How to quit grad school and start a career?
May 25, 2010 8:17 PM   Subscribe

I want to quit grad school and start a career. I'm 25 with a BA in English. I know times are tough, but this PhD program -- and the quality of life that accompanies it -- are even tougher. I can do this, right?

I'm on summer break right now from my first very successful year of what's supposedly a 5 year program (though no one seems to finish it in fewer than 6). I hate it though -- I hate the hours, the social life that the hours preclude, and mostly, most damagingly, I hate the city I had to move to in order to enter this program.

I'm now back at home, living with the folks for the summer and with really no pressure. I've got money saved so I can sort of just chill, but I tell everyone I'm gonna get a 'summer job' until I go back to school. Thing is, that summer job is going to (hopefully) be an entry level copy writing/web-based marketing gig. I've applied for a few but have no results yet. This seems daunting, even impossible -- like I'm too old for this since all my friends got jobs right out of college. I volunteered for a year and then went to grad school.

Is this a dumb move?

P.S. Yes, I'm sure I want to quit. I know I would love the eventual career that would most likely come after PhD, but I also know it's not the only career I can love. And that some careers don't require you to give up your twenties for some extended adolescence-type purgatory.

Thanks in advance.
posted by earlofrochester to Work & Money (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Edit: Just to be clear -- I meant that this year was successfully in terms of like grades and me doing wel in the program. In terms of personal happiness, as I hopefully made clear, the past nine months have been pretty much a wreck.
posted by earlofrochester at 8:20 PM on May 25, 2010

If you don't really like the work you're doing in humanities grad school, it is definitely a good idea to quit now. Even people who really like it will find it hard to finish and then face a difficult job market upon getting the degree. (including moving to places where they don't want to live, because that's the only place with a job for them)

You are not too old. After all, the alternative is to continue in the program and then (maybe) face the entry-level job market several years from now when you're even older.

The job search is tough, but hang in there.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:29 PM on May 25, 2010

First off, if you're getting funded you might as well stick it out another year for the M.A. That's how my PhD program worked before I dropped out. For me, it was just a realization that people smarter and more hard-working than me weren't getting _any_ job offers. This was a few years ago, but I doubt the academic job market is any better now than it was ca. 2002.

An M.A. in English isn't the most employable degree, but it ain't bad. It looks good on a resume and it demonstrates some academic aptitude. I wouldn't recommend a person take on debt to get one, but like I said if you're getting funding it's easy enough to finish off. (I only needed to pass a very easy oral exam for mine, didn't even have to write a paper.)

I enjoyed teaching a lot in graduate school, so that's my career now. However, it's worth mentioning the fact that I got to do some pretty cool stuff like helping to edit the 3rd Edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry as a part-time job to a professor. Looking back, this was a really great opportunity for me that never would have happened if I wasn't a lowly graduate student toiling away in the basement of the library. Just worth considering that there are some potential professional avenues within a PhD program that don't involve going to MLA and praying to god someone will want to meet with you. Some PhD students ended up with part-time gigs in the library or development office or working on research projects that translated into full-time jobs, eventually. Some of them kept up the pretense of pretending they would ever finish their thesis, others just happily transitioned to being full-time university employees.

YMMV, but I'd definitely stick around for at least the M.A. if you don't have to pay any money for it.
posted by bardic at 8:33 PM on May 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

If it helps, I quit my job to return to school when I was 35. I so enjoyed my undergraduate studies in Eng Lit that I got an MA, too. Nineteen years later, my job has nothing to do with what I studied, but I make a bundle and love what I do.

So my advice is, follow your present inclinations (or disinclinations), and then don't limit yourself, because what you end up doing will probably have nothing to do with what you studied.

