The Life Of A Poor PhD Student

If you follow my blog, you might already know that Mr. FAF completed his PhD degree this past summer and has officially become Dr. FAF.

However, there’s one thing you might not know about me. Besides ‘Ms. FAF’ I also have another title: a PhD dropout.

The act of typing these three words strangled my heart for a couple of seconds. And during that moment, I felt like I just couldn’t breathe properly.

Those three words conjure up all the bad memories that once dominated my life, my thoughts, and my feelings.

I hesitate to let people know that I was once in a PhD program but couldn’t finish it. I’m afraid of being judged or seen as a failure.

Thinking about the PhD experience brings back all sorts of emotions, most of which are negative: shame, guilt, disappointment, and distress.

If you have experienced something so negative in your life that you don’t even want to think or talk about it, you will know what I mean.

But one thing I’ve realized about blogging is that the more I write about my fear, the more comfortable I get to face it.

In order to come to terms with what I consider the biggest failure of my life so far – dropping out of a PhD program, I will discuss what it’s like to live as a poor PhD student based on my own experience.

My PhD experience

I was in a PhD program in Political Science for four years before I left with a Master’s degree. It usually took the students in the program six years to finish. Some were quick to complete the degree in five years. Some stayed in the program for eight years before they could call themselves a Doctor. And some left halfway through.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the doctoral attrition rate in the US is roughly 50%. Almost half of graduate students never received their PhD diplomas. The other half completed their doctoral degree within 10 years. I belong to the first group: the dropouts.

I was fortunate enough to get tuition remission and a graduate assistantship from the school I attended.Β I would get a monthly stipend in exchange for doing research work for the professors in the department. Initially, I was as happy as a clam to explore a new adventure in my life without having to get into debt to finance it.

I didn’t get paid in the summer and was encouraged by the professors to explore research opportunity and focus on our research instead of seeking full-time or part-time jobs.

Our number one priority was to churn out research papers and getting them published in one of the top journals in the field. Needless to say, I tried to live on the bare minimum during the school year to save for the summer.

Everyone in my PhD program back then had a different background. Some had worked for years. Some just graduated from college. Some just got their Master’s degree.

What I describe below does not apply to every PhD student. But this is what I experienced during my four years in the doctoral program.

The poor elites

Less than 2% of Americans are PhD holders. People choose to pursue a PhD for various reasons whether it’s their passion for research, an interest in teaching, a yearning for an in-depth understanding of a certain subject, a desire for a prestigious title, or the difficulty of finding a full-time job fresh out off college.

Getting accepted into a PhD program is not easy, and finishing the degree is definitely no joke. At lunch time and during our casual conversations, I would hear my colleagues talking about how they were the educated elites of society living in the ivory academic tower.

I just felt poor and emotionally drained. The life of a PhD student is not as glamorous as many might think.

If you’re a PhD candidate and apply for 200 positions without getting any offer, it’s normal. Some people in my program ended up moving overseas to teach, leaving behind their family and their friends just because they couldn’t get any job offers in the US. Political Science, after all, is not as marketable as Engineering, Economics, Computer Science or other hard sciences.

It’s not unheard of for someone to stay in a PhD program for 8 years and end up with a $40,000-$50,000 job as a professor. That’s if they’re lucky.

Many PhD students in America get their diplomas and find themselves working as adjunct professors making $20,000 a year and relying on welfare to support their family.

A student I knew worked as an adjunct professor making $22,000 a year after spending six years to get his PhD.Β He eventually gave up on academia and moving into the private sector to work as a statistician.

Our PhD program, though in Political Science, focused heavily on statistics, so some people chose the private sector route to work as data analysts.Β And many dropped out after years of investing time and effort pursuing something that didn’t bear fruit. Just like me.

Mental health issues

One thing I found rampant among the PhD student community was depression and the Impostor syndrome (a form of intellectual self-doubt).

When you are put into a selected group of intelligent and driven people who you know are constantly and secretly compared to you by your professors, the desire to compete is real. If someone becomes a professor’s favorite, they will also get some unwanted doses of jealousy from the others.

