Justin at Root of Good had a great post recently on why dropping out of grad school was a great decision for him. In reading his post, I reflected on the decision I made almost ten years ago to do the exact same thing – quit grad school, though under very different circumstances than Justin.
I’m going to put this out there from the start – I didn’t quit grad school for any financial reasons. There were multiple reasons why I quit, and not a single one of them had to do with money. But to this day, I believe it was one of the best financial decisions I’ve made – right up there with marrying Mr PoP despite the fact that he was earning minimum wage at the time.
Ten Years Ago…
I was fresh out of undergrad and living the Type-A American Dream. I had completed my undergrad degree and was enrolled and ready to start a STEM PhD program at a prestigious university in just a few short weeks.
My parents were so proud. Their daughter was not only going to get a PhD from a “name brand” university, but she was getting paid to attend! Tuition and a living stipend to cover all her living expenses! Talk about the parental bragging rights.
I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as my parents, but was on board with my path that fall of 2005. Talking to new friends – the only other female students entering the program with me that year – the week before classes, I admitted that I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of a PhD.
“I’m not really planning on working in academia*. Really, I liked the job where I interned as an undergrad. I have a job offer there, but there’s a big jump in the payscale between having a bachelor’s and having a masters. The jump is smaller from master’s to PhD, so I’m not sure it’d be worth it to stay and get a PhD. But since we’re all fully funded, I’ve got a low opportunity cost for the next couple of years, so I may as well get my masters while I figure out what I want to do.”
My new friends, well educated in the principles of optimization (we were all STEM people, after all!), understood my reasoning, even if they all professed to want the PhD for one reason or another and were “all-in” themselves.
A few days later, though our reasons all differed, we had all officially begun our PhD track program.
Here’s what I learned in my first semester of grad school:
- Don’t get mononucleosis right before starting a challenging new program, especially not if you’re one of those lucky folks for whom the fatigue can last for months and months.
- Don’t count on the supportive network of people that recruited you being around when you actually enroll. They may have all elected to take sabbatical your first semester.
- Academia is far from immune from misogyny. (It remains the worst environment I have ever been in when it comes to gender bias.)
- Academic hazing is REAL**. And brutal.
By the end of my first semester, I woke Mr PoP in the middle of the night by crying in my sleep. “Help! Stop! It’s eating my soul!!” The next morning he asked what I was dreaming about, and I told him “school”. When he told me what I said aloud in my sleep (which I could almost remember dreaming exactly), the full weight of what I was suffering through hit me. And I didn’t want to do it anymore.
Quitting Is Hard
It was among the hardest things I’ve ever done. My personality practically demands that I see goals out to their completion once I start on them. Not to mention the decision did some pretty significant damage to the relationship with my parents. Emotionally, it was a very difficult decision. But the right one.
When the semester started up again, I went to see the person who recruited me (now happily back on campus) to tell him that I wouldn’t be seeing the program through to its completion and ask his advice on how to get my masters in the most expedient fashion. As it turned out, by deciding so early – before second semester classes really got going, I was able to shave time off the more typical 4 semester route to the consolation masters. Instead, I finished it in less than twelve months. Writing the thesis was one of the easiest parts of the whole ordeal.
Financially, It Was An Even Better Decision Than I Knew At The Time
The Pareto Principle (which we’ve talked about on our blog before), often also called the 80/20 rule, is the idea that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. I knew going in to grad school that I could expect 80% of the salary boost of PhD for the initial effort of a masters. It just so happened to work out that getting my masters took nearly exactly 20% of the time investment I would have expected of a PhD. So I definitely optimized my time there. But that wasn’t where the benefits ended.
Here’s what I gained by leaving grad school with my consolation masters instead of staying for 4 more years in the hopes of getting a PhD:
- Real wages and wage growth for 4 years, rather than little more than a subsistence level living stipend.
- The opportunity to move to an income-tax-free tropical paradise and keep more of said income to myself.
- The opportunity to invest in a Roth IRA for 4 years (which I did, to the tune of maxing it out at $18K over those four years – in addition to deposits into my 401K during that time, too). Though I was living frugally enough to save a few thousand dollars the year I lived off my graduate stipend, that stipend that was to be the source of my income during my PhD program was technically not “earned income”, and could not be used to invest in an IRA. So future years where it was expected to be my only income for the calendar year would have precluded me from the benefits of using a Roth IRA. (For more info – Emily at EvolvingPF has written before about how taxable compensation and earned income affect one’s ability to contribute to an IRA, in a way that can be particularly limiting for graduate students.)
- Four additional years of experience, which in the industry I am in counts for far more than a PhD.
- The benefit of entering the job market while it was doing well (2006!), instead of looking to enter the job market when it was floundering (2010). Statistically, this gave my career and earning potential a significant boost that I continue to benefit from today, nearly ten years later.
- The best husband and partner I could ask for – Mr PoP. I don’t think our relationship would have survived if I had continued on in grad school for 4 more years. He is so supportive and encouraging of me doing what makes ME happy that I’m not sure he would have been able to stay with me through the kind of self-flagellation that would have been necessary on the path to the academic shrine of the PhD.
In the years since I quit grad school, I’ve had several old friends from the program comment to me that I really did optimize my departure, maximizing the educational and career benefit while minimizing my time and effort invested. Others left the program a year or two, or even three years later than I did with identical or largely equivalent degrees – (I’ve found that for industry standards the MPhil that my friend took 4 years to earn is basically equivalent to the consolation masters I earned in a year) – but with no measurable difference in career opportunities than I have faced.
Maybe there’s an alternate universe out there where I stayed and finished my PhD and that Mrs PoP is deliriously happy. She’s riding a unicorn to work, is rich beyond anything imaginable, and impossibly beautiful.
I guess anything is possible.
But nine years after leaving grad school behind, I see it not only as one of the best emotional decisions I’ve ever made in my life but one of the best financial ones as well. And I’m quite happy in this universe where I’m married to Mr PoP, ride my bike every day to a job where I’m fairly compensated for my education and experience, and have accumulated over $900K in net worth. And Mr PoP thinks I’m pretty darned beautiful.
Not only are there no regrets in my mind about quitting grad school. I will forever rank it as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
* The unspoken subtext here being that in our field, jobs in academia are the only ones that really require a PhD to avoid working for peanuts (and sometimes even a PhD is not enough for that as many adjuncts can attest).
** My jaw literally dropped open one day when an emeritus professor (that’s academic speak for retired) informed me that without teaching or research responsibilities he now considered it his “job to make life difficult for young doctoral candidates”.
Have you ever quit something that’s purportedly good for you and been significantly better off for it?