Four years ago, I left my PhD program.

I remember the desperation of pouring over my hodgepodge of completed classes, trying to puzzle together an exit strategy. The peace that came after discovering that I didn’t have to wait another semester to graduate with my Master’s degree was like a Shavasana after a challenging yoga session. Wait, that’s incorrect. My PhD was no yoga session; it was the Ironman triathlon that I’d never trained for.

Looking back, if I’d even glanced at the description of the ENTP personality type before I started, I may have taken another path. I had all the struggles of a regular PhD candidate along with my ENTP traits. Loving big ideas and complex problems was great but hating nitty gritty details that follow became a detriment.

Does that mean I think an ENTP can’t finish their PhD? Absolutely, they can! Many do…okay maybe not MANY, but at least a few. Knowing a little more about what was required beforehand, might have gotten me to the end.

After you’ve abandoned a project, you have an idea of what tools you needed to complete it in the first place. Now that I’ve tried, quit, and taken time to reflect, I can share what may have helped me get through.

Reasons you might be ready to start a PhD

1. You’re excited about three detailed questions you want to answer

A PhD is a focused, long-term problem-solving session. The science and math communities require you to study two or three related problems and publish papers from that. Your work on those papers stitches together a cohesive thesis. As ENTPs, we love ideas! When we’re focusing on our chosen topic, that’s what comes naturally. When I started, I didn’t know what focused question I wanted to ask. The big picture was easy, but packing it down into three interesting, detailed questions was tough. Those questions changed depending on which one seemed the most exciting. I ended up changing my main topic because it seemed practical, but that didn’t cut it. It couldn’t hold my interest enough. As ENTPs, we benefit from defining these problems before applying for a PhD, otherwise our idea generation will get us into an unproductive cycle.

2. You’ve been a diligent full-time member of the industry for over 1.5 years

Doing the day-to-day work that comes with a PhD is tedious. You need to be willing to hunker down and NOT finish things every day. The work that it takes to finish a PhD involves up to 4 years of unfinished work with everything coming together in the following final year. One piece of the project may take up to two years. It’s likely that you don’t start on day one (unless number 1 from above is really ironed out). Being a “worker bee” in the same field for a while, will equip you for similar work in your PhD.

3. You’ve completed a large independent project in a reasonable timeframe

Independent work and motivation are central to getting your PhD. It’s gotta be one of the loneliest things I’ve done. You usually have a cohort of people doing similar work as you but are working on your own problem. The idea of a PhD is to become THE expert in what you are studying, even beyond you advisors– to fine-tune the work that has come before you. If you have been able to stay motivated to finish a project that took at least a year of focused work and have done so on your own with very little guidance, you could be ready to tackle a PhD.

4. You’ve finished reading at least five peer-reviewed papers on your focused questions

This is particularly important for ENTPs. Make sure you can get all the way through a really boring one. When you get into a program, it will be your job to read peer-reviewed papers on your topic. This helps refine your questions and understand how your work can improve the field. As ENTPs, we are motivated by novelty. Answering a nuanced question on a current issue can help an ENTP stay motivated. A discouraging part of my PhD was that a lot of people had already done the work I was interested in. At that point, it was really hard for me to nail down the particular piece that I wanted to focus on. If you read the methods section and think “that sounds like a lot of fun,” that is also a good indicator that you are ready to do the work needed.

Try it! Check out Google Scholar and use the “cited by xx” option. Read (and finish) the 5 most recent papers you can find that have to do with your focused questions. Ya know what, maybe make it 10 papers….

In the end, it comes down to your level of diligence and perseverance.

If these two words give you a stomachache… don’t start.

I left and will tell you why in a later post. I almost finished and learned a lot. I’m not saying you HAVE to be able to do these things before you start, I just think that they will raise your chance of finishing and set you up for success. I’ve seen people of all personality types finish. Diligence and perseverance, not passion and interest, are the traits that matter. A completed PhD is not a passion project (although an unfinished one can be). Instead, it’s a chance to figure out a tiny new piece of information, an opportunity to build something that may help someone do their job a little bit better, or a solution to a niche problem that could really invigorate research in the field. Spending time finding the little piece of the world you can improve will let you know if a PhD is your next step.

Comment to let me know if my advice got you a little bit closer to starting. If you’ve completed or left a PhD, what was your experience?

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