Danger, Will Robinson
December 27, 2012 6:07 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I have what others would consider "natural gifts," and that I may be in the process of squandering them. Help me stay/get on track.

I'm trying to get advice on making the things in my life work in a long-term way, and, importantly, work in a way I'm okay wiith. I'm about to leave a Ph.D. program in the ABD stage, because the work makes me miserable and I have no love for academia. I like to write, but I hate academic writing. I also want to move to New York, because I have family there and because I really love the city, having spent about a total of a year there, if all my brief trips are taken into account. My little brother - a career food industry worker on an upward trajectory - can get me a decent bartending/serving job with his restaurant group, and I do really enjoy my minimal experience in the restaurant industry. I like this prospect, but it's very frightening, and a number of concerns come up:

1) money to move. I have credit card debt (not astronomical levels, but not small amounts either) and very little savings. I can get family to cosign on a lease, so I will be able to rent, but it's going to be tricky.

2) Is changing my career track at this point a stupid idea? It also feels stupid to stay in academia: I don't feel like a strong candidate in the humanities track, and I don't feel like I want to be a strong candidate. I want to live in a big city, expecially NY, and go out, and live a life.

3) I hate to admit it, but I also want a longish-term relationship at some point. I've got one divorce behind me, and since then, I've been striking out pretty consistently (lots of brief flings; nothing lasting). I feel like having a career is a necessity, at least for all of the people I've actually been interested in. I.e., I wouldn't mind gigging and working waged, shift-work until my health gives out, but I also tend to be attracted - in a lasting way - to the kind of people who do mind.

4) My own head. I've been diagnosed with ADD and depression. I can get excited about something, put a huge amount of energy into it, then fall into a depressive or addictive lapse and let it all go to shit. I can keep up energy for a while, but I also get discouraged easily. I worry that, as I get older and older, the world will be less and less forgiving toward these lapses.

I know there's no definitive answer, but some guidance would help. Also, I could use practical advice on moving to NYC.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
How long have you disliked academia, and when was the last time you had a non-academia-related job? I don't think there's ever a wrong time to change career tracks as long as you're about 75% sure (or more) that it's not for you. Feel free to leave, but don't burn bridges if you don't have to. Maintain your relationships and keep in touch with people just in case you have second thoughts in the future. Keeping connections won't hurt.

I'd say focus on making your career change right now, dealing with your financial situation second (getting rid of that credit card debt), and THEN think about your theoretical long-term relationship partner later. You have no idea who your next long-term partner is, so don't make career decisions on the basis of that. And isn't a partner that doesn't approve of your career choices going to be a deal breaker anyway? Make your major life decisions for yourself first, and find a partner that fits it later/along the way.
posted by Hawk V at 6:20 PM on December 27, 2012

And don't worry about your "natural gifts" if using them in this particular way is making you miserable. Focus on what will make you happy and healthy.
posted by Hawk V at 6:22 PM on December 27, 2012

My gut instinct on the "should I stay in academia when I am miserable" part says flee while you can. Completing a dissertation isn't going to make you less miserable, and neither are the prospects of finding a job in academia afterwards. And, in a field you already feel lackluster about. If you don't think you'd regret leaving academia, even without the full PhD under your belt, then plan to leave. You have the rest of your life to live, and so many options to explore.

My own experience: I stayed in a three-semester master's program, and although I still liked the idea of working in the field at the end of it, it was bad timing. I didn't have the time, energy, or excitement to pursue a career in the field. With 20/20 hindsight, I could now totally see that I shouldn't have gone into that program; I'm not employed in that field today, nor do I plan to be. However, also with hindsight, I think that just having the master's degree listed on my resume helped me land my [current] unrelated job. So now I have a bunch of student debt from a degree I got ten years ago in a field only barely tangential to my original field of study.

So, maybe just having the title of PhD (ABD) on your resume will make your resume stand out from others, in future fields of employment that aren't looking at resumes with a particular eye toward academia?

