I’m a PhD Dropout, and That’s Okay
Academic probation. I read the letter with a mixture of anger and disbelief. How could I, always such a good student, be getting such a notice?
I had just completed the first year of my master’s program in computer science at Indiana University. It had been a challenging time. I had moved from California to a state where I didn’t know a single soul. Shortly after I arrived, my boyfriend of five years came for a visit — and broke up with me.
I started dating a fellow computer science student shortly thereafter, but at the end of our first year, he dropped out of grad school altogether and moved back to the East Coast. So once again, I had reluctantly agreed to a long-distance relationship.
Although I had loved programming since I was a kid and enjoyed my undergraduate artificial intelligence classes, I disliked most of my first-year graduate classes. Analysis of Algorithms was confusing and mind-numbing at the same time; Theory of Complexity made me feel stupider than I ever had. Despite my love of programming, I didn’t enjoy spending a week deep in thought just to come up with five lines of Scheme code.
I had known I was not doing well in my classes, but the letter informing me of “academic probation” in black and white made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t just ignore it any more and coast along assuming things would work out. I had to make a decision about what to do next.
I started the summer in a daze. I was lonely, and although I had signed up to work at a temp agency, they didn’t have a lot of work for me. Eventually I was assigned to a job doing data entry at an office in town, which was tedious but at least gave me somewhere to go. My boss handed me a stack of dot-matrix printouts and asked me to enter the numbers into the computer. “Um,” I got up the guts to venture one day, “Given that this data has been printed out….presumably it already exists on a computer somewhere?” He wasn’t interested in such logic, so I spent my days typing away redundantly.
The time I spent in my subleased apartment wasn’t much more exciting. I bought a TV and a huge bag of Mike ‘n Ikes at Sam’s Club and whiled away the time after work watching a lot of videos from the library. Bloomington is a college town, and during the summer it’s pretty quiet, as half the population leaves. The silence around town amplified my depressed mood about my current and future prospects.
My parents kindly let me tag along on a trip to Colorado, where I visited beautiful Estes Park. The barren green peaks, with scattered patches of snow, were a good place for contemplation. As I straddled the Continental Divide, I wondered: why was I getting a PhD, anyway? I didn’t want to be a professor. I didn’t want to work in academia.
As my college graduation had approached, I’d had no idea what I wanted to do next. I’d been working as a software engineer part time but didn’t want to do that forever. At a loss for what other path to take, I decided to get a PhD. Spending more time in school seemed like a good way to pass the time while I figured out what career I wanted to have, and a PhD couldn’t hurt.
Over the summer, I struggled to navigate my future. I’m not generally a quitter, so I figured the most likely likely outcome was for me to buckle down, hit the books, and get ready to take the qualifying exams.
In retrospect, I should have had better motivations and goals than those.
But I didn’t want to study. So I avoided it. I wandered the stacks of the huge university library and looked for long novels to lose myself in. I went for walks around the neighborhood. I couldn’t bear to think about all the work I had ahead, spending countless hours on subjects that didn’t interest me, so I thought about my past instead, feeling nostalgia for my college days in San Diego. What was I getting a PhD for, anyway? But I didn’t want to be a quitter. I worried my parents would be disappointed in me. I worried I might be closing doors to career paths.
Finally, I make the radical decision: to quit the PhD program, get a master’s degree, and go back to work.
Once I’d decided, I felt so much lighter. Instead of focusing on classes I had to take in order to prepare for my PhD qualifying exams, I got to choose classes I wanted to take! I took my first human computer interaction class, which opened my eyes to a whole new world in which we could design things to work with how humans already think. I took a fascinating class about how babies acquire language, and a class that detailed how the human auditory system works.
I found an adviser for my master’s thesis and focused on testing natural language interfaces vs. GUIs.
No longer feeling the weight of struggling through my classes, I had the mental energy to take on more social activities as well. I joined an intramural soccer team and the all-campus band. I hosted poker parties where we all wore silly hats.
As June approached, I started job hunting and discovered that there were a lot of opportunities. In fact, the opening description for my dream job, at Xerox PARC, read “Are you a PhD dropout? This is the job for you!” (Sadly, I didn’t get the position, but I was soon hired by NASA Ames to work on a helicopter pilot simulator.)
I ended the year much differently than how I’d started it, moving back to California and embarking on a new job and a new life. My new next-door neighbor invited me to weekly Simpsons-watching and board games night, where I made friends I still see today. I discovered that I liked being a software designer even more than a software engineer. I discovered I liked thinking about the user’s perspective, and that I wanted to work on products that would see the light of day and be used by lots of people.
Would it have been cool to be able to call myself “doctor”? Sure, especially so I could say, as my PhD husband does, ‘“Trust me. I’m a doctor.” But once I came to terms with what I really wanted to do, the path became much clearer. I’ve never regretted my decision to become a PhD dropout.
I’m the head of conversation design outreach at Google, and the author of the O’Reilly book Designing Voice User Interfaces. I miss the Sorry Charlie tuna sandwich and World Famous Hot Potato Chips at Bloomington’s Village Deli. For more of my writing, check out my Medium page, as well as cathypearl.com.
Special thanks to Amanda Coutts for her editing assistance!