Quit or Fail: How to pick up the pieces after academic and PhD abandonment?
November 24, 2009 12:44 PM   Subscribe

How have you reconciled failure vs. quitting? How have you managed to pick up the pieces of your most passionate undertaking after dropping it? Is the desire to reinvent myself and undertake a new passion/direction just a mechanism to hide the pain of giving up?

I recently graduated with a Master's (conciliatory?) in Ecology from a top program. For 2+ of 3 years I dealt with either crippling depression (I think I'll just stay in bed for the week...month...quarter) and second guessing my ability to succeed in my PhD program or the delusion that I could remain cavalier and continue shooting from the hip all the way to the hooding ceremony.

I got tired. I chose not to continue on the PhD path and decided to puruse my "true passion" - communicating environmentalism and inspiring social change within a broader audience. I've done tours of duty with two non-profits that vary widely in their sphere of influence and method of promoting environmentalism/conservation. I haven't been enthralled by either and find myself still looking at the horizon....

I have been feeling nostalgic - I miss collaborators/old friends, I miss exciting tropical field site, I miss comfortable fellowship, and I really miss feeling like I am creating my life rather than just floating by. At the time, I was convincing myself I wanted something different, something more in line with my dreams. Now I look back and think "I had it good! If I just did the work and didn't fall victim to the distraction of something bigger and better....if I would have dealt with the depression (self-induced I think), bad habits, cavalier attitude...I would be well on my way with research".

Maybe it is mostly hindsight and the grass is greener type of thing. I can't rid the nagging feeling that "I want to quit PhD to pursue this, my real passion!" is really just a self-deception disguising "I am failing because I refuse to make positive changes in my life and would rather do nothing". I am tired of this "can't fail if I don't try" attitude, and I basically spend everyday of work at non-profit thinking about how I messed up.

How do I overcome this failure/quitting and regain creative control of my life? Where do I go next? I am drowning with real-world problems (paying bills, finding a new job) and feel like I am inevitably drifting further from pursuing my "true passion" - my supposed reason for getting out of PhD early!

I want to stop defrauding myself. I know that I was fully capable of doing the work I just "chose" not to. The worst feeling is not knowing if I was justified in that choice - was it because of laziness, fear of failure....or truly because I wanted to do something else (as I struggled for months to finally convince myself and then report to others) - it just all seems like lies
posted by Gaeacon to Education (7 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I think that you need to think about why getting a PhD is so important to you. Because I think for a lot of people, it is a mistake. It's an obvious thing: for instance, sometimes I feel guilt for not having a PhD in ethnomusicology. It seems like the logical conclusion of an interest you have.

But many people who have a PhD are miserable, can't find work, and feel they have wasted their lives. You may have saved yourself that.

When I was on my first date with my girlfriend, we were talking and I told her how I dropped out of journalism school (from the #1 school in the country, if I do say so myself), and how it sort of was a hard decision, but really after thinking it through, I couldn't see going through with it because it didn't make sense financially or otherwise. I was expecting her to look down on me (because other people have, and maybe I did myself). She was like "that's SO great". Turns out she had just finished a grad degree and had a miserable time at it, and really respected my decision that my program was not for me.

I have tiny little bits of regret, around not being able to take classes with some people that I really respect, who I hear on NPR occasionally. But mostly I'm really overjoyed with that decision, because I can't imagine how much more effed up my life would be now with all that debt, moving into an industry that's dying.

So it's not necessarily about being lazy. You might have just saved your life.
posted by sully75 at 2:54 PM on November 24, 2009

Try and discern the difference between missing the trappings of what you were doing and missing the work. I desperately miss university and sometimes fantasise about going back and doing an M.A or the like. I already have a M.App.Sci, which applies to my job, so what the hell would I do with and M.A.? I love to learn, I miss the discussions and the intellectual nature of it. I miss the people who educated me and I miss the person I went through most of the degree with.

Passions change as you actually do the work as well - you learn more, you understand more and while the passion may be there, the manifestation of it may not be.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:18 PM on November 24, 2009

Best answer: I basically spend everyday of work at non-profit thinking about how I messed up.

