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I am currently working in education but also looking for job prospects in more technical/mathematical fields. I signed up to a STEM job site and I am not sure how to give a good response to the question "Could you tell me about the circumstances behind you exiting your PhD?"

Basically, I quit a PhD 8 months after starting for the following reasons:

  1. I hadn't fully developed the soft skills needed to be able to tackle one (e.g. time management, organisation, resilience) which resulted in slow progress.

  2. I was struggling to manage myself in a lot of ways (e.g. money, food, mental health)

  3. The area ended up being quite a bit out of my comfort zone (i.e. more pure mathematics compared to an applied mathematical background) and was chosen more based on fanciful ideologies rather than what I was traditionally good at, and it took me a long time to do things that my supervisor thought were straightforward.

  4. I didn't have a break before starting my PhD and felt consistently burned out/depressed having gone straight into it after my Master's degree - not the best decision to make in hindsight.

  5. An opportunity came up to give teaching a go and I decided to try it and see if it was for me.

I know the reasons in my head for dropping out of the PhD are sound, but I am struggling to come up with a way that explains what happened without potentially giving off an impression that I made a bad decision. I want to make a transition out of teaching (having been doing it for 2-3 years) into something more technical but would appreciate some guidance on how to answer the question I've mentioned above. Any thoughts?

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    Who's to say that it's a bad decision? If a PhD isn't the right path for you (as seems to be the case here), then the "bad decision" would have been to continue spending several years of the only life you will ever have doing something that you've already figured out isn't a good fit for you. Being in control of your own goals and ambitions is a positive attribute. – Ben Cottrell Nov 15 '17 at 21:21
  • Possible duplicate of Incomplete Degree - How to phrase this on resume or cover letter? – gnat Nov 15 '17 at 21:24
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    Would "I came to the conclusion that it wasn't the right path for me at that specific time" be a good response? Also, In response to your comment @JoeStrazzere, I could argue that having stayed in teaching for a few years it demonstrates that I can stick with things for a prolonged amount of time. – omegaSQU4RED Nov 15 '17 at 21:30
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    @omegaSQU4RED I would recommend that you visit Academia, it may offer additional information for you. academia.stackexchange.com – Frank FYC Nov 15 '17 at 23:19
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    Don't mention the soft skills issues. No liking pure mathematics and preferring applied mathematics is actually a bonus and probably aligns well with the position you're applying for, so go with that. – pmf Nov 16 '17 at 11:00
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Best answer to employers from the industry: Too theoretical, I wanted to get my hands dirty.

The usual prejudice about people switching from a science career is that they are too theoretical and are not able to deliver hands on solutions to real-world problems with limited budget.

You can make this prejudice work for you, if you make clear you are not like that.

Don´t talk about your problems with self management - that would raise a red flag!

In fact, try to talk about problems as little as possible. Rather make it about opportunities to realize your potential!

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    This ties in nicely with reason #5 from OP. They are literally pursuing new opportunities and wanting "to get [their] hands dirty". – Trebor Nov 16 '17 at 11:43
  • Especially fits with the "theoretical vs applied" issue. – PoloHoleSet Nov 16 '17 at 15:59
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Simply mention the reasons which leads to most of the unfinished PhDs and do not reflect badly on your skills: 1. Wrongly chosen subject and 2. the underestimated effort to get a PhD.

I was in the very same situation: Because it was the right place and the environment was friendly, I chose a part of natural science for the thesis which I wasn't acquainted with. Being curious and having no problems so far with school->upper school->diplom I did not think it would be a problem.

I was wrong.
The problem is that the PhD wears you down. Slowly, but rigorously and people who did one know that and will confirm that the situation is as it is. Curiosity alone is not a sufficient drive to master a subject, you really need a deep interest in the subject to follow through.
Even then it is hard; You cannot do the convenient 9-5 rhythm anymore, it costs you a big time of your free time and social contacts suffer. The timeframe of years is also long enough that "gritting the teeth and go through" only wears you faster down. Even the people who are successful can confirm that time runs madly and at the end you are often (always?) glad that the damn thing is finally finished.

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I suggest coming up with an honest, succinct, and factual answer. One option:

I exited the PhD for two reasons: (a) I went into a PhD program straight after receiving my Master's to take advantage of an opportunity to try teaching and pursue an academic career which includes teaching, but realized that teaching is not something I want to do; and (b) the program turned out to be mostly theoretical, whereas my professional interest is in more applied side of the field focused on solving real-world problems.

That's it. I would not say much more than this, and I suspect this will do it for most job interviews or similar conversations. Keep it short, clear and honest but without too much justification and detail, and it should do. Good luck!

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    Those where the points I was going to suggest OP should zero in on. Now I don't have to! – PoloHoleSet Nov 16 '17 at 16:00
  • I should point out that the teaching and PhD are separate from each other. I am now effectively teaching in the UK equivalent of a high school. – omegaSQU4RED Nov 16 '17 at 17:40
  • @omegaSQU4RED Well then your response just got twice as short and simple. The point is to make a simple and intuitive argument why doctoral study wasn't a great fit. There is no need to bring up the personal issues (time management etc.) when trying to get a job. – A.S Nov 16 '17 at 17:50
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Given that your PhD research was a brief period, 2-3 years ago, you don't need to overthink this. It wasn't a good fit, and you had an opportunity to try something new (teaching), so you took it.

Addressing the reasons given:

  • I hadn't fully developed the soft skills needed to be able to tackle one (e.g. time management, organisation, resilience) which resulted in slow progress.

Have you developed these skills now? If so, describing how would be a good way to show off your personal growth.

  • I was struggling to manage myself in a lot of ways (e.g. money, food, mental health)

Probably not a good idea to bring up, in general. Mental health is touchy, and you don't want to give off the impression that you're just in it for the money.

That said, I did crack a joke or two during interviews about the poor grad student stereotype - just be sensitive to your audience.

  • The area ended up being quite a bit out of my comfort zone (i.e. more pure mathematics compared to an applied mathematical background) and was chosen more based on fanciful ideologies rather than what I was traditionally good at, and it took me a long time to do things that my supervisor thought were straightforward.

This is a great explanation for leaving. You wound up in a new area, tried your best, but ultimately found that your true passion and strength is in [whatever].

  • I didn't have a break before starting my PhD and felt consistently burned out/depressed having gone straight into it after my Master's degree - not the best decision to make in hindsight.

As with the mental health, probably avoid this subject. You don't want an employer to worry if you will get burned out on them, too.

  • An opportunity came up to give teaching a go and I decided to try it and see if it was for me.

Also a good explanation. You found an opportunity to do something you were interested in and took it.

It sounds like most of your PhD work can be summed up as "It wasn't what I anticipated, and I decided it wasn't for me." That's fine! PhD's are difficult and not for everyone. This was essentially my explanation for quitting a CS PhD. It was extremely bad for my mental health and my research project was going nowhere. In interviews, my explanation went something like "I went to grad school because I wanted to learn more about X, Y, and Z. It was interesting, but I found that research/PhD wasn't really for me because I prefer more practical, faster-paced aspects - like what your company does!"

Frame your story as "I learned what is and is not a good fit for me, and this job is definitely a good one." This will give the employer confidence that you know better now, and instead of applying on a whim, you are sure their job is a good one for you.

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