P.hD. problems
January 28, 2013 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Everyone says "get out while you can!" RE: Ph.D.s in the humanities. But really, what else can I do? Difficulty level: somewhat debilitating emotional dysregulation & student debt. Snowflakes inside.

I have a B.A. and an M.A. in English, both from great institutions. My oral exams are coming up in a few months. I hate what I am doing. Other skills? A tiny bit of experience at literary magazines, a good deal of administrative experience (now all in the distant past).

Reasons I haven't left: I have $40,000 in student debt that is happily in forbearance for my entire Ph.D. If I left, I would immediately need a (somewhat lucrative) job. I've already used the 6 months of "free" forbearance or whatever that is. I have enough in savings to live in my city for maybe one month.

I also have pretty poor job-having skills, insofar as my emotional dysregulation problems are intermittently pretty rough. (My symptoms haven't responded very well to any of the medicines I've tried with my very smart, wonderful psychiatrist, but we keep tweaking and tweaking. For the record, am in regular (CBT) therapy, have done a DBT skills workshop, do yoga and meditate, etc.). In short, there are many days when I feel too anxious/sad to get anything done. In grad school, this is sort of acceptable behavior! In real jobs, I don't think it is!

So, really, what am I even capable of doing?

tl;dr What does one do with limited practical skills, massive student debt, and little ability to show up for work, if work is somewhere you have to actually physically be?
posted by munyeca to Work & Money (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, this is harsh, but if you are so mentally unwell you can't work "many days", you need to consider applying for disability benefits. You may be able to have some of your student loans discharged for disability.
If you hate what you are doing now, you are going to hate it much more during the dissertation process, and it is going to get harder, not easier, to regulate your emotional state. You are going to be faced with a horrifying academic job market if you finish, or the same situation you're presently in but with principalized interest if you don't.
tl;dr The days when you could permanently avoid the Real World by pursuing a PhD are long gone.
posted by gingerest at 4:01 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

How long have you hated your PhD program? Did you want to leave before your orals preparation started, or is this new? If it's pretty new (or, actually, even if it's not), I'd say maybe look into moving your orals to the fall semester to ease some of the pressure to figure this out RIGHTNOW and buy yourself some more time to figure out what you want (these things are often much more flexible than you might think, but of course your program may vary). The start of summer would be a good deadline to give yourself for putting a plan in place. If you still want to leave then, you can start your escape plan over the summer, and if you find that you'd rather see your degree through, you'll still have time to crack down before orals.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:08 PM on January 28, 2013

In short, there are many days when I feel too anxious/sad to get anything done. In grad school, this is sort of acceptable behavior! In real jobs, I don't think it is!

Yes but for many people, "real jobs" are significantly less likely to be the sort of environment that is conducive to being anxious and sad. You don't have long papers to write and preparing for classes and hundreds of pages to read when you get home at the end of the day. In many jobs you work eight hours and you're done and the schedule is fairly predictable and regular, and it's not isolating like sitting at home/in the library working by yourself all the time.

Apply for jobs, why not? Why don't you give yourself credit for being able to show up for work? I was so miserable in graduate school that I was advised to consider trying for disability due to depression/anxiety stuff and I didn't think I had any skills or could handle a regular job. 95% of this problem was that I hated graduate school and needed to remove myself from that environment. Also eat fresh, healthy food, cut the caffeine, get exercise regularly (walking is fine), sleep normal hours, and give yourself a break. Part of the mentality of these humanities grad programs is that if you don't finish, you should be ashamed for not being good enough and you're not qualified for anything else.. but it's just a peculiar, insular world full of very smart people.. it's hard to see outside of it. Once you are outside of it you'll realize that you have plenty of useful skills and lots of opportunities, it's only this one particular world that's not a good fit for you. And that's fine.

You might have to just trade off the privilege of spending your days with super interesting arts and literature geeks in favor of a mainstream/mundane work environment, and get your culture on the evenings and weekends. Plus, out of the dedicated, brilliant people I knew who finished their PhDs in the field, from over a dozen, I honestly only think two or three landed a tenure-track job. They were all qualified, the jobs weren't there. Why not get out ASAP if you hate it? That student debt is only getting larger the longer you stay in the program. People who love it and finish the PhD are highly likely to find themselves in the same situation as yours, except with more years out of the job market and more debt, if they borrowed money.