Just don't be lazy about it.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 8:34 PM on May 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

These are already incredibly helpful answers (this was my first question here). Bardic, I think you're probably right. I am one academic year away from a (totally free) MA, and a degree's a degree I suppose. It'll suck, but it's a year. Thanks again all.
posted by earlofrochester at 8:38 PM on May 25, 2010

Eh, just try to enjoy the good parts of it all. Specifically, I miss being allowed (if not encouraged) to devote myself to obscure/"minor" cultural and literary artifacts. The professional world beyond the academy is much more "generalist" in nature.

And while you sound like a hard worker, I sure do miss the amount of free time I had.
posted by bardic at 8:46 PM on May 25, 2010

Maybe what can help you get through the year is to do some work researching what will come next, career-wise - have you visited your university's career centre (if you have such a thing)?
posted by purlgurly at 8:47 PM on May 25, 2010

I could have written this question 5 years ago. I had just finished my first year as an Electrical Engineering master student and was miserable. My grades were fine, and I loved some of the work (mostly the theoretical math) but many parts of it made me miserable. And I didn't see where it was all leading: I'd been programming since I was 10 and all my jobs had been programming related.

So I dropped out. Actually, I use the term "withdrew" because IMHO it has a less negative connotation. However, I was in a better situation than you are. My hourly job (where I'd been for 4 years) wasn't hard to convert to a salaried position. And I was already in a town that I loved.

I would strongly suggest that you quit grad school. It's not for everyone, and life is too short to spend even one more year doing something that makes you utterly miserable and poor. Be prepared to explain your decision in every job interview for the next few years. Employers want to know why you spent a year in school yet didn't earn a degree. But I think good grades will placate their worries.

Looking back, my only regret is that I didn't quit after the first semester.
posted by sbutler at 9:06 PM on May 25, 2010

Advice you'll commonly hear is something like: When faced with a hard to make choice, strongly consider the path that keeps the most options open for the future. I think that would probably be, if you can stomach it, to press on and finish an MA. Nobody will ever give you a hard time about leaving graduate school with an MA. Knowing that you've only got a year of work and then you're done may make the going a lot easier. This path also gives you the ability to change your mind if that's what seems right for you. But, if you decide to leave, you have at least my blessing. Graduate school is, for a lot of people, a terrible experience. If you're certain that your happiness is someplace else you shouldn't feel any guilt about going after it.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:23 PM on May 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you're unhappy, get out. Academia takes a special breed of crazy. As far as jobs...I'll give you the tip I give all my former English Dept refugees about the job world: focus on your value. When interviewing and applying for jobs, focus on the critical and communicative skills your education gave you because you're not likely to find a job to pay you to read Shakespeare cuz you like it. :D Focus on your degree in terms of understanding audience, research, planning and communication.

And don't be afraid to apply for something outside your comfort zone. English majors make great writers and editors...but they also make fab managers, project planners, communications specialists, researchers, even the more diverse media and tech positions if you have an aptitude for it. I took what was technically an English degree (Tech Comm and more media oriented) and have worked as everything from a web designer to a business manager to Editor. There's lots of possibilities out there!
posted by ninjakins at 6:10 AM on May 26, 2010

I also recommend that you finish up your MA. You might as well, especially if you don't have to pay for it, and like Bardic and Ninjakins say, you never know what opportunities might pop up. My boyfriend's sister didn't continue after she got her MA (in English) and now she has a great job as an assistant editor for a scientific journal. Because she had he degree she wasn't considered "entry level" and made more money starting out.

It's also important to remember that there is absolutely no shame in "dropping out." It's hard to know if academia is for you until you're in it. I'm also in an English grad program, and someone in my field left after getting his MA and is now in the Peace Corps. I just finished my first year too. My first semester was really rough, and I thought about quitting all the time. The second one was better, and I'm now much more optimistic, but I'm still leaving it open that I might leave after my MA. That's just to say, you're not alone and it's perfectly fine to leave. Just try to get your MA first, if you can stand it!
posted by apricot at 8:06 AM on May 26, 2010

Okay, this is probably going to be a long response. My situation is yours to a T - except I stayed in till I was 29. Let's start with my experience, working under the assumption that you'll be able to generalize from it (or at least recognize parts of it) and then follow with advice.

