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Hack my PhD
September 4, 2012 6:08 AM   Subscribe

Should I finish my PhD? I'm concerned that there are career downsides to completing it as I will likely want to move forward in another field. (snowflakes inside)

I'm halfway through a PhD in social science (studying technology and innovation) and I'm realizing that I really don't like my field. I'm fascinated by the recent revolution in genomics, bioinformatics, synthetic and systems biology, and am considering going into that field (possibly via medicine or bioengineering) afterwards.

My concern is that finishing this PhD would actually be bad for me, if it precludes me from getting a PhD in something more appropriate, if it brands me as a particular type of scholar (that I don't want to be), and so forth. I'm wondering if it might be better for me to drop out and start over elsewhere. I don't want to let sunk costs influence my thinking.

I like the idea of being a public intellectual. I like the idea of innovating (actually doing it, not studying it) and making something important that makes a difference. I love science, innovation, making things, building inventions, public speaking, design, influencing people, writing, hobnobbing, social enterprise, changing the world.

Here are some of the challenges I'm facing:
- I'm really sick of social science. I don't want to write about other people doing things, I want to do things myself! I've branched out into more quantitative social science (machine learning, etc.) in an effort to learn more transferable skills and be able to have something to offer.

- My department is at a very prestigious university within the UK, but really has little currency in its field. You have to do a postdoc to go anywhere, and social science postdocs are few and far between. There's no culture in the department; students are not happy. They don't get good jobs. People set their own topics (instead of following in their advisor's tradition) and they often don't have an intellectual "home", especially in American academia.

- My advisor is a great guy (He's very student-centric, he lets me have a very flexible schedule, he's kind and a great networker who knows everyone), but he's not really a great *advisor* in the sense of paving the way for me intellectually. I don't want to be him when I grow up. Also, he has a lot of trouble with politics in the university. He's difficult for the administration to work with. He also doesn't do quantitative work, and can't supervise a more quant thesis. He wants me to just do any old thesis he can supervise, and do the other stuff on my own time.

- I am trying to skew my PhD towards a more quantitative angle (machine learning, statistics), in order to have more transferable skills and to be more marketable. But since I'm in a social science department, any work I do will get less professional credibility (i.e., no funding for STEM subjects, difficulty getting hired in non-social science departments, etc.)

- I don't have a topic I'm passionate about. I haven't learned very much here about theory (and nothing I've learned has captured my attention). I really don't know what I'm doing here.

- I stumbled into this PhD for frankly kind of silly reasons. I wanted to stay in the UK. I liked the idea of a PhD from a prestigious place. I liked the idea of a three-year PhD. I got a fellowship and was flattered. That said, I've been unhappy in this PhD since I got here. I feel like I should have left earlier. I distracted myself with consulting, travel, and other projects. Now I really have to buckle down and produce and I don't have any idea what I want to do.

- Taking a leave would be disruptive and is quite difficult in my department. I could probably get 6 months to a year, though, if I really asked for it.

What are the drawbacks of finishing up quickly with whatever and then figure out what I want to do. What doors does that close? Can I not do a bioengineering PhD/research after? Can I never do a Fulbright? Would it be harder to find a job in a totally different field than if I drop out now and start retraining for something else? Will I not be able to get grants because I didn't get a US PhD?

Also, have you been me? What would you do?

Other details: Female, American, dual US/EU citizenship, family, boyfriend, and other ties in the US. I love travel, and place a lot of my identity in having a career about which I am passionate.

Let me know if I left out any details.

Thanks so much!
posted by carolinaherrera to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is it possible to start researching other PhD programs now and perhaps apply for a transfer to a new department/institution while still working toward this degree (and perhaps leaving with a masters, if applicable), rather than dropping out first and starting anew? That way you keep your institutional affiliation and fellowship through the whole process and the move looks a bit cleaner and more planned. I know people who have done this in the US (especially with related fields, but sometimes with wildly divergent fields, e.g. classics --> math), but don't really know much about the UK system. This would mean working doubly hard for a little while while doing both degree work and applications, but it might help mitigate some of the difficulties of dropping out and starting fresh.
posted by dizziest at 6:35 AM on September 4, 2012


I have been you. I hated my subject, had no passion and my department and (social science) lab were a mess, monetarily and morale-wise. I left. I knew if I finished my PhD it would only be to prove to others I could do it. Which is a terrible waste of time, energy, and in my case, taxpayer monies.

