Should You Finish the Ph.D.?

June 08, 2001

Sooner or later, some doctoral students realize that they will not pursue a faculty career. They are then faced with a question: Is it better to finish the Ph.D. or leave the program?

How you answer that question depends on your career interests, the amount of progress that you've already made toward the degree, and how you feel about your department.

How sure are you that you don't want to be a professor?

At some point, virtually all graduate students feel discouraged, frustrated, or inept, so occasional periods of doubt aren't a sure sign that you're not cut out for the professoriate. And if there is some part of you that wants to be a faculty member, you should probably finish your Ph.D, since your options in academe will be limited without it.

But for Johanna Atwood Brown, it was a relief to finally walk away from academe. She left graduate school without a degree because the dissertation process had come to seem not only difficult, but pointless. "My husband asked me if this was my dream or someone else's," says Ms. Brown, a teacher at a private school. "It turned out to be the latter."

If you're not ready to quit cold turkey, however, there is an alternative. When Nora Francescani realized that she was spending every spare moment pursuing work in film and theater, she knew it was time to take a break from her doctoral studies. Ms. Francescani, who is on leave as a doctoral student in English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, is working in New York at a film-development company. "I loved coursework and even studying for my oral exams," she says, "but during the year it took me to research and write my dissertation proposal, my feelings about academia morphed from inadequacy to incompatibility."

Would finishing your degree give you personal satisfaction?

"It was important to my self-esteem to finish my degree, even though it is totally unrelated to my career," says Jennifer Solmes, a technical writer at Webhelp Inc. After realizing that she would have difficulty making student-loan payments on a junior professor's salary, she opted against an academic career. But she has continued her graduate work in an interdisciplinary humanities program at the University of British Columbia, and defended her dissertation in May.

Struggling through dissertation revisions on evenings and weekends after writing all day at her job has left her "very burned out," says Ms. Solmes. Nevertheless, she would advise other doctoral students to finish the degree if they have gotten as far as the dissertation stage. Back when she was a full-time student, her roommate at the time quit when he was A.B.D. and opted for a nonacademic career. "I understood why he considered it pointless to finish his thesis," she says, "but at the same time it seems like a waste. All those years of school for nothing."

Katharine Jewett, who earned a Ph.D. in French from the University of Michigan last year, had initially wanted to teach at the university level. She was about halfway through her dissertation when she changed her mind. But like Ms. Solmes, she decided that she did want her degree. "There is something to be said for accomplishing a task that seems utterly insurmountable until the moment of its completion," says Ms. Jewett, a French teacher at the private Choate Rosemary Hall school in Connecticut.

What job do you see yourself in, and will the Ph.D. enhance your credibility in that arena?

It may make sense to finish the Ph.D. if you are contemplating a career in academe, albeit not in the professoriate. In campus administration, for instance, you're likely to need the degree. And Ph.D.'s are valued in related fields, like research and higher-education policy, as well.

In the nonacademic sector, you may be seeking work in a field with few Ph.D.'s. But having those three letters after your name may still enhance your prestige, credibility, or income. For instance, some Ph.D.'s say they have been promoted faster because of their degree, even when graduate training was unnecessary to do their particular job.

David Attis, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University last year and is now a management consultant with A.T. Kearney, says his doctoral training does not make much difference in his daily work life, but the degree itself helped him land his job. Still, he cautions, it's not worth pursuing solely for the leverage it might bring. "I can't imagine finishing the dissertation if your heart's not in it," Mr. Attis says.

What is your financial situation?

If you're in the sciences or engineering, a Ph.D. might dramatically boost your earning power in the nonacademic world. In the humanities, that's not usually the case and, in fact, pursuing the degree might even weaken your financial future. Unless you're pursuing graduate study while working full time, every year that you're in a doctoral program is a year that you did not earn a substantial income, sock away savings for a down payment on a house, or contribute to a retirement account.

Ms. Solmes, the technical writer, found herself in a financial hole after taking out loans to pay for her doctoral study. "I spent almost 100,000 Canadian dollars getting a Ph.D.," she says. On an academic salary in the humanities, it would take her years to pay off that debt. "I just shake my head as I pull in the kind of dough my brilliant university colleagues will never see -- for correcting spelling and grammar."

How long, realistically, would it take you to finish?

If you're planning to defend your dissertation in six months, the answer is pretty clear: Do it. But if you're just beginning your dissertation, you have some thinking to do. The rosy projection of your department -- pegging the dissertation phase at two to three years -- may be an illusion, especially if the project doesn't really excite you.

Think about your usual writing pace, your motivation, the clarity of your project, and the number of hours each semester that you'll need to earn money to keep yourself afloat, and realistically assess the amount of time you'll have to put in to earn a Ph.D. Is that how you want to spend those years?

Do you still enjoy your graduate work, or are you miserable?

Although he opted out of an academic career, Mr. Attis did enjoy writing his dissertation. "It was great to have the time and the freedom to explore my intellectual interests to that depth," he says.

But for Ms. Brown, the private-school teacher who opted to leave short of her degree, graduate school was fraught with frustrations, including, she says, a weak adviser, an unhelpful dissertation committee, unclear expectations, and finally a request from her committee that she significantly change her topic after the dissertation was mostly written. "It was a grueling, nasty, unrewarding experience," Ms. Brown says.

Why should you stay?

Do it because you want to -- not out of inertia, or because you fear that there's no other place for you in the world. Your decision not to be a professor doesn't negate the purpose of doctoral study, but frees you up to pursue your interests because they're your interests and not because your adviser has a hunch that Miltonists will be marketable next year.

"Graduate school was the best time of my life and something that I can always point to as something great I did," says Ms. Solmes, the technical writer.

What's the best way to leave?

Make a clean break. Even Ms. Francescani, who put off making a clean break by opting to take a leave from her studies, advises her fellow graduate students: "Don't get mired in regret and wonder how you could have wasted all this time in graduate school. You should be applauded for pursuing something as difficult and intensive as graduate school is, even if it turns out that academia is not for you."

Gwendolyn Bradley, a doctoral student in English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, writes occasionally about alternative careers for Ph.D.'s.