I went straight from undergrad into a PhD program in English. I very much enjoyed the work. My first year was hellish - as is everyone's. My pre-quals were really productively stressful. My director only made me cry once. My biggest source of stres during those years was being confronted with the choice of a) living at the poverty line, or b) taking on debt. It is difficult for me to recommend either of those, in retrospect, but a) is slightly better than b).

As I started writing my dissertation, I was faced with some unpleasant facts. First: The job market for professors is TERRIBLE, and only getting worse. This Chronicle article pretty well sums up the current state of the field. I was brilliant - still am, thanks - but so were many of my colleagues, and I wasn't willing to risk my future on being in the top 5% of the top 1% of the smartest people I've ever worked with. Second: Assuming you get a job, you don't get to choose where. If you get an offer, you take it - otherwise your career dead-ends. If you get two and get to choose between them, you've won the lottery. I came from a small town, very much enjoyed living in a large city, and wasn't thrilled about - IF I got an offer - the odds that it would probably be in a fly-over state.

If, of course, you don't get an offer, you try and make ends meet for a year and do it again the next year. This is a year with minimal income, NO job security, and, if you're exceptionally lucky and get a postdoc that treats you like a human, mediocre insurance. If no post-doc, get ready to feel like a grad student for another year, except with three to five times your teaching courseload.

Get the tenure gig, and you're golden - if you pass your tenure review. If not, you're back to the PTL/post-doc scene. Also, your first year as a professor, you'll probably be making between 45 and 55k. If you teach any business students, their first year after they graduate, they'll be making about that. They're 22. You're, at best, 30. My choice was clear. I bailed on the PhD and started applying for work.

The first thing I learned is that everyone I talked to treated my MA in English like it made me less employable. A MA in English apparently says to employers "Too smart to do the grunt work, not skilled enough for anything else." I interviewed for a bunch of jobs. Wound up temping. This was not terrible, but I was lucky enough to find a good temp agency. After 5 or 6 months of that, one of my temp jobs made me a temp-to-perm offer. I'm now a brand specialist at a fairly large corporation. I miss the intellectual stimulation of the academy. In almost every other way, I'm happier.

So on to the advice.

Everyone's first year of grad school is hellish. I would encourage you to give it another semester or a year - especially if, as earlier commenters say, you can get your masters by then and you're still funded. Although I haven't yet been in a position to substantially benefit from it, I still do believe that advanced degrees are a Very Good Thing.

The two great secrets of graduate school in the humanities are 1) the attrition rate, and 2) how psychotically hard it is to find work afterwards. The culture of graduate programs obscures these facts to try to make the progression from grad student to professor seem easy, natural and normal. This has the side effect of marginalizing anyone whose experience doesn't mesh with this narrative. REMEMBER THAT YOUR SCHOOL HAS A VESTED INTEREST IN KEEPING YOU IN GRADUATE SCHOOL - YOU ARE CHEAP LABOR.

Most grad programs have a policy on one to two year breaks from the program. If you're interested in dipping your toes into the real world, this can be a great way to do it.

Start temping. Temping was very good to me. It'll let you see a lot of different offices and give you a little bit of a choice in where you wind up - as well as the info to distinguish a better workplace from a worse one. Of course, if you get your dream job offer out of the gate, ignore this.

I, too, when I left, was looking into a copywriting gig. Nobody will even so much as look at you for those positions unless you have a book - this is an industry term for ad copy that you've worked on. This isn't necessarily a catch-22 - recent students will only have a spec book. (Spec = speculative: mock-ups for ads that you WOULD write were you already a copywriter.) Students at advertising-specific schools come out of their program with one of these in hand. It's the copywriter's portfolio slash resume. If you don't have one, nobody will talk to you unless your dad owns the company. If you're dead set on some kind of writing career, start working on yours NOW. Some colleges offer night courses on putting this kind of thing together - that might be worth pursuing. If you really wanna hedge your bets, stay in your dept for a year to get your MA, phone in all your class assignments, and take as many advertising / copywriting classes on the side as your funding package will pay for.

