I received a letter with this title from “Amanda” -- a PhD student at an Ivy League institution who wants to know if she should jump ship. Her letter is excerpted here:
I'm just finishing the first year of my doctoral program, and I'm having strong doubts about whether I should even be here. My key concerns are: 1) I'm about to turn 35 and I want to have children. 2) I am the breadwinner in my relationship. I took a $50K/year pay cut and moved across the country to work as a student research fellow in an expensive city. 3) I know I don't want an academic career, and I'm afraid that my original rationale for pursuing a doctorate — an interest in PhD-level [think tank] research and consulting jobs — just doesn't hold water now that I'm here.
The only thing keeping me here is my fear that I'll regret dropping out after I move back across the country to rejoin my partner, who still lives on the West Coast. Why would I regret dropping out? Because learning opportunities are fewer and farther between in the working world. In my mind, quitting the program now represents the end of my freedom to explore different career options and grow in my field. At the same time, this PhD program has been very frustrating and painful so far. Do I really need a PhD? Are the trade-offs worth it? I'm especially worried about delaying pregnancy, which I think I'd need to do for about another year because of the demands of my work and school schedule.
Amanda, I feel your angst, and I’m sorry for the stress you are under. You are certainly not alone in your questioning of these issues; I know this.
I know it so well, in fact, that after my own experience in making this decision, and talking through dozens of other doctoral students about theirs, I came up with a list of the most important questions to answer in the “should I leave?” process.
You’re already asking some of them, and I urge you to dig deeper for your own answers; even better, see the graduate career counselor or another counselor on your campus to work through them with you. An outside, objective ear can be a big help in echoing back what you are actually saying.
These are the eight questions:
1) Why did I start this program in the first place?
2) What kind of work do I want to do after this?
3) If I leave my program, where will my regrets lie, if I have them?
4) Can I live with myself if I don’t finish?
5) What are my true priorities?
6) What is the point of diminishing returns?
7) What is really wrong here?
8) Is there a middle ground?
I have published an article elsewhere  further discussing each question in depth, and clearly many questions relate to each other (they actually work as couples). But for the sake of blog brevity, I’m going to quickly hone in on the three issues among these questions that jump out at me for you, Amanda: regrets, true priorities, and career/learning opportunities.
Regrets: Whether you can live with yourself if you “quit” is really the heart of this decision for all of us. How will you feel if you leave? Or if you postpone motherhood? Will you be able to let the PhD go as something you tried that wasn’t the right fit after all, or will you label it a “failure” and allow its incompletion to eat away at you for years? Those of us who are able to do the former (let it go) can leave and pretty happily pursue other career paths (and mothering), valuing the PhD experience as a learning one that led us to wherever we are. Those who feel the latter (that they can’t let it go) usually stick it out and finish, which can be a happy path if you commit and embrace it, or an unhappy one if the holding on is actually more of a “should” than a true desire. Which leads to…
True Priorities: Bottom line, I think what determines whether people can let it go or not comes down to their true priorities. True priorities meaning the priorities you actually, truly live by, not those you’d like to someday live by or think you should live by. This kind of a life-changing decision calls for stopping and deeply examining your own true priorities (or true values). All of the books I mentioned last week have exercises you can go through to come up with your own, and a career counselor can help you with this as well. If you can articulate what is most important to you, in your heart of hearts, you can find your answer (which may be to stay, to leave, or some “middle ground” – which means options like a leave of absence or change of programs). Please know, this process is deeper than just saying something like “I value education” (as I think anyone here does), but really examining what education means to you, what it symbolizes, how it manifests. Which leads to…
Career/Learning Opportunities: I urge you to also explore your beliefs that there will be no advancement of learning or career opportunities for you if you leave the PhD program. I must beg to differ on this. There are opportunities to learn everywhere, and careers can take unexpected and wonderful turns at any point in a person’s life. There is absolutely no reason you cannot continue to learn and grow in your career without a PhD. True, you may not continue on the path you had planned, if you leave — you won’t move up a structured ladder determined by university degree — but if you set your mind to lifelong learning and growth, you will find it wherever you are.
Lastly, Amanda, it’s important to know, as I hope and assume others have told you, that the first year of a PhD program is often the most painful and disconcerting. It’s a huge and challenging transition, especially coming from the “outside world” of work for some years (I did that, too). So, it might be worth getting through this first year, having the summer to process and take a deep breath, and then seeing how things look in your second year before you make your ultimate decision. Or, it might not be. If you really take the time to face these questions in a deep way, I believe the decision will become clear for you.
I hope others will weigh in with experiences and ideas on this important question as well. What I most want to offer you, Amanda, is support and encouragement to dig deep for your own answers and open wide to the possibilities for creating a life that works for you — even if it may not look quite like what you thought it would.
Wishing You Your Own Vision of Success,
P.S. I invite and welcome your questions on any academic/non-academic career transition issues. Please just send an email to my attention at firstname.lastname@example.org