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If a doctoral degree is a job, it’s wise to move on when it’s no longer a fit — University Affairs

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Three former grad students break down why they decided not to complete their degree.

I would like to attempt to cut through the silence and stigma that surrounds the decision to drop out of a graduate program. Aggregate data are hard to find, but two sources estimate that 50 per cent of doctoral students leave graduate school before finishing. A university’s incompletion rate is not an often-spotlighted topic, but one that should be more openly discussed in order to aid prospective and current students.

I spoke to three former doctoral students in the social sciences to learn why they chose to leave their academic programs, as well as what happened afterwards. By sharing their stories, I am hoping to widen the conversation and normalize a “failure to finish.”

Daring to choose a different path

Katherine* was a graduate student at a university in Toronto in the early 2010’s. She was interested in her research topic but lacked thorough explanations from faculty about what to expect at key milestones, like her comprehensive exam (or comps).

Similar to Katherine, Suresh, a doctoral student at Wilfrid Laurier University in the late 1990’s, also felt discouraged. After his first attempt at comps did not go well, his supervisor gave him a book on how to research and write a thesis, but he felt the book came “a little late in the game” and he had already hit a wall. Katherine and Suresh both admit that they struggled to comprehend the hidden curriculum: the expected behaviours and assumed knowledge of how to navigate higher education.

While pursuing a doctorate at Université du Québec, Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in the early 2010’s Gabriel felt disconnected from others in his field. He said he gained competencies but lacked intellectual community with scholars whose research was closely aligned with his own. Katherine, Suresh and Gabriel all described how these experiences diminished their desire to remain in graduate school and pursue academic careers.

Lack of funding

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was on strike twice while Katherine was in graduate school, and although she supported the union, the strikes meant that her earnings diminished, causing her great stress, which she says definitely affected her ability to work and think. Meanwhile, Suresh juggled research and teaching assistantships, teaching a course and being an officer of the graduate students association, all of which he took on to help support himself. On top of being a graduate student, these extra duties proved difficult to balance.

Feeling fear and shame

Not terribly motivated by the prospect of being a researcher, but also feeling the sting of the post-2008 economic crash, Gabriel said he began to feel trapped in his doctoral program. He recalls being “fearful that I did not have a great resume and once on the job market needing to explain that I spent a year failing in the program is not a great calling card.”

Similarly, though he was feeling drained, Suresh did not want to “come out with nothing” after he had already spent so much time in his program. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” he says. And Katherine says that in the time after her comps “there was nothing connecting me to the department at all,” and that in this isolation, amidst the financial issues and caring for family members who needed her, she reached a point when she couldn’t work on her dissertation anymore.

No regrets: a productive future without a doctoral degree

Before deciding to leave his doctoral program, Suresh asked to transfer his coursework experience so that he could instead complete a master’s degree. Since then, he’s held many interesting jobs in conservation, resource management, and ecotourism in Canada, the U.S., Myanmar, and Guyana.

Though her circumstances were slightly different, Katherine also does not regret leaving her graduate program. She has advanced through several levels of work in research administration and says that having a full-time permanent position with good benefits “feels nice!” Reflecting on her time in the doctoral program, she thinks that if she had access to more economic resources, she might have finished, but “it’s not like I would want to finish so I could have that path [towards an academic career], if I ever returned to finish it would be for me – a personal feat!”

Also eyeing non-academic careers, Gabriel saw “a way out” of his doctoral program when he was offered a UNESCO internship closely related to his area of study. Securing a job outside of academia that utilized the skills he developed in his graduate program gave him confidence to say that “I was so successful at my doctorate program I went to work for the UN,” rather than “I quit my graduate program.” Changing the narrative so that leaving graduate school is not about failure has been crucial for all three. They don’t define success as having a steady faculty job at a university, but rather as using the skill sets they gained as graduate students in diverse jobs that are making an impact in Canada and internationally.

Suresh’s advice to current graduate students is that “if you feel that this [a graduate program] is not for you … then it’s ok to say I’m going to focus on other things.” His story, as well as Katherine and Gabriel’s illustrate that leaving a graduate program should not be considered a personal failure, but more of a strategy towards meeting the demands of life and reaching other career goals.

*At the request of the interviewee, Katherine is a pseudonym.

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