Many people I knew suffered from depression and had to take anti-depressants on a regular basis. Many students also had the Imposter syndrome where they constantly questioned how and why they even got into a PhD program and doubted their ability to finish it. Such negative thoughts took a toll on their health and their studies.

Dating

At school

The dating scene among PhD students in general was dire. We lived in a bubble buried in our coursework, teaching, and research. The people we knew were the ones we interacted with the most: other PhD students.

However, it was an unwritten rule in the department that we shouldn’t date another student in the same PhD program. The rule was to prevent the hostility and awkwardness that ensues after a breakup. It can affect the productivity of not only the students involved but also others who need to work with them.

Another reason is that it is extremely difficult for people in the same program to get academic jobs at the same university. You go where the job takes you unless you want to work in the private sector, which many of us didn’t.

However, some still broke the rule and had to face each other in a tiny lab and classroom every single day (for years). Needless to say, no one was happy to go through that experience.

Outside of school

Many PhD students had a hard time finding a date outside of school. If you are a man living on a poor graduate student’s budget, you have to think twice about asking someone out on a regular basis.

Many women are also not so impressed to hear that their potential boyfriend will have to live on a modest salary for years and not know where or when they can find employment.

If you are in law school or medical school, chances are you will make a great salary after graduation. If you are a PhD student studying Political Science, your income prospects just don’t look as great.

If you are a woman pursuing a PhD degree, men can find you intimidating. In today’s society, we champion gender equality. But the truth is a lot of men feel intimidated by more successful or better educated women.

If that’s the case, the woman just needs to keep looking for the right men who are either confident enough in themselves or are equally or better educated.

I can’t remember how many times people told me that it wasn’t worth it for a woman to get a PhD because their ultimate goal should be to take care of their family. I just smiled and moved on with my life.

You might think dating is not so important. But when you stay in a PhD program for years and keep wondering when or whether you will ever get married, start a family, and have kids, it is not particularly healthy.

I talked to many women who got increasingly worried about their biological clock ticking while stressing out about their dissertation and job prospects. The women who already had a family was under tremendous pressure to take good care of their family and perform the various tasks expected of a PhD student.

The drive for free food

Have you experienced those college days when you went to club meetings just because of the free food? It happened to me a lot when I was in grad school. My colleagues and I would get excited whenever we got an email about a free food event.

We had to balance spending time walking to get the food and focusing on our work. That’s why everyone was smiling happily when there was free food provided right in our department. We didn’t have to walk far to get the good stuff.

We had the Graduate Student Council meetings once every month, and many students showed up just for the free food. At least, that’s what I was told.

I remember one time someone in my program used an empty yogurt tub as their lunch box. Someone quipped right next to him that it was a good indicator of extreme poverty. I’m not sure if my colleague heard it, but I wasn’t too happy when I heard that. Some also applied for food stamps, as many other PhD students did.

Conclusion

What I described above might sound depressing and biased. And I admit it’s true. This post is based on my own observations and the various conversations I had with other PhD students at the university as well as other schools.

I wholeheartedly agree that there are great benefits to pursuing a PhD program. I myself have learned a lot from my doctoral experience and wouldn’t be who I am today without it.

I respect those who overcome great challenges to pursue their passion and realize their dreams. If one day our son wants to pursue a PhD degree, I will definitely support him.

However, it is also important to realize that the glamorous title of a PhD holder doesn’t come without sweat and even tears.

Many young people have asked me why I decided to pursue a PhD, why I dropped out, and whether they should apply to a doctoral program.

I always tell them the pros and cons of the decision as objectively as I can. If they can survive the tough life of a poor PhD student, I’m sure there’s little in life that they can’t conquer.

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37 thoughts on “The Life Of A Poor PhD Student”

  • Whew. That sounds really rough. I was a poor under grad, then a poor married under grad. But I was able to work through school which kept me from feeling that strain.

    I can understand the feeling you get bc you dropped out. But I think you have to be proud that you recognized that it wasn’t right for you and that you realized it before you spent 10 years pursuing it. Then that you actually acted on that and quit. That took guts!

