How do you describe something you chose not to finish?

How do you describe something you chose not to finish?

I spend the better part of the last 9 years working on a PhD. A lot happened in that window. A lot of life changing transitions. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I lost my father, and then a year and a half later I lost my mother. These each had a profound impact on who I was.

When I started the program my goals in life were very different than they are now. I had planned on spending only 5 years working on a PhD – but cancer had a different idea. Then I had to start over. Through that process I have learned a lot. I have grown as a person. I have grown as an academic.

Just before the covid lockdowns started, I decided that I was done working on the PhD. I was looking at another year of writing and revising and giving up my free time working to jump through academic hoops that I didn’t see as helping me move forward in life.

At the end of April I official withdrew from the PhD program. I am no longer a PhD student. That feels weird to say because it was such a large part of my identify for a very long time.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a way to celebrate that accomplishment and we don’t have a way to talk about it. In academic settings, I might use the PhD (ABD) term, only to help people understand that my education is beyond that of a masters.

I updated my linked in to show that I had finished my time at uOttawa. I did not add a degree. However, this caused LinkedIn to tell all my friends that I had “finished at uOttawa”. I got several congratulations type messages – at first thinking I had to write back and explain that I didn’t get my doctorate. I just stopped being a student. It felt awkward.

And now, with the next semester about to start I’m in the situation of having to describe myself to my students. I am at a loss for what to say, as I am no longer persuing a PhD in Education, nor have a completed a PhD in Education – but the work I have done over the last 9 years wasn’t nothing. I learned a lot, and I have a much deeper understanding of a lot of concepts as a result of my time studying. But I don’t have a way to “label” the work that I have done.

I find myself wanting to just leave off references to the PhD, almost like I am trying to erase the work that I have done over the last 9 years. I am afraid that by walking away, it is seen as a failure – that I failed my PhD – which is not what happened. I chose to walk away from it. I chose to do other things with my time. I did not fail it.

But I am not being fair to myself when I ignore the last 9 years. The work that I have done over the last 9 years counts for something. It has shaped who I am as a Lecturer and who I am as a person. It isn’t part of me that needs to be erased. So I do I honor that time?

After walking away from PhD studies, how to you describe what you have done?

Feature image by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

8 Replies to “How do you describe something you chose not to finish?”

  1. Hi Rebecca
    You have been inspirational in my path towards open research. You gave me courage with your blog post on “Closed open research” (, as it confirmed my own feelings about the unethicality of the default position of anonymity for research participants. I will be citing your blog in my own research – whether or not it materialises into a PhD thesis (because as you’ve said, life happens and plans change). Oh, and you might also take inspiration from Stephen Downes, who wrote in 2004 about his own decision to not finish his PhD:
    Please keep on blogging, keep on sharing your knowledge and practice openly and generously, as you have done all along! That is what matters.

    1. Hi Gabi,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. It is always great to hear when your thoughts have had an impact on others. I had no idea that Stephen didn’t finish his PhD – it is funny how we often just assume that people have PhDs (at least within some circles).
      I think blogging is in my blood, so I will definitely keep blogging – only now my focus will be much more on what I learn through teaching and how I can become a better instructional designer – and perhaps a lot more about Virtually Connecting … I’m not short on topics!

  2. “How do you describe something you chose not to finish?” LIFE.

    I say my name, I explain why I love teaching and that I am a researcher, I explain that we won’t know how to work well together before we get to know each other better, I ask them to help me.

    Sometimes, if (very rare) it comes up I’ll explain why I have chosen not to do a PHD.

    People remember who you are not what you are.

    1. Simon,
      I love that you say “life” because you are so right – life totally got in the way. I think about it as people remember you for not just who you are but also how you cared or how you helped. One of the things I love most about teaching is watching my students grow – it is such a rewarding transition. I also learn a lot from my students – teaching is a great way to stay current!

      1. “love teaching,” “watching your students grow,” for me, how you have grown, how you have cared, how you have helped is who you are.

        Who you are is how you can care and help
        others which comes from how you have grown and that makes you uniquely qualified.

        You never know how things will work out in the future.

        Be you and love.

  3. Rebecca,

    It takes a great deal of courage to walk away from something that we have invested so much time, effort and energy (not to mention monetary value). You are a brave and resilient person. Take heart. You are teaching your students and everyone around you that it is OK to walk away with dignity. You tell your students that life is not a linear path; we need to learn to recognize us, our priorities and act accordingly. Letting go and calling it end to long term commitment is NOT a failure. Many a time, taking a pause or closing a door on something is a step toward different ending.

    I wish you all the best in next phase of your journey.


    1. Purviben, Thank you for your kind words. I agree that it is not a failure, rather a pivot. I’m changing where I chose to put my energies, but it also is challenges me to figure out how I refer to myself as that aspect of my identity is no longer applicable.

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