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I have a feeling this question has been posted before, but I wanted to ask as my situation is slightly different. I've recently decided to leave my PhD program in the social sciences in order to look for work. I've basically come to the conclusion after completing 3 full years, courses, and fieldwork that I don't want to be an academic but would rather put my skills to use with NGOs, non-profits, or the public sector. In many ways, the last hurdle of the PhD (i.e. writing the dissertation) seemed more like a barrier to what I wanted to do, rather than something that would bring me closer to it. I left because I wanted to go in a new direction, not because I wasn't sure that I was capable of finishing.

Anyways, my main concern right now is how to present this discrepancy on my resume. As I've been a TA and doing research projects since getting my MA, I've decided to list my years as a TA, and the rest under the position of "Researcher." I figure that the situation is a little too complex to really explain in a resume or cover letter, and that most employers will be able to read between the lines that I was probably in a PhD program. I've basically been marketing myself on my resumes/cover letters as a "researcher" with lots of research projects under my belt, without specifically stating under the "education" section that I have a partially finished PhD. The issue here is not the PhD (which I have left), it's how to accurately represent my experience and skills while in the PhD program. My motivation for putting "researcher" is that throughout my graduate studies I designed and carried out research as an "investigator" (under a supervisor's project), and "principal investigator" (my own project).

I figure that the 3 years of PhD work on research projects gives me (and any other former graduate student) skills that are valid to most employers. I just want to be able to address this discrepancy honestly and enthusiastically in an interview, rather than clumsily addressing it in a cover letter/resume. What do you guys think? Is this the right strategy to take?

  • This question is cross-posted at Academia SE, though I do think it's a better fit for the Workplace – David K Oct 20 '14 at 17:06
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Was it a positive thing for you? Then you're halfway there!

I'm going to strongly disagree with the comments that stated that either you have a PhD or you don't. That opinion varies greatly depending on the field in which you are in. I know plenty of folks who have taken their quals and are ABD(All But Dissertation) who have left their program, for a variety of reasons, and mention their hard work on their resume and have been very successful. To them a PhD was less like being pregnant and more like growing tomatoes. It's true that they left before the biggest, most obvious tomato was ripe. But there are tons of other delicious tomatoes on that vine and there's no shame in making a salad with those tomatoes if you decide the big one isn't worth waiting for. (It is at this point that I question the wisdom of answering questions over lunch time.)

So taking our tomato analogy along for the ride - how do you spin not getting that big tomato as a positive? Well you got all these other tomatoes right? You've worked alone on complex projects, planned research and taken advanced coursework relating to that field. Additionally(and I'm fairly rusty on the standards in the social sciences) you've potentially published, worked on publishing or contributed to publishing in the field which shows an awareness of the standards and, hopefully, best practices involved.

I would absolutely distinguish PhD work from a 'researcher' position. Typically PhD work requires a more careful balancing of time and resources as PhD workers are students then researchers(though they are students of research) additionally, at the level you are describing, I would expect a PhD student to be working more autonomously(especially as their degree progressed) and I would be suspicious of a 'researcher' worker who had not moved up(in some way) in the several years of their work at a lab.

I think the ultimate answer to your question depends on why you left. "The money ran out" or "They kicked me out" is very different from "As I progressed towards completing my PhD I began to understand that I was interested in these parts of your field and less interested in the parts necessary to completing my PhD. I think the work was really valuable for reasons and I'm glad I did it but I wanted thing that wasn't really compatible with continuing in the program"

I would not downplay your work in a PhD program into some research and some TA experience because that sells short the work you did do. Instead explain the choice as you have here - the path the PhD was leading towards wasn't what you wanted. Most employers will respect that.

  • As somoene who was an almost-masters level at information design, I can attest to the fact that this is definitely a good way to present your studies. Especially if you can present it as a step towards improving yourself professionally. – Zibbobz Oct 21 '14 at 20:06

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