Worst reason ever for getting a PhD?
December 15, 2009 10:16 AM   Subscribe

I've been academically wronged on an epic (to me) scale. How to overcome?

The details don't matter. Suffice it to say that, after years of work and sacrifice, a morally bankrupt academic department has screwed me over with regards to my Ph.D. program. Net result: The original reason for getting the degree has become virtually impossible to achieve and irrelevant. To keep going is going to involve years of extra work and sacrifice with no assurance that I'll ever get the degree. Or I could say "screw it" and walk away with a master's. Six months later I am still so far beyond pissed off that it's sometimes hard to function. My primary motivation at this point is the feeling that, by finishing the degree, I'll be exacting some sort of "You fuckers couldn't beat me" revenge as, on graduation day, I let them know (verbally) exactly how I feel.

At the same time, I recognize that this isn't a healthy mental state. I can lose my job if I seek psychological counseling so I was hoping the collective you might have some tips for getting past the anger so that, if I choose to continue towards the degree, it will be for more noble reasons.
posted by anonymous to Education (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Can you please explain how you will lose your job if you seek psychological counseling?
posted by ranunculus at 10:21 AM on December 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

I guess it depends on your area of study, but I think a better revenge is cutting your losses, leaving academia, and earning more in a less political environment. It sounds like this is eating at you pretty intensely, and seriously dude, it's just not worth it.
posted by lunalaguna at 10:22 AM on December 15, 2009

You're asking us to answer a question for which you've provided scant detail.
posted by dfriedman at 10:23 AM on December 15, 2009 [16 favorites]

Yeah, there's really not enough information here to answer the question.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:31 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

The only question here is whether you still want the PhD. Do your original motivations for starting the program still apply? Are you going to benefit, professionally and personally, from getting the degree? Do you still find the subject matter interesting and exciting enough to keep going for a few more years?

If the answer is yes, take some time off to regroup, if possible, and then work on your degree for its own sake.

If the answer is no, then it makes precious little sense to waste years of your life just to be able to say "fuck you" to someone who probably won't care. It's no different from the whole "I wish I were dead, then Mom and Dad would be sorry" bit that we all went through before age five. Not worth it. If you really like, you can tell them how you feel right now and promise to spread the word about what happened in relevant academic and professional circles.
posted by Behemoth at 10:32 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will tell you one thing, for a post-grad to graduate as a measure of revenge makes no sense. All you're doing is adding to their successful graduation statistics. If you really want to get back at them you would leave the program and saddle them with those stats.

That being said, that's not the route I'd suggest. Do what is best for you. Are there any comparable programs you could look into transferring to? I know this is almost unheard of, but if your current school eliminated your program you might be able to convince educators at a different university to grant you special consideration.

I agree with dfriedman, you didn't give us much to work with. Were you afraid that the hive mind would disagree with your level of anger? That's the impression I got. If this is really a matter of a 'morally bankrupt' school have you considered seeing if there are any legal actions you can take?
posted by Gainesvillain at 10:32 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Springboarding off of ranunculus' above comment: actually, obtaining psychological counseling is by definition confidential and no one can access that information about you, unless you use insurance to pay for the costs. So as long as you don't use insurance, no one can legally find out unless they stalk you and see you coming out of a therapy office or something. If you have a low income, you can go to any community agency in your area (or somewhere far away, if you'd prefer) and get sliding scale counseling. Sounds as though it might be a good idea, once you're ready to not feel so angry.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:40 AM on December 15, 2009

the details really do matter. more, please.
posted by anthropomorphic at 10:40 AM on December 15, 2009

If you plan to get a job in this field, especially if it's in academics, recommendations and referrals of your advisor and other professors would be important. Plus you would probably run into these guys at conferences and workshops.

If you plan to get the Ph.D and then flip everyone the finger as you pick up the diploma, I'd just cut my losses.
posted by wrnealis at 10:41 AM on December 15, 2009

I applaud your attempt to ask the core question without cluttering the discussion with unnecessary details. However, knowing if they made it impossible for you to continue because they closed your program, invalidated your coursework or some other specific cause would indeed be helpful.
posted by davejay at 10:44 AM on December 15, 2009

So you're not at all interested in your field of study?
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 10:45 AM on December 15, 2009

The "noble" reason I can think of for you to finish would be to prove to yourself that you could do it despite the adversity, and so that later on down the road you don't look back on this period as a huge waste of your time and efforts. Doing it as a "fuck you" to those who wronged you is, indeed, the wrong way of looking at it.

