Why I’m Quitting My PhD or ‘I’m a Scanner, Not a Diver’

Big Red X Over a Degree and Graduation CapMy plans to start this blog earlier were mildly derailed by a minor life crisis. I’m downplaying it, but it was really rather huge. Last year, in a similar crisis of conscience, I left my well-paying job to go back to school and complete a PhD.

Fast forward 1 year later and two weeks ago, I initiated the process of downgrading my registration from a PhD program to a Master’s program. I actually had planned to quit completely and walk away with nothing, but my supervisor pointed out that that wasn’t necessary as long as I’m willing to stick it out for another 6 months. So that’s what I’ll do. By the end of the summer, I will have another degree and be back on the street.

Ask anyone doing a PhD, or any university professor, and they will tell you that intelligence has nothing to do with being a successful PhD student. There’s no question in my mind that I could finish the program and get my doctorate. The problem is I don’t want to. Which brings us to the qualities you do need to be a successful PhD student – passion, commitment and perseverance. If you love, and I mean really love, like ‘all I want to do all day long is talk about how awesome or perplexing my research is’ love what you are studying, that will often be enough to carry you through the ups and downs of being a graduate student. When that is not enough, commitment and perseverance will pick up the slack.  Though I think I have enough commitment and perseverance, being in the program made me realize pretty quickly that I’m not passionate about what I’m studying. I don’t want to talk all day long about what I’m studying…in fact, I usually don’t want to talk about it at all. It just seems kind of self-indulgent to me. If I don’t really care about what I’m studying, why would anyone else?

That was the big one, the problem that has no solution other than to study something completely different – which brings me to reason #2 why I’m quitting – I’m not a diver. I recently read a book called I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It by Barbara Sher. Its funny how the things you need most tend to come to you at just the right times. I didn’t even know I had this book and yet I found it sitting on my bookshelf one night about a month ago. Turns out it was a gift from my mother-in-law to my partner a while back. The book points out that society is composed of divers and scanners. Our society values divers, because they are specialists or people who become experts in their field, often in one particular nuance of a larger field. PhD’s are well suited to divers.

Scanners, on the other hand, just appear like they don’t know what they want or can’t focus on anything in particular. But scanners have value too. Scanners are highly adaptable, flexible and terrific learners. I’ve realized that I’m a scanner (with diving tendencies). When I become transfixed by a topic, I dive into it quickly, suddenly, obsessively, almost rabidly, learning as much as I can in a short time. But as soon as I’ve learned enough to become better than the average person, I want to learn about something new. I’m not interested in being an expert in something – I’m happy with knowing just enough to add it to my skills repertoire and move on to something new. One of the most common professions of scanners is teaching. Think about it, teachers are expected to know about a wide variety of topics, but not necessarily be specialists in them (of course, in some cases, the teacher is expected to be a specialist as well).

And wouldn’t you know it, one of the biggest realizations I’ve had so far while doing the PhD is that I love teaching. Actually, I wouldn’t call it a realization, so much as a remembrance. Because the first time I did a Master’s degree, I taught and loved it. And I loved training new employees at my industry job. And now I’m teaching again and it’s the highlight of my week. So recently I’ve sought out more teaching opportunities. I’m now volunteering twice a week tutoring high school students in science. And this blog too, is a form of teaching. I may just have found my calling. Only time will tell. By pulling out of the PhD program, I’ve removed the option of teaching at the college/university level, at least in Canada. I’m ok with that though, because I think the post-secondary system is broken (and I’ll save that discussion for another post). So that leaves high school and adult education as my options as I know I don’t want to work with elementary school children. I can’t apply to Teacher’s College (for high school) until December for entry in September 2013. That’s a long way off but I feel good about it!

Not-yet-so-faithful readers, are you scanners or divers? Or a little of both?

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12 thoughts on “Why I’m Quitting My PhD or ‘I’m a Scanner, Not a Diver’

  1. I’ve read her other book – Refuse to Choose – which probably echoes many of these themes (particularly along the likes of Scanners etc) but focuses really on the fact that you don’t need to devote yourself to one thing for your whole life, and outlines some ways you can make your career work with your lifestyle and personality. Kind of.

    I’m definitely a bit of a scanner; so is my fiance, although he is extremely quick to pick up things and excels at anything he takes on. Sher gives examples of similar types who reinvent themselves careerwise over and over according to interest/skill/talent – but in reality, jumping around too much is going to hurt your earning ability to some degree.

    • Thanks for letting me know about her other book. I wasn’t aware of that one, but I will definitely look it up. I agree that jumping around too much can hurt you in the long run, particularly in terms of earning ability. I think the ideal situation for a scanner is to find a career that exploits his/her scanning abilities.

  2. I’m a scanner for sure, although I’ve decided to stick through my PhD. I plan to go back to being a scanner afterward. 🙂 I just figured the PhD would open up more employment opportunities, and industry research can be a backup plan.

    • Hi Emily,
      Absolutely, depending on your field, a PhD certainly can open up the doors to employment. In my case, I know I don’t want to go into research, so that didn’t make sense as an option. Best of luck to you in your degree!

    • Thats what I’m hoping for…. though it does depend on where you live, to some degree. A PhD in DC might mean more opportunities than a PhD in Arizona. Perhaps.

  3. Great piece. I’m in a very similar position, albeit in the UK system. Teaching, too, is the highlight of my week. Ideally, I’d like to teach at degree level, but that isn’t really possible in my field without a PhD. My aim is to teach maths and economics to 16-18 year olds. Don’t need a PhD for that, so time to quit, methinks. Now, to tell my supervisors…

    • Thanks for your comment Traser! It really is a bit of shame that we can’t teach at the degree level without a PhD. Most PhD’s don’t even want to teach, they just want to do research and it would be great if the school would just let them do that and leave the teaching to those who have a passion for it. Best of luck in your future!

  4. I stumbled on this older post – I’m definitely a scanner too. How could I not be, with two degrees now… :p

    I tried to focus when I was finished my first degree – got myself on a career path, networked, did career advancement-y things… and hated it. So I don’t blame you! Gotta do what is best for yourself.

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  6. I am so happy to read this post! I am in the exact situation and now I think I’m also a scanner with diving tendencies… I am 2 yrs into my PhD and now seriously considering quitting. Like you have said, I know I can get this done if I want to, but the question is I don;t want to. I have no motivation at all to finish this…. I was in the industry before starting the PhD and now I really want to get back! I’m so glad to find that there are people who went through the same problems I am going through now. You are a very brave person to make this decision, not everyone can do it and I’m still gathering courage! Thanks for the post!

  7. I’ve just stumbled with this article today. I’ve read lots on phD quitting, or on how to cope with stress, or how to gain your motivation back..well really mainly in quitting… So I’ve been in this phd for 5 years, and the last year hasn’t been productive at all. I am having a look on that book you said.. seems promising, maybe it will go with my “women who think too much” book… hard to make a choice… hard to keep motivated and put if not quitting and hard to let go if quitting…

    • Hi there, thanks for your comment. Doing a PhD can be tough and I’m sorry to hear that your not enjoying yours so much lately. At your point, you are probably close to finishing no? After 5 years in it, I would probably focus as much as possible on wrapping it up and finishing as quickly as possible.

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