    • Thank you so much, Ember! I’m glad I decided to quit since I wasn’t even sure if I could finish the PhD in 8-10 years. I have lots of respect for people who do, but it’s just not for me. πŸ™‚

  • Man that sounds exhausting! I’ve thought about just going back for my Master’s program but I’m not sure it’s what I want out of my career. On one hand it’d be nice, but on the other I’ve made great advancements in my career so far and unless an employer’s going to pay for it (and give me a raise or promotion afterward) I just don’t know that I could justify the cost – both financially and from a time perspective – at this point in my life.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I know a couple PhD students and it sounds rough for them, too. There’s nothing to be ashamed about for getting your Master’s though!! That’s a big accomplishment that you should be proud of.

    • Having your employer pay for your degree is a great financial option. I’m glad you made the cost-benefit analysis of grad school and made a decision. There are things I wish I could have done differently, but there’s no point in wishing for the impossible. Thank you for your kind words! πŸ™‚

  • Don’t feel bad about it. Giving up something may not be a bad option at all. If it makes more sense, why not? Yes, the title “Dr.” looks glorious, but behind the veil is tons of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Sometimes I’m dreaming about going back to school and getting a PhD on a different subject, but my gut always questions it: is it worth the effort? what I’m going to do after getting the PhD? Will my life be even better than my current retirement life? Being realistic pretty much killed the PhD thought.

    • I think those are all great questions that you asked yourself. Having the “Dr.” next to my name would be great. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, but life goes on. πŸ™‚

  • Thanks for sharing your story Mrs. FAF! There are SO MANY people in that same boat… my hubs and I also! We met in a Genetics PhD program in fact; he left after the first year, I stuck it out for three before realizing it was sucking my soul out of my body day after day with no light at the end of a very, very long tunnel. In 2014 I finally had to admit that I was depressed, unmotivated, and no longer wanted all the things I thought I did that got me into the program in the first place (being a professor, running a lab, bench experiments, papers and grants). It is heart breaking, and you definitely feel fear and guilt and shame, like why did I already waste so much time?
    Why can’t I make this work? I wrote about it a little bit here: http://www.budgetepicurean.com/finances/financial-tips-for-career-transitioning/ But you know what, I’ve met so many people in the past few years who also left PhD programs, or knew people who did, and they all ended up much happier. And definitely better compensated! I hope your career and life now are fulfilling, and wish you all the success in the world, as you personally define it!

    • Thank YOU for sharing your story! I will definitely check out the link you sent. Just know that you’re not alone in having all the feelings and emotions that you did. I and a lot of people went through a similar experience. I’m glad you met your husband in the PhD program and are now doing much better than before. πŸ™‚

  • I don’t think that leaving a program is a bad thing, if for a good reason. It’s one thing if your life’s dream is to be a doctor but you drop out of med school because you did not want to do the work. It’s something else entirely different when you have solid reasons. Just look at people like Steve Jobs (a college dropout); what if he had stayed put and taken a corporate job after graduation? Would he have changed the world? It sounds like you had good reasons for your decision.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Miguel! I’m not sure if I can ever be as good as Steve Jobs, but I did felt so much happier and relieved after dropping out of the PhD program πŸ™‚

  • Wow, this is such a brave post, thank you for writing this. I am also a PhD program dropout. Whew, I think I haven’t said it aloud since ages. In fact, I feel ashamed to admit that I did not even stick to it for 3 months. Within the first month, I had realised that I am miserable and I just quit. Even today I avoid discussing about it and change the subject when it comes up among my family members. You are so amazing to share it honestly like this and it really helps me to know I am not the only one. I would love to hear more on this topic if you are comfortable – why did you drop out, what were your thoughts, how did you deal with the repercussions afterwards etc. Of course only if you want to, I know very well how difficult it is to discuss these things. But like I said, it really helped me knowing I am not the only one.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Pooja! You were so courageous to drop out of the PhD program after 1 month. I knew something was off after 1 semester but wanted to stick it out. It ended up not working out, but I do think I’m in a much better place now.

