Rediscovering Your Worth after Quitting Your PhD by Sophia Upshaw

Graduate school orientation feels like you’re a freshman (first year student) all over again. You look to both sides, gathered in an auditorium, realizing that you all are collectively about to embark on a particularly challenging journey: obtaining your Ph.D. You sign forms to receive tuition waivers and your monthly stipend, scramble to interview with faculty members and settle within a lab, and fight to reserve your spot in the most intriguing lecture courses. With fresh eyes, you view your graduate education as an opportunity to extend beyond the bounds of what’s already been published. 

With a bachelor’s degree in an engineering discipline I wasn’t quite fond of, and a few years of research experience on my belt, I hadn’t even considered pursuing a career in industry. Academia seemed to be the most obvious path to extend my learning capacity and switch to a new and intriguing field.

Outside of my secluded new world, my friends and family were beaming with pride about my academic achievements. When announcing my decision to start a doctoral program, I was met with claims from others of my high intelligence. Aunts and uncles greeted me with Dr. Upshaw long before I had even earned the title. The consistent external validation made it all the more difficult to come clean and say that I quit. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my decision to discontinue my doctoral degree wasn’t an isolated occurrence.

A year in, I had approached a point at which the narrow road to my Ph.D. split and crumbled beneath my feet. I was still reeling from a recent ADHD diagnosis, mourning in isolation from the ongoing pandemic, weighed down by the pressure of being a Black woman in an Ivory tower, unable to hold interest in my various research projects, and had just failed a qualifying exam that I had spent months preparing for. 

At that point, I took a step back to evaluate my life in its present state. I was utterly exhausted by my studies, unmotivated to attempt my exam a second time, and felt as if my pain was being overlooked by others. As I expressed my feelings to close faculty and peers, their responses developed into a tug-of-war between staying on behalf of others’ expectations or leaving in order to stay true to my own. 

Nearing the end of the summer, I was approaching my 23rd birthday, almost a year out exactly from when I’d moved away to commence my adult life. A year before, I had never imagined I’d be at the point where I’d question what was once set in stone.

I asked myself: Why am I in graduate school? What do I want to do for my career? What motivates me to conduct research?

The answer to each question was a resounding “I don’t know”.

Upon transitioning out of my doctoral program, those three simple words haunted me. I found myself stuck in an empty void called unemployment, where I neither belonged in academia nor the corporate world. I still had an ambitious spirit within me but had no defined benchmark of success. Gradually, the illusion of having my life “figured out” faded away, leaving me feeling devoid of worth. I questioned daily what value, if any, I had to those around me if I didn’t have a graduate degree or a paying job.

It took 3 months for me to get to the point where I wasn’t afraid to share my story, was no longer ashamed of my decision, and had come to discover my own inherent worth. My path to fully process leaving graduate school isn’t over quite yet, but these are some important steps I took to rediscover myself:

  1. Prioritizing my mental health. I picked back up my regular therapy appointments and started processing my decision. In between, there were days when I was too emotionally exhausted to even apply for jobs. So I had patience with myself in those moments and chose to do activities that brought me joy, whether it was starting a new Netflix series or facetiming a friend from home. And most of all, I allowed myself the space to cry whenever I needed to, simply because it hurt even more to suppress it.
  2. Reaching out for support. I reached out to every faculty member, mentor, or friend that I could think of for their support. Some of them provided networking leads to help me find employment, others periodically checked in with me by phone or email to see how I was doing. Even a few months out from leaving graduate school, I’m still grateful for those who have reached out on their own accord, not to change my mind but to wish me luck on my new path.
  3. Discovering new community. For a while, I found myself attempting to hold on to my old graduate school community, slipping into Zoom meetings where I no longer belonged. As isolating as it feels to quit your PhD, the effects of the pandemic compounded those feelings. I started engaging more with other former students who could understand what it was like to stand in my shoes. Through social media, I made friends with people who were in different professions, so that the conversations weren’t focused on academic life. 
  4. Trying out career coaching. Before I severed ties with my university, I signed up for a free career coaching session. I sat down with a seasoned professional who walked through my resume with me, helped me identify transferrable skills, and identify a few potential career paths I could pursue. They helped me narrow down what kind of work environment, company, and industry I wished to work in. I came out of the session feeling more confident in my abilities and less like wasted potential. 
  5. Getting out of my head by going outside. As I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands these past few months, I decided to go on my own solo adventures. I purchased a refurbished bike and hit up a few local biking trails, enjoying the fall breeze, sights, and smells. I dedicated one day a week to go hiking, perhaps even dragging a friend along for the ride. Even regular walks around the neighborhood reminded me of what a privilege it is to be able-bodied, safe, fed and clothed. In a way, getting outside helped me to practice gratitude and focus less on the internal struggle that ensued within my head.
  6. Accepting uncertainty. This by far has been the most difficult step in my journey. I still freeze up when asked during job interviews where I see myself in five years. In all honesty, at this point in my life I don’t know. Growing up, I had envisioned myself being a fashion designer someday. Then an oncologist. At one point I’d considered running for president in 2036. Others had always perceived me to always have a plan, to always know the next step. But for once, I had come to a point where I had no choice but to accept the uncertainty I was currently facing and embrace the endless possibilities of what I could achieve.

To those who are questioning their own graduate journey, whether to start or to move on to something else, I say to do what makes you happiest.

When I broke the decision to my advisor, they asked me “How do you know if you’ll be happier in industry?” I paused, then answered “I don’t know if I’ll be happier. All I know is that I’m not happy here.” It’s hard enough to honestly assess your own mental health, and even harder to act in order to improve it, even at the cost of disappointing others. 

The most common question I’ve been asked since quitting my Ph.D. is whether I’ll return. To that I answer with a confident “I don’t know.” If I elaborate further, I entertain the idea of possibly going back for a Master’s or Ph.D. in the distant future, if I need the degree to advance in my career. At the moment, I’m happy. I’m fulfilled without a higher degree and satisfied with the end to my formal education. The shame I once felt regarding my decision has transformed into pride. I’m proud of myself for starting a doctoral program and for leaving it. If I hadn’t have done either, I wouldn’t be the individual I am today.

Sophia Upshaw

Sophia is a former doctoral student, engineer by training, and post-graduate lifestyle blogger of The Good Graduate. Currently located in Atlanta, GA, she’s dedicated to empowering young adults to thrive in their finances, careers, and mental health while simultaneously figuring out her own. In her free time, she loves to hike, build websites, and do photography.