the tenured professor job. But I jumped in too fast and burned out quickly. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I withdrew out of frustration. I had no Plan B, no parachute.

What could have made me stay:
In hindsight, I would have changed my approach.

In the science world, your success is based on how much you produce. Everything is built into papers. But you can only publish a paper if you have results, you only have results if you put the time in, and if you put the time in, then you can’t take a break. That was my mindset, and it backfired.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
It’s OK to be driven, but you can’t go too fast. Slow it down. Enjoy the process of taking the classes and exploring the fields that are out there.

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Kate Zmich
University of Delaware | Education

How long she lasted: She began her program in the fall of 2010 and left the following spring.

What she does now: She is the operations manager for the Smith Memorial Playground in Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for unstructured creative play for children 10 years of age and younger.

Why I left:
I was always good at school, so I decided to keep doing it. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. When I got to grad school, I was feeling really uncomfortable. I just felt like I was lying to everyone. The relationship I had with my advisor wasn’t great, the classes weren’t that engaging, and I was frequently asking myself, “Why am I here?”

I tried to convince myself that graduate school was a great opportunity; I even put myself in therapy to work through the decision to leave. But in the end, I realized I preferred working and having a job in a regular life.

What could have made me stay:
A better relationship with my advisor could have helped.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
Be honest about why you’re applying. It’s key to have self-awareness. Keep perspective. It’s not earth-shattering if you do decide to leave. The system will keep moving, and you’ll figure it out, where you have a degree or not.

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MaryBeth Crissman
University of North Carolina at Greensboro | 19th-Century American Literature

How long she lasted: She started her doctoral program in the fall of 2005 and left in the fall of 2013. At the time she left, she had written three full chapters of her dissertation.

What she does now: She teaches sixth-grade language arts at a middle school in North Carolina.

Why I left:
I always thought being a professor would be the perfect gig: I could read awesome literature, have thoughtful conversations with my students. But I soon realized the cost-to-benefit ratio wasn’t there.

After living for years on a small teaching stipend and racking up more than $50,000 in student loans, I began teaching sixth-grade language arts as a way to pay for my education. When I started teaching and working on my dissertation at a distance, it quickly became clear I would not finish.

What could have made me stay:
It sounds shallow, but if the funding would have allowed me to be a full-time student and focus my energy on that, my trajectory would have been very different.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
Being a student is a full-time job. You need to be fully-prepared for that and for the considerable amount of debt you may incur along the way.

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Vanessa C. Vaile
University of California at Davis | Comparative Literature

How long she lasted: She began her program in 1993 and remained for seven years. During this time, she completed all but her dissertation.

What she does now: She maintains Mountainair Online, a community website featuring local news and announcements. She is also an activist for adjunct faculty.

Why I left:
With encouragement from my son, I went back to get my Ph.D. at age 50. After years of coursework and contributions to my dissertation, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I moved from California to New Mexico in 2000 to take care of her. After she passed, she left me the house, and I decided to stay.

I kept thinking about going back, or doing my dissertation at a distance, but it later occurred to me that there wasn’t much future for someone in their 50s with a degree in comparative literature. My prospects for any improvement in employment status, at that time in my life, were not worth going into debt.

What could have made me stay:
If I would have gone back for my Ph.D. 20 years sooner, I probably would have gone back to UC-Davis from New Mexico to finish.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
Graduate students often start degree programs with no fallback. Everyone should have a Plan B, and even a Plan C.

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Rich Astudillo
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign | Mathematics

How long he lasted: He began the program in the fall of 2003 and left two years later.

What he does now: He is in a development role at State Farm.

Why I left:
I took an internship in actuarial science at State Farm while I was in graduate school. Following the internship, I was offered a full-time position, and I left grad school to accept the job.

This was also at a time when I was having trouble finding a niche in my program. I needed to specialize my studies, but the one area I was most interested in was also one that I wasn't very successful in. I never established any type of network of friends or peers, so it was easy for me to accept a paying position over remaining in school.

What could have made me stay:
I never felt as though I was in a "groove" while in school. I was successful in some aspects but still had trouble passing one of my qualifying exams. I think if I were able to find some quicker success and connected with some peers, I would have had more reason to stay.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
You likely got into a grad school because you are one of the best of the best. Don't forget just how much you're capable of, especially when you begin running into walls. Everyone has a ceiling, and success is learning how to manage yours when you hit your head on it.

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Wudan Yan
Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center | Cancer Biology

How long she lasted: She began her program in July 2012, and her last day was this March 31 (though she hadn’t “touched a pipette since February”). She completed all of the coursework in her first year, and she was in the middle of lab work. The program, however, does not grant master’s degrees.

What she does now: She is an intern at Nautilus, a magazine that combines “the sciences, culture, and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers.” She does fact-checking, editing, and helps maintain the publication’s social media presence.

Why I left:
I was feeling very uninspired. Though I had dreams of going into academia, I noticed that the instructors never discussed any other type of career path for us. At the same time, they would talk about how bleak the academic job market was. Then I began to question whether I would be able to land a job when I started applying for faculty positions. If they didn’t have hope, I thought, why should I?

I used to be starry-eyed about the possibilities for my academic future, but it just fizzled. Then my change of heart became apparent in my work. I wasn’t enjoying the research I was doing, and I knew there were other things I wanted to do.

The decision to leave was hard: I cried when I told my Mom, my boyfriend, anyone. I’ve always been a scientist, and I felt like I was losing part of my identity. But the more I talked about it, the less scary it became.

What could have made me stay:
A change in the faculty’s tone. They made it seem like seeking an alternative career in the sciences was unheard of, but in reality, there’s so many things you can do with a Ph.D. Having an open conversation about career options could have convinced me to stay.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
Evaluate your intentions in applying. Is it necessary? Will it move you forward? Think critically about that. If you do choose to move forward with your education, enroll in a program where the administration is on the student’s side.

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Ana M. Fores Tamayo
New York University | Comparative Literature

How long she lasted: She began her program in 1981 and left at the end of 1987. She had completed her coursework, her written and oral compositions, her thesis proposal, and the first chapter of her thesis.

What she does now: She later went back to the classroom as an adjunct instructor. Unhappy with labor conditions for contingent faculty, she drafted a petition to improve adjunct working conditions and created an online forum called Adjunct Justice.

Why I left:
I was up for a tenure-track position. From 300 candidates, it had come down to two: another candidate and me. She had her Ph.D. in hand; I did not, and was pregnant. Although I promised—with the word of my advisor—to have it completed within the year, they gave the position to the other candidate. I left academia after that, though I stayed with academic publishing for the next 20 years or so, and then translations.

What could have made me stay:
Getting that position.

My advice for current and prospective doctoral students:
Do not go into debt to study, and always demand that your educators earn a living wage. Only in this way may the corporatization of education be stopped.

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Rich Racioppa
Syracuse University | Higher Education

How long he lasted: He started part-time in the fall of 2008, and left the program in the fall of 2013. During that time, he completed about 24 hours of coursework.

What he does now: He is the director of student success at Utica College in Utica, New York.

Why I left:
I went back to get my Ph.D. after being in the higher-education field for 15 years. I took part-time classes here and there while maintaining my full-time job.

Trying to manage everything was overwhelming. I had work obligations, I was a full-time spouse and full-time father. On top of the stress of juggling it all, I found little support within the program.

What could have made me stay:
Increased support from the department faculty. My personal experience left me feeling extremely isolated in a program that touts itself for its personal attention.

My advice for current or prospective doctoral students:
If at all possible, focus solely on being a student. It is so much more difficult to balance work and family and still be successful in all these areas.

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