Dropping Out of Grad School Is A Silent Epidemic
But, none of my professors told me this when I decided to apply to a PhD program.
In fact, I never thought that after 5 years I would want to drop out of grad school.
I entered grad school assuming that there would be a clear path to my PhD degree.
I thought that if I completed all my coursework and followed all of my supervisor’s advice, I would be guaranteed a doctoral thesis and graduate on time.
In my first year of graduate school I completed almost all of my coursework, and I started working in the lab part-time.
I soon realized, however, that there was no direct path to finished my thesis.
Unlike in college, there were no clear milestones, no set set schedule, and no structured support system.
Like many first year students I was ambitious and I wanted to impress my supervisor.
I worked 12-14 hour days, and I worked on most weekends too.
By the end of my first year, I was exhausted, but I had made little progress on my research.
Soon, I became disappointed in myself because in spite of working long hours, I was not able to generate data for a thesis proposal.
Was I “smart enough” for a PhD program?
I had performed well in college, but I did not know how to succeed in a research environment.
I saw some of peers (who had perfect GPAs in college) struggle as well, and I started to realize that the problem was not that I was not smart enough to get a PhD.
The reason I was frustrated, was that college did not prepare me for graduate school.
In order to complete a graduate-level dissertation, you need to be own project manager.
You need to have the confidence to resolve disputes with your supervisor.
These are skills that almost nobody learns in college.
It is no wonder that almost every graduate students considers dropping out of grad school.
Why Do Bright Students Drop Out of Graduate School?
Some students drop out because they realize that a doctoral degree does not support their long-term goals.
If you feel that your graduate degree is not in alignment with your professional aspirations, then it is worth considering changing paths.
The demands of graduate school are higher than those of college.
You will probably not have as many all-nighters, but you will work long hours for extended periods of time, and you don’t get well-deserved breaks at the end of each semester.
After years of frustration, tens of thousands of doctoral students dropout of their PhD programs every year.
They don’t drop out of grad school because they aren’t smart enough to finish.
Without the right project management skills, you will probably feel overwhelmed and burned out most of the time.
7 Reasons that Doctoral Students Consider Quitting Grad School
1. Time managements problems
Graduate school is an unstructured environment.
Unless you have the discipline to set up your own schedule and stick to it, you will get distracted by interruptions, the avalanche of daily emails, and the demands of your personal life.
If you get caught up in putting out daily fires, you will fall behind on your milestones, or you might feel compelled to sacrifice your personal time to catch up in your research. Eventually, these conflicts can become too overwhelming, and students choose to drop-out.
2. Exhaustion or burnout
Long hours at work for extended periods of time can lead to exhaustion, and reduced performance. When students fall behind on their milestones, they sometimes try to catch up by working even longer hours.
Eventually, this stress can lead to a burnout, which is characterized by constant fatigue. On the long run, stress can even lead to chronic health problems, such as mental health issues, digestive problems, and chronic physical pains (especially in the back and arms due to extended computer use).
3. Conflicts with supervisor
One of the biggest frustrations that graduate students have is that they are not able to resolve conflicts with their supervisors. Most students don’t have the assertiveness skills to voice their opinions confidently, so they follow their supervisor’s instructions and in order to avoid conflict.
In some cases there is a significant mismatch between the students and the supervisors. Either they don’t get enough supervision, or they get too much (in the case of micromanager supervisors). Conflicts can escalate to the point where a student is no longer able to do their work and they either switch groups or drop out of graduate school altogether.
4. Thesis project not well-defined
The toughest part of research is not the collection of data, but the definition of the research question and the setup of the methodology. Once the research is question well-defined and the methodology is optimized, the collection of data is straightforward.
Most students start out with a well-defined thesis project, but due to many dead-ends they may switch directions several times, and they lose sight of the “main question” that their thesis is trying to answer. Lack of a clearly-defined thesis question leads to poor quality data that does not tell a cohesive story, and most committees will not approve a thesis that lacks focus.