      It is still very difficult to write about the PhD program, but I will give it more thoughts πŸ™‚ And no, you are not the only one.

  • Don’t be embarrassed over dropping out. I didn’t even get the chance to drop out, I just never applied or even tried because I was lazy. I had my A grades and letters of recommendation etc. but from a poor family the GREs were too expensive for me so I just put it off until it didn’t matter anymore.

    I did alot of research for the PhD outlook for child development and concluded that I didn’t want to throw my 20s working for peanuts. I wanted to date and enjoy it.

    Sorry to say but almost all of my friends in PhD programs are in them because they idealize the Dr title and having their name on a paper. Very vain. Academia is a bit of a jerk off contest.

    • The GREs are indeed very expensive. I think I saved up for months and months to pay for the registration fee and to send those scores to the school. It’s great that you considered the PhD program though. You must have really liked the area. But yes, sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t spent those 4 years of my 20s feeling miserable in the PhD program.

      I’d love to have the Dr. next to my name too, but it’s not the case, and I’m happy! ^.^

    • *raises hand* I wanted to be the first Dr. Last Name in our family because I wanted to redeem the shame that my sibling brought on us. I came to my senses early enough not to waste time or money on the application process, though πŸ™‚

  • Wow, both you and Mr. FAF are highly educated, baby FAF has good genes and will be great in academia. Sorry to hear that the PhD program was rough, I couldn’t imagine being in a PhD program, I did a Master’s and I think it was one of the hardest things that I ever did. Also, the duration of the PhD program is so long, I couldn’t imagine being in school for so long. Do you regret signing up for the PhD program in the first place?

    • Thank you for your nice comment! I just hope Baby FAF will be happy doing whatever it is that he chooses to do in the future. The pressure to do well can be a double-edged sword.

      Regret is something I don’t want to think much about since I can’t undo the path. But sometimes I do wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t signed up for the PhD program. πŸ™‚

  • I can tell you not finishing is no hindrance from financial success. My chemistry major brother never finished the PhD program but like me he is early retired and he has millions. I don’t think not being a doctor bothers him in the least and I hope it doesn’t bother you. You strike me as an incredibly intelligent and gifted communicator and as someone who has unlimited potential. Great blog!

  • Depending on the field, sometimes higher education does not always lead to higher pay. In my opinion, I would encourage everyone to pursue higher education, but also keep in mind the opportunities and the potential of the field that you’re pursuing.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest or the best in that field, but if there’s no demand for it, you’ll most like struggle to make a living. Maximize your potential by pursuing a field that’s in demand.

  • I actually work with a lot of people that has their PhD and they all tell me it’s really tough. But in the end what matters is that you tried and learned that it wasn’t for you. Thank you for sharing a tough story!

  • One side that you didn’t touch is the over-expertise you get. Unless you find an academic position, you will be overqualified in the industry & very few people will consider you as an option. I was lucky to have the drive to finish it, and was hired by a company that heavily focuses on hiring PhDs, but later realized that once you leave this company, a PhD becomes a tag against you: most people expect you to be doing out-of-the-world, great stuff (that their company doesn’t do). So finding another equivalent job becomes even harder. And not to mention younger bosses without PhDs will find it intimidating to have an older PhD working for them (and you will likely question their authority when they don’t have same qualification as you).

  • “At lunch time and during our casual conversations, I would hear my colleagues talking about how they were the educated elites of society living in the ivory academic tower.”

    This actually made me laugh out loud! Thanks for being vulnerable and opening up to everyone about what sounds like a harrowing experience. There’s no shame in dropping out if you’ve realized it’s not for you. You know what would’ve been a shame? Continuing on even though you hated it.

    I am curious now however, you mention many reasons why people decide to embark on the PhD journey- but I’m not sure I caught where exactly you mentioned why you personally decided to do it. You did mention “I was fortunate enough to get tuition remission and a graduate assistantship from the school I attended. I would get a monthly stipend in exchange for doing research work for the professors in the department”

    but was that the only reason? What really drove you to sign up for the program?

