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I Dropped Out of Grad School Today (octopart.com)
92 points by sam on Feb 21, 2007 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

Its interesting to me that everyone here seems to have advice to offer, some of it very personally critical, to a man who is merely outlining his own train of thought, not telling anyone to follow his path. I am nearing the end of my fourth year in physics grad school and have never been closer to quitting. My own experience has been very isolating-I work long hours in the basement of a lab, limiting of my personal growth-I've been in a kind of 'stasis' where I'm in this college environment but very clearly do not fit the mold of a college student, and professionally frustrating - not only do I not have the kind of control over my project which people claim as the holy grail of a Ph.D., there is no clear end in sight to what I am doing. The only thing keeping me here is momentum and fear. Here is a man who just took his life off the usual path and spat in the face of fear. That deserves respect.

I totally agree with not taking decisions lightly, but with a clear head. I've put all my studies on hold this year(currently 19) because it makes so much more sense to experiment as best I can at this stage. I've since been employed as a copywriter(great job), then as a programmer(hated it because things were moving too slow in that company) and I ultimately started a low-profile firm and pitched alternative outdoor marketing projects to big distribution firms here in Bucharest. What I'm trying to say is that in 9 months I've learned more than in my entire formal studies up until now. And it's not only about the knowledge but also about life experience and how to deal with things. It always demands great respect to take your own life into your hands and take decisions. It's also great to know that you can manage things on your own and be financially independent at this age.

I don't take formal studies lightly in any way, but I consider that it's great added value if I continue them in a few years.

This has got to make PG nervous. How many people's life is he affecting? :-) He's definitely had an impact on my priorities in a very big and positive way. I hope everyone who makes changes based on his inspiration and motivation does it with a clear head and can take responsiblity for the decision and outcome.

I saw him and JL tonight and they were pretty freaked out. It's cool though- I got a nice t-shirt out of it.

Paul Graham has backpedaled from one of the initial goals of Y Combinator, funding companies with no lower-bound for the age of founders. With the publication of this essay, http://www.paulgraham.com/mit.html, he has backpedaled from that stance because of his personal moral culpability for encouraging people to become drop-outs. So if you are seeking Y Combinator funding and are a current undergraduate, tell Paul Graham that you are dropping out to start the company regardless of whether or not he funds you.

We never proposed there was no lower bound; the goal was more to discover where it was. And we now have, I think. Though in fact the main thing we discovered was how fuzzy it is.

There really are people who can start a startup when they're 19. Sam Altman, the founder of Loopt, was 19. But for most people the lower bound is about 22. One reason is that most people need to experience what a job is like to be sufficiently motivated to avoid it. Another is that few people are forceful enough at 19.

Have you discovered an upper bound? The commonly held belief is that people over X (where 30 < X 35?) can't start startups because they have kids and a mortgage, or they just aren't in-tune with what's hip. Curiously, that excludes people who have "been there and seen that", the best current example being AJAX. Also, those who have taken a few more trips around the Sun also may recognize niches that 19-25 years would never see. My impression is that Y-Combinator is an attractor for the younger entrepreneur.

Full disclosure: I'm in the range above, planning to start a company, and not trolling for Y-Combinator dollars.

Harder to say about the upper bound. The factors you mention may play a role, especially kids. I also think need for money is a factor. Most people who could make money have by 40, and once you have enough, you're less willing to endure the pain of starting a startup.

The average age of YC founders is about 25.

I couldn't agree with you more. It isn't until you really experience what it is like to work for someone else before you realize what it's like to work for someone else.

After 2 years of corporate work, I'm ready to step out on my own as a result of frustration with what other people want me to do. Sometimes it takes the mother bird to force the chick out of the nest before it learns to fly ....

Couldn't you have taken a sabbatical? I mean, did you just totally walk away from it? I took a sabbatical for a year from a PhD in CS to pursue some medical science ideas, then went back when they didn't go far enough to make a living on. Not flaming, just curious.

Taking a sabbatical is of course a reasonable idea, but you will inevitably be tempted to fall back into the PhD program when things get tough at your startup. Every new founder can think of a lot of reasons why their company might not succeed; when you don't have the option of going back to school, you're less likely to give up on your company in the face of these challenges.

if you take a sabbatical then you haven't really risked anything. you have to go all the way. what do you guys think about James from Hot or Not giving up his millions. He probably went out to a nice dinner to celebrate.