Anyway, best of luck with all of the other doors you will open in your future.
posted by not_on_display at 6:29 PM on December 27, 2012

You don't mention what area your "natural gifts" are in--but apparently you're in a humanities program and you like to write? Keep in mind that New York has a lot of culture. If you're a writer, you can find other writers, writing groups, etc. Same thing goes for any other art, or even history or other social-sciencey stuff. So you might wind up better off in NY even from the using-your-natural-gifts point of view.
posted by equalpants at 6:44 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I left my Ph.D program at the same stage, and it was the best decision I ever made. However, do whatever paperwork or language tests or whatever you'll need to get your terminal Master's degree.

It's not squandering anything not to add yourself to the ranks of unemployed and underemployed English professors.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:46 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Natural gifts? Not apparent in your question.

If they exist, aiming them at a bartending job seems naturally unwise, in a truly gifted fashion. New York or not, you do realize bartending is less a career path then something one does when one has no gifts, natural or otherwise?

ABD's are a dime a dozen. If you are that far along, and truly are 'naturally gifted' in some manner, might you not want to employ that natural wealth to finish up something you started. At the very least, Mr. Bartender is less impressive than Dr. Bartender.

Here's the real truth, dear man... if you don't finish, you didn't go. Stopping at mile 18 of a marathon means nothing other than you are a quitter or a poor planner. Humanities is harder than it looks, and I (along with many others), defer to folks who have managed to contribute to it with a Ph.D. Natural gifts had nothing to do with you being in the program. Pursuing it did. Hard work did. Luck did not.

Follow through for a little while longer is superior, IMO, to regret forever.

Good luck. It gets really hard at Mile 18 but Mile 26.2 feels great in a way you can't imagine.
posted by FauxScot at 7:23 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

money to move. I have credit card debt (not astronomical levels, but not small amounts either) and very little savings. I can get family to cosign on a lease, so I will be able to rent, but it's going to be tricky.

If you can't afford to move, and already have a debt, I think you should try to get to a point where you don't need family members to bail you out - whether that means finishing the PHD, or quitting the PHD and saving up some cash working in your current locale.

I mean, if you're old enough to have a divorce and be in a phd, I think you're old enough to pay your way. If you really want it, saving that money to pay down debt - debt that will be hard to repay on bartender salary - and move will be a snap.

Forget about natural gifts, pfft. I feel like I've spent half my life swallowing that 'natural gifts' crap, and the other half trying to forget it, ignore it, and concentrate on what really matters. Labor Omnia Vincit, friend: Work conquers all.
posted by smoke at 8:06 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am going to take a wild flyer into the deep end and try to guess what is meant by natural gifts.

When I was in high school, I was approached by a scout for the Chicago Cubs. Parallel to that, I got an academic scholarship to a big state school to study my preferred field. I was torn between options -- academic scholarship versus Chicago Cubs! Wow! It felt like heady stuff. I talked to some people, and I had a final conversation with the scout. I told him my dilemma and he simply laughed. "Go to college, kid," he said. And he was right. I would've wasted a few years being a minor league nobody. Instead, I got my degree and have enjoyed a good life.

The point being...sometimes we create fantasies that don't really exist. The scout was doing nothing more than trying to round up as many big physical left-handers as he could find. Then the franchise would throw them all in a minor league pot to see who developed and shuck away the rest. He certainly was not promising me a path to the Major Leagues. But in my brief delusions, I felt as if I had "natural gifts" as a baseball player. After all, no one else I knew had been contacted by the Cubs! Yet...he was simply rustling up big left-handers with no other thought as to what made me tick as a person.

So consider the source of who has complimented your abilities. People can be well-meaning with their encouragement. But being the noteworthy left-hander in a small pond is meaningless when you are thrown into a bigger pond filled with other noteworthy left-handers. Some other "inner light/strength" has to guide you at that point.

Anyway, probably totally off-topic, but I was only trying to address the folly of relying too much on other people's perceptions of your "natural gifts".
posted by 99percentfake at 8:12 PM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

I want to live in a big city, expecially NY, and go out, and live a life.

You know, normally I'm one to say - go forth, do what makes you happy - but this question is not going to be met with this answer.

I often have this sudden urge to move (whether to the city or to the beach, it fluctuates considerably) as this will be the thing that will solve everything.

