I dropped out of my PhD

Dropping out of a PhD for the startup world

I dropped out of my PhD

The video:

I decided to quit my Ph.D. in artificial intelligence.

I was one year into this journey, passionate and immersed in the world of research and academia. However, I still decided to take the leap and focus on my startup, Towards AI, and other projects like my YouTube channel. Don’t get me wrong; the Ph.D. was a significant chapter, and I think it is definitely worth it for many, yet my story might resonate with your inner debates and questions like: is a Ph.D. the right path for you? Here’s why I decided to drop out...

In any case, this is just my story and personal choices. And as someone told me, if you are hesitant about doing a PhD, why not just start? Worst case scenario, you stop. It is much better to try than to regret. And it is much better to “lose” one year than four. 

P.S. Those are not wasted years anyway. You learn and grow a lot!

Before the Decision…

Just to give some context, my journey into the Ph.D. was quite obvious to me. Diving into research seemed like the natural path, given my love for AI. I loved my master’s degree and wanted to learn more. I even liked writing grant applications and research papers, so it was just the perfect match. But as I was getting deeper, the desire to innovate and create my own thing kept on growing louder within me.

During my time in the Ph.D., my days were rich with reading papers, conducting experiments, and immersing myself in a world of ideas and discovery. The academic environment was nurturing; the collaboration with fellow researchers was inspiring and fun. Yet,  a part of me was looking for a different path, a space where I could fuse theoretical knowledge with real-world application, innovating solutions with immediate impact. My favorite moments involved working on Towards AI or creating videos during weekends before and after my Ph.D. work.

The Turning Point…

I value every moment spent in the Ph.D., for the skills honed and the knowledge acquired. My supervisor was just perfect, and he still is, and so were my colleagues. It was a melting pot of critical thinking, problem-solving, and intellectual rigor—all very valuable skills even for the industry. However, the excitement towards entrepreneurship, the lively energy of startup culture....and the urgency to create became irresistible.

So, why did I quit? It wasn’t a rejection of the Ph.D. or the world of academia but to embrace a different journey, one characterized by immediate innovation, rapid implementation, and the thrill of seeing ideas transform into tangible solutions. It was a hard decision to make because I still like the Ph.D. and would recommend it, but in the end, it isn’t for me right now, maybe in the future. I definitely think it is relevant for lots of people.

Who is the PhD for? (my opinion)

The Ph.D. is perfect for those in love with deep research, those aspiring to be professors and individuals who dream about the idea of spending years working on complex problems hoping to solve them. It’s an environment that fosters learning, sharing, and contributing to the vast body of knowledge. I still believe it is more aimed at people who want to work on a specific problem for a long period of time and solve it, and not for people who think of themselves as more generalists, though some may think otherwise. It surely depends on your supervisor and projects.

But if you like the pace of a startup, rapid innovation, building practical solutions that will help others in the real world, and improve what exists, then perhaps, like me, your path lies elsewhere. The Ph.D. taught me invaluable skills, proper coding and research practices, enriched my perspective, and was a chapter of great growth. I found out I was more drawn to quickly bringing ideas to life. Have you ever felt stuck choosing between the more methodical, steady world of research and the fast-moving drafty startup scene? That's exactly what happened to me. Also, over time and working for different companies, I discovered that, for now, I needed to fully own what I work, to be motivated.

I thought it might also be interesting to share what was a typical day for me in the Ph.D. for any one of you wondering if it's worth it. Obviously, I want to warn you that this is only a 1-shot example of a PhD with me as the subject, so it may not look like this at all for you…

The day-to-day as a PhD Student...

Obviously, the day-to-day of a Ph.D. student is very different from one another. For me,  the days varied, shifting oscillating between reading, coding, and meetings. Some days, I was busy with adapting code for large datasets; other days, documenting the code and meetings with my professor. I was balancing intense writing sessions, coding, attending workshops, lots of meetings, brainstorming with colleagues, and relaxing with a game of tennis. Every day was a mix of challenges and learning. Still, the Ph.D. was stressful; juggling it with my projects made me feel like I was doing too much, yet not enough. Obviously, most of this stress was self-imposed, but I still felt like doing two things halfway. It didn’t feel right.

