I admit it: I was Ph.D. program dropout. And apparently, a lot of other people are dropouts, too. According to the Ph.D. Completion Project, only 22 percent of graduate students finish their doctoral degree after five years. By the 10-year mark, the completion rate is only a bit better than half, at 56 percent.
Despite dropping out of graduate school in 1987, I eventually completed my Ph.D. in 1998. And I didn’t spend a decade in grad school. I never gave up the desire to finish my degree, and when the opportunity came, I seized it. I believe my story contains lessons that will resonate with anyone who has set a personal goal to complete a professional-level program.
A bright start.
I graduated high school at 16 years old and earned my undergraduate degree from Rutgers College by age 20. I did well in school by most measures, except my own. I ended up graduating with a degree in mathematics -- with highest honors, in fact. I'd entered college with the idea of studying business but gravitated to math. I enjoyed its elegance. But the real reason I changed majors was something else entirely: I wasn't able do the work in any other field. I couldn't concentrate long enough to read a book. English, history, business and the rest all scared me off.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was living with fairly severe Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Of course, they didn’t call it that back then. They just thought you were lazy or called you out for not being able to sit still. But math was different for me, in part because I had natural ability. Mathematics theorems and proofs require conceptual understanding, logic and intuition -- all things I was good at. Even better, it didn’t require the reading, writing or long, painful lectures I dreaded.
I did well enough at Rutgers to be accepted to the University of Pennsylvania's theoretical mathematics program. I wanted to focus on my studies but found myself embroiled in departmental politics -- something I wasn't very good at. I left the university on not-so-good terms. I had a master's degree and was a thesis short of my Ph.D. At the time, I didn’t mind dropping out with an unfinished degree. At Penn, I'd met the woman I would marry. And I already was working in our family business, where I wrote computer programs that would run the photo-supply and camera company for the next decade.
A painful reckoning.
Eager to start “real” life with my new wife and run my business, I moved back to New Jersey in 1986 and started working full-time. My college sweetheart and I welcomed five children. But as we know, life doesn't always go as planned. My wife left me and our children permanently. While my business had done well, the strain of a wildly difficult divorce and single fatherhood with a young family (see my Man-Up Project) had taken its toll on me.
I felt like a failure. In my mind, I had finagled my way through college and dropped out of a Ph.D. program. My marriage had collapsed, my children were hurting and I was both overweight and lonely. I was facing a financially paralyzing divorce judgment, and I was bankrupt. I'd hit rock bottom.
But you aren't really done until you've given up trying. I wasn't ready to quit. I got myself into shape, figured out how to make it all work, raised my children and somehow paid the bills. Along the way, opportunity struck: A professor who lived in England discovered my programming work and reached out to me. He said my works were original and possibly even Ph.D.-worthy. He also suggested a university that might be willing to allow me to submit a thesis and defend it. A year-and-a-half later, I had my doctoral degree computer science from Warnborough College in England.
I didn’t tell anyone. I was running a photo-supply business in New Jersey and working hard to raise my children. What could a doctorate do for me? Would it turn my kids into successful adults? Would it sell any more photo supplies? And if I told people, surely I would have to explain the 10-year gap, why I left Penn and what happened in my life. I couldn’t do it.
A personal reinvention.
That all happened 20 years ago. Today, I'm speaker, author and the U.S. CEO of a professional social network that helps build personal brands. Much of my current success, writing and presentations are about personal brands. Earning that doctorate adds to my brand (or at least that's what people close to me say when I've trusted them enough to tell them the whole truth).
Sharing my Ph.D. story here means I have to be honest about my life's story so far -- the good and the bad. Letting it all out gives me a sense of relief. There’s nothing left to hide, no uncomfortable pauses when someone asks me what degrees I hold. I don't fall back on my old, not-so-complete answer of "a master's agree."
I hope this motivates you to pursue the graduate degree you've been considering. Finishing that work will elevate your personal brand and add gravitas to your profession or business. Most of all, it will give you the satisfaction that comes from completing something important to you.
It’s never too late.