The problem is that I almost always experience it when I'm massively stressed out and/or depressed. And then when I'm less stressed or depressed, it subsides and I realise things are okay where I am. I'm not saying this is you - I'm just saying that your line above reminded me of exactly what I say to myself every now and then when I'm stressed/depressed. Going somewhere else will fix everything. Making big changes will fix everything. If only I could do this. Once I do this everything will be perfect. And it's the stress talking and not necessarily something that is real and beneficial to me and my life.

So - is there any way at all that you can translate your PhD into something not in academia and finish it just so that you can? If you must quit your PhD - is there any work you can take on where you are to finance your moving to NY? And lastly, are you getting actual ongoing treatment for your ADD/depression?

I would just be careful about making decisions that are based on an other fantasy world (an escape) rather than actual reality. Because it sounds like moving to NY will be as difficult as finishing your PhD/staying where you are - just in a different way - you need to work out which one you will be more comfortable dealing with.
posted by heyjude at 10:37 PM on December 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

My oldest brother once gave me some sound advice about quitting, "Never quit a thing because it is hard. Quit if it isn't taking you where you want to go, but not because it is hard."

There is more and more evidence that there are no natural gifts, only skills developed through deliberate practice (see The Talent Code, and Talent Is Overrated for a good start.)

The things you think of as natural gifts are areas you have been willing to spend time improving all on your own. That's a pretty good indicator of where your deep-seated interests lie.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:13 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

How much longer until the dissertation's finished? Is it not started at all? And how much will it cost you?

If you're looking at a fully-funded year of work, there is no reason not to stay and do it. If you're looking at plunking down $20,000 and you're never going to use that doctorate, that's a different story. Can you wrap up with a Master's at the least? Otherwise you've wasted a lot of time and possibly money.

I think every graduate student dreams of ditching academia and going to live their life by the ABD stage. At that point in the process the academic world feels like a big pile of shit and the outside world is bright and shiny and full of nights where you can go out without feeling crushed by guilt for not working. If this is the basis of your reason for quitting it's not a good reason.
posted by schroedinger at 11:19 PM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

I was always the sort of person who started something excited and then my interest dwindled (immediately) in the face of the reality of the endeavor. I started every semester thrilled to pick my courses, thrilled to read my text books, thrilled to take notes and do homework, and thrilled to prep for tests and ace all the things. And about two weeks in, I would completely lose interest and go find something else to amuse myself. I always managed to make it out, performing on the upper side of "mediocre" (occasionally on the lower side of "successful"), while putting in the very minimum effort absolutely necessary to do so. But I never excelled. And as I was putting in that minimum effort, I would set my sights on some other adventurous horizon.

Amusingly, the things I've accomplished have been the things I did while I was making other plans. While ignoring all my coursework in high school, I managed to become a rather accomplished classical musician. But that was my diversion, not my avocation and so my abilities stalled out somewhere near "talented amateur and bizarrely speedy autodidact." So while I was accepted as a music major in college, it took about a semester for me to abandon that in the face of still competition and search for my "true" calling. While I was flitting from school to school, looking for a major and trying to decide what to be when I grew up, I discovered I had an aptitude for political science. While normal people might then dedicate themselves to the study of political science, I just took a bunch of the classes because I enjoyed them sufficiently and because I didn't have to work very hard for decent grades and it therefore permitted me the opportunity to contemplate whatever other horizons there might be. Suddenly, I managed to major in political science and the horizon became clearer: law school - which I then hated and regretted almost immediately and instead focused on cultivating a relationship. Guess what? Didn't work.

The fact is that you can only hop from one "boring" thing to another "boring" thing for so long. The platforms get wobblier. And as you are soaring, Mario-like, through the air, your aim gets poorer and poorer and your legs get tired. And your resolve to complete things gets weaker and weaker, and eventually you land on a platform that isn't at all stable, and you try to leap to something else when suddenly the platform falls away beneath your feet before you've managed to get a good lift-off. You eventually crash when you live like this.

