Why I keep introducing myself as a proud PhD dropout.

For some time now I have been introducing myself as a proud PhD dropout at various social events; especially at events where many PhD students are present. I guess that’s one way to connect with some of them. And hey, may be it will make the borderline depressed ones feel a bit better.

Whilst being a PhD dropout is common, what’s up with the “proud” part? The truth is dropping out was a really hard decision to make. I have been heavily invested into mathematics by the time I found myself wondering why I am still doing it. But the potential of dealing with future social repercussions was the worst thing that I had to overcome. Repercussions such as explaining why I dropped out at every single interview for the rest of my life.

The thing is, there is a bit of a stigma attached to people who have dropped out. I think a lot of the stigma comes from academics themselves. After all, many have also experienced such thoughts throughout their career but found a way to cope with such thoughts. This is simply a survival bias: since they found a way to cope, they expect you to follow their path. Of course, it’s hard to hear the perspective of other PhD dropouts when you live in such bubble: as they are not as numerous.

Nowadays I associate my decision to just walk away with a) realising how little I should care about societal expectations b) starting to figure out what my personal motivations and goals are.

However a) is a massive load off my shoulders. So what’s the story? How did I come to even contemplating about dropping out?

The short story is I threw myself at a problem, worked on it for almost a year, solved it… and then got really disappointed by how insignificant the problem was. I couldn’t throw myself at another problem similar to the one I solved. What do I mean by insignificant? Isn’t it presumptuous to expect to make a contribution right away? I didn’t want the problem to be groundbreaking: but I did believe in motivations why it was introduced to me as important. The truth is I stopped believing those motivations. I tell myself that’s what happened: problem A is relevant to physics but hard. We introduced a problem B that was not so relevant to physics but much easier to solve. Hope was that our methods would help us with understanding how to solve A. Whilst I was working on B, A got solved. Due to similarity of the problems I ported some methods from B to A: but that was missing the entire point of it! Problem B should have been dropped once A got solved. Needless to say, I couldn’t carry on working on various variations of B: I just lost interest. That’s how I figured out that I am driven by believing that my work is useful.

When I lost any interest in researching more, I still told myself that I should just finish: write it up and move on with my life. But deep down, I simply didn’t believe my reasons.

I’d say things like “hey, dropping out will affect my career negatively” - but I was and still OK with that. I actually look forward to reasoning with my interviewers about this thing; and if we can’t see eye to eye on this issue - then it’s a good sign I don’t want to work at such place. Needless to say, I am currently employed at a place where I feel understood and people around me come across as really reasonable. I guess my main argument against this specific thought is: “many people don’t even have a PhD; can you really penalise me for trying to get one?”.

Another thing that I would often tell myself was “now that you’ve come so far, you should just do it because it is easy”. Mind you though, this isn’t sunk cost fallacy. This is just saying that getting the title now is very easy: thus it is rational to just grab it. Well, the problem I had with that is that I lost any respect of the title: it was simply not worth it. Any minute of my life invested into the thesis became a minute wasted to me. Again, my “rebellious” streak reasoned with me: “you don’t want to be surrounded by people who are easily impressed by titles”. The truth is, there isn’t much to the title: PhD program is really unstructured and getting one doesn’t actually signal all that much due to variability involved. Pursuing the title violated my “substance over status” value.

Those were the main arguments that I kept mulling over: on my own and with my colleagues. My colleagues often weren’t particularly understanding either: they’d present me with arguments that I already knew very well and be a bit disappointed I wasn’t convinced. But to convince a person, you have to present them with new information, goddammit! And my colleagues went on and got their titles; whilst I just dropped out. There was no thesis, no viva, no minor/major corrections and no invigilators to worry about. Just like that, I freed myself from the entire disorder and walked away towards a happy life.

Well, it wasn’t just like that. Things got pretty bad. I remember cycling in to the office, day in, day out, with an honest intention of actually doing some work on the thesis. And every day making a decision not to. I thought it was procrastination at the time, but the truth is deep-down I simply didn’t think it was worth it. Spending yet another minute of my life on it was something I simply couldn’t justify. But I kept trying. I remember those bleak, dark and shitty days. I remember cycling home and thinking “what happened to me: how did I become so unorganized?”. And I remember one particular stark realisation when I opened my notebook and realised that I didn’t do any work for 2 months. For 2 months I was coming in to work, trying to do some work, giving up: distracting myself with reading LessWrong/machine learning textbooks and going home with nothing. I had one line of maths written in my workbook. ONE LINE.

Naturally, I perused all the scientific literature on procrastination and how to work effectively; but none of the interventions would stick. The truth is it wasn’t procrastination, it wasn’t learnt self helplessness. It was simply the fact that I didn’t believe my own arguments for why I should finish it.

One day it all clicked though. Such shitty existence is just not worth the social recognition: I have one life to live. It was, of course, a series of blog posts that helped cope. One particularly memorable one is called “Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think” and it is written by Tim Urban. And I remember sharing this with my friend and my friend, who was never burdened by societal expectations, saying “what a waste of time this blog post is”. Well that was a disappointment: life-changing blog post for me wasn’t even worth reading. I see some humour in this failure to connect today though.

A book that I am reading these days mentioned the following thing: knowing that a person you admire also went through struggles similar to yours will alleviate your suffering. And it helped me a lot when I found out that a person I currently admire the most, Julia Galef1, also dropped out from her PhD. And thus this blog post was born. I don’t claim to be admired, but I hope that some of my readers will also find comfort in the fact that I struggled with this decision.

P.S. And I apologise to many of my colleagues who had to bear the brunt of my irritability at the time of my struggles. In my defense, irritability is a sign of depression.

  1. because of her Rationally Speaking podcast and her very human take on rationality.