I am now a statistic I swore I would never be. I am one of the roughly 50% of PhD students who never actually graduate.
And while the bulk of that number is created through a frightening mix of toxic grad school environments and mental health lapses I’m happy to report that my decision is coming from a (mostly) much more optimistic place — I’m doing my dream job and can’t reasonably become great at it while also trying to finish my PhD.
Nonetheless, this will inevitably raise eyebrows among my friends, family, and colleagues so I thought I’d collect my thoughts in one place.
There is no easy answer to the question, “Why?” so bear with me while I unpack the question a little bit (this is going to be long, rambling, and navel gaze-y but given the weight of the decision I’m giving myself some leeway).
On the Path
In 2009 I graduated from Bowling Green State University with a degree in secondary social studies education. While excited to kickoff my career as a high school teacher I also graduated into one of the worst recessions of recent memory. After failing to land a full time teaching job in time for the 2009–2010 school year I knew I needed a long term project to work on while substitute teaching. That long term project took two forms: becoming the head hockey coach of the University of Detroit Mercy hockey team and starting a website about personal development/minimalism called The Simpler Life.
I worked on that website basically every day for the next two years. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words, two self-published e-books, and even became somewhat known in the “minimalism blogger” scene at that time. I was still substitute teaching and coaching hockey during but my real passion was learning and writing about personal development. My website was getting tens of thousands of hits every month and every day I didn’t substitute teach I was thrilled to spend my day researching and writing.
After again failing to find a full-time teaching job for the 2010–2011 school year I became even more disillusioned with that as a potential career path. I kept coaching and writing and picking up subbing jobs in order to pay my rent. I did eventually land a full-time emergency sub job that kept me in the same classroom for the better part of three months. One of the truisms of teaching is that the first year is always brutally hard. I would say your first year is even harder if your first full time gig is as an emergency sub. It was incredibly difficult and frustrating and even though I ultimately think I did a very good job I knew my future was not going to be as a high school social studies teacher.
Luckily, I kept my website going during this time and my writing interest had largely shifted away from minimalism and more into the realm of personal development. On a whim I read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and noticed that Mike was the founder of a field called positive psychology and taught at a graduate school in California called Claremont Graduate University. I finally had a name for what had fascinated me for the better part of three years and had driven me to write over 200 articles on the topic — positive psychology. I knew I had to apply.
I was accepted into the positive developmental psychology master’s program despite having almost no psychology experience and embarked on maybe the best two years of my life. I didn’t have a crystal clear plan for my future but I was still writing on the website and had even started up a small coaching practice and worked my way up from a handful of pro bono clients in 2011 to a full roster of paying clients in 2013 when I graduated. The success of my coaching practice and a couple classes that touched on positive psychology in the organizational realm made me realize I wanted a career that dealt with “making work better” for people.
I’d always been fascinated by how people work. The interest in minimalism and personal development was driven by a desire to understand human excellence. Why did some of my classmates excel and some didn’t? Why did some of my students seem to work hard even when they didn’t have the apparent natural talents of some of their peers? Why did some of my less talented youth hockey teammates end up playing professionally while some of the more talented youngsters not make it as far?
Being the entrepreneurial guy that I am I decided that the best path for me to do that would be to start my own consulting firm built on the back of everything I was learning as a positive psychology graduate student. Given the fact that my previous professional experience was as a high school teacher I was exceedingly self-conscious about beginning to position myself as any kind of organizational expert. To combat this lack of experience I decided the logical next step was to get my PhD in positive organizational psychology. So, I applied to the program, was accepted, and made the switch from positive developmental to positive organizational psychology.
Shortly after kicking off my first year in the PhD program (but third year in graduate school) I started a consulting firm with my classmate, Jeff. For the next year and a half we dedicated ourselves to finishing our coursework, developing our theses, and building our small company. I was happy. I was challenged. We didn’t see other consulting companies positioning themselves the way we were with a strong foundation in science.
And then everything changed.
A colleague I was working with on a freelance consulting assignment for David Allen sent me the website of a consulting company in New York called Undercurrent. Over the course of an hour or so I read through their entire website and experienced something extremely similar to when I read Flow for the first time. I suddenly had words for something I had felt for a very long time. I realized that there were other people in the world who thought about organizational consulting the way that I did. I realized that Undercurrent was basically what I wanted my tiny little consulting firm to be but was light years ahead of us.
