Don't Quit Grad School

About a year into my graduate degree, I agonized about quitting. I was burned out by the juggle of life and school, I was watching my loans build, most of my courses weren't stimulating, and I was having major doubts about my chosen career path.

My experience is not unique. I hear this kind of thing more than you'd think from graduate students or post-grad students, folks in law school, PhD programs, or medical residency. Someone in this boat will go on to talk about how it seemed like the best thing to do at the time, but that working 80 hour weeks or the total lack of a life outside of whatever program they're in makes one reconsider their decision. Sometimes the feeling of regret and "can't go on" is even more extreme, like the med student who realized a year into her program that she actually doesn't want to be around sick people all day every day. Or, maybe you're a PhD student and the never-ending criticism and lack of support from your faculty members or grantors feels impossible to slog through any more. What do you do?

Don't Quit.

Despite the pain and suffering I know you're feeling, I rarely advise quitting a graduate program, especially one in a professional discipline. There are some exceptions. Are you only one semester in and miserable? Are you at the point where you can get the consolation Masters degree instead of the PhD? Those are cases where I might advise you differently. But otherwise... stick with it. Stay the course. Finish. Quit a bad job, quit a bad relationship, quit smoking, but don't quit grad school.

But why?

Here's the thing, graduate school and professional programs are not like undergraduate degrees. They are largely designed to prepare you for a specific professional option (doctor, lawyer, academic, scientist), and completing only part of a graduate degree does not count toward your career advancement. The main value in a graduate degree is usually the credential, the authentication that it affords you to practice in a particular field. You might be getting lots of other great mind-expanding things from your graduate degree, but you will only maximize the value of the degree if you finish it. This is different from undergrad, where there's a solid case that building critical thinking skills and a strong network will move you ahead in whatever path you'd like to pave (see all those articles about famous people who dropped out of college...they were undergraduates.). Graduate degrees are also notoriously expensive. And you won't be able to see the benefit that will allow you to balance out that cost unless you finish it, there is rarely credit given in the employment world for half a PhD or 2 years of law school or one year of residency. Once you start, in order to get career value out of what you have begun, you need to finish.

How do I do that?

I know you might feel a soul-crushing sense of despair when you think about "another 2 years of THIS", or "how am I going to do this for the rest of my life?". So go ahead and make yourself a cup of tea, cuddle up on the couch, have a good cry, and then put on your thinking cap (as my third grade teacher liked to tell us). You have options.

There are a lot of ways to finish your program without quitting.

Think first about the elements of your life and your program that you have control over. What can you do in your personal life that will make your situation easier? Can you get roommates or a housekeeper or send your pet to live with your parents (or get a fuzzy animal in your life for the therapeutic benefit)? Can you do some freelance work to help with your income or drop that extra research project to free up some space and time? Can you restructure or build time into your schedule to allow for more naps or a regular exercise practice or a yoga class? If you're disengaged from the work you're doing can you add in an element to your program or life that does engage you, and what would it be?

Next think about the structure of your program itself. Are there options within it (there usually are), that you could shift into? Can you go part-time instead of full-time, switch to internal medicine instead of OB/GYN, or push out the timeline on your dissertation? Would it make sense to switch schools or switch programs? Can you take a quarter of leave to give yourself a break?

Once you have looked at your personal life and have some ideas and questions about the program piece of your graduate school/internship lifestyle, meet with your advisor. Some of us are more blessed by the advisor fairy than others, if you ended up with Maleficent or Voldemort as yours, then seek counsel from your peers or other mentors within the program if you can. Ask questions. Explore options. Start with "I need to make a change" and see where that conversation gets you.

I took almost 9 months off of my graduate degree. I switched jobs in that time, dealt with some health stuff, traveled a little, and then went back. I made a new plan with my advisor to try to make the remainder of my program more sustainable. I still wasn't psyched about grad school, but the break gave me the refreshment I needed to finish. Finish I did, and I wouldn't have the professional opportunities I do today if I hadn't.

But what if I'm on the wrong path entirely?

You should still finish. Here's the thing, if you find yourself in a JD program and realize you have no interest in practicing law, you can still take that degree and go do a hundred other things with it. But you won't have nearly as many of those options if you don't finish, AND you'll be out the $50k or whatever it is that you've already sunk into that program. So finish. And while you're getting that degree, network your socks off, visit a career advisor (oh hellloooooo! I'm right here!), have a ton of coffee chats with people who are doing work that sounds slightly better than Billable Hours, and plot your career transition. I would tell you the same thing if you're a PhD, or an MD, or whatever other program you're in. Career options abound, but there will be more of them if you finish.
So stick with it. You don't have to keep doing exactly what you're doing for the rest of your life, I promise. You have options. But quitting your program entirely isn't a good one.