I am a doctoral candidate and have become increasingly convinced that I no longer want an academic job, and possibly not a PhD either. When/how do I tell my supervisor? (Particulars inside, and apologies in advance about the length.)
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I entered a PhD program with the full intention of aiming for a tenure-track job, which had been my dream forever. Unfortunately, I have now come to the realization that this is definitely not what I want. I have had a miserable experience in the PhD program - constant stress about the quality of my work, anxiety so strong that wakes me up at night, lots of insecurity about whether I would eventually get a postdoc, very little direction/help from or contact with my supervisor, poverty, gut-wrenching loneliness due to lots of fieldwork abroad, etc. Even with all of things, I maintained my desire for a post-doc and a tenure-track job for a long time, thinking that the worst part of it all is right now and post-PhD it would be better.
However some conversations over Christmas made me reflect on my current and future situation in academia, and the more I have been thinking about it, the more convinced I have become that this is definitely no longer what I want. Given the situation with adjuncting positions versus tenure-track positions, it is almost certainly going to get worse for me the further along this path I go, not better. I'm not interested in spending my career in this type of labor environment: I think that academia is turning into an exploitative sweatshop business that gives its workers less pay, far more hours, and much less job security than any other workers (including the janitors who work in the same building), and it asks them to be grateful for the privilege, because it's such a "noble calling" that its practitioners apparently should forego base motives like a living wage, job security, and basic workplace protections for the privilege of being slave labor for such an altruistic cause. And I also realized that while I like aspects of the process of research in the abstract, I find the whole thing so stressful in the job climate of academia that I don't actually enjoy researching at all most of the time. And somehow, with all of this reflecting, academia itself has totally lost its shine for me too - even if I were to be offered a tenure-track job now at a good university, I just wouldn't want it. I'm not sure why any of this ever appealed to me. It almost feels like falling out of love with someone, or losing one's religious faith.
I don't think that this is just a passing dissatisfaction. I have had a horrible experience with my PhD - both with my topic, with the lack of support from my advisor, and with the broader experience - ever since I started. But it all seemed worth it in the hope of a tenure-track job at the end, which - I had convinced myself - would be better in all of the ways that I was currently dissatisfied. Now that I no longer believe this, I'm finding my PhD itself pointless. I don't know how much longer I have before I would finish. It will probably take anything from 1.5 to 2.5 years from here to complete. I fantasize about dropping out now and doing something else that would be more meaningful or at least less miserable.
I have a sense of what I do want to do instead (something I had been considering for a long time but which the seductive magic of academia kept in the periphery). I have started exploring that vocation within the last week. If I end up doing that, I will need a good reference from my PhD supervisor before I can even start out on that path. My question is on what to do from here.
I am not sure whether to attempt to finish the PhD or not. I think it's important to complete what I start, especially given that others besides myself have invested a lot in this. However I am 30 and want to have children, and the idea of spending 2 or more years more on this, and then having to set out on a new (and potentially long) career path is both exhausting to me and also seems to be a pointless waste of the next few years. And at least for me with academia, I find it difficult not to let my it be so all-consuming that I can have a life, and I am afraid the next couple of years would be the same if I stay in the PhD. I don't know where the line is between tenacity/making good on commitments, and the sunk cost fallacy. If I enjoyed the PhD, even if I no longer wanted academia it might seem right to finish it, but I'm miserable every day with my project, my lack of certainty about where I'm going with it, the lack of support and help I can get with it, and how lonely I am abroad doing research. Signing up for 1.5 - 2.5 years of more of the same is viscerally horrible to me, and I don't know if I can stand it.
The other thing, and my biggest worry, is when/how to tell my advisor. I don't think he knows my dissatisfaction, as I haven't expressed it - I didn't think he would be more helpful if he did, and he might be upset and/or it might affect the type of reference I get from him. On paper, I think things still look pretty good for me in terms of my academic prospects (or at least as good as anyone's chances can be, which are 150 to 1). My supervisor recently said that he's really banking on my success in the academic job market. I'm not sure he will understand why I don't want to at least give it a shot, especially given I was so enthusiastic about it at the beginning. When should I tell him, and how? I will need his good reference for what I want to do in the future, before I can start out on that path. I was thinking I would think about all of this for a few more months, while continuing on with academic work and, on the side, exploring this potential vocation more.
Would it be wise to alert my supervisor now, or sometime soon, about the fact that I am now not sure I want to go into academia? Should I start slowly, saying that I've been having doubts, or should I wait until I'm sure what I want to do next, and present it as something well-thought-out and firm (or would that look too sudden)? If I give him an initial heads up about my doubts, will he stop writing me references to get grants or a year of (external) funding, for me to try to complete the PhD? Will he give me a good reference for a different field, if I want to leave academia? Is it possible to get a good reference from him if I don't finish the PhD? Is it possible to get into another career (including a graduate professional school) with a failed PhD? I'm not sure that I can finish now, wish that I had never started this, am really unhappy and miserable, and don't know how to get out.