Why I quit my Ph.D. program

TL;DR version:

I quit my Ph.D. program to earn to give for as long as there is still extreme world poverty. My aim is to earn as much as I can and donate at least 10% of my income to the most cost-effective charities.

Long version:

I started a Ph.D. program in Educational Psychology because I had high hopes that my eventual position as a tenured professor would be sweet all around. I thought that as a professor I would be able to do research on issues of great consequence for students and contribute towards implementing these and other important research findings into the school system. There are many interventions that are cheap to implement and have been shown to benefit students immensely; I hoped I could charge forward and help students who’d benefit most, soon enough. Unfortunately, it seems that the academic field of education is more geared at best towards just finding facts about what works; there is nearly no path between this knowledge and school practices. Those in power to implement these findings usually ignore the best evidence and act based on ideology or some other selfish interest. Foolish me – to spend so much time in the program without researching if my goals would be achieved.

One response to my pessimism can be “But Boris, where are you going to find a single place where you could have a large positive impact? All careers are like that!” And it may be precisely because I have found an answer to this question that my motivation to become an academic was undercut. There are millions of people on earth that are living in extreme poverty, millions of children dying, and each of us can do an immense amount of good by helping the ones in most need – them. All this can be accomplished by choosing to donate some fraction of one’s earnings to the charities that are most effective at eliminating some of these problems. By donating even as little as 10% of my income I could reasonably expect to prevent 8 deaths (and give long-lasting life instead) every single year.

Entering a paying career sooner rather than later I can expect to maximize my life-time earnings and thus donations. Teaching mathematics has brought me great pleasure so far so I think I will end up being a teacher (New Jersey is the 3rd highest paying state for teachers & I am already qualified). A teaching job will also give me summers off, allowing me to find additional income if I so choose (I intend to keep my eyes open to more lucrative opportunities in life as well, e.g. becoming an actuary).

Based on my past spending experience, I suspect I will be able to live on far less than $20,000 for many more years. If I can manage it, I hope to donate away everything I earn above that figure to the best charities. I am 26 years old and I may still be young and foolish and idealistic, but I hope that I stick to my decision. I have been donating 10% of my pre-tax income to VillageReach (the best charity I can find so far) for over a year and it been very easy. I know I’ll keep giving at least 10%, I’m sure I’ll be able to give more as soon as my income goes up even a bit, I just hope I’ll be able to earn significantly more in my life than an average teacher.

I am exceptionally lucky that I ended up living in such a rich society that I can provide all of life’s necessities for myself: food, shelter, and clothing while also being able to do so much good for many others. My decision to start giving evolved over the past four years –amongst other things– through attending lectures given by professor Larry Temkin, reading works by Peter Singer, and talking to inspiring people like Nick Beckstead, Mark Lee, and Toby Ord. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.


Boris Yakubchik June 6, 2011

References: - Saving 8 lives/year - An essay by Peter Singer - Nick Beckstead & Mark Lee