Back to the Motor League?

Posted: February 18, 2013 in Academia
Tags: , ,

I’ve been contemplating this post for way too long, and I’m still not entirely sure I should post it here. But reading the accounts of others who walked away from grad school without finishing or academia after getting a degree has been helpful to me, so I figure I owe at least this.

To get right to the point, I’m seriously considering walking away from my dissertation and the PhD program I’m in. I’m not 100% ready to go, but I’m pretty sure.

I entered the program in fall of 2006 and am currently ABD, but I just don’t really see the point in finishing. More importantly, I feel like the only reason I didn’t leave earlier (like 3 years ago when it would have made a lot more sense to bail) was some sense of duty–needing to finish what I started and not letting people down and other rationalizations born out of indoctrination and stubbornness.

A quick rundown of how I view the upsides and downsides of staying or going:

Arguments in favor of leaving:

1. I have no intention of pursuing an academic career, and getting such a job isn’t likely to happen even if I did. People, and I mean people who are better academics than I, and people who are willing to move for jobs, for the most part aren’t getting academic jobs. The academic job market sucks, and I want no part of it.

2. I need to adapt to the place I live and we don’t want to move. Despite moving here for grad school, the town where I live is home now. My daughter is in kindergarten, has great friends whose parents have become our friends. My mom moved here to be near her granddaughter and provides free childcare when needed. We own our home. Our garden is awesome I like my neighbors. The cost of living is low, and there are many things I would be satisfied doing for a living here.

3. I would reclaim weeks of my life. Seriously, to finish this ridiculous document will eat up a minimum of 200 hours of work–probably closer to 2 or three weeks if you add up everything. This is time I could spend working to expand my editing business, planting a garden, home repairs, playing with my kid, having lunch with my wife every now and then, volunteering, learning to do new things that I’ve tabled for years, and maybe even finding meaningful work that pays.

4. I would save the ~$2800 needed for tuition and fees next term. This money basically provides me University library access that I barely use and the right to schedule appointments with faculty members who then don’t bother to show up.

5. Stress. This limbo of being ABD and trying to get done is awful, especially with all the other things on my plate.

6. I can go ahead and publish anything I have written wherever I want, and I can do so now instead of shopping it around as part of my professional development to climb the stupid hierarchy of scholarly research.

7. Not having a PhD might actually make me a better candidate for jobs. As someone with an MA (I guess two at this point or something) and a fair amount of varied work experience (management, marketing, teaching, etc.) there are many positions at the University and beyond that I am qualified for. A number of them would prefer someone with a Master’s degree; none of them are looking for a PhD. Not to go down the path of “a PhD makes you overqualified,” but it might make one look over-specialized to hiring managers who want someone more pliable. And I do believe that some folks who don’t have a PhD would rather not hire someone to work in a position below them who has more education.

8. I can stop getting 40+ emails a day that I don’t care about or even really understand. Why the hell are you forwarding to 100s of people some CFP for a conference halfway around the world? Or a call for free editing of a book you signed up to edit? Knock that shit off, academics.

Arguments in favor of staying:

1. I may regret it later. This is possible, but not likely in the sense that I’ll be disappointed I didn’t finish because it limits my job opportunities. It’s more likely that I’ll be mad about walking away because I’m stubborn and hate not finishing things.

2. I’m so close to done. I’ve been telling myself this for way too long, but it really isn’t true if you look at the number of hours I need in order to finish. Plus there’s all the bullshit about formatting and defense and all that.

3. Walking away leaves a gap on my resume and shows a lack of work ethic due to failing to complete the degree. This is probably the biggest concern I have. However, the gap on the resume is still a gap if one finishes and decides to pursue work outside of academia–graduate instructor isn’t always seen as a real job, you must revise your resume to make it one. Likewise for not finishing, it’s just something you need to be able to address coherently and own–you made a decision that this wasn’t for you and moved on.

4. I’ll let people down. I worry about this, but anyone who actually cares about you should be supportive. From what I’ve read of other people’s experiences in leaving, most people are supportive or unsurprised when finding out someone walked away. I don’t care what the faculty in my department think and haven’t for a long time.

This is just off the top of my head, and I’m not ready to etch a decision in stone yet. I also don’t usually post personal blogs because that’s just not me, but I’d welcome feedback from my friends and random strangers.

In closing, a brief excerpt from Dr. Karen’s “It’s OK to Quit” (which is very much worth reading in full):

It is ok to decide that’s not what you want.  It is ok to make another choice.  There is life outside of academia.  But academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls.  You will be judged harshly by others and, to the extent you’ve been properly socialized into the cult during graduate school, by your own inner voices.  Making the decision to leave involves confronting that judgment, working through it, and coming out the other side.  It is long and hard and involves confronting profound shame.  I went through this.  I know.

