no other success can compensate for failure to complete the PhD

There’s a phrase popular in Mormon-dom, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” [link] This I interpret, basically, to mean we can be happy, eager professionals and do great things, or be politicians who help lots of people, but if we do this at the expense of our family we’ll never be able to make up for this loss. Family comes first, before any other endeavor (except self-care, in my opinion).

As I’ve talked to people (all well-meaning, all good people, with my best interests at heart, which exacerbates the issue) about finishing the PhD and read about it a little, I’ve come to the conclusion that in academia, the phrase should be “No other success can compensate for failure to complete the PhD.” No other success.

“He’s president of the U.S., CEO of Google, and in some countries has been declared a local god.”
“Sure, but did you know he’s ABD?”
“I didn’t. Well, he may be a success in THOSE areas but he’ll probably always regret that he didn’t finish.”

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue about ten million times.

Here’s a good bit from an article from The Chronicle (can’t blame them for going against the grain on this one, though it’s comment fodder):

The problem is that academic culture doesn’t credit the decision to stop writing a dissertation as legitimate. In fact, leaving graduate school has a reputation a lot worse than that. I’ve met many people over the years who have dropped out as ABD’s, and not one has ever presented the decision better than apologetically.

The comments confirm it:

9. rosmerta – October 04, 2010 at 10:31 am

Thank you for this article. As someone who left a graduate program for personal reasons, I felt years of shame for not having followed through. Thinking back on it, I do see that my department was not supportive and my decision was definitely the best one for my circumstances, but it took me a long time to conclude this. Ph.D. candidates need to know that other choices may often be legitimate.

Rosmerta sounds like they’re talking about something pretty affecting – that’s the same kind of language used when people talk about their alcoholism, or neglecting their kids, or taking another military tour when you have loved ones at home, big-time stuff. I think it speaks to the pressure and the culture, especially within academia which apparently can follow you around like a Ghost from Christmas Past with a baseball bat, pounding away at you. What if the PhD doesn’t meet your goals? What if it’s the wrong field? What if it’s the wrong dissertation? Finish, finish, finish. Get it done. Two years is not that long. Three years is not that long. YOU’LL REGRET NOT FINISHING.

I don’t doubt this comes from experience. They probably hear back from people who send them emails or slouch in, telling them they wished they’d finished. But life doesn’t stop when they leave the program.

2 thoughts on “no other success can compensate for failure to complete the PhD

  1. Good article. I dropped my PhD and still many of my former colleagues look down on me and pity me for this choice. I can say it was pretty personal doing a PhD and quitting it, because it is not only a life choice, it is also a way of self-identification. It requires devotion and mastery (at least it should) and in a way people who decide to go for a PhD (especially the ones who apply for it straight after MA or BA) resemble actors, artists and musicians in the way they see themselves and their job.
    The thing is, doing a PhD is a complex task, that requires not only academic but also social skills, and the most important part of it should be that the student knows what they want and demands respect and support from the university. Funny enough, to do that, one needs life experience that happens outside the academia.
    My bottom line is, of course, one should drop a PhD that is not satisfactory or that is not achievable for some reason – that is exactly what you would do with a job that is not your best match.

  2. Good points. The people I know who are most successful at finishing their PhD (and using all of their skills, academic and social) not only love their topic and field, but can’t see themselves not making a contribution in it. Critically, they see the value the additional degree will have for them.

    I like your analogy about it being a job that no longer is a match.

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