Degree In Sight

Time to bail?

For 25 years as a math teacher in inner-city New Haven and its suburbs, Ruth Sullo noticed that math curricula tended to be, well, a little racist. Discussions of the history of math, for instance, tended to focus on European contributions rather than math systems developed in Asia and Africa. Word problems almost always used typical white names, and teachers seemed to have trouble identifying math ability in students of color, Sullo says, resulting in a large number of talented minority students in lower-level math classes.

This observation spurred her to enroll in a psychology doctoral program, so she could study whether there's a link between children's classroom experiences and adult incarceration. "Without a math background, people have very few career options," Sullo says. "I wanted to get a PhD to make a difference in people's lives."

Her experience in front of the class, however, has not translated easily to the other side of the desk. Barely halfway through the program, she says, "I am floundering." Wrestling with unfamiliar coursework and "new ways of thinking" have led Sullo to question her decision to get the doctorate. "I may just bag it," she says. "It would be a relief."

If Sullo bails, she won't be the only one: Only 65 percent of psychology doctoral candidates finish their degrees, according to a 2010 Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) report that surveyed 1,406 PhD recipients from 29 fields. The top reasons for dropping out, according to the report, included a student-program mismatch, program difficulty and a lack of financial and community support.

These factors are often fixable, but don't just dismiss your unhappiness. Consider it an opportunity to re-evaluate where you are and whether you're on the right path.

Wrong Path or Wrong Program?

Rethinking a decision as big as earning a PhD can be intimidating: Many students worry that discontent with grad school means they aren't intellectually capable. But more often, persistent unhappiness signals that your program is a bad fit, says Patricia M. DiBartolo, PhD, a clinical psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "Students tend to believe that there's only one way to do psychology, and if they don't get on that one path right away, they won't do it," she says. "I've sent really smart, very competent women off to PhD programs, and they ultimately quit because it isn't a match."

The competitiveness of getting into grad school may be partially to blame. Two-thirds of graduate students select programs based on schools' reputations and financial support packages, rather than how well programs jibe with their goals, according to the CGS report.

As a result, students may find themselves in the wrong place, says George W. Howe, PhD, head of the psychology graduate program at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

"People try to shoehorn their interests into what they think the faculty wants in a particular department," says Howe. "Someone contacted me to say that they were interested in autism, and I thought, 'That's wonderful. Go to a program where people study that, because we don't.'"

The closer your interests fit with your program, the happier you'll be, he says.

Of course, it can take time to discover that a particular program or perhaps the whole doctorate endeavor is not for you. Gilbert Andrada, now a consultant with the Connecticut Department of Education's Division of Assessment, Research and Technology, experienced this firsthand. After completing his undergraduate studies in psychology at California State University in Long Beach, he decided to continue for the marriage, family and child counselor license, with an eye toward getting a PhD.

"The program was at the same school, and I had done well there as an undergrad," he says. "My professors were encouraging as well." His first case was court-ordered family therapy, however, and he quickly realized he was in over his head. "I had never been married, no kids. What did I know?"

Part of Andrada's job required work in the psychometrics lab, and he discovered he enjoyed it. "I had failed at doing what I was trained to do, but I was really happy," he says. He began researching assessment testing, and earned a master's in psychometrics at Purdue University. He will finish his PhD in that field this year.

Such changes of heart can feel earthshaking, but they provide opportunities to re-evaluate personal goals, says Howe. Time off from school to pursue an internship or to do outside research can offer distance and help sharpen your focus, he notes. "It helps gets your head straight about where you want to be," Howe says.

The Workload Isn't Working

Even students in the right program can question their decision — particularly as coursework and research pile up. The sheer amount of time and work it takes to get a doctorate is easy to underestimate, says Michael Sayette, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and co-author of the "Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology" (2010). "It's not worth the investment unless you consider spending a weekend reading articles related to psychology an acceptable use of your time," says Sayette.

Students with second jobs or families may find it especially difficult to muster the time and energy to meet the demands of a doctoral program. For Martha Lawless, a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut and mother of two, the program meant giving up sleep. After 10 years as an employee at the Yale University department of psychology, she understood the work required of graduate students. What she didn't anticipate was how hard it would be to fit schoolwork into her already busy life.

"I'm in class all day, then come home and do family stuff, then do homework until two in the morning," she says. After three years, she has not yet taken her general exams, and worries that she won't finish. "If I'd known what it was going to be like, I wouldn't have started the degree."

Giving herself permission to not always give school her all was essential, she says. "It's OK if sometimes you're less than perfect," she says.

Those who can handle the time commitment may find that they've underestimated the work itself. As a career math teacher, Ruth Sullo had to "retrain" herself to think like a psychologist. "My thinking patterns are so ingrained at this point, it's hard to shift gears," she says. Papers have proven to be particularly difficult, she says, and she dreads writing her dissertation. "Math people write short papers; you don't embellish. Now I put in all this time, and find myself going on tangents," Sullo says. "Hours go by, and I have nothing to show for it."

Sullo has since hired a tutor and formed a study group. It's helped, she says, though she's still considering dropping out.

Independence or Isolation?

Of course, it doesn't matter how much you enjoy the work if you can't pay the bills. A case in point: 80 percent of PhDs in the social sciences said financial support was essential to completion, according to CGS. For Jennifer Ortiz, a PhD candidate in educational psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, money was the deciding factor in her decision to advance beyond the master's. Although she had thought about a PhD in behavioral interventions, she says, it wasn't until her adviser guaranteed her funding that Ortiz decided to continue. "I had the right support at the right time," she says.

Almost as important as financial aid is academic support. In fact, 70 percent of social science PhDs say faculty support is crucial to their success, according to the CGS survey. That was certainly the case for Andrada, who had the unfortunate experience of having two dissertation advisers retire while he was working on his PhD. "I seemed to be getting a message from the universe that the doctorate wasn't for me," he says, and he dropped out briefly as a result. Luckily, Andrada's adviser came out of retirement a year later and encouraged him to finish.

Advisers need not retire to seemingly disappear. Lawless, for instance, found her adviser too intimidating and cold at first. Though she prided herself on her independence, Lawless quickly realized that she needed more one-on-one support. "I would have these super-freakouts where I thought, 'I just can't do this,' and realized I needed to approach him, even though it felt hard to do." After a grant she won was delayed, causing further issues with her research, Lawless finally got up the nerve to speak with him about her fears and struggles. As a result, she says, he worked with her to secure the necessary funding and her dissertation is back on track.

Quitters Aren't Always Failures

It's not unusual to feel stressed, overwhelmed or even unhappy in a PhD program — most students will admit that they've wanted to give up at some point. However, you know you're on the right path if these feelings pass relatively quickly, says DiBartolo. "The PhD is long and there are disappointments and roadblocks," she says. "If you are sufficiently excited by your project, you can dust yourself off and keep going."

But if discontent lingers, pay attention — your feelings may indicate a need for reflection or even a break to try something new, says DiBartolo. "You can't plan how your life will go ahead of time. Sometimes a new experience can show you what you really want to do."

If you do realize grad school isn't the right place for you, don't take it as a failure. Sullo, for instance, is still undecided about finishing, and has begun work on a book about math anxiety. Having that project in her back pocket, she says, "is a reminder that there are other ways that I can still make a difference in people's lives. It's important to keep that in mind."

Emily Wojcik is a writer in Leeds, Mass.