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I'm a mechanical engineer with several years of practical experience. About a year ago I came back to university to pursue a Ph.D. and am coming up on my first years' report.

The prof I've been working for has grand (and realistic) ambitions for his lab and has all of us working on a giant group project in addition to our course work and research. However, the section that I am on is identical to my prior work experience and therefore old-hat for me. I'm not learning any new skills, but it takes about 60%-80% of my time to keep the project moving on schedule. Due in part to this extra project and all of my course work as well (20-30% of my time was spent on course work). I have completed almost nothing related to my actual research goals. I honestly feel like this entire past year has been an incredibly expensive and complete waste of my time. The course work has been impractical and useless for me and I've gained no useful skills from this extra project. (No I cannot drop this extra project, I've asked repeatedly)

Before I came back to university, working on my own I made leaps and bounds more progress. I came back to university because they have the resources to support the project and they open a lot more doors and have access to personnel to help with my research. Completing the research on my own would have become far too expensive for me to do on my own when it gets to the prototyping stage, but doing it at a university seems like it will just take too long to do. But the main issue is that I'm NOT doing academic work, I'm doing the same thing I was before I got here, but with an 80% pay cut.

I'm considering leaving grad school and wondering what future employers will think of someone who drops out of a Ph.D. program after only a year? I'm wondering if employers will view this past year as a "placeholder" job while I looked for something better, sort of like I was trying to hide the gap in changing jobs. How can I address this if it comes up in an interview?

  • I've personally been telling HR "We need to hire more PhD dropouts, they are smart enough to get in, have a bit of research experience, but are also self-aware enough to quit when it isn't working for them to pursue what they are more interested in. Thus are much smarter than me, who completed a PhD." – Lyndon White Mar 20 at 13:27
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Dropping out of your PhD is perfectly acceptable in the first 12-18 months. It's not for everybody, and it takes self-awareness, confidence and grit to push through it and still decide to move on.

After 18 months, it becomes an all-or-nothing investment: you either spend 3-5 years of your life on it and pass the viva, or you failed your phd.

There are a number of reasons why a phd might fail: the first 18 months are there to help you understand your probability of success.

The "extra project" should be your main PhD project, if it takes most of your time. You need a clear understanding with your PhD supervisor about whether this is the case or not. If the extra project is not going to be the bulk of your thesis, then you should not be prioritising it.

However, it all comes down to who owns the funding for your tuition and research. If it all depends on your supervisor, then your best bet seems to have that project as one or two chapters of your thesis. But if you came in with your own scholarship and funding, then you might find out that if you want to complete your phd you might have to start from scratch in another lab.

Good luck, whatever you choose to be.

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    The extra project is totally unrelated to my research goals. But it will be a huge feather in the prof's cap when we pull it off, it's a huge design challenge thing – Diesel Mar 17 at 22:27
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    I understand. Then you need to understand if your research goals are aligned with your supervisor's intentions for the funding allocated to you. It is not uncommon for academics to win a grant for Popular Topic A to fund Personal Interest Topic B. But you need to be aware of the situation early on, because it might affect the outcome of your phd. Speak with previous students or current ones, it might help. – Monoandale Mar 17 at 22:34
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Some excellent industry engineers and programmers try the PhD route and find it is just not for them. One year is a very reasonable amount of time to give it a chance before deciding you are one of them.

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    This was exactly my experience; I describe myself as a "proud grad-school dropout". Nobody in tech blinks twice if you say that you explored the option but academia wasn't the career path for you. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Mar 18 at 18:00
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    Agree completely. Tech is full of former academics who have decided to move to business, whether they graduated or not. – economy Mar 18 at 18:13
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You may just have the wrong advisor. If the current advisor is not working out, you could switch to another research group or even another university. This happens from time to time. Search academia.stackexchange for many people in similar situations

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    I hadn't thought of switching Uni's, that's a very interesting idea. I think I'll add a question to the Academia SE on this. – Diesel Mar 18 at 14:34
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If you did so, and in interview explained it to me exactly as you've explained it to us here, I would not only completely understand, but also find it a point in your favour that you recognised a problem, gave it a fair chance of being resolved (rather than cutting and running immediately), then after an appropriate period of time changed tack to a different approach that had a better chance of working for you.

All of these are good signs!

Do not worry. Good luck!

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Unless your next interview will be in academia, this will be seen just as any other position you took but ultimately didn't like. Unless there's a pattern of not being able to hold down a job for more than a year, that's not a problem.

I'm doing the same thing I was before I got here

Then list it as such on your resumé. Most employers won't even care why you decided to work in a university for a year, if you have more significant prior work experience. You can tell your story to those who do ask, there's no more shame in dropping out of a PhD than there is in never trying to earn one.

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Don't call yourself a dropout.

Call yourself a person with a Master's Degree, who additionally gained a bit more education before moving onto greener pastures.

Being a "dropout" implies failure. Not what you want to communicate. Instead, you achieved something significant (most people I encounter in my field don't have Associates Degree). Focus on that.

Some places will read through the lines and consider you a drop-out and judge you negatively for that. There's no getting around that. Some places won't. (Even if they do figure out that you could be a classified as a drop-out, they may decide to not judge you negatively over that, as you can tell from Patricia Shanahan's attitude.) Hopefully you end up managing to easily connect with one of those places.

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Good answers already.

My addition is to do with this because it appears to underline all the rest as the core issue to be addressed.

Completing the research on my own would have become far too expensive for me to do on my own when it gets to the prototyping stage

You have your own agenda.... generally this is incompatible with academia at your level. Your agenda means nothing as you are expected to work and learn as instructed. Chasing your agenda is best done personally as you are the only one with a 'real' stake in it. Problems like prototype funding etc,. can be dealt with when that time comes and may not even be an issue by then.

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  • Not at all true for Ph D students. – Warren P Mar 19 at 16:39

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