The Ph.D. is a lot of work, but if you like it, it is worthwhile. You develop lots of invaluable skills during the Ph.D. that will be useful to your future work but also your life in general, like problem-solving by focusing on the same problem for years, critical thinking to know when to pivot or when to keep digging, managing projects all on your own, structuring your ideas and schedules, and motivating yourself to keep working even when things don’t work. If you don’t do it, nobody will, and sometimes it is so new that you just can’t get much help elsewhere, so you need to learn and do it yourself. Communication and explaining things concisely and clearly is also a huge skill you will develop in a Ph.D. thanks to all your team meetings, teacher assistant work, or sharing your knowledge with others, as I mentioned, and by publishing in conferences—something lots of people never develop in their careers. Still, I believe that except for publishing at major conferences (which is also achievable), one can develop all those skills just as effectively, if not more so, in the industry, especially in the startup world.

To recap about doing a Ph.D. or not: If you are still questioning yourself to do one or directly go into the industry, I think you should ask yourself a few questions. Are you interested in doing pure research? Are you considering becoming a professor? Do you like to teach and share? If you answer yes to one or most of these, maybe a  Ph.D. is for you. It will teach you lots of important skills for your life, as I will discuss later, but it definitely is more for people who love learning and teaching. I’ve learned a lot from talking with a dozen experts for the podcast. The same skills can be acquired directly in the industry from a Master’s degree or even no prior formal degrees. Also, doing a Ph.D. simply to have the title will not be worth it, even if the title has great value if you aim to work at a big company like Google, Meta, etc... If you don’t enjoy the process, you will struggle for years, whereas you could’ve worked on a few personal projects and gone to the industry directly, where you could do very similar research or build products and earn much more money. It all depends on what you want, but if your goal is to build AI models and work in the field, the Ph.D. might not be worth the 4 years. It is worth it if you enjoy the whole process, enjoy learning, improving, sharing, and working on useful and long-term projects. In my case, I always try to do what I want and enjoy, and so I decided to pursue it.

Embarking on a New Journey…

As I step into this new chapter, I’m excited by the prospect of sharing my journey with you, and I hope you’ll follow it through my channel or my newsletter. I’m eager to share the projects I’m immersing myself in. We are building lots of things related to AI education at Towards AI, including free courses, paid ones, our AI tutor, and many other cool tools I’m already working on and testing for myself that I hope to share with you soon.

If that sounds interesting and you’d like to follow what we build, just subscribe to my channel and my newsletter, where I will share all the exciting products, courses, and tools we build for our community! Of course, I also mentioned that I wanted to focus on YouTube, so the paper videos, the interviews, and more will also keep coming with hopefully higher and higher quality.

In Closing…

Decisions like these are profoundly personal. Whether you choose the rigorous path of a Ph.D. or the dynamic world of entrepreneurship, the key is aligning with what resonates with your spirit, skills, and aspirations. And as I said, you won’t lose anything trying. If you are unsure, just give it a shot! If you’re unsure about it or find that you’re not enjoying it anymore, it’s okay to step back. If it’s not for you, letting it go will be the healthy choice. It reminds me of the sunk cost fallacy, where continuing something just because of the invested time, ignoring the prospective costs, isn't always the best decision. Time is our most valuable resource! Use it wisely.

I hope you’ll accompany me on this new journey. Your insights, questions, and perspectives are not just welcomed; they’re essential. Whether it is in the comments, DMs on Discord, LinkedIn, or by email, I always love reading those and try to answer every one of you!

I look forward to sharing more in the near future, and if you're curious to see the unfolding of my projects and innovations, don’t forget to subscribe or follow my newsletter!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode! I’d love to know what you think of the Ph.D. and if it is worth it or not to you.

Thank you for reading, and I will see you next time with more AI content!