Why I quit my Ph.D. program

TL;DR version:

I quit my Ph.D. program to become a professional donor until extreme world poverty is eliminated (my aim is to earn as much as I can and donate most of it to the best charities). True story.

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


Saving 8 lives/year: http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/the-problem/how-we-can-help.php
An essay by Peter Singer: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972----.htm
Nick Beckstead & Mark Lee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZKh0M9x8s4
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2.5 years have gone by ... still love life :)

Since the last post a lot has gone on. 2008-2009 school year was mainly reading books (nearly exclusively nonfiction, mostly psychology), some auditing classes, and a bit of tutoring mathematics. Applied only to two programs in philosophy (bad strategy btw) and didn't get in anywhere; no big loss. In the summer did gymnastics summer camp again and then went to Beijing to visit my brother for a month. Came back from there, still didn't have a job so I ran back to Rutgers, and decided to get into a Ph.D. program in Educational Psychology. Because acceptance for that was only in the spring I applied first to the Mathematics Ed.D. program. The fall semester went semi-well, got accepted to the Ed.D. program and I applied to the Ph.D. immediately. Spring semester (2010) went OK and I got accepted to the Ph.D. program. In May went to AERA - the largest gathering of researchers in the field of education in America (if not the world). Afterwards went on a 3000-ish mile car trip with a great friend starting from Denver through Grand Canyon and Yellowstone; such fun. Summer went well - I tried catching up on reading, worked as at the same summer camp, and went to Burning Man. BM was one of the best experiences of my life - I highly recommend everyone go at least once. Fall semester I was finally an official student, took some classes; nothing worth noting academically (though I did move out of parents' place into a nice attic room I'm renting in New Brunswick - where Rutgers is). Spring semester (2011) is more than half done, nothing academic worth reporting.

Personal life update: since 2008 I started donating money to charities, small amounts at first ($50/month) but began to increase that over time as I learned just how much good the money can do overseas. In 2009 I decided to do a "Birthday for Charity" - I asked my friends to donate to my favorite charity instead of giving me gifts. I managed to raise about $400. In 2010 I did the same; though I raised less money, it went to an organization (VillageReach) which was way more effective (efficient) so the money surely did more good. In 2011 I organized the same event through Facebook Causes and it was significantly more successful: I raised $1000 for Deworm the World, a charity that is surely one of the most efficient nonprofits out there. For as little as $0.50 it will cure a case of parasitic worms, a debilitating problem for at least 300 million people world wide.

Since 2010, charitable giving has become a large part of my life; I have joined http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/ - on international society of people who give at least 10% of their pre-tax income to charities that are most effective at eliminating world poverty in the developing world. Though I am still a student, because I work in the United States, I'm already earning more than about 95% of the world's population. And because a dollar can do so much good in many developing countries, even with small donations every month, I can be certain I am making immense difference in many people's lives for the better.

More personal life update: have not had much luck with finding a partner over the years. In 2010 met a wonderful girl with whom a romantic relationship would have worked, but she was moving to Florida and so we just remain friends. In 2011 met an awesome girl with whom a romantic pseudo?relationship seems to be working, she lives within walking distance and so we see each other sometimes 0:)

More!? personal updates: it is unfortunate that United States has not followed in the steps of Portugal and the Czech Republic in decriminalizing the possession (and use) of mind-altering substances because all the ones I've tried have been such fun.

Obvious understatement: I REALLY love life. Over the past few years I've been jittering around the scale of joy somewhere between ecstatic and phenomenal. This isn't to say I have a perfect life, or that I have most of my desires fulfilled. I certainly can imagine (non-extraordinary yet significant) improvements in all areas of my life, but that doesn't matter. Of course I have "off" days, "bad" days, "sad" days; but that doesn't matter. Sadly I am underperforming compared to benchmarks I set for myself (and not because they are very high), but that doesn't matter. There isn't a single trick to happiness (out of curiosity I've read maybe a few dozen books on happiness, aka positive psychology), but I seem to have been using many of them in the past. Given that happiness is something I enjoy, I'd rather have more of it in my life (so long as it doesn't decrease others' happiness); turns out there is research that can help with this goal, and it's worth paying attention to.

Cheers ;)
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A year has gone by ... still love life

A year has gone by since the last post. Here is the obligatory update.

The year of not working and auditing classes was amazing. Spring semester I sat in on close to 20 courses. Doug Husak is one of the best professors - I was lucky to take 4 courses with him in the two semesters. One of the most amazing courses (and to a large degree life-changing) was a Graduate Seminar in Experimental Philosophy taught by Stephen Stich. My two favorite papers (not just from the course, but now 'ever') are
"The Secret Joke of Kant's Soul" by Joshua Greene, and
"The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail" by Jonathan Haidt.

This summer I read many books (tried to enjoy some 'classics' but many were terrible) so at the end I went back to philosophy.
"Living High & Letting Die" by Peter Unger surely deserves the praise it already gets.
"Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail of '72" was awesome; as well as quite a few other books I won't list

I worked as a gymnastics coach in my Township summer camp - what fun.
By then I was unable to find a job as a High School Math Teacher, and the last month was similarly unsuccessful.

The new semester started and I'm sitting in on once course in Rutgers, the rest of the time I'm reading and trying to find students to tutor. I've read many books and plan to keep doing that.

The main plan now is to apply to Graduate Schools in Philosophy this November.


Summer 2007 and beyond!

Updating frequently isn't my thing. May 2007 I graduated from Rutgers Graduate School of Education with a Master's in Education. First summer month was all play and no work, second month was a little work and some play, and last month I was planning to go to Europe (for the month) but broke two metacarpals in my right hand on the last days of work (teaching gymnastics to kids), so I stayed home and read books :)

Fall 2007 I decided to go to Rutgers and audit as many courses as I could. So I am in 14 classes (40 or so credits) and I'm loving it. I even bought books for some of the classes. Weekends are fun, weekdays are amazing ... LIFE IS BLISS !!!