My One Year Anniversary of Becoming a PhD Drop Out

I re-read the book Essentialism for the third or fourth time during my recent vacation. It’s one of a handful I come back to on a nearly yearly basis to help recalibrate my thinking. Even though I know all the ideas within it backwards and forwards every time I read it I’m always left with a slightly new take or a burst of motivation to do the things I know I should be doing.

The timing was particularly auspicious because today is the one year anniversary of one of the biggest essentialist decisions I’ve ever made — withdrawing from my PhD program.

With the benefit of some distance between me and this decision I figured I’d share a couple thoughts that may be generalizable beyond my own specific situation:

Big decisions can be hiding in plain sight.

I spent a lot of time tweaking my approach to how I was tackling my PhD in order to alleviate the extreme discomfort I was having in working a demanding full-time job and trying to finish a demanding PhD program. I tried working only in the morning before work. I tried working only in the evening after work. I tried working only on weekends. I tried taking myself on “PhD Retreats” where I could focus for days on end without distraction. I changed the apps I used to do my work. I did everything except sit down and face the big decision that needed to be faced, “Do I even want or need to still be in this PhD program?” Once I asked that question, my entire perspective on the matter changed in an instant.

It didn’t matter how much I played around the edges when what I really needed to do was get down to first principles.

It’s okay to not have a side project.

From the moment I graduated from undergrad in 2009 I’ve always had some kind of side hustle. When I was looking for a teaching job and then as a full-time teacher I always had my website, my hockey coaching, and eventually my personal development coaching practice. When I got into graduate school I was still writing multiple times a week for my website, expanded my coaching practice, organized a TEDx conference, and eventually started a consulting company. For the first year of my work with The Ready my PhD work was my side project. And now that I haven’t had a side project for the past year I must say… it’s actually kind of nice. Again with the essentialism, when you don’t have a side project you have fewer avenues for your time and attention and that can feel pretty great.

Most decisions are only hard once.

I actually think about this decision a lot less than I thought I would. Prior to deciding to withdraw, my PhD was an all-consuming force in my life. Then, when the idea of possibly dropping out first entered my mind, I had to live with this new all-consuming force eating away at me for several months. Part of me was extremely worried that I would somehow continue to be eaten by my PhD even after officially withdrawing. I figured I would be filled with regret or doubt about whether I made the right decision. Instead, a couple days afterward and it was like it never happened.

I’m not sure if the ease I found myself looking to the future and not dwelling on the past is something that I am lucky to have as an individual or if there is something innate that nearly all humans share about putting decisions behind us fairly quickly in order to free up our minds and our attention to face the new reality we’ve created for ourselves. I have a feeling it’s the latter.


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