I am in my third year of a five year PhD program, and the further I get into my field of study, the more I realize that this is not the field/career choice for me. I have invested so much time, money, and effort on this degree so far, but I really do not see myself being happy if this is what I do the rest of my life. I am seriously considering dropping out of the program, but I don’t want the whole experience to be a waste. What do I do?

--Changing Fields

Dear Changing Fields,

This may be the most commonly asked question of all graduate students. In fact, I don’t know a single student who has survived graduate school without asking this of themselves.

The first thing to consider is whether you are simply temporarily frustrated with your progress in the program or some other aspect of your schooling (e.g., getting along with advisors and fellow students, worry about subsequent job opportunities, frustration with rejection from journals).

However, if these thoughts are not rooted in temporary frustrations, but are more likely caused by the gradual realization that you have chosen the wrong career path, the amount of time and energy previously invested does not matter. The idea that your future decisions depend on your previous investments is a sunk-cost fallacy. Hypothetically, if you had these thoughts before you entered your current graduate program, would you invest any time, money, or energy into this degree? If the answer is no, then it should be no different whether you are one day or three years into the program. Indeed, you would simply be wasting more time, money, and energy that could be better used to find your true passion. This is especially true if you have no intention of using your degree to develop a career in this field.

Of course, there are several other factors to consider. First and foremost, why would you not be happy in this line of work? If it can be blamed on stress, competition, or inter-office politics, you are not likely to find another job that is free of these problems. Thus, unless you have an alternative opportunity awaiting you that would avoid the work issues that are bringing you down, it may not be the best option to leave the program. In general, it is very important that you have an alternative opportunity available to you before deciding to leave your program.

If, however, you would not be happy in this line of work because you no longer feel any passion in the work, it might be time to leave the program. Similarly, if you find yourself concerned that the only reason you continue in your degree is so that you will one day have the privilege of being called “Doctor”, it may be in your best interest to find another line of work. In this case, it is often possible to earn an interim Master’s degree from your university to keep your schooling from going to waste. In other words, most of the hours that you have earned during your three years in graduate school may not have to go to waste if you are able to apply them to a two-year graduate degree.

--René Paulson, PhD

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