I can't tell you about the merits of finishing/not finishing vis a vis entering a new field, because that is what I am still deciding myself. However, when the passion was gone--for years, not a small lull in interest--I knew I had to go.

Good luck.
posted by peacrow at 6:39 AM on September 4, 2012


You're halfway through, so you've got 18 months to go? Are you confident you're going to finish on time? Does your adviser agree? Or is yours one of those departments/subjects where the "last half" of everyone's PhD takes 5 years? Does your fellowship allow you to transfer to the field you want to be in? Or is it a UK research council one? How long could you afford to fund yourself for? Would you be liable for EU or International fees if you were self-funded. And finally, how old are you?

I don't know the specific criteria for things like the Fulbright/Rhodes but I'm sure that, even if you would be technically eligible, you should not think of them as anything other than extremely long shot. Don't make life decisions based on the possibility of getting one. They are very competitive for people with perfect CVs, which, with respect, you wouldn't have. If they have one vacancy, and a choice between dozens of fresh-faced rising Seniors with flawless CVs, someone who quit an elite UK PhD in another subject with 18 months to go, and someone who already has an PhD, they're going to go with one of the undergrads.

The decision of whether to continue is one only you can make. To be honest, you sound like you're about ready to call it a day. But before you start another program, I would urge you to think carefully about this:
I like the idea of being a public intellectual. I like the idea of innovating (actually doing it, not studying it) and making something important that makes a difference. I love science, innovation, making things, building inventions, public speaking, design, influencing people, writing, hobnobbing, social enterprise, changing the world.
I realise you're speaking in generalities for the purposes of a non-technical audience, but you must be aware that this is not what 99% of academics do, 99% of the time. (Even the ones who do their PhDs at very prestigious universities.) And if you don't want to be an academic then you almost certainly shouldn't be doing a PhD in a non-hard-science.

And I've posted this before on AskMe, but it bears repeating because, having done my undergrad and PhD at one of these kinds of institutions, I recognized a lot of my friends/colleagues in this:
[Harvard grads] are vulnerable to Wall Street investment firms and to things like Teach for America [and graduate school!] because they have application processes at all. But life, normal adult life, doesn’t have an application process. You actually, at some point, need to figure out what you want to do and what makes you happy. You need to take a leap of faith that your native talents and desires will end you up at a reasonable and interesting place.
posted by caek at 6:51 AM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Caek, thanks for the help! To answer your questions:

You're halfway through, so you've got 18 months to go? Are you confident you're going to finish on time? Does your adviser agree? Or is yours one of those departments/subjects where the "last half" of everyone's PhD takes 5 years? Does your fellowship allow you to transfer to the field you want to be in? Or is it a UK research council one? How long could you afford to fund yourself for? Would you be liable for EU or International fees if you were self-funded. And finally, how old are you?

I've got about 2 years to go. I'm not confident that I'm going to finish on time. My department tends to kick people out after 4 years, and give them a degree no matter what, but I don't really want that.

My fellowship might transfer to another field (it's based in the university, not the UK Research Council), but I'm assuming that hard science PhDs would come with their own funding that would kick in at some point. All hard science PhDs are funded here.

I have savings from some previous endeavors and could support myself for a few years if necessary.

I would be liable for international fees because time on a UK visa does not count towards EU residency. (And they use residency, not citizenship to determine fees.)

----
Also, I agree that most academics don't do "public intellectual" type work most of the time. But...would this PhD help me or hinder me in that quest? Would it make sense to finish just for the credibility?

Please feel free to Memail more details. I'd love to talk more about this!
posted by carolinaherrera at 7:05 AM on September 4, 2012


I like the idea of being a public intellectual. I like the idea of innovating (actually doing it, not studying it) and making something important that makes a difference. I love science, innovation, making things, building inventions, public speaking, design, influencing people, writing, hobnobbing, social enterprise, changing the world.

