Essay on weighing whether to finish a long doctoral program
My name is Caden, and I’m an academic. Not only am I a graduate student, but I’m a jaded academic (redundant?). A graduate student who is thinking of quitting, but can’t. Why can’t I quit? Why is it so difficult to say I’m done? It’s not that I’m addicted to academe — far from it. I’m pretty repulsed by what academe has turned into, yet for several reasons I just can’t throw in the towel.
First are the sunk costs. I’ve been in grad school for almost seven years and in my Ph.D. program for almost five. My dissertation has not been written, but the data have been gathered and organized, the literature read, and the arguments prepared. All I need to do now is to write it! But I can’t. I just can’t muster up the effort to sit down and write. Unfortunately, I also can’t muster up the courage to quit.
People keep reminding me of how close I am to finishing. Compared to where I was when I started, they are correct. One would think I would be able to just sit down and write. I can’t. One would think I would be able to quit. I can’t. I’ve put in too much effort and money to quit at this point. I suffered through years of course work that is pretty irrelevant to my dissertation. I survived comprehensive exams and my prospectus defense. I’ve spent 80-hour weeks reading, writing, and running statistical models. I’ve lost sleep, weight, money, relationships and years for this, but I can’t seem to finish or quit and move on with my life. I’m truly in no man’s land. I’m too far along to quit, but too apathetic to finish.
Second, quitting sucks. I hate quitting. I’ve never quit anything. Part of me wants to finish this Ph.D. simply because I want to quit. It would be a way to defeat my inner defeatism. Most people in my hometown are probably shocked I am working on a Ph.D. Finishing is kind of my way of saying, "See. I am smart!" If I quit, my fear is that everyone will say, "See. You are who we thought you were." I have no doubts that I can finish, I just don’t know if I want to finish. While quitting is something that occurs at every job, quitting in academe is a sign of weakness or intellectual emptiness. No one thinks you quit academe because you don’t like it or the job prospects are sparse. People think you quit because you can’t do it. I don’t know if I can handle that.
Third, I don’t know how to tell others about quitting. My wife knows I hate school, but I don’t think she fully understands how much I want to quit. She doesn’t know I spend more time during the day thinking about quitting than I do thinking about my dissertation. Heck, she doesn’t even know I haven’t written a word of my dissertation! Why? Because no one knows how horrible this process is except those who have experienced it, and I HATE talking about it to those outside the ivory tower.
Explaining the dissertation process to someone who has never been through it is like explaining how to put together a car engine to someone who has never even popped the hood. My fellow grad students understand the process. They are like my war buddies. They’ve been to Hell and back with me. Everything I’ve suffered through, they have too, and they’re just as miserable. My wife, family, and friends just don’t understand academe because they haven’t been there. How do I tell others — many of whom have sacrificed so that I can go to school full time — that I want to quit? Aside from that, when my daughter is old enough to inquire about my education, what do I tell her? Can quitting something simply because you don’t like it ever be a good example to set? Will she think less of me?
Should I stay or should I go? If I stay, how do I find the motivation to finish? If I quit, how do I explain this to others — most of whom will never understand? This is the battle I fight every day as a jaded academic who is too far along to quit, but too apathetic to finish.
Almost two years ago I wrote those words. At their roots, they described a raging battle between my head and my heart. My head said quit, you find academic research boring, dry, impractical! The constant grad school-induced guilt trips and mood swings just aren’t worth it. Just quit! It is the rational thing to do!
Those salvos from the head were always countered by the heart. Stay! You’ve put so much time, money, and effort into this. Though you may not want to work at a research university, you love teaching and you could see yourself working in administration at a small liberal arts college. You would be so happy! Your family has sacrificed a lot so you could go to school full time. They deserve the Ph.D. as much or more than you. And remember, quitting is for quitters. Are you a quitter?