$40,000 is not that much student debt. It's not nothing but many people have over $100K these days. Payments are going to cost you about $400/month I believe. With a salaried job and living frugally that's definitely affordable; if you live in an expensive area just get roommates. Make bigger payments once you have enough salary to afford it. I bet you could pay it off in 7-8 years.. I had around that much & could've paid in that timeframe if I weren't so bad about spending on expensive clothes and going out.
posted by citron at 4:47 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Are you depressed? You sound depressed. If so, grad school is the last place you should be.

The loan thing is just something you're telling yourself to keep from cutting the cord.

Look into public service work and income-based repayment plans on the loans. It doesn't have to be forever, but if you stick with it for 10 years, you can get the balance of your loans forgiven. And your payments will be indexed to your income. $40k is nothing. Do the research on IBR and work the calculators. You'll be shocked at how low your payments are. Before you leave grad school, meet with counseling services and see if they can set you up with a therapist who works on a sliding scale. And start exercising, maybe? Anything to manage stress and get out of your head.

There is no reason to stay in grad school if you're unhappy. In fact, for people who are depressed or aimless, grad school provides a toxic mixture of high expectations and low structure. Get out, clear your head, and you'll feel much better.
posted by R. Schlock at 4:53 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't comment on your CBT issues, but I can talk a bit about making a transition from being an English PhD to working outside of the academy. In my case, I finished my PhD, did the sessional thing for a while, published a bit, but realized I wasn't willing to move to just anywhere to pursue an academic opportunity at any old university. I also decided that having a steady income throughout the entire year, with a reasonable level of confidence that I'd still have that income the following year, was worth more to me than living the academic life (which I did actually enjoy in many ways). I started to look for non-academic work and now do (very very non-literary) research for a private firm that pays me a decent wage, offers me a great benefits package, lets me learn a lot of new stuff all the time, and permits me to work with some fantastic people who I look forward to seeing each day.


It isn't that you don't have any skills. Rather, it is that you don't know (and likely have never been taught) how to describe those skills in ways that suggest value to a non-academic employer.

Look. Grad school messes with your self-worth. The entire system is built on critique. There's no such thing as a completed chapter. Even if you defend your dissertation successfully, you'll come out with a list an arm's length long of revisions you should make for "the book." You're constantly being compared to the very best and brightest society has to offer. Sure, you are one of them, but you're competing at a very, very high level in grad school--a sample that is hardly representative of the general population. It's going to skew your sense of self-worth.

The fact is, though, that you probably do have a lot of very strong skills that you are underestimating because you are so used to this kind of environment. You've completed projects and "deliverables." You've got good analytic skills. If you are in grad school, you probably have a strong track record of exceptional performance and an excellent work ethic. These are all very soft, abstract abilities, but ones that with some careful thought and good guidance you can probably use as the basis to build a strong skills-based resume.

I maintain a modest list of resources that offer some suggestions; memail me and I'd be happy to forward it to you. In the meantime, I suggest you start reading books not about finding entry level jobs but about career change, because that is probably closer to what you are doing. For a very jaded approach to finding a job, check out the e-book sold here which gives you some practical advice. Don't listen to the author's very bitter tone, though, or expect his experience to be typical. Join Versatile PhD and ask some questions in their (generally very helpful) forum. Daydream about what you like to do. What is about academia that drew you in? Is it the research? The teaching? Try to identify jobs that speak to those passions. Check out the "Mac10Professional" series of seminars on Youtube, produced by McMaster University. Use LinkedIn and find people with similar degree backgrounds and check out the variety of jobs that they hold.

Advanced degrees in the humanities are not worthless. They are, however, very poorly marketed. You are not unskilled. You just don't yet have the knowledge you'll need to make the transition into what can be a very fulfilling career that doesn't involve getting jerked around the sessional track for a few years in order to buy a lottery ticket with odds that are getting worse with each passing job hunt season.

There's no guarantees either way. I know people who have left academia and are doing very well in "alt-ac" careers. Others work in jobs like mine. Others have gone into communications type jobs, or do editing work. But then I know at least one person who left the PhD after a year, couldn't find anything, and is now working a retail job she hates. I do think you can do a lot to position yourself successfully to maximize your chances, or at least draw more attention to you than the other humanities PhDs who don't know how to market themselves are getting. That's a decent first step.