In an instant my plan to build my own consulting company on the back of my PhD work was thrown into question. I wanted to work for Undercurrent and I wanted to work for them badly.
Over the next nine months I slowly convinced them that they needed somebody with my skill set. Eventually, I wore them down and in July of 2015 I joined them in New York City.
At this time I felt confident that I could continue my PhD work successfully while working full time in a new job. I mean, I was studying self-leadership. If anybody could develop the routines and discipline to juggle work and PhD it would be me, right? At the time I had just finished collecting data for my thesis and had a handful of portfolio projects left (a qualitative research project, an online course teaching myself some basic programming, and my review paper) before I would be eligible to do my oral qualifying exam and then my dissertation proposal.
Over the next few months my life was thrown into turmoil. Without going into too much detail (I’ve written about it elsewhere) I did the
following: moved from Southern California to NYC (driving by myself from SoCal to Detroit and then flying to NYC), moved into a sublet in NYC (having never lived in or really visited the city nor knowing anybody who lived there), started a new job, spent a week in London getting up to speed on a project for the aforementioned new job, was laid off from that job the day I returned from London (which also happened to be the day I moved into my new year long apartment lease), worked as a freelancer for about a month and a half while also trying to look for a new full-time job (while also trying to learn a new city and furnish a new apartment), finally landed a job with a company called The Ready that was even better than the job I originally had, and then immediately dove into leading a new project with a client that had me spending the majority of my time in Chicago. It was a hectic time, to say the least. And, as you can imagine, I didn’t get much PhD work done.
Even though I wasn’t sitting down and working on it very regularly, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about it. In fact, quite the opposite.
My PhD work never left my mind. It has been a constant anchor of guilt and anxiety that was never far away.
I’ve made concerted efforts to work on it. I’ve set aside weekends and stayed late at the office and have even booked hotels and out of state travel to create a sense of urgency and professionalism toward working on my school projects. I’ve made some progress, but never quite enough to feel good.
Thoughts on Earning a PhD and Working Your Dream Job
Now that I’ve covered the history of how I’ve gotten to this point I want to hit a few of the specific things I’ve been thinking about.
Opportunity cost is essentially everything you give up when you decide to do something or purchase something. It’s everything you can’t do based on something you decide to do. When I wasn’t working full-time the opportunity cost of working on my PhD work was things like leisure activities, working on my website, or taking on another coaching client. Working on my PhD always felt like the most important thing I should be doing and my life was organized in such a way that it almost always made the most sense for me to be working on it (that’s the beauty of being a full-time student).
Now, things are much different. When you work a demanding full-time job the opportunity cost to working on PhD work before or after the normal work day or on the weekend feels much costlier. Leisure time is still an opportunity cost but it is much less optional than it was when I was a full time student. Not getting leisure time, or more accurately, restoration time, means not being at the top of my game when it comes to work.
Being the only employee for awhile and now being part of a small team means that The Ready can’t afford for me to not be at the top of my game. I spend a lot of time in front of executives and if I’m not operating at full capacity I run the real risk of embarrassing myself and embarrassing the company. It’s not about not having enough time to play video games or sit around doing nothing. It’s about being a functioning adult. It’s about my mental health.
Another opportunity cost that has come to feel extremely expensive is that every time I sit down to work on my PhD work I’m not using that time developing skills or knowledge directly related to my work. Of course there are always indirect benefits to working on PhD stuff that will filter down into my actual work, but that feels like slight compensation when I could be doing something much more beneficial.
For example, to continue my PhD work I need to get much better at statistical analysis. However, I will never use this specific knowledge in my line of work and taking the time to teach myself the stats I need takes away from developing more specific consulting skills or knowledge (like developing my ability to give great talks or learning more about corporate structure or developing my coaching skills or the eleventeen other consulting-specific skills I need to master).
It sucks to feel like every time I’m doing PhD work I’m falling behind in getting better at my job. This would be acceptable if I was working in a job that wasn’t quite what I wanted to be doing and finishing my PhD would open the door to what I actually wanted to do — but fortunately for me (and unusually for most PhD students) that’s not the case.