I got the impression from James's post that he wasn't actually "giving up" his millions, he was locking up all future profits in the business and reinvesting them. He converted HotOrNot from an S-corporation to a C-corporation. You can certainly reinvest profits from an S-corporation into the business or pay out profits from a C-corporation as dividends, but the incentives go different ways. S-corp earnings are taxed as ordinary income (none of the double-taxation of corporate profits) and S-corps can't give out different classes of shares, so there's an incentive to distribute the profits out to the shareholders. C-corp earnings are taxed once at the corporate level and then once as dividend earnings, yet they can have multiple classes of shareholders. The incentive is to build up the business and eventually seek an IPO, acquisition, or other liquidity event. It almost looks like James is positioning HotOrNot to get big and get bought.

There's risk and then there's prudent risk. Taking a 12 month sabbatical to focus on the startup would be a prudent risk. And, it's going all the way, just for 12 months. If you don't know in 12 months if the business will succeed, it probably won't (especially in this space). Anyway, I wish the guy lots of luck and success. I supposed if he makes millions, he can always go back.

Why would it be important to risk anything???

At the end of the day this is a public explanation of a private decision. I'm guessing that the amount of thought that went into this decision is massive and began on some level long before PG made a comment. Without personally knowing Andres, I think it's safe to say as a physics expert he possesses the analytical skills required to go into this with a clear head. I for one give him credit for acting on his instincts rather than playing it safe. All the posts below are proving that point. How many people would be claiming that he made a mistake if he continued to pursue Physics and Octopart failed? No one because who can criticize the pursuit of a doctorate? Chances are his dedication to Octopart will lead him in yet another direction, one that most likely would not have reared itself in the basement of the Physics lab.

As for the women...well that is a whole other conversation. Andres, I know lots of women now that I'm married, let me know your type.

I often wonder if there are good opportunities for (non-web) startups in physics/science. The state of programming in there is abysmal, in my experience. There must be thousands of Fortran implementations of finite element codes out there, each with dozens of non-trivial bugs. It's absurd that physicists do so much low-level programming and optimization on their own.

David Sternberg writes in his book, "How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation," that the right reason to pursue a doctorate is a deep interest in your discipline, along with the intention to work professionally in it upon completion. I recommend this book to anyone having first or second thoughts about pursuing a Ph.D.

Social isolation helps if your intention is to get work done. In the words of the poet:

"Startups must be pursued for their own sake

and never to impress potential mates."

you're bananas if you think a startup is going to help you meet girls or improve your social life. especially an electronics website startup... yikes.

as long as the startup makes money the girls wont care what it's selling.

if only that were really true. y'all never been to a silicon valley singles thing, huh? all the ladies are lining up to bang the bartender.

There are plenty of girls if you're willing to make the drive to Berkelely

Hang in there. I've been there. It gets better.

I hate to play devils advocate but is dropping out of school a reflection of what is to come when the start up work gets tedious? Please don’t get me wrong I believe you should follow your passion and if that takes dropping out of school or climbing Mt. Everest follow Nike and just do it! Maybe dropping out of school shows the investor that you are serious but are you dropping out because you are serious or because you’re bored and this offers you a way out? Am I way off on this line of thought? By the way if I was facing the same decision I would drop out too.

I think it shows that Andres doesn't have the interest or time in his school work. I'm in a similar situation, considering dropping out as an undergraduate, and I just don't have the time to work on my startup and school at the same time and expect any progress in the next 12 months.

Plus you have to consider what a degree is going to get you. In most cases, at least for undergraduates, a degree is going to put you in a full-time, entry-level job. Not everyone wants that, and not everyone is meant to be in college.

You can argue this two ways. Your view is "you need to finish what you started, otherwise people know you're a quitter." I'm the type who says "I tried it, didn't like it, and now I'm chasing my dreams." There's no right or wrong here, it's all perception.

I really respect your decision. Good luck and I hope to hear great things.

It's brave to drop everything you've been working so hard for in sights of opportunity, but is it really in the electronic part search market? Sorry, I don't mean to sound negative, but a PhD in physics would have opened such a large expanse of possibilities. You're going to throw it away for a chance at more women and on the whim of one man (PG's) advice. Best of luck.

Whoah! Give me a little more credit than that! Octopart is a startup which we've only been working on for three months- we're no where close to being done. So far as my comments about women and society go, I think they will resonate with physics grad students and probably a few others. Otherwise, I agree, they don't make sense.

Hey Andres, Major Life Decisions aside, I gotta say that Octopart sounds like a pretty smart idea! Perhaps the first so-called vertical search engine that's really piqued my interest. Don't know anything about the market or competition, but on the surface it seems like a solid niche -- not a market that Google's going to go after anytime soon -- in a growth industry. And isn't hardware hacking, open source hardware, etc. supposed to be the Next Big Thing? (Tim O'Reilly's been talking about this a lot lately.) Anyways, just wanted to lend a word of support to help you tune out all the haters. Good luck!