In the end, the heart won. It is not that the heart had a better argument. Being a Ph.D. student is a lot like being in a relationship. For me, it was a bad relationship. The degree was controlling. It demanded what was to be my time with family and friends. It demanded priority over my hobbies, health, interests, and finances. The relationship was also codependent. The dissertation needed constant attention. And worse, when that attention was lacking, it made me feel guilty. Going out on the weekends, or relaxing in the evenings was impossible when my dissertation was constantly asking "Why aren’t you with me?"
The relationship with my Ph.D. was also based on unequal investment. I gave and gave and gave. The opportunity costs were huge. The debt was just as big. All grad school promised was a degree, uncertain if not horrendous job prospects, stress, and anxiety. Finally, like any relationship, the longer you are in it, the more difficult it is to get out. Because grad school consumed my life, it became my life. It was my identity and how I described myself to others. It was the devil I knew.
No, I have not finished my Ph.D. No, I have not quit either. However, I am not in the same position I was two years ago. I have mitigated many of the negative effects of the relationship with my Ph.D. Three things were most important to me, occupying the graduate school vacuum, realizing how the world views the Ph.D., and changing my environment.
First, I replaced graduate school with something that keeps my mind busy. This can be family, work, active hobbies, etc. Sitting around reading or watching T.V. would occupy my time, but not my mind. Grad school took up such a significant amount of time that it was difficult to take a break from the work without still being mentally engaged in — or enraged by — it. Instead, I had to fill the vacuum that once was grad school with something productive, helpful, enjoyable, and active. Doing so freed me of the guilt of not working on my dissertation. I was simply too busy to be guilty.
Second, I started a job in state government where I do research and policy work focused on different aspects of the criminal justice system. My graduate education helped me get the job, and has helped me excel at it, but I feel confident my formal education could have stopped after my M.A. and I would have been just as productive. When I started this job, I quickly realized it is true: no one cares if I finish my Ph.D. Not a single person I have met since moving and beginning my career has asked me about my education. Only people on college campuses care about those things. I’ve never seen a tombstone that said, "Here rests John Q. Student. He did (or didn’t) finish his Ph.D." The Ph.D. is a credential, not a job skill or a character trait. If my friends and coworkers don’t care — or in many cases, even know — about my Ph.D. work, why have I elevated it so much?
Finally, I was able to greatly reduce the emotional pull of grad school by leaving the academic environment. I no longer work at a university, and I am about seven hours away from the city where I attended grad school. The academic setting was often times one of torment and anguish. Even professors looked unhappy and overburdened. I no longer have to see or partake in that. Not being on a college campus means I am not constantly reminded I need to finish my dissertation. Essentially, I have separated myself from the title of academic. That’s good. I never liked the title anyway.
Yes, I still work on my dissertation, but I’m not as emotionally tied to it as before. I want to finish because it is a challenge. It no longer defines me nor is it a metric of success. It is more of a (twisted) hobby. I have also told my chair I will be quitting if I do not graduate next year, and made it explicitly clear I will not be pursuing an academic career. I created the deadline to hold myself accountable, and to inform my committee that I will be finished with my dissertation even if it is not completed. Second, I told my committee I will not be pursuing an academic career in hopes they would understand the goal is not to create a document that will be used for job talks, publications, or a future research agenda. The reality is very simple: I will graduate or quit at the end of next year. I would not advise everyone to do this, but it was amazingly freeing. The great paradox of my dissertation is that I have been able to make more progress now that I think less about it! I usually work on my dissertation a couple of days a week, and even then, not all day. The progress I have made on my dissertation over the last few months has been astounding, and I am confident that progress is a function of me almost completely severing the emotional ties to grad school.
I know my approach is not for everyone. Likely, only those who do not wish to pursue an academic career at a research university will find my words helpful. That said, I think everyone would be wise to realize the characteristics of the relationship you have with your Ph.D. and take the appropriate steps to make that relationship healthy.
Caden Steele is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in political science.