That important moment had finally come. I was standing among hundreds of people, most of whom were PhD graduates and their family.
It was Mr. FAF’s graduation ceremony, something we had all been waiting for for the past six years.
It was the reason why our whole family made a four-day trip from DC to another city.
We wanted to see Mr. FAF walk and be hooded on stage by his advisor.
I felt mixed emotions.
I was relieved since Mr. FAF had finally gotten his doctoral degree to enter the workforce and bring in another income for our family.
I was no longer so stressed out about money.
I was proud since he had gotten one of the highest degrees in one of the most competitive and marketable fields in the job market: Computer Science.
That said, many people I know choose to get a job without an advanced degree and have done incredibly well.
I felt grateful for our parents, who have given us everything they could to get us to where we are today.
None of our parents went to college.
Yet, they stressed the importance of education and gave us all they had to help further our American Dream.
And I hate to admit this, but part of me was sad and nostalgic. Seeing the bright smiles of the PhD graduates reminded me of my experience in a PhD program in the exact same city.
The only difference for me is that I didn’t finish it and never got to walk as a PhD graduate. I consider that experience to the single biggest failure of my life
I enrolled in the PhD program not thinking much about the financial aspect of it. I was only 22 at the time. I was young, naive, and mistakenly thought that I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Not making much as a professor never bothered me in the beginning. I was fascinated by the opportunity to learn not only from renowned academics in the field but also from other intelligent doctoral students.
I was enamored by the endless possibilities of me being able to conduct my own research study and impart knowledge to young college students.
It wasn’t until I faced the harsh reality of being a PhD student that a lot of my dreams were shattered.
Doing a PhD is a long winding road. Before I left college to enter the doctoral program, one of my favorite professors told me to call him when I thought about dropping out.
The long winding road (and poor life) of a PhD student
What he said puzzled me. Why would I want to drop out? I spent so much time on the applications. I was interested in doing research. Was he doubting my ability to succeed? Did he think I wasn’t smart enough to get a PhD?
After one semester into the doctoral program, I realized that my professor was just preparing me for the difficulty of wanting to be an academic.
I remember talking to him on the phone multiple times afterwards. He was encouraging yet was supportive of whatever decision I made. He told me he knew I would think about dropping out since that thought is common among doctoral students.
At the ceremony, I also met some of our mutual friends. In a way, I felt inferior to them. We all started at almost the same time. I could have also gotten a PhD by now, but I didn’t.
They have achieved something that I didn’t. Some of them have entered the market (like Mr. FAF). Some have become Assistant Professors at great colleges and universities. And some continued with a postdoc fellowship.
And there I was as a PhD dropout. Maybe they didn’t see me that way. But that’s how I saw myself among all the PhD holders. I wasn’t sure how much they were going to make, and I frankly didn’t care at the time.
They had something that I desperately wanted at one point but couldn’t have: a PhD degree. And I realized I was a bit jealous of them.
Related: How To Deal With Spousal Envy
Going back to a PhD program?
In a moment of desperation, I thought about going back to a PhD program at some point in the future. Maybe after 4-5 years. Maybe after I give birth to our second baby. Maybe when I retire early at 50.
I saw a PhD graduate in their 50s or 60s and wanted to do what they did. After all, after Mr. FAF and I retire early, we won’t have to worry about living on a small graduate stipend anymore.
Without a full-time job, we will have all the money in the world to do whatever it is that our hearts desire. For me at that desperate moment, it would be pursuing a PhD program.
I have the grades, the experience, and the ability to research and write. I will need to take the GRE again, but it won’t be a big deal. I tend to do relatively well on standardized tests after taking a bunch of practice tests.
But I soon snapped out of that labyrinth. Except for that very day of attending the graduation ceremony, I had always been adamant about not attending another PhD program or going back to school. Ever.
I spent 4 years in college, 4 years in a doctoral program, and 2 years in a Masters program. It’s a total of 10 years of schooling after high school. I’m now tired of exams, quizzes, homework, deadlines, and most importantly a low student wage.
Even with those years of staying in school, my earning potential is not much greater than a lot of people. If I want to be more marketable, I will need to switch to Computer Science, IT or engineering, none of which I can do.
And what if I decide to drop out again? Dropping out of a PhD program once can be understandable, but dropping out twice, I feel, can invite lots of judgments from others. I like to think that I don’t care what people say. But in reality, I still do to some extent.
More importantly, it will severely delay our early retirement plan since I won’t make a lot of money and won’t be able to contribute much to my 401(k). I’m pretty sure the doctoral program won’t match my 401(k) contribution either.
Practicality can be a life saver sometimes.
After reassessing the situation, I decided to put my insecurity at ease and enjoy Mr. FAF’s special day. Learning can be fun, and respectable titles are great.
But there’s much more to life than being obsessed with a title that many people work so hard for. And learning can happen anywhere and anytime, not just in an academic environment.
I have spent the majority of my life studying, taking exams, writing papers, and stressing about grades. I don’t want to live that life anymore. I want to explore other aspects of my life that I never got to see.
I have always doubted my artistic talent (i.e. music, drawing) mostly because I didn’t well in those subjects in elementary school. I want to give it a try to see if I have any newfound talent in life before saying good-bye to the world one day.
I also want to start making money for myself and my family. I want to be financially secure and have the option to retire early. Having a PhD is great, but not having one is ok too. There are lots of different ways I can enjoy and make the most out of life.