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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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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