This isn't what most people with PhDs do, and this certainly isn't what people with PhDs in the Social Sciences do.

I've met people with PhDs from the most pretigious schools in the world. The closest they get to being a "public intellectual" is when someone links to a blog post they made on metafilter. (ok, one person I know gave a TED talk) But the typical life of a PhD is more absorbed with grantwriting than pontificating and schmoozing.

Would it make sense to finish just for the credibility?

It would make more sense for you to finish in something else that made you credible in whatever field you wanted to go into.
posted by deanc at 7:19 AM on September 4, 2012


A PhD is awesome if you want to become a professor or do some other job that requires you have a PhD. It never mattered how miserable I was in graduate school, because I could not imagine doing anything other than being professor.

In every other situation, I advise people to stay far away from doctoral programs. If you don't absolutely love what you do every day, I can't imagine why you'd stay in your program. You're paid dirt, have to work all the time, and risk having your entire career de-railed by a faculty member who is having a bad day.

You wrote that you "love science, innovation, making things, building inventions, public speaking, design, influencing people, writing, hobnobbing, social enterprise, changing the world." Why not try to do some of those things---some of which, on their own, require a lifetime of work to do well---instead of spending years of your life getting a degree you don't care about?

It's impossible to become great doing something you don't love.
posted by eisenkr at 7:26 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Husbunny has left two different PhD programs and interestingly enough, he has no regrets and loves his job.

A PhD is a much bigger deal INSIDE academia than it is outside of it. If it's possible, why not try for an internship DOING whatever it is that you want to do, or even better, get a full-time job doing it.

You can put the existing PhD on hold, or take a sabbatical, or whatever, if you feel the need to hedge your bets.

Unless the only thing you ever want to do is research and teach in your field, then I don't see the value of a PhD.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:29 AM on September 4, 2012


Are you funded? If you are -- and only if! -- given your confidence in finishing in 1-2 years I actually think you might as well finish, especially since it sounds like you need some time to figure out the next steps. Go into autopilot mode and just do it as quickly as possible. Mundane is the goal here, and I'm sure your advisor will just hand you a topic if you ask. Direct your real focus to actively researching and developing a concrete plan for the future.

If you have interest in switching out of academia (government work, consulting, that sort of thing) a PhD is likely to be a reasonable asset on a resume, especially since yours is from a prestigious university (caveat: I'm in the U.S.). However, if you have any doubts at all about balancing the above tasks, or if you think it would be a struggle to finish (either financially, mentally or physically), definitely just get out now. Academia really is a cult, and there will be plenty of options on the outside for you either way.
posted by susanvance at 7:46 AM on September 4, 2012


Susanvance -- I am funded. And my advisor would be happy to do that. I agree that a PhD is likely to be a reasonable asset -- unless it would prevent me from moving into another field. That's my concern. Sigh.
posted by carolinaherrera at 7:47 AM on September 4, 2012


Not to threadsit, but I'm kind of curious why the hive consensus here appears to be "drop out", but for my earlier question here (http://ask.metafilter.com/210479/Doctor2) about finishing the PhD and then going to medical school, most people said I should just finish. What should I make of that?
posted by carolinaherrera at 7:54 AM on September 4, 2012


As you may recall I study technology and innovation and I'm an assistant professor.

I too enjoy some of this stuff: "science, innovation, making things, building inventions, public speaking, design, influencing people, writing, hobnobbing, social enterprise, changing the world" and I'm lucky because I do some of that. I present my work at academic and policy conferences, I have influence on people, I hobnob and I think that my work has impact on the world.

But...

"I'm really sick of social science. I don't want to write about other people doing things, I want to do things myself!"

This is a process. You have to learn how to do your own social science and it takes TIME. You have to fail a bit and learn from great advisors.

Because the hobnobbing and being asked to present and having influence on a particular topic... well, no one is going to listen to you if you're not very competent at having actually done something.

