In November 2021 I thought I might want to leave my PhD program. To help clarify my position I wrote this post and its companion from the perspective of my future self having already made the decision. Eventually I chose to finish my PhD, and successfully defended in December of 2022 While I have a different perspective on some things now (I became an applied scientist instead of an engineer!), I think these posts are a good look into how I thought about grad school at the time.

I’ve decided not to drop out of my PhD program.

To some extent it’s about keeping my options open. While I don’t plan on going into a research position after I graduate, that doesn’t mean I won’t want to do research in the future. If I drop out now, I’ll have spent 3.5 years on a master’s degree in a field interviewers are unfamiliar with. While the degree would probably be a net asset, it wouldn’t carry the same weight that a PhD would1.

Worse, I would feel like I’m betraying my lab. GreeneLab was my first choice lab in the only school that cared enough about me to invite me to an interview. I’m also aware that grad students are expensive, and their return on investment comes toward the end of their PhD when they start publishing papers. By leaving, I’d be taking training from the lab without paying it back with completed research.

I’m not confident that the grass is greener in an engineering job either. I dislike the pace of academia. Working for 2+ years on permutations of the same question is hellish to me, but I could see that being a failure state in industry too. Being slotted into a specialized role as ‘the transfer learning guy’ and building variations of the same pipeline for the rest of my life would be far worse than my current work, even if it would pay better.

In my heart of hearts, I’m afraid that if I were to leave I’d just be quitting because completing a PhD was too hard. While I don’t think that’s the case, and I have pages of reasons I should go, I see myself as someone who runs towards difficulty rather than away from it. I’m reasonably confident that I can finish my PhD, but the only way to know for sure is to actually do it.


  1. Personally, I think of degrees as markers of someone’s willingness to spend X number of years thinking about a topic rather than a marker of intelligence/capability. That being said, I’m aware that others don’t think the same way, and to them PhD > master’s.