You seem to have some heavily romanticized ideas about what New York will bring you, which is a true sign to me that it is probably not what is best for you. You probably can't see it, but what you're essentially suggesting is that you'd like to move from a highly-skilled academic program with its attendant opportunities to hourly wage slavery. If someone said "I would love to go from eating caviar all day to eating dog food!" you'd look at them like they'd just gone insane. But the problem is that the romanticization that goes along with our condition (possibly properly termed "that awful combination of smart, anxious and demanding") prevents you from seeing that as the crazy statement that it is. Instead you get all huffy and say you never liked caviar anyway. And what's so wrong with dog food, the Highly Misunderstood Delicacy.

When I stopped running and dug my heels in, and stopped pretending that there was something magical waiting for me over the rainbow, things did get better. A lot better.

Do you have an advisor? Have you spoken to your advisor frankly about your chances of successfully finishing this PhD? Ultimately, this may not be your decision to make. You really need to take a good long look at what your options are right now before you start making other plans.
posted by jph at 7:45 AM on December 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

Reading your question I was all set to say, go for it! But then I got the the part about ADD, excitement, and depression. Are you in treatment for any of that? Do you feel like it's successful? Because otherwise I think this may be the excitement part of your roller coaster of excitement and depression. And until it's treated and you feel like you've got a reasonable handle on things, I think you may not be able to make a better go of it somewhere else or in another field; these problems will travel with you. Best of luck in feeling better all of the time.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:35 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to talk to an advisor and your department head about your decision. Find out if you can get a Masters instead of a Doctorate. At least then you have something tangible.

Husbunny dropped out of two Ph.D programs, but he wasn't doing it to work at a low-skill job. In each case he had a plan to go and do something else. (Nursing was one, he did that for a decade, then he left the Actuarial Science program to become an actuary.)

You sound like you need a break. It's easy to become overwhelmed, especially as you start on your dissertation. See if you can take a semester off, go be a Bartender in your area now, then you can see how much it sucks and you can have renewed interest in your degree. Or you won't.

What you can't do (and I'm insisting on it) is drop out of school with no plan for gainful employment. Bartending ain't it. I mean a real, grown up job.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:53 AM on December 28, 2012

It sounds to me like you've already decided that life in academia is not for you, so I think it's really weird that people here are suggesting that you finish your PhD. Chances are you aren't funded for enough years to complete a project in which you're not really invested in the first place, so why stay and go into debt for a degree that you're never going to use, especially if it's making you miserable and depressed and generally unhealthy?

Yesterday my mom told me about a student of hers who was a prison guard, until he came home one day and told his wife, "If I stay in this job I'm going to end up killing myself." I bet that if you were a prison guard instead of an ABD people here would be nothing but supportive of your decision to change career tracks, even if it meant taking a pay cut. And there's a whole hell of a lot more openings out there for prison guards than PhDs.

If you know that this isn't the right path for you, you shouldn't feel any qualms about leaving it. Sometimes the things that you thought would make you happy don't. Sometimes the things that you never would have thought would make you happy do. Life is weird and twisty that way.

Definitely talk to your advisor, and tell him/her that you're struggling with depression and need to take a leave to work on yourself. Then take a LOA. Go work in New York, experiment and try and see if you can put together a life there that will bring you fulfillment.

Maybe once you've gotten yourself into a happier place, you'll be able to plan out the next stage of your life. But this is not possible to do when you're really depressed. Take some pressure off of yourself, and things will become clearer as you regain some of your confidence and verve.

And feel free to PM me if you like. We're in eerily similar situations.
posted by duvatney at 6:14 PM on December 28, 2012

A few questions. Can you take a leave of absence for a year before quitting your program? Can you move to NYC and remain in your program "in absentia"? How much work remains to be done on your thesis? Have you had a serious talk with your advisor about what will get you out with a PhD? Are you closer to year 2, or year 5? Does your university have career services and have you used them? I would not finish just to avoid being labeled a "quitter" but if you are sort of within finishing distance it may be worth the bump on your CV and the expanded options to grind through it.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:56 PM on December 29, 2012

Life is too short to stay with something that makes you absolutely miserable.
posted by Dansaman at 10:22 PM on December 30, 2012

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