I lucked out a bit - my topic (technology use in authoritarian states) got very hot post-Arab Spring, and that combined with me doing a post-doc of sorts in Washington, DC threw me into the public policy intellectual spotlight. BUT I had busted my ass and had such fantastic methods training and had chops as a social scientist. I would have fallen on my ass in that world without that training.

And while I really like that side - as you say, influencing people, being THE person that gets asked to comment on something, etc... guess what? IT DOESN'T PAY THE BILLS. I'm fairly junior in that world and I rarely get paid to do any of that work. I've spent months begging (politely) to get funded to go to a very important event for my policy area that happens to be in my part of the world.
At first I thought it was just because I am junior, but alas the top policy people "public intellectuals" in my area are also constantly struggling to have things funded, find a position somewhere that gives them decent health insurance, and seem to be traveling for 300+ days a year. And they don't seem happy.

Even danah boyd, who is the example everyone pulls out as the perfect public intellectual - her life isn't rainbows and fields of flowers either.

So I jumped off the fairly-full-time public intellectual ship and now am in the tenure track world. And yet so far I've realized that there is a reason that people stay in the ivory tower - it is a lot less stressful! (Yes, saying that a pre-tenure life is less stressful needs to be highlighted here.) While teaching and doing research is incredibly time consuming and stressful, not having to be everywhere and hobnob and try to get funding for different events and having to not only keep on top of all the goings-ons with my policy area, but also have something deep and useful and unique to say about it (and making sure that my POV gets out there on social media...) is really nice.

Anyway, this doesn't really answer your question, but I hope that it gives you perspective about the other side. I'll do an entirely different comment on what I would do if I were you.
posted by k8t at 7:57 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I vote drop out.

There are too many elements of your story that are opposed to PhD Success.

- You don't like your field (although you may just not like your particular department's take on your field) - IMHO, your field is like your comfy intellectual home that you're an expert in and welcomes your work as fitting into it theoretically and methodologically. I know of fields that I don't fit in either, but thankfully I didn't try to do a PhD in them.
- If you don't like social science, but you think that you're more interested in the bio sciences, go into the bio sciences.
- You're at a UK program. This won't play as well on the international stage (I have a UK MA, American PhD).
- Prestigious university is nice, but if the department isn't big in the field, it is sort of pointless. Your advisor and program are what matter.
- "There's no culture in the department; students are not happy. They don't get good jobs. People set their own topics (instead of following in their advisor's tradition) and they often don't have an intellectual "home", especially in American academia." FWIW, few graduate students are happy. But all the other stuff concerns me too.
- "My advisor is a great guy (He's very student-centric, he lets me have a very flexible schedule, he's kind and a great networker who knows everyone), but he's not really a great *advisor* in the sense of paving the way for me intellectually. I don't want to be him when I grow up. Also, he has a lot of trouble with politics in the university. He's difficult for the administration to work with. He also doesn't do quantitative work, and can't supervise a more quant thesis. He wants me to just do any old thesis he can supervise, and do the other stuff on my own time." This is reasonable for him. He is not a good match for you, obviously.
- "I don't have a topic I'm passionate about. I haven't learned very much here about theory (and nothing I've learned has captured my attention). I really don't know what I'm doing here." So leave.
- "I stumbled into this PhD for frankly kind of silly reasons. I wanted to stay in the UK. I liked the idea of a PhD from a prestigious place. I liked the idea of a three-year PhD. I got a fellowship and was flattered." Leave.
- "Taking a leave would be disruptive and is quite difficult in my department. I could probably get 6 months to a year, though, if I really asked for it." Okay, so do it. Or just drop out.

What is more important here is figuring out what you're going to do NEXT. Are you going to apply to different PhD programs? If so, then timing-wise and funding-wise, you probably need to stay in your program this year.

If I were you, I'd do whatever is possible to keep yourself happy and in a good mood, while also taking advantage of whatever you can at your university. Really start researching other programs and especially other advisors that can take you where you want to go (if that is what you want to do.) Next time around, really pick someone that can guide you better.

