I’m pretty sure many graduate students have, at some point in their careers, considered dropping out of grad school. For some, that moment came at the end of another botched experiment, or maybe after an undeserved berating from their thesis adviser, or when they realized they had committed to sitting through a half-day seminar without coffee. The thought might have been a fleeting fantasy—a beautiful dream of flipping their graduate institution the royal bird, then watching it diminish in the rear-view mirror on the way to their new career on an organic yam farm. But it might have been the germ of a real decision, a moment of “What am I even doing here?” balanced against “So … can’t I just leave?”
I certainly had those moments. Grad school either chews you up and spits you out, or it chews you up and … well, takes a long time to complete the digestive metaphor elsewise. Though I ultimately emerged from the business end of grad school, there were plenty of times when I Googled “alternative science careers” or “jobs for someone with half a Ph.D.” or “free printable diplomas.”
I can’t really say that what kept me in grad school on those low days was a love of science, a commitment to education, or—ha ha ha ha ha—a feeling that my research project was important for the world. Nor can I chalk it all up to inertia—the theory that a grad student at rest, to the extent that any grad student can be called “at rest,” tends to stay at rest unless acted on by a career prospect of equal or greater magnitude. Yes, I stayed because I basically liked what I was doing, and yes, I stayed because I was already there, but I also stayed for another reason that I could not have articulated at the time: because leaving would be a “waste” of the time I had already spent. The idea of quitting, degreeless, after 4 years, or 6 years, somehow felt like more of a failure than quitting earlier.
In behavioral economics, that’s called the “sunk cost fallacy.” In general, it states, if you’ve spent money on something, and you can’t get that money back, then congratulations, that cost is now sunk. This goes for nonmonetary costs as well—time, effort, emotional anguish, all of which are irrecoverable. The problem with sunk cost is that it’s hard to remember how sunk it is, so when it’s time to make a decision, you factor in what you’ve already spent—even when you really shouldn’t. In other words, you can find yourself years deep in a fallacious endeavor, yet you cling to it only because you’ve invested so much in the process.
Those years spent in grad school were certainly what a behavioral economist would call “irrecoverable.” Unless my thesis research would lead me to invent a time machine (I mean, I’m not saying it’s likely, but I guess who knows?), the amount of time I’d already spent shouldn’t have influenced my decision to stay or go.
So, should I have quit? I remember friends asking, possibly in response to a lament about my directionless seventh year of grad school: If I was going to grumble so much, why didn’t I just leave?
But complaining about something doesn’t necessarily mean you hate what you’re complaining about. When was the last time you complained about your spouse, or your sibling, or your parents, or your children, or the Avengers franchise? You’re allowed to identify the irritating aspects of something you’re still ultimately glad to have. Complaining can be a way to let off steam, and it can also be a way to identify legitimate problems—even solutions.
To be clear, I’m not saying that no one should quit grad school. But I’m also not advocating that everyone should. Have you ever met a grad student who didn’t complain? Complaining is like the official international grad student sport.
Despite grad school’s drawbacks, it’s often a reasonable and helpful way to prepare for a career in science. (It’s just less fun to describe it that way.) Besides, a world without grad students would be a sad world indeed, for to whom, then, would postdocs feel superior?
At the same time, though, the sunk cost fallacy is strong. Quitting feels like an admission that we made the wrong choice. The seemingly wasted years piled up in the past taunt us: “Hey, loser, thanks for spending us buried in the lab, working long hours for low pay on something unimportant. It’s pretty awesome how we accomplished nothing. Thanks for believing that these sacrifices would lead to a greater goal. And that greater goal is … what again? The ability to say that you started a Ph.D. once? Yeah, you’ll be fun at parties.”
And it’s not just the fear of lost time that keeps us from moving forward. We want our career paths to have a clean narrative, to make sense, to feel like a logical trajectory. We want every opportunity to prepare us for the next. We sometimes hear stories from successful scientists in which x led to y led to z, which led to a Nobel Prize. But life is messier, and more often x leads to nothing. (Besides, those successful scientists may simply be omitting the nothings from their boasting.)
The decision to change paths is not, however, a decision about the past, where your costs are sunk. It’s a decision about the future. Is there a more ideal alternate universe in which you knew grad school was wrong for you and therefore took a different path years ago? It doesn’t matter. Woulda coulda shoulda … didn’ta.
I never ended up quitting grad school, but I’ve talked with many students who wrestled with the decision more seriously than I did and ultimately did leave their programs. Not one of them considered their decision easy, but at the risk of expressing this too glibly, they all turned out fine.
You’re allowed to change. You’re allowed to leave. You’re allowed to let those years be exactly what they were: time spent growing and learning as a human being, even if they didn’t eventually earn you a credential. You’re allowed to start that organic yam farm.
And you can do it without worrying about time lost. Woulda coulda shoulda … will.