Failure, success, and happiness

Often, people only realise whether a PhD programme is right for them once they are in the middle of it. Sometimes, dropping out is the best option. Ex-graduate students report.
Cesira Alvarado via Unsplash

“I felt incompetent”

Annabell left her PhD programme in the natural sciences after one and a half years, and is now training to be a bee-keeper.

“My colleagues were annoying. All they did was compete with one another. Instead of discussing actual content, they went on and on about their great job offers and publications. Anyone who wanted to talk about something besides research or did not want to work until midnight was a persona non grata. At some point I started believing I could not do anything—even though, objectively, I had been extremely successful. On top of that, my dissertation topic did not really match my interests—it was very practical, but I’m more interested in theory—making it all the more difficult to grit my teeth and put up with the system. At the same time, I did not feel like I could just drop the project altogether. When I finally decided to announce I was leaving the programme, new opportunities opened up. I find it interesting that it was my friends outside of the sciences who were saying I should keep it up and finish my degree. People inside the system understood why I wanted to quit right away. I’m currently training to be a bee-keeper. Of course, that does not mean I will ultimately work as a bee-keeper. It just seemed like an interesting idea to pursue.”

“I learned from my children”

Tobias worked on a PhD in economics for five years. Now he is becoming an elementary school teacher.

“I dropped out of my doctoral programme in economics after five years. The decision was extremely difficult for me and it took a long time to make, but I feel like it is in line with my priorities. Even right from the beginning, I never felt confident about my future in academia. I decided to start the doctoral programme because I was offered a position after finishing my master’s degree, and because I really enjoyed organising, teaching, and correcting exams. Over time, I took on more and more of those kinds of duties, but I was not making much progress on my dissertation. I think I did not have as much internal motivation as I needed. I could have stopped earlier, of course, but I didn’t really have any alternatives, the work was meaningful, and the working conditions were good. The flexible office hours were ideal because of my children, and the pay was relatively good as well. When my contract ran out, I seriously considered whether I wanted to stay in academia. I felt like I was writing into a kind of vacuum, where my work would only be read by a very small audience, and I did not like that. I wanted to have more of an impact on the real world. My children helped me realise all of this. They helped me get some distance from the university and ask myself what my life was really all about. It was also my kids who gave me the idea to become an elementary school teacher. In Berlin, they were looking for people who wanted to change careers and enter the education field. Now I work as a teacher and I am taking courses at the same time. It is time-consuming, but it feels good.”

“Just like after my Abitur exam”

Jannick completed two years of a doctoral programme in sociology, then stopped to become a journalist.

“At first, I thought the PhD was the easiest choice, and the one that made the most sense—except for part-time jobs, the only thing I had ever done was academic work. Since I didn’t receive any financing, I started working as a freelance journalist on the side. I realised it was just as much fun as my studies. The work is fairly similar: You collect information, structure it, and write it up. However, in journalism you quickly get money and feedback in return—which is quite different from academia. I did have a kind of idealistic interest in academics, but I always felt like an outsider. When I finally applied to both a graduate school and an internship at a daily newspaper, I was still undecided. I got accepted by the newspaper first—so that is where I landed. Without really realizing what was happening, I ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do. I do not feel like the two years I spent working on my PhD project were a waste of time. Instead, I think of them as an important gap year—sort of like after I took my Abitur exam. Of course, sometimes the stories you produce from your everyday work as a local journalist can be a little superficial. But if I do want to go more into depth, that is something I can do by looking for a job at a weekly newspaper or a magazine.”

“Professor stalling tactics”

Hendrik worked on a PhD in law for two years, but now he is completing an internship.

“I did not have time to do my dissertation because of my job as a research associate. At some point, I realised I was totally in over my head. I was supposed to be working for my adviser 20 hours a week, but in reality, it was more like 25 hours. I had too many responsibilities and had to be available 24/7. This created so much pressure that I found it impossible to distance myself from it. I had already worked for the department before starting my PhD for a total of five years. During that time, I saw how many people start a dissertation—even though just a handful complete it. Most of them leave their research associate jobs at some point to concentrate fully on the dissertation. I could not do that for financial reasons. In retrospect, I think that the high workload was a conscious stalling tactic by the professors. The longer we work for them, the more valuable we become. There was one student who took ten years to finish his dissertation. Although most people were very understanding, even other professors, I certainly doubted myself sometimes. There are people who were able to do everything—by working 60-hour weeks. The toughest thing for me was telling people I was dropping out and that I had wasted two years. Now I am doing an internship. Sometimes I feel disappointed when I see other people who did finish their PhDs.”

“PhD inflation made me sceptical”

Florentin worked on a PhD in German studies for two years, and now he has a job in university administration.

“At some point, the work just seemed pointless to me. My topic was political and it certainly was applicable to the current climate. Nevertheless, I asked myself whether anyone else would ever get anything out of it, or whether it was just an end in itself; just a way to get my doctorate. I also realised that PhD programmes in my field were offering spots to far too many students. That kind of inflation made me sceptical; after all, a doctorate is supposed to have some kind of value. You also need to really understand what it means to do your PhD: a lot of time sitting in a chair, and a lot of hard work. That is all well and good, but it is not for everyone. I am gaining a lot of skills through my job in university administration. When I stopped doing my dissertation, I was able to increase my hours at my part-time job to make it full-time. Now I am earning a good salary. Besides the fact that I felt like my work didn’t have much purpose, the money was the second major reason I decided to drop out. I had just as little money during my PhD as I did when I was a university student, and at some point, I had to start paying back my student loans and the Bafög (federal grant). It was a long time before I received a stipend, and since most of these stipends require you to have a particular world-view, they were not attractive to me. I felt a kind of existential dread, and that wore on me. So I dropped out after two and a half years. I didn’t want to struggle anymore.”


The names have been changed by the editorial staff.