Whether continuing on is worth it for that reason, or would simply be throwing good time and energy after bad, is a choice you have to make for yourself, but you do need to get out of the mental place you're in now to be able to decide that clearly.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:00 AM on December 15, 2009

There really aren't enough details for me to answer your question well, but I'll say this:

I was screwed over by a morally bankrupt department in Biochemistry once, and I was furious. I ended up leaving that institution because I couldn't get over it. I walked with my MS, worked in academia as a tech for a year, and am now halfway into a PhD at a different (respectful, moral and caring) institution. The difference is night and day, and it was well worth the three years it took to figure that out. I am actually happy in pursuing my degree now. It's worth a lot.
posted by sickinthehead at 11:04 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

One definition of resentment is "swallowing poison and expecting someone else to die." That may apply in your case. You may not be able to let go of resentment and be in close quarters with the source of the resentment. Can you transfer to another program elsewhere?
posted by Xurando at 11:06 AM on December 15, 2009 [5 favorites]

Does your university have an ombudsman or Student Advocate position? If so, I would encourage using the people in those positions to raise a stink to see if you could get your Ph.D. now. Also, if you are at a public university, you may even want to see if you could file a discrimination suit if you are member of a protected class. Needless to say, this could get ugly, and it all depends how badly you want or need a Ph.D.
posted by jonp72 at 11:07 AM on December 15, 2009

Your question doesn't make any sense to me as it's written, so I'd say that details matter.

You had a reason for obtaining a PhD in Whatever. The department did... something. Now your reasons for getting a PhD in Whatever are irrelevant? I can't quite imagine how that could be the case.

I've never had to deal with a phd student who was so pissed-off and viewed graduating as a big fuck-you. I can offer you some reasonable assurance that professors wouldn't see it as a big fuck-you and be cowed or impressed or sorry or whatever it is you hope they feel.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:09 AM on December 15, 2009

Who exactly would you be proving wrong? Against a vague adversary like 'the department' who would you beat? If anything I feel like you'd only prove to them that they can abuse their students and get away with it.
posted by valadil at 11:13 AM on December 15, 2009

Your school has a counseling office. Use it. It's not legal for anyone to ask what happened there, but you can always say that you were encountering a difficult class and needed studying tips. This is a legitimate use for the counseling office, and many people do it. Seconding that if you don't use insurance there's no way for anyone to know.

Without the details, no on here can really help you. You need to talk to someone you're comfortable giving all the details to.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:16 AM on December 15, 2009

What you (vaguely) describe does not shock me. You are not the only grad student to be mistreated by your university. Some departments are exceedingly fair to their students, others are not. It sounds as if you're in the latter category. It really sucks.

If the only reason you'd continue in the program is so that you can tell them off once you have your degree, don't bother--if for no other reason than because, logistically, there isn't really a good dramatic moment (when defend, or when you walk in your graduation ceremony, you may still have paperwork pending with the university, etc. and you do not want to jeopardize your PhD). Also because they won't care. Really. You will never ever get the satisfaction of making them understand just how morally bankrupt they are: they. do. not. care.

Moreover, even if their treatment of you is seriously and demonstrably unfair, being a bitter (and vocal) grad student will seriously hinder (if not destroy) your chances of getting an academic job after you finish. Cut your losses here.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:32 AM on December 15, 2009

Truth is that the big speech you have planned isn't going to mean squat to 99% of the faculty and it will be easy for your detractors to dismiss you as an embittered weirdo. In other words, sticking with it just to mess them over at graduation isn't going to achieve what you want it to achieve.

IMO, your best answer is sickinthehead's; live well elsewhere (and prove the bastards wrong in print).
posted by bonehead at 11:33 AM on December 15, 2009

It is apparent that you are not in the best of mental shape from your post. Try paying for counseling out of pocket if you think there is an issue otherwise. I can think of no job where it would be an issue that would be discovered through private counseling. I'm sure that finding a counselor that accepts cash and doesn't require a name is not that hard, if you are afraid that your workplace will find out through other channels.

Without getting past the huge amount of anger your future is uncertain.
posted by JJ86 at 11:43 AM on December 15, 2009

danah boyd offers this advice about choosing a grad school, but I think it's very applicable in your case.

Why don't you simply transfer to another PhD program? Maybe even take a year off.

