Abandon ship?
June 17, 2012 7:52 PM   Subscribe

I have a big, messy question about anxiety, student debt, grad school, loneliness, and employment. Here’s the crux of it: Should I go back to my PhD next year? If not, what should my plan for the next few months be?

I'm 25, I've just finished my second year of a PhD in the humanities at a well-regarded Canadian university, and I'm unhappy. I’m really bored with my studies, I’m sick of being poor, I don’t want to deal with the academic job market, and I want a regular 9-5 schedule. I’m also pretty lonely: I like most of the people in my program, but I don’t feel like I fit in, and I’ve failed to make any close friends. My partner lives several hours away from me, and apart from him, I don’t really have anyone in my life right now. I feel like a loser and a failure.

My first year in the program (2010-2011) was completely miserable, and I knew by the end of it that I wanted out. So I asked the administration if they would let me leave with an MA, and they said I still needed to fulfill certain non-negotiable requirements. So I came back this year to finish up my MA. I wanted to use this year to get my resume in order and smoothly transition into a job, but it hasn't gone that well. I’ve taken a couple of internships, done some informational interviews, researched a ton of career options, applied for some jobs, and volunteered, but none of it has resulted in a job offer. My career counsellor says that my “hit rate” is excellent: I’ve gotten some interviews, and I haven’t sent out that many resumes. And some of the jobs I’ve interviewed for have been really competitive: In one case, I was picked out of 120 applicants for an interview. In another case, I was picked out of 1100. But I think I’m pretty bad at interviewing, and I still don’t have a job.

Mostly, what I do is worry. I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. Everything about job hunting makes me anxious, and the inescapable talk about the economic crisis isn’t helping. When I wake up in the morning, I immediately start worrying about finding a job. At night, I need a few glasses of wine to fall asleep, because I’m worrying about finding a job. It’s been a constant stressor for the past year, because I’ve told the administration I want to leave, so now I feel like I’ve forced myself into making the leap before I’m ready.

Even though I’m unhappy, I am seriously tempted to return to grad school next year. I earn a stipend from my program - it’s laughably meagre, but I can eat. And I owe 20k in student loan debt from my undergrad degree. While I’m in grad school, I don’t need to make payments, and it doesn’t accrue interest. (If I don't return, it starts accruing interest in September.) And, to be fair, my second year was somewhat better than my first: I found a better apartment and made some acquaintances, which made things more tolerable. Maybe I can make other incremental improvements, and third year won’t be as bad as second year?

On the other hand, maybe it's time to just make the jump. I'm 25 and I'm anxious to start a career. This is a good time to leave, since I've done enough to earn an MA, but I haven't started a dissertation yet. And if I don't leave now, what's to stop me from anxiously drifting through the program for another 2 or 3 years?

Part of the problem is that I don’t respond predictably to my anxiety - sometimes it spurs me to action, and sometimes it paralyzes me. So I’m worried that if I drop out, I’ll just spend a lot of time sitting at home, completely depressed and bored and paralyzed with fear, while my loans rack up interest. Or I’m worried that the only job I’ll be able to find will be horrible, and I’ll be stuck with it for years.

On the other hand, I made my first cold call a few weeks ago. Then I made some more, and landed an interview. That’s a big deal for me - I’d never been able to do that before, it was too scary. I want to start doing a round of cold calls every week, and I think I can - though I’m still kinda terrified.

Oh, and I’m getting back into therapy, don’t worry.

So.... I guess my question is: Should I ask to go back to grad school next year? If not, can you help me formulate a plan for the next few months? And how do I find the courage to face the unknown?
posted by The Art of Sockpuppetry to Education (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 25, I've just finished my second year of a PhD in the humanities at a well-regarded Canadian university, and I'm unhappy. I’m really bored with my studies, I’m sick of being poor, I don’t want to deal with the academic job market, and I want a regular 9-5 schedule.

Then get the hell out of graduate school in the humanities. Don't look back; you won't regret it.
posted by griseus at 8:14 PM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I definitely don't think you want to finish a PhD in the humanities. That's clear.

But....given the current state of the job market and the tangible benefits being a grad student affords you (a living stipend and loan deferment), can you just hang in there until you have a job offer in hand?

I don't know enough about the Canadian system, but are you expected to be full-bore working on your dissertation right now? Can you just kind of hang in there with a few classes and job-hunt until you get an actual offer and can jump ship?

