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Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away by Annie Duke

Published in October of 2022.

Your decision to work in higher education means you are likely bad at quitting. Why else would you be where you are now?

Think about it. If you are an academic (traditional or alternative) with a Ph.D., your decisions are already suspect.

How long did it take you to finish that dissertation?

How many of the methods, skills and practices that went into finishing that coursework, passing qualifying (prelim) exams and writing your thesis do you utilize in your current work?

Anyone starting a Ph.D. program should know that there are more ABDs (all but dissertation) former grad students than those with a Ph.D. And if you get past the thesis finish line, how many doctorates end up in tenure-track jobs? Narrow that down to tenure-track roles in cities where you want to live and your partner can get a job. The odds are not good.

Perhaps university departments should send a copy of Annie Duke’s Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away to every Ph.D. applicant.

Duke’s career is an example of why quitting academia before getting started might make the most sense. As she recounts in the book, a health crisis derailed her from finishing her dissertation and entering the academic job market. While recovering, Duke started playing poker professionally. She went on to win over $4 million playing poker, later transitioning to a lucrative writing and consulting career.

Poker players, it turns out, are better at quitting than the rest of us. Professional poker players fold their hands sooner and more frequently than amateurs.

The challenge of quitting is knowing when to walk away and is almost always exceedingly difficult. We must make the stay or quit decision with imperfect information. Moreover, our culture rewards grit (“winners never quit and quitters never win”), with quitting often equated to failure.

Duke stresses that quitting on time almost always feels like quitting too early. Once it is clear that the time has come to quit, that realization comes too late.

How many academics, having made it through the Ph.D. gauntlet, spend years in postdocs and contingent faculty roles? The more time invested in a pursuit, the harder it is to walk away. Academic careers may be especially vulnerable to an illusion of progress.

How many universities keep graduate degree programs going despite low enrollments and revenues below costs? The logical move for schools would be to stop low-performing degree programs, especially low-enrollment and low-margin online programs, and invest in online programs with greater potential.

Can quitting inside academia be rehabilitated? We can do a much better job celebrating our colleagues who leave university jobs for those outside the academic bubble. College leaders can make clear that the practice of ending low-performing programs and initiatives will be rewarded and praised. Leaving a grad program for a nonacademic job should be considered successful.

If you are thinking about quitting something you are doing in higher ed but can’t decide if the time is right, you may want to read this book.

What have you quit in your academic career?

What are you reading?

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