This time, you might know more of what to look for so you don't end up "screwed". And ultimately, you will still have a PhD.
posted by lesli212 at 11:48 AM on December 15, 2009

Seconding the ombuds office.
posted by nat at 11:48 AM on December 15, 2009

I'm in the "more details" camp. Does "morally bankrupt" mean taking away your funding, punishing you for something you didn't actually do, providing insufficient guidance...what? It's hard to give advice about "overcoming" when it isn't clear what there is to overcome.

The posters who suggested transferring are in the right, IMO.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:48 AM on December 15, 2009

You need to do some effective cost/benefit analysis. Actually write it out. We can't even begin to do it for you with the info we have. Well, okay, I'll begin - if your only benefit now to getting the PhD is to exact some revenge, cut your losses and enjoy your Masters. I don't know who, specifically, you want to rub this in the face of (and "the department" or "the school" isn't an answer), but they probably do not care very much. They likely would not care if you graduated and probably would not even recognize that it was a slight to them - especially in a few years.

The only one you're punishing by carrying this around inside of you is yourself, I expect. The details do matter - I would explore why you are angry, specifically, and what actual actions you can take to remedy your anger, even if that is just some thinking it over, acknowledging it, and walking away. I would "write it out" - if you're concerned about it turning up later, write it on actual paper and burn it later. Sometimes I find it helpful to talk about problems out loud, to myself, on my drive - it feels weird to admit that, but it's pretty helpful.

Can you take a break from this program? Can you consider another program? The environment might be providing you some frequent reminders that you just don't need.
posted by KAS at 11:52 AM on December 15, 2009

I was hoping the collective you might have some tips for getting past the anger so that, if I choose to continue towards the degree, it will be for more noble reasons.

This seems to be the heart of your question, and I think Sickinthehead has given you an excellent suggestion -- leave. It is unbelievably hard to get over being angry when your milieu is the folks who you believe have treated you unjustly. This does not preclude getting your phD somewhere else, of course.

And when you go, I'd find a good person to talk to, professional or otherwise, so you can get some catharsis in a safe and confidential way.
posted by bearwife at 11:53 AM on December 15, 2009

What is more important to you? Your degree or sticking it to those who stuck it to you? If you can answer that question, you may have the answer to the reason to continue toward your degree or not.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:22 PM on December 15, 2009

Academia being what it is, a hearty 'screw you,' even as you pick up your diploma, is more likely to do you harm than good.

Go the way of less hate, whatever way that is.
posted by Pragmatica at 12:33 PM on December 15, 2009

--You had a reason for obtaining a PhD in Whatever. The department did... something. Now your reasons for getting a PhD in Whatever are irrelevant? I can't quite imagine how that could be the case.

--I can lose my job if I seek psychological counseling

A long-shot guess: were you aiming for an international relations or aerospace degree or something that you feel would require the ability to secure a high level of clearance to be "relevant", and something happened to jeopardize this? If something happened to compromise your reputation in this program, LEAVE and find a different one where you can start relatively fresh--as mentioned by several folks above, a big part of grad school is leaving with contacts and recommendations, regardless of whether you go into government work, private industry, or academia.
posted by availablelight at 12:47 PM on December 15, 2009

Take a step back, maybe take some time off. Being in an unhealthy environment like that won't help, and could make things a lot worse further down the road.
posted by photo guy at 12:52 PM on December 15, 2009

I let them know (verbally) exactly how I feel.
They don't care about you. Nothing you can say will make them care about you. Spending this time bitterly ploughing away with the only productive end goal being an attempt to make them care about you (which will fail) is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

posted by bonaldi at 1:02 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are not the only grad student to be mistreated by your university. Some departments are exceedingly fair to their students, others are not. It sounds as if you're in the latter category. It really sucks.

I'm with Meg_Murry on this one. I was a TA in my graduate department, doing extraordinarily well in the program, liked by professors and students alike. We were still on the quarter system then, and near the beginning of second quarter, the grad chair set up appointments with the TAs to sign off on our third quarter class choices. "You need another [class type]," he says. "Oh, no, remember? You signed off on me taking that independent study...I'm taking it this quarter with Professor X." "No, I didn't." (Me = pulls out form for independent study approval with his signature on it).

He claims it's not his signature. He sticks with the story despite my going all the way up to the ombudsman. Other professors stop me in the hallways and tell me, sotto voce, to wait for him to retire so I can finish my degree, since apparently his word is the law. There were no other classes I could take to finish the program, and couldn't afford to go back without being a TA. I'm permanently stuck one class shy of my master's degree and now it's too late to finish without starting the program again from scratch. None of the other universities in town would let me transfer in more than a handful of credits, either.