  • Thank you so much for sharing! Stories like yours help give clarity to others grappling with the negative aspects of a PhD program, or any career challenge for that matter. I completed my PhD program almost 1 year ago and everything you wrote resonated so much, especially IMPOSTOR SYNDROME. Fortunately, I decided to forgo the academic route for the non-profit sector and wish I could show my former self this post.

    • Congratulations on the PhD. I’m glad you can relate to my story. It’s definitely not easy to get a doctoral degree, and I’m glad you’ve decided on a career that makes you happy! πŸ™‚

  • I was sick of school by the time I got my MS. There was no way I could have survive the PHD program. That mountain was too hard to climb for me. The extra year to get my MS was already tough.
    My brother spent 4 years in a PHD program before giving up. That’s tough…
    Congrats to Mr. FAF, though. πŸ™‚

  • Ms. FAF,

    I certainly don’t consider dropping out of a PhD program a failure. If it’s something that you really wanted but quit, maybe it can be classified as a setback… You realized that it wasn’t right for you and you moved on to bigger and better things. Thanks for sharing that not everything is so bright and blissful for PhD students. I did a little bit of homework and realized that academia is not all it’s cracked up to be. The ROI, on average, is abysmal.

  • I don’t see it has a failure Ms. FAF. It was more of something that it wasn’t for you and you dropped out because of that reason. You learned from it and you moved on. It does sound rough from what you describe during your experience in the PhD program but once you realized that typing up research papers, living on the bare minimum and having this part of life fully revolve on getting this PhD isn’t worth it then you know it’s time to get out.

    • Thank you, Kris! I have moved on from that experience and don’t want to think about it. But writing about it helps to some extent. πŸ™‚

  • I think academia has a vested interest in making people feel like dropping out of a doctoral program makes you a failure but it really doesn’t. If you’re smart enough to figure out that something isn’t for you and leave the program, that’s doing much better than some people who force themselves go through and then spend the rest of their careers being bitter jerks about being “stuck”. My relatives who are new doctors are already seeing those people and can’t believe that people would waste their entire work lives doing that.

  • Thanks for sharing this Ms FAF. I can totally relate. I’m trying to get the last of my PhD done (written up, a bit more analysis) and it’s doing my head in. Has been doing my head in for the past 2 years. This is my…5th year, I did a Masters degree at the same time. I also teach each semester (time consuming, with lectures, student e-mails, coursework etc to prep) and work FT 4 days/week now that my scholarship has run out. In our office, depression and anxiety are common, some even reportedly became suicidal (I wish I was kidding). I don’t work in the office much anymore, as I’m just writing up I do it from home, but trying to write/think deeply in an open plan office with 16 people isn’t easy. On top of that, there were often interruptions for undergrad students meeting PhD students who were their tutors. Like you say, finances can be super tight. At one stage, like your colleague using a yoghurt tub as a lunch box, I would bring left overs to the office in a washed out Cottage Cheese tub (they make an excellent budget lunchbox). I digress. I’m not sure there is so much wrong with deciding to exit a PhD program. Sometimes, life is richer with a change of plans. When I was 13 I wanted to be an air force pilot. I spent 7 years working toward that through school and undergrad university and got accepted to the RAAF when I was 21 (entry is very competitive). After a year on pilot’s course I realised it wasn’t what I thought it was, and I wasn’t after all, Maverick from Top Gun. I felt it would have been too much of a stretch to commit to the 14 year service obligation (training a pilot is apparently expensive) so I left and went back to Uni to do my honours year. Although part of me regrets that ‘missed opportunity’ (and I genuinely wish I’d stayed a little longer, just to get more mad flying skillz) I know my life is richer for not having gone through with it. My sense now is that our greatest “achievements” lie more in the relationships we share with other people and the impact we have on those close to us.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story! I know it’s hard to go through the PhD program all those years and witness so much depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts around you. I can totally relate.

      But I’m glad you’re so close to the finish line. I believe that nothing good comes easily. When you get your PhD, you can know for sure you have accomplished something many people, including myself, haven’t or gave up on along the way πŸ™‚

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