The first job is always the hardest. You won't be stuck with a job you don't like for years -- just cross that right off your worry list -- you just need to get that first line of experience on your CV. You will have many more options once someone has hired you that first time.

And yeah, no one "responds predictably" to their anxiety. That's what makes it so fun. ;)

Hang in there.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:26 PM on June 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

If academia or a career that requires a PhD isn't part of your imagined future, and it doesn't look like it is, then take your MA and walk away now with your head held high. You're not going to make it to the end without a decent support network and a healthy state of mind, and from what you've described, staying on isn't going to provide either.

Change your life.
posted by holgate at 8:26 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Answering this as a person who continued all the way through graduate school and do consider myself shy/anxious,so I do understand the anxiety of looking for a job, etc.

From this comment alone, "I’m really bored with my studies"--Don't continue with graduate school. To be honest, believe it or not ...it gets worse.If you don't find it interesting now, then the research and dissertation will become absolute hell.Most people that I know who went through graduate school (self included) found it very stressful and often not enjoyable at the end. Even with a stipend, you are giving up years of your life and a normal salary ....I'd only do it if you love the subject matter.

Also,OP, you don't see it now but ...you are doing really, really well if you are hitting those numbers and getting callbacks for interviews. I really believe that the anxiety is helpful in this case, because you may study things and learn...you obviously learned something, whether it be packaging your CV/resume/cover letter etc along with your background.

Here are some things that I would suggest rather than go on with grad school, tailor it to your life and situation:

• Take any job for money in the mean time(this sounds horrible, but I've done this as I'm waiting for a regular job- walk away later if you need to, but you will need some $ coming in now). Also, make contingency plans for where to live, how to come up with $, etc. I'm sure that you have already thought of this, but knowing that you can bring in a certain amt of $ as you look for a better job helps reduce the anxiety. You may want to mention to your advisors and other faculty at your university if they know of any jobs/part time jobs (you may be the perfect research assistant as you look for another job).
• Prepare for interviews. When I applied for faculty jobs years ago, I actually looked up forums to prepare what the interview would be like and to look up possible questions. I even googled faculty interview questions and wrote out my answers, reviewed etc. The reason for this was that so I would come across as calm during the interview (no "deer in the headlight" responses). I also practiced with people -- anyone, a group of people. Present your research. Look at them in the eye. (Okay you may not have this problem, but the idea was to not appear anxious/and to think through possible scenarios). Perhaps practice and some of your partner's friends. Write down any questions that you are asked at interviews - certain career tracks tend to ask the same ones over and over again.
• Since you are cold calling (and kudos on that by the way), either google or go to libraries and get lists of professional companies that you want to work for. Send your CV out to them (I've gotten projects this way, and I've known people who have gotten jobs this way ..the idea is that your CV/resume appears when they are busy/happen to need someone/don't have time to look but voila, here is a resume that fits their needs).
• Volunteer in a place that you want to work, even a few hours a week (learn some of the job skills that you need.
• Find job hunting groups in your area/make connections there.

OP, you mention your fear of being paralyzed with anxiety and not doing anything. I think that the reverse will happen. As you mention, you don't sleep now..USE the energy when you have it (look through job ads/prepare materials, etc.). It's the fear of not eating/working/etc that will drive you to action.

I don't see why you will be stuck at a job for years that you don't like. Because if you learn these skills now (how to find a job), you can do it again and again. You are already beating the odds, and it is just a numbers game - you will get a job.

Feel free to memail me if you think that I could help. I really have dealt with the anxiety part, looking for jobs/changing careers, and like I said, I went through grad school before.

posted by Wolfster at 8:45 PM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're thisclose to your master's then do stay in long enough to get that and then get out, which you sound like you're on track to do.

Also, do take advantage of all the options open to you for professional development. Does your university have a teaching certificate for grad students? Are there other skills workshops that you can get for free? If there are any Mitacs workshops near you, take all of them, as they're free to you right now.

If the conversation isn't too awkward, do talk to your faculty supervisor and see if s/he has any other useful advice for you. If you're feeling anxious but actually doing really well, your supervisor may want the opportunity to tell you that. (Reread your application to grad school. Is any of what you wrote still true for where you are right now?)

Grad school can be lonely. Get involved with your departmental caucus and your grad student society. Don't look at volunteering just for the job opportunities (though it helps) — it's also a really good way to meet other grad students in other departments, if you pick the right volunteer activities.