It fucking sucked, to be blunt. But looking back on it now? Fuck 'em. I'm not in a position where having that degree would earn me more money or anything else. And if I did go back for another degree, it would not be in that field. Sounds like your field is not making you happy and your university even less so -- find a different program elsewhere that's a better fit, or go into the private sector, jobwise.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:43 PM on December 15, 2009

If you stay there and finish, you aren't going to get to tell anyone off unless you want to burn bridges and mess up your career. So is that going to be worth it? No.
You should probably leave and see about moving to a different school.
It also makes no sense that you can't seek counseling without losing your job. That stuff is confidential for a reason.
posted by ishotjr at 1:58 PM on December 15, 2009

There are, unfortunately, academics out there who view grad students not as potential future colleagues, but as cattle - cheap labour and good for making the department's enrollment look good. And little else. I graduated from just such a department, unfortunately.

It sounds like you're well into the mental territory where you need to step away from the program, whether temporarily or permanently. Sticking it out to "show them" won't produce the results you want (see everybody else, above), and will only serve to make your mental health less than it is.

Having been through a similar mill myself, I would also observe: you make your own opportunities, and they can come to fruition at the wierdest times. Things will come to you in time. But it just won't be through the uni system, through these professors of yours, nor while you're in the mental state you're in. Focus on getting well psychologically and emotionally, and see where you end up.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 2:22 PM on December 15, 2009

I really do think what happened is relevant. I know a grad student who was kicked out of a program for serious ethical violations that I'm sure she'd swear up and down were not a big deal, she was framed, etc. What might be unfair reasons could be pretty objectively fair. And if you get a Ph.D. with a history of ethics violations, it's not going to be worth much. You'd have to explain to everyone who looked at your CV why you left the first program.
posted by emilyd22222 at 4:03 PM on December 15, 2009

This question doesn't make much sense, whcih is why I'd doubly suggest that you do seek some sort of psychological counseling or evaluation, in person. What job are you going to lose by going to counseling? I think you really need to verify that this is a possibility. I've talked to a psychiatrist (with several Federal employee clients, State Dept, etc) about security clearances, etc., and what they can/can not talk about, and I find it very hard to believe you, as a Masters(?)-level student or pre-doc/all but disseration status, would be at the level of working on classified information that you are (a) being tracked such that you can not confidentally seek counseling and (b) going to have a strike against you for seeking counseling. Granted, I'm in the US, so if this is something particular to your national education system/country/government, I suppose your experience might differ. I wish you the best whichever choice you make.
posted by NikitaNikita at 7:09 PM on December 15, 2009

The original reason for getting the degree has become virtually impossible to achieve and irrelevant. To keep going is going to involve years of extra work and sacrifice with no assurance that I'll ever get the degree.

Oh, man. My first reaction was to say.. Walk away. Like, yesterday. You're going to throw away more years just to spite them? It's not worth it. And they're probably not going to care to be honest. Because as a newly-minted PhD you STILL aren't going to have enough clout to do anything that would actually spite them. If you really want to spite them, you could hang on to that resentment and hide it really well and rise to the top of your profession and THEN do your vendetta thing once you have the power to really mess with them, but that's quite a commitment. Otherwise, if you get your PhD and leave by saying "f*** you!!" they're just going to shrug like, oh well, that fool just killed his/her career, good thing we didn't recommend you for anything, have a nice day.

However, we don't know enough detail. Maybe you should take a leave of absence. Calm down and get some perspective. If you're so angry you can't think straight, stepping back for a while is a good idea before making major decisions. Not to mention, if it's hard to function, how in the hell are you going to finish the PhD even if you intend to? Find an objective and trusted person to consult who will be honest with you about the options at hand. LOTS of graduate students have doubts like these and that's why lots of them take leaves of absence.
posted by citron at 8:34 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okay, I didn't read all the answers, just wanted to pop in with another "leave" comment.

I had this friend. She got royally screwed in her program. I won't go into details either, but it was a major fuck-up on the department's end, and they solved it by stringing her along and then kicking her out.

It was really hard at the time, but now she's got a job in her field (not doing what the PhD was doing, but in the general area), and she loves it. She's happier than she ever was in school, and only regrets not quitting sooner and on her own terms.
posted by carmen at 2:35 PM on December 16, 2009

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