I've been working for two years now. I'm happier for it. It was not easy early on. The biggest thing I needed to tell myself - and that I would like to pass along - is: Your first couple of months out of school will suck. You'll be CONVINCED you made the wrong choice. It's deeply uncomfortable to move from a situation where your future is planned, where you're on a track, and the only issue is how well you can succeed at it, to a situation where you don't really know what you're doing, and there doesn't seem to be any metric or rules to help you figure out how well you're doing it and what you're supposed to do next. In those moments, remember that you made a decision in good faith for good reasons, and that you will necessarily take as long to get somewhere in the work world that you can look around and be satisfied with as you did in school - at your point, about five or six years. This time around, at least, you have the benefit of a pretty substantial education that hopefully included a bunch of poetry to soften the blow.

Good luck and memail me if you wanna chat more. :)
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:40 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Infinite gratitude over here. I'm going to get the MA, for sure, thanks to what you all have said. I am funded throughout this whole thing, so if there's a silver lining it's that I'm not incurring any debt during this temporary hell. And Pickman's Next Top Model: I am terrified of that feeling you described -- the one about suddenly not having a determined path anymore -- but yeah, I think it's worth striking it out on my own vs. staying on a path that leads to a dead-end (which for me too is a not-well-paying teaching job in, like, Kansas or something. ::shudder::). I read the Chronicle article (the whole issue in fact), and, like a lot of my colleagues, I think I did my best to shrug it off. Can't do that any longer -- like I said, the sacrifices are just too great when there's no foreseeable payoff at the end. My program is a good one -- top 40 or something -- but it's not great, and there just seems to be no guarantee of anything at all.

I am, however, living at the poverty line, which wouldn't be so bad in certain -- that is, Midwestern -- cities, but is a nightmare in the northeastern academic haven in which I live (I'm in that city, but not at that school -- if I were a Harvard PhD candidate, I suppose I'd just be on my merry way to tenure).

Anyway, thanks again. I haven't told anyone (family, friends, SO, or colleagues/professors) that I'm going to do this, and I probably won't until after I've got the MA. This was a great resource, and I appreciate all your input.
posted by earlofrochester at 12:02 PM on May 26, 2010

Aside from already having my MA, I'm in the same boat! What to do with an English degree? How to translate these rather inchoate skills into something employers will identify as relevant to the work environment? And to top it all off, what are our chances in these poor economic times? I would strongly advise you to continue for another year and to spend that time seriously exploring other career paths and the technical skills they require - and working to develop your business and computer skills. Enroll in outside classes and/or take advantage of what your library and student career services have to offer there at your school. Make the next year worthwhile!
posted by afabulousbeing at 9:33 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm another miserable, first year grad student. What makes it worse, is that I feel like my department has broken promises they made me upon entry, failed my cohort as students, and (the big fucking icing on the big fucking cake) i moved away from the woman i will marry in order to come here. we live 800 miles apart. for what?

what is getting me through right now is knowing this:

there is a difference between leaving and moving on to something better.

i'd prefer the latter, but that requires my finding something better to move on to. until then, i do have a steady paycheck and something to do every day.
posted by chicago2penn at 7:31 PM on June 2, 2010

Chicago2penn: I share your big fucking icing. In fact, I'm spending the summer with her as we speak, only to return in the fall to my potentially useless five year program. But for me, more icing, since I can't think of another metaphor: We're breaking up when I head back in the fall. Did the first year as an LDR, both decided it'd be totally impossible to continue this way -- especially since she's beginning a different (and considerably more prestigious) 5 yr PhD program in this city. This city, by the way, is Chicago, which judging from your handle I guess you might have also left.

Sucks, huh?
posted by earlofrochester at 5:17 PM on June 7, 2010

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