Anyway, feel free to MeMail me if you have questions.
posted by synecdoche at 5:04 PM on January 28, 2013 [19 favorites]

Hmm, that is a tough one. A few thoughts:

Although you can't permanently avoid the Real World by hiding out in a Ph.D. program, and I don't recommend lingering for years and years, in some ways grad school is a good place to sit tight while you figure out your next move. If you have health care and some fellowship support or teaching income through your program, and it's not putting you further in debt every semester, it may be worth going through with orals and sticking around for another year.

Have you tried consulting with the career services office at your current university (or even at your previous institutions, if they have outstanding services for alumni)? There might even be a career counselor who specializes in helping to place Ph.D. students in non-academic jobs. That was the case where I went to grad school, and I'm glad I took advantage of the service. A good career counselor can help you think around problems like needing a flexible schedule.

I also recommend the book "So What Are You Going to Do with That?". And on preview, please take to heart everything synecdoche says about not undervaluing your skills. You have to be a very capable person to have gotten where you are. The skills that can get you into a Ph.D. program are also highly valued in other professional contexts, even if they are talked about differently. Being able to analyze or synthesize information and write clearly are fundamental skills for a lot of white collar jobs. The tricky part is finding a way to make the transition to a new domain of field-specific knowledge.

Are you doing paid work, other than teaching, while in grad school? Picking up part-time jobs within the university while I was still in grad school really helped me figure out what kind of work I liked, what I was good at, and where I could go with it next. The varied work experience also helped me fill out a resume.

I briefly browsed through your commenting history and it sounds like your mental health challenges are not entirely situational—in other words, it sounds like a fair assumption that you will have mental health needs to accommodate even after leaving grad school. Considering this, and looking back at the above-the-fold part of your question, I wonder if you might get some good answers by posting another AskMe about jobs that are good for someone who needs a schedule to flex around episodes of ill health. The way the current question is framed, I think you'll mainly get people with grad school experience looking at it, but there may be mefites with relevant suggestions who did not go to grad school.
posted by Orinda at 5:18 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you done any grant writing? That's a valuable skill for all kinds of foundations and nonprofits.

A good friend of mine recently finished a humanities PhD and I have to say, the entire time I was absolutely boggled that she could get up the motivation to keep doing it, day after day, when a regular job would have paid more money and yielded more intangible benefits as well (e.g. structure; achievable tasks and deadlines on a short, regular timeline; meeting professional people (the stories she told me about her professors were hair-raisingly unprofessional, and this was in an Ivy); and the self-respect that paid work tends to bring with it.) She finished it successfully and is now doing a job which she likes but she wouldn't have needed the degree for (grant writing, as it happens.)

All that is just to say that I think grad school sounds harder and less rewarding, in many ways, than a lot of desk jobs.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:44 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Look more into the repayment options for your student loans. Even if you've used up your forbearance, you can probably get some sort of income-based repayment plan — meaning that if you end up with a tiny paycheck at first, you'll have proportionally tiny loan payments.

You don't want to stay on a plan like that for a long time. But if you do it for a year while you work at some entry-level job and look for something better, it won't be a disaster.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:58 PM on January 28, 2013

Ditto look into loan repayment options. I bet you could get your monthly payments down to $200 or less under extended repayment with a decent interest rate.

Also ditto that grad school fosters depression and anxiety more than a real job does.
posted by salvia at 6:03 PM on January 28, 2013

Also, on the "Which is more depressing?" question: Well, it's complicated.

On the one hand, yes, grad school is horribly depressing and demoralizing in many deep and insidious ways.

On the other hand, grad school is depression-tolerant. By which I mean, they don't throw you out for acting grim or unfriendly or "unprofessional." They don't throw you out for working slowly, or for spending whole weeks in a state of paralyzing dread — as long as you spend the following week frantically catching up. If you have weeks or months when you can't work up the willpower to take a shower, and days or weeks when you can't even get out of bed... well, grad school will make those symptoms worse and worse, but in all likelihood it won't fire you over them. It probably won't even give you the equivalent of a bad performance review, especially in the humanities — not unless you do something really egregious or criminal. It needs your labor too much to actually spit you out. So it just hangs onto you indefinitely, gradually sucking your will to live.