"What are the drawbacks of finishing up quickly with whatever and then figure out what I want to do."

Writing a PhD dissertation/thesis is incredibly hard and requires you to really love what you're doing. If you think that you can suck it up and write something that is within your advisor's realm, go ahead and give it a shot. But I know for myself, I HATE writing stuff that I'm not in love with.

"What doors does that close?"

Some may ask why you got a PhD in X and then another PhD in Y. It might be easier to have done PhD coursework in X and got a PhD in Y. Maybe.

"Can I never do a Fulbright?" No.

"Will I not be able to get grants because I didn't get a US PhD?"

Have you learned how to write American grants? That might be the biggest skill you'd lack.
posted by k8t at 8:14 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not to threadsit, but I'm kind of curious why the hive consensus here appears to be "drop out", but for my earlier question here (http://ask.metafilter.com/210479/Doctor2) about finishing the PhD and then going to medical school, most people said I should just finish. What should I make of that?

I can't speak for the respondents in that earlier thread, but a few guesses:

1) In responding to your previous question, some people may have been influenced by American assumptions about Ph.D. programs (a science Ph.D. here typically takes 5-6 years or more). From that perspective, having a year or two left in the program seems like you're "almost done" and may as well finish.

2) In your previous question, you mentioned being "not very happy about" your current Ph.D. program, but in the current question, you've gone into a lot more detail about why you're unhappy. That may be influencing the responses.

3) Not all the responses in the earlier thread said to finish your current program; several of them didn't answer that question one way or the other. Some of the responses that recommended finishing your current program recommended doing so as a way of getting a leg up on your proposed application to medical school. You're posing a different question now, not about going to med school, but about getting a different Ph.D. and/or becoming a "public intellectual."
posted by Orinda at 8:21 AM on September 4, 2012


Thanks for the answers. Just to be clear, you're trying to choose between (1) finishing the PhD (2) leaving academia (3) changing to a different PhD, probably in a hard science department in the UK?

As k8t's comment makes clear, you make a pretty water tight case why (1) isn't an option. I have nothing to add. In my opinion, you are done with this PhD.

Unless you have a solid funding arrangement and develop a much better plan for what to do with a PhD, option (2), dropping out, is almost certainly better than starting a new PhD, (3). You seem like you mostly don't know what you want to do, and what you do know you want to do, you don't need a PhD for. If you want to have interesting thoughts and say interesting things then you don't need the validation of working within academia. You seem to be focussed on a tiny tiny sliver of the life of a tiny number academics, in which they do stuff they don't actually need a PhD to do, alongside a bunch of people who don't have PhDs. You should read "A PhD is Not Enough" to get a better idea of an academic career, which is the only reason to do you a PhD. I can't stress that enough: unless you're doing a PhD in some very specific sciences with corresponding credential-based private sectors (bits of engineering, economics, quantitative finance, etc.), there are no careers you need a PhD for, except being an academic.

A completed humanities PhD might make it harder/impossible to get a funded PhD spot in a UK hard science department, which you seem to be considering. You should check with the relevant research council (STFC, ESPRC, BBSRC, etc.). They don't assess applications directly, but they may impose conditions on departments that prevent the studentships from being awarded to anyone who already has a PhD from any subject/field/country. Exactly how transferrable your fellowship would be, and whether it could be followed by a research council studentship is something you'll need to look into yourself. If transferring within your current institution is not an option, then the incentive to rush the decision so that you can use the balance of your funding goes away. So take your time.

Which doors are you worried option (1) would close? PhDs are considered an eccentricity in a small minority of business fields — dropping out of a PhD and sitting on a beach for two years almost looks better on your CV than finishing one. But those fields probably wouldn't interest you. And of course there's your own happiness over the next couple of years to consider too. The only door option (1) definitively closes is doing something else with the next two years.

Orinda's reasons for why you got different answers last time sound about right. I would add that your goal of being a "public intellectual" suggests to me that you've got the wrong idea about academia, and makes me think you shouldn't be doing any kind of PhD.
posted by caek at 8:35 AM on September 4, 2012


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