5. Problems writing up thesis
There are many reasons that students have trouble writing their thesis. In most cases it is due to a lack of experience in writing such an extensive manuscript, summarizing years of research. Perfectionism can also take its toll during the writing phase, when students don’t feel that their writing is good enough and they keep rewriting the same paragraphs over and over again.
Writer’s block, which is characterized by inability to put any words on the page, can also strike students at any phase during the writing phase. This can be due to personal problems (worrying or feeling guilty), or the inability to organize large amounts of information into a cohesive thesis.
6. Loss of interest in research
After years of dead-end projects or writer’s blocks, some students realize that the research environment is not for them after all. They might leave with a Masters degree and follow other career paths such as law school, medical school, or technical sales.
This can be a good decision if you realize that academic research does not make the best use of your skills and talents. However, be sure to have an “exit plan” before leaving such as a job that will help you pay the bills or a plan to continue your education in another direction.
7. Feeling of isolation
Feelings of isolation can lead to loss of motivation and focus. Most college students have a structured support system – either through their courses or in their dormitories. In many graduate schools there is no organized support system.
Without a structured support system, some students linger in graduate school for years without having a clear direction of why they are in graduate school to begin with and how they finish their thesis.
A support system is an invaluable resource that can provide students with the necessary coping skills to get through graduate school – both academic skills, as well as the emotional stamina necessary to cope with difficult advisors and long hours at work.
Dropping Out of Grad School Won’t Make You Feel Better
5 Steps to Save Your PhD Thesis
1. Always know what question your thesis is asking
In order to get to your destination (a finished thesis), you need to know where your destination is (what question your thesis is asking). Without a well-defined question, you will be collecting data but not building a story that can be converted into a thesis. You, your supervisor and your thesis committee must agree on the question (or central hypothesis) of your thesis before you start developing your methodology and collecting data.
2. Develop realistic milestones
After you have defined your thesis question, the next step is to develop a plan – or a roadmap. How will you answer the question? As most theses projects span years, you need to break down your research into shorter-term milestones that are realistic.
These milestones will probably change because research is unpredictable, but you need to have an initial plan (that is approved by your committee), so you can keep your thesis on track. If you hit a major roadblock, or hit a dead-end, you need to let your supervisor and commitee know so that you can adjust you plan accordingly.
3. Structure Your Schedule
Working 10-12 hours straight is not healthy, nor productive. It is very difficult (or nearly impossible) to keep yourself focused for such long periods of time. Most successful people divide up their days into short segments of high level focus – they might spend a few hours at work, then take a break or exercise in the middle of the day, and then return to work for a few more hours in the afternoon.
When you divide up your day into segments, it is easier to focus fully on the task at hand, without getting distracted by emails. In addition, if you take breaks in the middle of the day you are giving your creative mind a chance, which functions best when you are away from your desk. Did you ever notice that the best ideas come to you when you are not at work – in the shower, while walking, or during an exercise class?
4. Speak openly with your supervisor
A common mistake that students make is to “hide” from their supervisors when they run into challenges. They try to solve all their problems on their own, because they are embarrassed to admit that they made a mistake.
The prupose of a PhD program is to learn to become an independent researcher, so it is a good idea to try to solve your problems on your own first – however if you realize that you don’t have the necessary expertise or resources, you need to let your supervisor know about it. Remember it is in your supervisor’s interest that you succeed.
Most of my coaching clients were surprised at the amount of support that they received from their supervisors once they spoke about their challenges openly.
5. Join a supportive community
The number one advice that PhDs give to graduate students is to “Join a thesis writing support group.” A support group provides accountability, so that you stay on track with your milestones, and you can also share strategies that help you stay focused with other students.
Communities outside your university (e.g. through sports or hobbies), can also provide you with emotional support to give you motivation, and focus that you need to finish your thesis. When other people believe in you and support you as you go through your milestones, you can gain the confidence needed to get through the challenges of graduate school.
Did you consider quitting graduate school? Why did you think about leaving, and what made you decide to stay? Please be specific in you answers as students around the world are looking for inspiration!
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