Should I have left my PhD program? It’s been about a year since I left my PhD degree program, and if I had stayed I would likely have a couple extra letters by my name right now, so I thought it would be a good time to reflect back on the decision. Every decision ultimately comes down to opportunity costs. These costs can be material (a degree), somewhat obscure (knowledge), or completely subjective (quality of life). When I left UVA I had completed all course and publication requirements for my department, so I was definitely on the fast track to a degree, and it’s unlikely I’ll get a PhD elsewhere, so this is a clear cost of leaving. What a degree is worth is both objective and subjective. In certain fields you can’t get hired without a specific degree, so in that case a degree is very valuable. But in others a degree may not give you any advantage, so the objective value of a degree is highly variable. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the subjective value of a degree is also highly variable. Some people want the degree just to be able to write “PhD” next to their names or have people call them “doctor”1. I’ve never needed external validation of my intelligence (and whether a degree confers this is debatable), I’ve always only cared about whether I can solve the problem at hand, which might be an exam, a scientific project, or more recently, a web application, and I’ve always succeeded. Having a PhD wouldn’t do anything to help me in my projects, so it has no value to me. In fact, if UVA gave me a degree for some reason, I would quickly burn it. But what about all that knowledge I would have obtained while finishing my PhD? I can say with 100% confidence that if I had stayed I would have learned NOTHING, which is a big reason why I left. Okay, so what did I possibly learn outside of a university? With the help of the internet I’ve not only dramatically increased my technical skills, but also become more connected to the scientific community. Through MOOCs and webcasts I’ve learned how to analyze large datasets with Apache Spark, launch EC2 instances through AWS, use machine learning algorithms, and how to make web applications (no, not a wordpress blog, FULL STACK, including HTML, CSS, Javascript, SQL, JSON, XML, and the Django web framework). And although while in graduate school I would constantly search PubMed for articles related to my work, I was completely oblivious to so much. I didn’t know about preprints and the open access movement. I didn’t read any scientific blogs, I didn’t use Twitter, Reddit, or Medium, I was basically living under the rock that is a PhD program. If I was still at UVA I would likely be banging my head on the desk while another lab member gives a presentation where they misuse cBioPortal. Since leaving I’ve created my own TCGA data portal that in many ways is much better than cBioPortal, OncoLnc. If I was still at UVA I would not be submitting my publications to preprint servers. Since leaving I’ve submitted two papers to preprint servers and created the first ever PubMed for preprints, PrePubMed. While at UVA I couldn’t choose who I worked with, now I can assist with any research that I find valuable. For example, I saw James Heathers’ post about the GRIM test and created a calculator for him. Next up is quality of life. Postdocs and PhD students are in some of the worst positions you can possibly be in. To work in a lab is to pull an all-nighter on a project you don’t even believe in only to be yelled at in front of all of your colleagues the next day, and then have someone else down the line take credit for the work and get praised for it by the same person who criticized you. So pretty much anywhere you go after being a scientist will be a breath of fresh air. For me specifically however, working my own hours and learning web development has been particularly refreshing. My whole life I’ve always wanted to be able to translate my immense skills into something other than straight A+’s in my course work. And web development lets me share code that I write with the world. I can literally do anything. I could make a website that is basically ratemyprofessors, but for labs. I could have website that would perform any statistical calculation imaginable on your data, or make any type of graph that you want, or both. What most people will want to know is what type of job opportunities I will have without a degree. I’ve already received multiple unsolicited job offers, but given how bad my last employer was I’m being selective. If I completed my PhD the only job I would be an ideal candidate for would be a postdoc, and I suspect the next job I have will be much better than that, but we will have to see. In the mean time, if you know anyone with a PhD you should feel sorry for them because they gave up a lot of opportunities for it.
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Funnily enough, I get tons of emails where people refer to me as “Dr. Anaya”-I guess having a bunch of publications will do that.