This is my dream job. This is why I joined the PhD program in the first place. Letting my PhD work get in the way of becoming absolutely excellent at it is silly and wrong.
Grit, Stubbornness, and Continuous Steering
One of the concepts we teach organizations and teams at The Ready is “continuous steering.” It’s the simple idea that you need to be seeking and using data to make better decisions. Great teams and organizations know what data can inform whether they are getting closer to their purpose and they act on that data frequently. Without continuous steering it’s easy to ignore what’s happening around you even if it might be useful and relevant data. If you don’t continuously steer you may find yourself reaching a goal that is no longer meaningful or useful.
Continuing to work on my PhD feels like it would require me to forget the concept of continuous steering and to ignore all the data around me telling me this isn’t what I should be doing.
On the other hand, grit. I love grit. I love the idea of being gritty. But the balance between grittiness and stubbornness is only revealed in retrospection. So, even though I consider myself a gritty person I can’t let that overwhelm all the other data I’m receiving telling me I need to make a change.
Essentialism & Making Tough Decisions
My original website that set me along this path was all about minimalism and although I don’t write about it every day it’s still a huge part of who I am and how I see myself and the world. Being a minimalist is about being willing to say no to really, really, good things in order to say “hell yes” to the truly great things. I can’t say hell yes to my PhD work and my job even though I want to. And if I have to choose between the two then I’m going to say hell yes to the job. And if I’m going to say hell yes to the job that means the PhD is just really good.
Which means it must go.
What I Know I’m Going to Have to Come to Terms With
I loved being able to say I’m a PhD student. Being able to say you’re working on a PhD feels good. People look at you with admiration (and sometimes pity). You get to feel smart. I’m going to have to remake that part of my identity.
Did I quit because I suck at stats? This actually gets to my thoughts about opportunity cost earlier in the article. As of right now, my stats acumen is not high. In order to get through the rest of my PhD work I would need to invest some real time in getting better at stats. Do I have any doubt that if I invested the time and energy that I would become competent (or even excellent) at statistical analysis? No. I can learn anything. However, stats is not something that I will use in my job so every minute spent working on it feels even more costly than anything else I could be doing. I’m no longer willing to pay that cost.
Am I letting my advisor down? Absolutely. She has put a lot of work into my training up to this point. I admire the work she does and I know I will continue to learn from her and her research. While it sucks to let people you care about down it’s also not possible to finish a PhD just so I don’t disappoint people.
What about student loans? Claremont Graduate University is a private institution and I have the student loans to prove it. I’m fortunate to live frugally and work in a lucrative field. I’ll be okay.
Going to graduate school was the best decision I ever made. Being a PhD student in positive psychology definitely opened the doors that led to me doing what I do now. I still think positive psychology is the most fascinating field and the backbone of my current and future work.
So, What Now?
I’m going to keep learning: Learning will always be part of my job and part of what I love to do. I won’t stop learning just because I’m not earning a PhD anymore. In fact, I’ll probably read wider and with much less guilt than I have been for the past year and a half.
I’m going to chill the hell out: I’m going on my first legitimate vacation in a long time. I’m not going to have PhD work hanging over my head. I’m not going to have work hanging over my head. I’m going to recharge and it’s going to be glorious.
I’m going to take care of myself: I’m at least 15 pounds heavier than I should be. For the past year I’ve consciously chosen to place less attention and energy on my physical health in order to make time for my PhD work. I’m going to reinvest this newly released energy into getting healthier.
And I’m going to dive into pushing the field of organization design forward: This is arguably what I’m most excited about. I now have one singular focus — to make an impact in the field of organization design and to help make The Ready the premiere force in org design consulting. For the past year I’ve felt like I had to hold part of myself back in order to save enough energy to work on my PhD. That’s no longer the case. Now I can use all of my creative effort in building my career and my chosen field. It feels incredible.
The purpose of my PhD was always to help me be able to do the exact work I’m currently doing. I was just fortunate to not have to make it all the way to the end to have that become my reality.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me to this point and I apologize to anyone I’ve disappointed.