Get off the wine and get to therapy and check with your doctor as well. You may need actual medication, not self-medication.
posted by wenat at 9:13 PM on June 17, 2012

What kind of jobs are you applying for? If they're very competitive, then they're probably "good" jobs, but remember, you don't have to take a job in your field. You're 25 - it's ok to do something that will allow you to tread water for a while - could be working in a coffee shop, could be temping, could be a call center. Yes, the economy sucks, but luckily it sounds like you do have some work experience, so that will help.

That said, if you are really close to finishing your MA, then I think it's worthwhile to stay and finish that, but you owe it to yourself to do so as quickly/efficiently as possible.
posted by lunasol at 9:41 PM on June 17, 2012

Of the career options you're considering (including staying in school), which of these has the most promise for offering you immediate access to high quality mental healthcare (that is, regular therapy and medication) over the medium/long term?

My advice would be to make that option your priority above everything else. You're in a bad place health-wise, and you need to work on healing *before* you're ready to make reasonable judgments about anything: your life, your abilities, even grad school itself. If you've got a diagnose, then recognize how mental health conditions cloud the ability to see things accurately.

I work regularly with grad students who struggle with similar issues, and yet we in the academic crowd, despite our gifts for logic, analysis, and mental agility, seem to have the most trouble bridging the Cartesian mind/body divide, which we so easily critique in theory, when it comes to our own lives in practice. Until you get a handle on your health through direct intervention and effort any career/lifestyle satisfying will likely provoke undue anxiety. And you run the risk of giving up something (grad school) where with good health you might eventually thrive. Make your choices accordingly.

Be well.
posted by 5Q7 at 10:04 PM on June 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Take your MA and run. But, yes, please focus on your health too.
posted by mleigh at 12:34 AM on June 18, 2012

I was in a similar situation a few years ago....I guess when I was about your age.

After several years of bouncing from lab to lab with inconclusive research (the profs. at my college in the field I wanted were unfortunately a little more used to post-docs), I decided to take the M.S. and walk.

Have I regretted not sticking with it? Yes, sometimes. But I don't regret it more often - I'm financially secure enough to buy a house, get a dog. I have enough time to work on art projects that are relaxing, instead of worrying about research and grant proposals constantly.

So if you're not having fun, or the material doesn't excite you more than it depresses you, definitely leave. You can even frame it as a break. I currently teach first-year students aiming for a PhD, and some are older than me - so it's not like the ability to get a PhD will "expire".

How do you get over the fear of the unknown? Someone once said to me, "whatever choice you make - guess what, there will probably have been a better choice....but there will also be a million WORSE choices!" I always ask myself, "who's gonna die if I make the wrong decision?" Usually the answer is "no one" - so why am I stressing so hard about it.

In the meantime look for jobs that are related to your field (adjunct teaching?. I would assume that in addition to cold-calling you're actually looking for actively employing companies? I was hearing the other day that (in my state at least) it's not so much there's a lack of jobs but there's a lack of people qualified to do the jobs available - and sometimes the "qualifications" are startlingly simply - ability to listen, follow directions, etc. Do your absolute best with all your work submitted - triple-check your applications for typos. When you enter an interview again, think - "who's going to die if I don't get this job?" loan interest may pile up and you might have to live on ramen, but who's going to *die*? I approach my interviews this way and I've landed every job I've interviewed for (well, except for one where I told them mid-interview I was no longer interested in the position based on their answer to a question....).

Also in the meantime, stop drinking wine to fall asleep. Talk to your doctor about medications for anxiety and sleep assistance if necessary. An hour before bedtime write in a notebook how you're feeling, and also what you need to do tomorrow. Sometimes getting everything I need to think about tomorrow written on paper let's my brain relax - now that it's written down I don't have to worry about remembering it. Doesn't work 100% of the time, but it helps.

Good luck!
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 1:01 AM on June 18, 2012

But I think I’m pretty bad at interviewing... I haven’t sent out that many resumes... I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.

Each of those three things is fixable. You can practice and improve your interview techniques, you can certainly send out more resumes, and you can treat your AD very effectively with therapy and meds.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:00 AM on June 18, 2012

Ah, I can relate! I agree that you should get out. If you're really worried about the loan/job issue, go back for the fall semester while you get your house in order. Have you done any TAing yet? If so, set yourself up for tutoring. Either print some posters and do it on your own or, closer to September, find a tutoring business and get hired. I know it's not what you'd want to do, but it's an easy way to get some cash flow and leaves you time for looking for a full-time job.

