People have been asking me lately: If you're going to quit academia, when should you do it?
To me, the answer is, "Whenever it's best for you." How's that for precision? But seriously, the answer is going to be completely up to you. The major considerations are many: financial (what will you do for an income if you leave at this stage?), career (what field will you switch to?), family (do you need to support family members? Are you all living together?), geographic (will you need/want to move when you quit?), and so forth.
But deciding on the timing of your departure also has to do with the delicate matter of cutting your losses. Calculating losses, though, is an imprecise science because there are so many unknown factors. For example, if you quit after, say, completing your comprehensive exams, are you cutting your losses by sparing yourself years of the grueling dissertation-writing process (which can be totaled up in dollars, tears, therapists' bills, damaged relationships, etc.)? Or are you incurring a new loss by not finishing a project you've started (an emotional toll) and having to work to explain what you did during those years on a résumé (a potential financial toll)?
Well, the answer is both, isn't it? When you leave academia -- regardless of when you do -- you carry around a balance sheet of losses and gains. Gains: a deep relief, a feeling of freedom, a sense that you've narrowly escaped something that temporarily had control of your soul. Losses: debt, regret, the struggle to find a new career and life path.
Sometimes, the dividends blur and the gains start to look like losses; the feeling of freedom, for example, can quickly turn into a terrifying landscape of possibility with no clear direction of where to turn. Sometimes the losses look like gains: struggling to find a new life and career path reminds you of how many wonderful interests you have and all of the fun ways you can pursue them.
This is where the matter of the timing of your departure comes in. The dividends of leaving are going to be felt more and less sharply depending on when you jump ship. The longer you stay in your Ph.D. program, your debt load goes up, but so do your credentials. But do those credentials even mean anything to you if you're depressed, disillusioned and miserable?
For those of you who are thinking of leaving mid-degree, and are tortured by the thought that you've wasted your time and money: here's a timely link to a post Seth Godin wrote recently. I think it's brilliant, and although he's not even thinking about grad students when he's writing this post, it applies perfectly. The post is called "Ignore Sunk Costs." Among other golden advice, Seth says: "When making a choice between two options, only consider what's going to happen in the future, not which investments you've made in the past. The past investments are over, lost, gone forever. They are irrelevant to the future."
Here's a breakdown of the balance sheet referring to different stages of leaving. I'd love to hear more thoughts on your analysis of the gains and losses in the comments section. If you...
1. Leave after the M.A. You've got yourself a valuable degree with great income-earning potential. But maybe you feel skeptical about your academic prospects, you don't think you'd enjoy teaching and although you enjoy your research, you don't feel crazy about doing 5-10 more years of it. So you quit.
Gains: High. You may have some student loans, but this recent report from Statistics Canada shows there is a 33 percent wage gap between someone with a B.A. and someone with a master's, but someone with a doctorate only earns 8 percent more than someone with a master's.
Costs: Low. Unlike a Ph.D., a master's makes you feel good about your capabilities.
2. Leave after the first year of your Ph.D. You've had a taste of the program, the university, your colleagues and your potential supervisors. Maybe it's not a good fit, and when you look at the faculty, you're turned off by the constant search for external funding, the "publish or perish" mentality, and the lack of value placed on family time (like, uh, making one at all). So you quit.
Gains: Medium-high. You're sparing yourself the time and emotional aggravation and expense of staying in grad school. You can be honest on a résumé about what you did with your year.
Costs: Low. Some debt, maybe, and maybe a little bit of "What if...?"
3. Leave around the comps process (before, during or after). When I speak with former academics, this time of intense stress can really bring one's feelings about academia to the forefront. Maybe it's taking you years to finish your comps, you're riddled with insecurity, you feel like a total fraud, and you're on the precipice of clinical depression. So you quit.
Gains: medium-high. Getting out before you lose any more of your precious time, precious money, precious brain cells and spend any more on prescription drugs is really smart. Living in a world where you don't have to prove yourself through comps fuckin' rulz.
Costs: medium. Suffering through the comps and STILL leaving without parchment in hand is gonna sting. You will have to explain to employers what it means to be ABD with respect to your transferable skills, which is kinda annoying.
4. Leave during the dissertation stage. Whether you're struggling to get your proposal done, churn out that first chapter, or finally kick the final chapter to the curb, the dissertation process is a long, emotionally intense, wearing process that can tear down the mental health of the most balanced grad student. Maybe you loathe your topic. Maybe you're burnt out. Maybe you're making yourself miserable trying to keep up with the demands to teach, publish, present papers and produce a brilliant 300 page document all at the same time. Maybe you just don't have it in you anymore. So you quit.
Gains: high. Though departments notoriously do not keep track of their attrition rates, I've read research indicating roughly 50 percent of social science and humanities doctorates drop out of their programs before finishing. That means you're in pretty good company among people who decided that life was too short to wait for a satisfying career, to move out of poverty, to save their mental health, or to just figure out that the academic life was not meant for them.
Costs: high. The niggly feelings of "what if?..." or "if only..." might linger for a long, long time. Feeling like a failure -- or being worried that other people will see you as a failure -- may be very intense. Your possible debt load may amplify feelings of anger, resentment, shame and bitterness. Feeling lost and unsure of how to orient your life is a strong possibility. Struggling with the concept of waste -- a waste of your time, money, energy and potential -- may stay with you.
5. You leave once you've finished the Ph.D. You're done! Yahoo! But you got what you came for and you are outta there.
Gains: high. Freedom, sweet freedom. Sweet, quaking-at-the-knees, dripping-with-relief freedom.
Costs: medium-high. Severely compromised mental health, a significant debt, relationships that needed some nurturing after long periods of neglect. There is some belief (which I believe is a myth) that having a Ph.D. makes you unemployable.
(NB: Perhaps I'm biased here (since this was the path I chose and I've had three years to gain distance from the experience) by seeing the costs as "medium-high" and not "high." To me, though, the gains far outstripped the costs, in terms of the feeling of freedom, the wild array of life choices I knew I could make, the ability to do the teaching and research and writing that I wanted that wasn't limited by the classroom, and yes, the satisfaction of having the degree in hand.)
6. Once you've done contract/adjunct teaching, done your post-doc or gotten a tenure-track position. It might seem weird to lump these three types of academics into one category, but I'll explain why below. Even if it's news to some grad students, people do actually leave secure, tenured positions (Rebecca Steinitz is one of them -- here's her story -- and so is Kenny Mostern of "On Being Postacademic" fame. My interview with Dr. Stienitz at LeavingAcademia.com is here; my interview with Dr. Mostern is here.)
Gains: high. Once you've got your Ph.D., you can go anywhere and do anything with confidence. Contract faculty have a lot to gain by landing in a job that actually pays a living wage, and they, along with tenure-track faculty, gain by being able to move to the city of their choice, actually have free time, start a family, make more money, etc.
Costs: low-to-medium. I haven't been there, and so far I haven't done any interviews (yet) with people who've made this jump. So I am only speculating here. But making a career change at this point just makes a lot of sense to me in the same way that any other career change makes sense. I know someone who used to be an award-winning, professional Irish dancer and is now an IT guy at an art college. I know someone who used to be a professional chef and is now a naturopath. I know someone who used to make giga-bucks at Goldman Sachs and is now a freelance writer living in the English countryside with her young children. I admire people who make crazy career leaps because although there are potential costs (like failing), the gains (like actually being happy and/or satisfied) seem to be so much greater.
What do you think? If you're going to quit academia, when is the best time to do it? What other factors are there that contribute to your decision? (You can also read a post-doc's far more brief take on the matter here at Damn Dinosaurs).