A PhD is really a lot of grind especially at the end. I don't think you can really do both a startup and a PhD well at the same time. You can't really do either without a reasonable level of commitment so if your heart is with the start-up I say go with it. As for the chicks... I've gotta say they dig the title Dr...

A PhD in physics today opens up some opportunities in the one very specific field that you studied. Getting post-doctoral positions is hard; there isn't that much money floating around. I know that I'm dropping out soon.

Exactly. If you are devoted to one specific field then grad school makes a lot of sense. I also dropped out of grad school in October partially because I didn't see myself devoting my career to the particular sub-field I was in.

Depends on how far along the PhD he is.

The social argument was bizarre, I agree. Campuses are great places to meet new people; most of my friends agree that starting work is socially a step down. And they're at least working for large corporations with lots of people in them. Working insane hours at a startup it's unrealistic to expect your social life to be an improvement relative to *anything*.

I agree entirely. I am just out of undergrad, and working is a major step down socially. If it weren't for my Customer Service job I would probably interact with no more than 5 people a day (in order: my wife, boss, coworkers, wife.) (Unless you count here and Reddit.) It seems to me that he was just using his girl count as an objective measure of his social life.

I did the first 7 semesters of my undergrad in physics, and still have a lot of friends doing Ph.Ds in physics. A bachelors in physics opens up a large expanse of possibilities - finance, management consulting, economics consulting, computer programming, high school math teacher, and of course physics grad school. A Ph.D in physics qualifies you for exactly one job: physics professor. There are far more opportunities for a physics drop-out than a physics Ph.D, particularly for someone who doesn't absolutely, positively love the subject.

Dude, you're not right at all. There are a lot more opportunities for a PhD although there are many for a BA too. You don't have to be a physics professor if you get a PhD.

You could be a post-doc for 12 years until some professorship opens up in the Golan Heights. If you don't want to stay in Physics the only thing a Ph.D. is useful for is a "change career free card". You're allowed to change your career to anything but only once.

There are positions opening up for physics Ph.Ds in electronics (especially now that the size of the technology is becoming smaller and more apparently susceptible to the laws of quantum physics) There may not be a ton of opportunities now, but once nanotech starts moving out of the labs and into more applications I'd say the market will grow significantly.

I'm a PhD in infectious disease, with a long term interest in nanotechnology and the interface between biosciences and nanotech - But its going to take too long to be in a pole position to drive that innovation (i'm going to be 35 before anything gets going (12 years!) and i'm impatient. The information age has shaped my life in more ways that i could have ever imagined - i want to change people's live now not later. Thats why i'm into the web and particularly online/offline convergence. I want it now not later!

Plus i'll need a track record to build a kickass, disruptive nanotechnology startup which can impact on medicine - 12 years of the information age is just the fix i need!

We admire your ambition. You'll do well.

I suspect that startups are for more creative people. So you need to decide whether to pursue an analytical phd or a more creative startup. BTW, you might find this discussion interesting: http://weblog.fortnow.com/2006/07/science-and-art-of-computation.html

As someone who did a PhD in a creative kind of computer science field and felt frustrated by the success of those who choose more trodden PhD paths - I was going to agree with this. But in start-ups as well as PhDs success is defined by the number of people you give value to not how creative you were.

Creativity rules everywhere. A good Ph.D. from a good school requires tons of creativity.

I wouldn't say "requires". There is a common saying in physics grad schools: Put monkey in lab. Wait 10 years. Monkey gets PhD.

There are different forms of creativity, some more open-ended than others. Most research done in scientific fields is not what I would call open-ended creativity. BTW, the most creative idea I have seen recently actually came from the Univ of Washington & Microsoft Research: http://labs.live.com/photosynth/. The most creative one prior to that came from a phd student @ CMU: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8246463980976635143. It would be interesting to see what percentage of successful startups are conceptually clever with mind-blowing ideas such as these. As an example of one, I really like http://www.likebetter.com/.

Absolutely! Creativity is as important, if not more so, than technical skill.

there are no right or wrong choices. I find this an interesting post as I just commented on the 'involved' vs 'committed' post ~ http://tinyurl.com/2q9ut8 where a co-founder left to pursue a PhD from a startup. The key test is are they *both committed*? I also noted the potential motivators, '... no money, no job, no health insurance, and no idea if we are actually going to succeed ...', '... started counting the number of girls I would interact with on a daily basis ...'. While their situation may/may not improve on all these points the fact they are committed is a step in the right direction. Now if only I could search for AMD64 ~ http://octopart.com/search?q=AMD64

Irrelevant to the rest of the discussion, but just a suggestion: get the domain name octapart.com, too. Lots of people spell octopus wrong. Good luck! Sera

I guess technically I dropped out as an undergrad. Although, I like to tell people I finished early. Good on you for pursuing your passion!

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