And you don't need to be diagnosed with anxiety to worry about the state of the economy. You have every reason to be worried - we all do! Just don't let it take over your life. It sounds like you're in a strong position right now. You will be fine.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:19 AM on June 18, 2012

When it comes to looking for work, my advice is to consider any and all jobs. A few years ago I found myself in a strange city and in need of work immediately and within two weeks I was suddenly a youth care worker at a group home for troubled teens. I have zero experience or training in this field and I was totally scared, but I was good at it and it turned out to be the most rewarding job I've ever had.

Likewise, my best friend (philosophy degree) needed a job and got the first one he could find in a call centre for a major bank. Not what he dreamed he'd be doing, but we all need a paycheque. Skip ahead a couple years and he's a branch manager and loving it. I'm not saying that you need to get into youth work or banking, but just keep in mind that just because you take a job for the paycheque doesn't mean that it can't turn into an interesting and rewarding job.
posted by fso at 4:51 AM on June 18, 2012

People telling the OP to consider any and all jobs: for all practical purposes, returning to the PhD program *is* a job, it will pay for rent, food, and effectively, the interest on student loans.

What I wonder is whether, if you stop thinking of your PhD program as an academic, end-driven program, and start thinking of it as a job that you have to show up at to make the stipend, whether you'll be able to hang in there long enough to find something better.

If you know you're on your way out, you don't need to be a networking researching superstar. Do what you need to do to stay in, and use your time to keep looking for another job, relieved of the anxiety of wondering where your next month's rent is coming from.

Your question needs to be not whether you like your PhD program as a career oriented track, but whether you like it better than being unemployed.

If the answer is no, if it's more soul-killing and draining on your ability to find other work than being unemployed would be, then you need to drop out. If it's yes, then don't feel bad about using it as a job-for-now and looking out for the next thing.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:02 AM on June 18, 2012

You are unhappy with the work, the job market stinks, and the money is not very good - and you are wondering if you should continue.

Seems like a no-brainer to me. Leave.

Look for a temporary job to hold you over, and then start a longer term career shift plan.
posted by Flood at 6:53 AM on June 18, 2012

Leave. You don't sound happy in your PhD program, and it's only going to get worse.

People telling the OP to consider any and all jobs: for all practical purposes, returning to the PhD program *is* a job, it will pay for rent, food, and effectively, the interest on student loans.

Well, yes, but it's an incredibly demanding job that pays next to nothing. Seriously, the OP would be better off working in retail - same money, but won't destroy your soul in the process.

OP, you may not be good at interviewing right now. But just by having interviews, you are getting better. The more you have, the easier it gets, and eventually you will get a job offer. I have also struggled with anxiety, especially in interviewing situations. But when I was looking for a job in a new city I ended up with quite a few interviews, and eventually I got to the point where I actually feel like I'm not *terrible* at it.... and it eventually resulted in several job offers. Hang in there and keep at it. It actually sounds like you're doing great under the circumstances!
posted by barnoley at 7:11 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get your MA and get out.

Two things. It sounds like you've got a great resume, so there's that. Have you thought about coaching for interviews? Have someone role play with you so you feel comfortable in that setting. Do it for phone interviews as well as in person interviews.

The other thing, for heaven's sake get on some meds! They freaking changed my life! Sure, I still have anxiety, but what used to be at 11 is now at a manageable 2.

Depression and anxiety will totally screw you up in school, so bag it.

All transitions are difficult, moving into the world of work may not be any easier, be prepared for that.

As for staying in school for the money, even two crap jobs can earn you $20k per year, and I'd rather do that than stay in school where I'm unhappy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2012

I am also in a similar position to you but I have 7 years of school under my belt but only a diploma to show for it...in a field that I'm uninterested in. I think it's important to finish what you've set out to do, which is an MA and then give yourself a new opportunity to explore. That may cause some anxiety, but you're going to have to jump into the working world eventually, so why not give it a try now?

I worked for a few years before returning to school again and those years really helped me get a more clear perspective on life. You may decide to return to school one day, but maybe right now you just need a new spark in life. Give yourself the chance to discover something new. Maybe even apply for jobs that you might not normally consider...and you never know, you might just unexpectedly find something that you really enjoy. That's actually how I discovered what I'm passionate about. Also, have faith that the magic of happenstance will play a part in how your life will unravel.
posted by jpritcha at 8:49 PM on June 18, 2012

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