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Ph.eD Up and FinishEdD: Why I Quit My Doctoral Program

New Professionals and Graduate Students
March 1, 2022 Alex Schmied

A few points to contextualize today's blog: 

  • I am a first-generation student with a "just figure it out" kind of attitude. My family, although supportive, does not have the lived experiences, legacies, or insider information like others may. These decisions were mine. 

  • Most of my story that I share with you took place from May to December 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I finished my Master's, started my professional career, lost my grandmother and best friend from college, and applied to doctoral programs within seven months. These experiences were mine. 

  • These decisions were mine, these experiences were mine, and I solely offer them for context. I own what happened and what I chose to do and am not apologizing. Please take my story, questions, and reflections to figure out what works best for you.

At age 24, shortly after the lockdown in March 2020, I completed my Master's. I struggled with the transition to virtual learning, and I felt burnt-out, stressed, and primarily scared about finding a full-time entry position while institutions began to implement budget cuts and furloughs. In August, I started my first role at a large institution an hour away from home. A month later, I lost my grandmother to Breast Cancer. A week after, I got a call that my best friend from college suddenly passed, right as I crossed the finish line of my first 10-mile race. Perhaps in searching for normalcy, maybe proving to myself that I could carry on without two of my biggest supporters, I applied to the internal doctoral program at my institution in December. By that next February, I received my acceptance. That timeline, while impressive, was a nightmare. I kept pushing myself to the next supposed step without intentional thoughts about what happened in my life or where I wanted to go. In October of 2021, I transitioned to a new role at another institution closer to home and withdrew from the doctoral program. Both decisions were best for me. I encourage you to reflect on the questions below to figure out what's best for you:

  1. What's your "why"? Why do you want a doctoral degree? Why now?                                                                                                      a. One "why" revolved around continuing to a terminal degree from grad school, much like I did from undergrad. I had the student mindset and knew APA like the back of my hand. My second "why" stemmed from knowing my lived experiences are needed in the field. I've only met a few folks who look like me and have similar stories. I want to be a role model. Adding those two reasons together, I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to keep going. If you ask me now, my "why" for withdrawing allowed me to focus on being a professional for a bit; to learn what I enjoy/don't enjoy about my career, what to focus research on, where I can make an impact, and what I want in the next few years of my life. 

  1. What is the focus of the program? What will I gain from this program? How will the program help my career goals?               a. Make sure you look at the curriculum and cohort structure. My original program was a mixed K-12/Higher Ed Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. The curriculum had a decent quantitative/qualitative research mix and had plenty of electives to choose from. At first, learning about both worlds excited me, but I did not love the program. It was essential to learn about both and how they intertwined, but at the time, I wanted to zone in on higher education specifically. Now, as I take a step back, I want to see what I learn from my role and then decide. There are hundreds of programs and curriculums to choose from, and it's important to look at each course and see the perspectives, skills, and knowledge you'll get. 

  1. I have tuition benefits, but what are the financial implications?                                                                                                              a. I still have student loans from undergrad but did not pay a cent for graduate school. I cannot afford a doctoral degree without some kind of funding or benefit. I learned the hard way that "free tuition" often means "pay the fees" and "taxable income." I signed paperwork acknowledging such but didn't realize what it would do to my paycheck. The taxable income pushed me to the next tax bracket and cut my take-home pay by $600 a month. We were virtual at the time, so I saved a decent bit, but that's a car payment, groceries, gas, etc., that could have easily been missed. 

  1. What do I want in my life? What may be sacrificed?                                                                                                                                   a. Oddly, I feel grateful to start my career virtually in some regards. I heard many working moms say they enjoyed the extra time with their kids, colleagues getting closer with their partners, people actually having and taking time for their wellbeing. Working from home, I learned that my environment means a lot to me. I didn't necessarily miss being in class, but rather, being in the classroom. I also learned that I like my me-time! I had gone to school for 18 straight years. It was time to just "adult" and close my laptop at 5:00 PM and learn how to make dinner for myself. I found new hobbies like running, trying new crafts, and getting back to hobbies from my childhood like playing soccer and reading for pleasure. I certainly wouldn't have gotten in touch with myself if I had just kept going. School/doctoral programs will always be there. But think about the things that won't. 

Author: Alex Schmied (she/her) serves as the Alcohol & Other Drug Prevention Coordinator at Temple University and is a member of the NPGS SC Communications & Marketing Working Group. She enjoys running, crafting, and exploring the city of Philadelphia with her friends and family. You can connect with Alex on LinkedIn or Instagram