Self-Help: How a Ph.D. and Three-Pin Juggling Can Save Your Life

For some non-apparent (at least to me) reason, I get a lot of emails of the what-should-I-do-with-my-life sort. People seemingly think that, given a few professional and personal facts from a stranger, I can tell them how to proceed in their careers. I usally beg off politely, pointing out the impossibility of answering the question, even when you know the person well.

This morning, however, I realized there is another answer. When I think back to the many things I enjoy doing, and the eclectic mix of things I do for what passes for a living, most of them can be be traced back to my long-ago Ph.D.

No, it’s not that doing a Ph.D. was such a wonderful creativity-unleashing exercise, one that filled my mind with limitless possibilities and prospects. Far from it. I actually found it a fairly mundane and bureaucratic bit of business, more a question of cranking out a sufficiently lengthy document to the satisfaction of your thesis committee.

Instead, what I found out when doing my thesis — and something I noticed in pretty much everyone I knew who at least started one — was that you mostly discovered what else you were interested in. Why? Because pretty much anything else is more absorbing than writing a 400-page Ph.D. thesis.

In my case I discovered I was interested in quantitative finance, journalism and media, juggling (balls and especially pins), sky-diving, mountain-biking, hiking, Iran-Contra, marathon running, snow climbing, Franz Kafka, Rainer Marie Rilke, etc. All of those obsessions sprung unbidden onto my calendar when I should have been working on my Ph.D. thesis instead.

I saw something similar happen in other people I knew then (and know now), with people discovering pen collecting, acting, novel-writing, ultra-marathons, orienteering, and pretty much anything else you might imagine.

It turns out, it seems, that doing a Ph.D. (even if you drop out, which I generally recommend) is a great way to discover what you want in life, albeit it will likely have little to do with the Ph.D. itself.


  1. 400 pages? Hah! mine was only 101…
    Agree w/ the dropping out part, and my only regret was I spent too long getting it when I should have been getting on with my life. But who knows, I may have enjoyed subtle advantages by staying.
    Never tried sky diving tho…

  2. Anand Gupta says:

    Great Idea! But what about people who do not have time or opportunity to get a PHD?

  3. Then don’t get one. I’m strongly in favor of dropping out of Ph.D. programs, in most cases, and the mere threat of having to do a Ph.D. should be enough to convince most sane people to consider their real interests.

  4. Paul, why couldn’t you have been one of my advisors? I could have used some tough love!
    I’m posting anonymously (so take with a grain of salt), but Paul is 100% correct: If you have any doubts whatsoever whether you should be pursuing a PhD, you should not be. Look inside yourself, and you will know. Do not get a PhD on a lark.
    All “real” PhD programs (e.g., Stanford/Cal/…) allow/expect you to get a master’s along the way, and I’d suggest dropping out after that and after passing your quals — failing quals and being kicked out of the program does not count! :).
    Of course, don’t let the school know what your true intentions are, because PhD’s are treated better than mere master’s flunkys :)
    Don’t worry about taking up somebody else’s slot. If they were any good, they would have gotten in, and you would have been rejected.
    Of the dozen or so people I know personally who PhinisheD, only about 1 or 2 should have grinded it out. The rest wasted their time. Sadly, on reflection just over 10 years later, I think I wasted my time.
    You do enjoy subtle advantages — people tend to look at you differently, and some “career paths” may require it, but generally you should go out and accomplish something else to impress people.

  5. “I discovered I was interested in quantitative finance, journalism and media, juggling (balls and especially pins), sky-diving, mountain-biking, hiking, Iran-Contra, marathon running, snow climbing, Franz Kafka, Rainer Marie Rilke, etc.”
    PK, you’re a pretty scary individual. After this list I’d like to really know what the “etc.” contained.
    The Greek

  6. This applies to Masters degrees as well, except you don’t have enough time to discover more esoteric interests like Iran-Contra and Rilke so I stopped at quantitative finance.

  7. Rafael Montoya says:

    Right on Paul! I also dropped the thesis part of my PhD because after a couple of years in the grinding I realized that I was having a much more interesting life pursuing the other interests. Some were new, some were old ones, and for almost all I had the qualifications (I still have to learn how to play blues guitar).
    The actual process of getting admitted to a PhD program will take you some 100 hours of worktime, but as you pointed out it should be enough to convince you if you are really PhD oriented and what you should do with your life. The admission process makes you: a) think about your past life b) your personal interests c) cover up any of the previous a and b that may be an obstacle to your admission and d) in order to get letters of recomendation and investigation leads you have to talk this over with another human being (at least 2 of them).

  8. i dropped out of phd program because i was too lazy to write that thesis, apart from finding out that the so-called supervisors dwarfened themselves on the ethical standards so much that it would be meaningless to get an award of degree from those below you ! I know many who got the degree but didn’t deserve one. But it was again due to “other” interests while doing PhD that allows one to drop out successfully.

  9. Much as PhD (ABD) is an acceptable qualification with major employers, I think finishing a PhD, dissertation, diploma et al is a much better idea. A finished thesis, particularly one in an area relevant to business, is a great example of one’s self-motivation, ability to finish tasks once started, ability to think about issues both broadly (lit review type work) and deeply, writing concisely and arguing one’s points within weird rules (ours say diagrams and tables count towards the word limit, am finding creative ways to stuff information worth 5K words in an A4 sized table), and thriving under pressure (four weeks from submission and have not seen daylight in some days, but still feeding my blogs and reading others’).
    I also think that if one drops out, it is, amongst other things, a sign that one was letting someone else influence one’s research too much. If one is researching what one likes (decision making in organised anarchies, in my case) and is personally vested in the choice of issues or case study (obesity and policy making, as I work hard not to become a ‘sample’), then dropping out will hurt, emotionally, some day, if not now.
    It IS a great time to find new interests and polish up old ones, definitely. Besides attending plenty of free talks by Nobel Laureates, politicians, business leaders, and local studs like Stephen Hawking, I attended classes in epidemiology, economics, sociology and philosophy; worked on fund-raising for my college; got involved in new ventures (not a new interest) and started mentoring young entrepreneurs; used the free-access language centre to polish up my linguistic skills in a few languages; explored the architectural history of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, the oldest of which is from some 1400s; took to the gym with gusto and found I *love* exercising; learnt to like rowing on the ergo; made friends with a few dozen lawyers (and learnt intricacies of writing NY Bar exam for British affiliate students, that no decent person should know); watched a tonne of indie films in many languages; learnt a style of African dancing in galoshes; made friends from countries around the world. I also managed to make money by building a portfolio of relevant consulting work, flouting all Uni rules and sometimes at the cost of sleep. All in all, a great time!
    I WILL finish the thesis. And I am not doing it to impress anyone. I did enjoy it and it helped that I have a great supervisor who offers the right balance of support, coercion and critique. But those, who do not enjoy their own company much, would be ill-advised to enrol in one.

  10. dub dub:
    You say: “Do not get a PhD on a lark.”
    I think one can START a PhD on a lark, but getting it on a lark will be nigh impossible.

  11. Paul,
    For PhD read any exam. I bought a dartboard and some darts for light relief between revision sessions when I was at school. I scraped through my exams but my darts average soared!
    The same applies to work for most people. Your lesson is a good one.