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Is Quitting Really a Bad Thing? (part 1)

Quitting is *not* a bad thing.

No, not the PhD. Well…maybe the PhD. That’s up to you. But I’m talking about *anything.* Is it really that big of a deal to quit anything, big or small?

It’s a common saying that everyone thinks about quitting their PhD at least once. I definitely thought about it once…every day…for five years. That is completely okay. And while I ultimately didn’t quit the PhD (more on that in part 2), I am no stranger to quitting. I can’t even count how many experiments I quit, research projects I moved on from, events I stopped attending, cardio days I abandoned… We’re getting off track here. The question is whether quitting is a bad thing.

This is a charged question. Quitting is a personal choice fueled by personal values and personal experiences, but I can share what I’ve learned in my personal journey with quitting, both during and after graduate school: No, quitting is not an inherently bad thing.

The most important thing I want everyone to hear is that it’s okay to quit. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. It is okay to quit because quitting is not failing. Something I realized after graduate school was how intensely pass/fail evaluation is burned into my brain. Throughout all of schooling, we have tests and committee meetings and experiments that will all pass or fail, and these are how we measure success. Sometimes, as I experienced, they become how we measure our value as a person. Over my 21 years of being a student of some form or another, I started viewing everything as a test that I could either pass or fail, and quitting felt like the biggest failure there ever was.

That is simply not true.

Quitting is an opportunity. When we quit one thing, we are often intentionally making room for another. This could mean a new and exciting career, or it could simply mean gaining back time to rest and recharge. Quitting is also a healthy form of time management. It’s how we prioritize our workloads, responsibilities, and values. I used to play the piano, but I quit when it stopped providing a relaxing and creative outlet; it stopped being prioritized.

But quitting piano as a hobby is easy. It’s low stakes. What about quitting an entire line of experiments? A lot of effort went into planning and preparing for them, and their results could have a substantial impact on the research as a whole. And what about quitting graduate school? What about leaving a program on which I built my entire life plan? That I spent my whole life working towards?

Here’s the hot take: The time we put in doesn’t matter. All that matters is what we get out of it, and if the gains are not worth the costs, then maybe we need to consider a new way to use that time. Quitting is not an inherently bad thing. Many times, it’ll be the best thing we can do. The next question, then, is how do we know it’s time to quit? We’ll explore that in part 2, but for now, if you’re considering quitting something, just remember: it is okay to quit.


Thank you to Ellen Wixted for sharing her story.

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