I don't mean to be harsh (because I deeply sympathize with you) but it kind of seems like you are doing the same thing with your current job that you were doing with grad school. Namely, distracting yourself with thinking about other things. Forgive me for projecting: you could have been tremendously successful in the PhD program if you had been on your A-game, but you weren't because you were dealing with issues and what not. It seems like you're still doing that. Maybe I'm wrong. But my advice would be to accept the job you have, embrace it, take it by the horns, and be on your A-game. In some sense your attitude towards the job matters more than what job you have. YMMV
posted by water bear at 6:42 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I sounds like you made a really smart move. You took your passion into the world to put it to work. It didn't work out as you would have hoped - but that's how it goes when where trying to find a place in the universe that feel like home. Of course you're revisiting the PhD option, it's exactly what someone in your position should do - you weigh present realities against possible future realities and try to find one that you think will bring you the most satisfaction. Its the constant fine-tuning of our lives that everyone goes through. So don't be so tough on yourself man, you're on the right track.

That said, please please please take your depression seriously. There are so many things in your post that suggest that its the thing that's driving you right now. Please leave room in your mind for the possibility that your depression isn't self-induced by bad choices, a cavalier attitude, self-deception, laziness or other such nonsense.

One of the many cruelties of depression is the way that it can turn the best of you into the worst of you. It can convince someone who is charming, funny, kind, hard-working, and intelligent that they are shallow, manipulative, lazy and stupid. It does this so relentlessly that, over time, it feels like the truth.

It also turns important decisions into loose-loose propositions. Don't fall for the seductive lie that you'll feel whole only if you make exactly the right choice and followed through with that exactly right choice with perfect clarity, precision and determination. It will be hard for you to feel good about any direction you follow without also taking on your depression.

So get some help. Talk to friends, read books, see a therapist, meditate, exercise, go on medication - anything. Do whatever you have to in order to feel better. Take the depression seriously and suspend, as best you can, any notion you have that its caused by bad choices or bad faith.

For the moment, relieve yourself of the pressure of making a decision about a PhD. Take some time to do any and all information gathering necessary to sketch out all of the paths you could take. Yes, you have to make a living. So you'll have to do that while you're going to work on feeling better. But feeling better is your main job. Do whatever it takes. Trust that wise decisions will follow.

memail me if you'd like a few book ideas.
posted by space_cookie at 7:57 PM on November 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Been there, done that. I left with a masters in biochem after 2+ years due to crippling depression and picking my life back up again was the hardest thing I've had to do. I worked at other jobs along the way and could never shake the feeling of fucking it all up. So I decided to give it another shot. I got a job in academia (it took like a year to find it, but I got it in the end) and then worked really hard to get a good letter of rec after about a year into my job.

I am now 2+ years into a PhD program again, and am extremely happy with my decision. In hindsight I realize that the previous problem was not all my fault, but a large problem with the department I was in at the time (very corrupt)., I also realized I didn't even like straight up biochemistry, unless it had a practical advantage (I am in a pharmacology program now - definitely the right choice for me).

If you want to go back, you are not screwed, and it sounds like deep down, you do want to. For whatever reason the circumstances in your life just weren't right during your first go around. It takes maturity and wisdom to realize that, and courage to admit it to the world. Just because you are in a low place right now doesn't mean you can't carve out what you want from this life.
posted by sickinthehead at 8:02 PM on November 24, 2009

Oh, and p.s., I worked in Whole Foods for 8 months while finding my stepping-stone job in academia. It fucking blew, and made me intimately aware of how much I loved being a graduate student.
posted by sickinthehead at 8:03 PM on November 24, 2009

I went through a similar ordeal: 2+ years of not doing much in a PhD program because of depression. I finally realized that I needed to stop and regain my sanity. There was no other choice. I took a leave of absence and have felt much better. Now I'm getting back into school. By quitting, you got yourself out of the academic environment so you could clear your head. In my view, that was absolutely necessary. I guess a leave of absence was not possible in your case? In short, there is zero shame or guilt in getting out of a horrible situation that is severely damaging your life.

Now that you've had some time away, it sounds like you can think more clearly. Assuming you aren't still depressed, go find out what your passion is. See if you can go drop by your old lab, maybe even hang out there for a week. Go talk to people who are excited about their work and see if that excites you.
posted by qmechanic at 3:50 AM on November 25, 2009

« Older the difference it makes   |   juicer suggestions? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.