  1. Whitney Phillips says:

    This is tricky, because the only thing that matters here is what feels right to you. So, to preface, whatever you choose is the correct choice. The potential repercussions of that choice, now, that is the variable, and is what I’ll speak to here (it should go without saying –though I will say it anyway– that I will support you no matter what, and will send you an Edible Arrangement either way. You are my friend and more than anything I want to see you happy).

    Ultimately the concern –and primary variable– is the NARRATIVE that comes out of this. Forget how you may or may not feel about staying or leaving. What makes a better, more salable story? I suspect that having to explain to a potential boss why you chose to leave academia after receiving your PhD will be a much easier conversation than having to explain why you got thisclose and then decided to leave. Your rationale for leaving makes perfect sense, and I don’t disagree with any of it. If you never had to breathe a word about this to potential employers, I would say screw it, leave because you WANT to leave, end of conversation. But you WILL need to address the choice, and for that reason need to consider pure cynical packaging. And on that view, sticking it out, taking the $2800 hit, is the thing that will be easiest to spin in your favor.

    In short —— the long view is the thing to worry about. Because let’s say you get a great job right out of the gate. Awesome! But then in 5 to 10 years when you’re ready for a change, there’s going to be that damn PhD story to tell again. It can either be a conversation starter in a good way, or in an awkward way, especially if you have mixed/stubborn feelings about leaving.

    Regarding the worry that certain employers will feel slightly uncomfortable hiring someone more educated — that’s out of your hands. You can’t control the baggage/expectations other people bring to the table. What you can control is how you present yourself and your degree generally. The advice there would be, you know, don’t be a douche about the Dr. thing. You aren’t a douche, in fact you are the OPPOSITE of a douche, so that won’t be an issue. Plus a person who is intimidated by a PhD would also (likely) be a person who would appreciate hearing a PhD be like “yeah I’m glad I did it, but it’s not a big deal.” Because here’s a secret: it fucking isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, this shit is ARDUOUS, and finishing is (likely) the biggest and most difficult endeavor an individual PhD will have accomplished up till that point in their lives. It’s important to people. That said, having a PhD isn’t what defines a person, and certainly isn’t THE thing that either qualifies or disqualifies someone from being an intelligent, productive member of society. Don’t act like you think it does, and you’ll be fine. And if that’s still not enough? That’s their problem, not yours.

    Again, this is really tough, and I don’t want to come across as callous to the emotional side of the equation. I am not, it’s just that that side –the emotional side– is yours to work through. As always, I’m on your side no matter what.

  2. Josh M says:

    Solidarity. I hear everything you’re saying here. I faced quite a few moments where I thought about quitting, and ultimately decided not to because I could see the finish line, and I wanted the degree, for its own sake if for nothing else. But I’m still not sure whether it was a good idea or not, and I have increasingly little time for the “never quit, never give up” mantra that dominates so much of our culture. I can’t say that if I were in your situation — owning a home, family, investment in the community — I would have still decided to push through. Knowing that my wife and I were going to finish degrees at about the same time actually made finishing a little easier, since I could foresee that we would both be free(er) to make a move once we were finished. And despite frustrations with some diss committee members, I had a chair who could be counted on to stay in constant communication at all times.

    As far as the utility of a doctorate in other career choices, it seems to me that it depends a great deal on where you look and what you look at. Whitney’s right, imo — if a hiring manager thinks doctorates of any kind are likely to be “overqualified” for the position, then nearly completing a doctorate will probably be seen as more or less equivalent in their eyes. I believe they typically view PhDs as only being interested in academic work, and therefore likely to leave as soon as they find such a position. But that also gives you the opportunity to have a narrative ready to go, on “here’s why I chose to make a career change before leaving my doctorate.”

    Last fall, I had two interviews with an educational policy think-tank last year, where I would have been one of only a few PhDs on staff, and they made it clear that it was one of the reasons they were interested in my resume — but not the only reason. In fact, most of their questions focused on my business management experience before grad school. They did ask why I was looking at their organization rather than pursuing another teaching position, and I had my own narrative ready to go: still love teaching, a TT position would interest me, but my wife and I love the area, she has a good professional network going here, and that we decided to keep options open by exploring jobs in this area as well as searching elsewhere. They seemed happy with that answer, for whatever it’s worth. So, the degree was seen as “icing on the cake” in this instance (and I didn’t get the job, for other reasons — they were very positive, friendly, and explicit in explaining why they weren’t selecting me, which is more than one can say for ANY academic job rejection).

    For the most part, I keep hearing that organizations look at the skill sets more than they look at the degrees, and nonprofits will likely read “graduate student teaching” as acceptable experience for many positions. Businesses, not as much. With your background, volunteering on wetlands restoration projects, or park maintenance, etc., is more likely to put you into contact with someone who might have ties to a larger ecology-oriented nonprofit who could use a grant writer, communications specialist, etc. They’ll already have a sense of who you are with “boots on the ground,” and your training in teaching writing, communicating, public speaking, etc., will be seen as a bonus — the actual degree itself is not likely to matter.

    My long(ish) two cents on it, anyway.