But so if you want to get out, I think part of the answer is to accept that getting a shitty performance review isn't the end of the world — and in fact, if it comes down to it, getting fired isn't the end of the world. You learn from your mistakes (or learn to recognize a certain kind of crappy situation) and you find a new gig somewhere else and life goes on.

Right now you've made a deal: "Okay, I'll put up with this awful demoralizing bullshit as long as I never have to worry about being canned." Maybe you'd be better off making a different deal: "Actually, I'll accept a small risk of getting written up or fired as long as I can be free from this awful demoralizing bullshit."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 6:26 PM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think you should stay. Very strongly.

You are not going further into debt, right? Your loans are in forbearance. You are in a fun academic environment.

You won't get a tenure track job, but the PhD (especially from a good school) will make you look smart for many other types of jobs.

I'd suggest you sit tight, finish the PhD, and work on developing some other valuable skills in the meantime: web design, work with your hands, whatever you can do. You have a few years to become the only person who is an humanities PhD... and a yoga instructor or technical writing expert or specialist in new business development (or whatever). This will suit you well once you graduate.
posted by 3491again at 6:35 PM on January 28, 2013

3491again - Maybe you have never been in a PhD program, or maybe you were in a really unusual one, I don't know. But I gotta, say, for a huge proportion of PhD programs in the U.S. they are SO far from a "fun academic environment" that it is not even funny. The above posters are correct that many if not most of these programs are incredibly soul-sucking and self-esteem-destroying, even for folks who went in with really good mental health, much less for those who did not.

My advice to the poster is to talk seriously with your therapist (it is awesome that you already have one!) about whether you should stay or go. Consider seeing someone who sees a lot of grad students if yours doesn't, perhaps a counselor at your school, as I've found this type of input (from someone who truly knows the grad school experience) to be super helpful. And open up with your adviser, who is most likely to both know your situation and to have dealt with many, many students in similar situations. I think these are the types of resources that can help you decide what to do. If ultimately you do decide that you really hate all aspects of grad school, then I strongly suggest that you cut your losses and go out into the real world...you'll have to learn these skills eventually, so you may as well not waste time now. It's a different story if there are some aspects of grad school you love and others you hate - that's true of almost everyone and probably true of almost any job. But if you hate all of it - don't waste your life on this!
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:44 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

How long have you spent in "the real world"? I took a break in between undergrad and applying for graduate school, and found that the real work kicked the shit out of me in ways academia never did. To address what Now there are two... brought up, receiving a negative performance review at a Real World job was actually far more demoralizing for me than the always-working, inferiority-complex, who-the-fuck-am-I grind of academia. I also discovered that most jobs that involve dealing with the public will leave me feeling lacking as a human being. These were good things to know about myself in terms of what I like, what I don't like, what skills I have, and what skills I'd like to have.

What do you hate about your PhD program? What skills would you like to have? Have you ever identified a work environment that would use your skills while being low-pressure enough that anxiety and mood wouldn't be blaring every morning?

I know for a fact I hate working with the public, am not detail-oriented, need to be in my own "bubble" for most of the day (or I wake up saturated with dread)... but feel at home in my writing skills, can handle working in teams, don't mind paperwork, and actually enjoy teaching more than I thought I world. Etc., etc.

I know precisely what you mean about school being a haven for the mood-dysfunctional (it's "depression-tolerant," as someone above pointed out), and if there are things that you enjoy about it, I'd suggest riding it out. I've known people whose mood issues led them to be utterly unable to complete a program. If your mood issues are actually well-tolerated by academia, it might not be such a bad fit?

But yeah, a therapist and some "what color is your parachute"-type personality analysis might be helpful in identifying your comfort zones and desired areas of growth. It is possible to come up with a game plan, but the more you know the better. (And to be honest, it is a bad job market right now, and if you think you may have trouble finding a job then more planning is better than less. This is also dependent on how good your interpersonal/interview skills are.)
posted by stoneandstar at 8:20 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

PS: Here is a maybe helpful, maybe useless blog entry about the world of grad school vs. the world of shitty jobs, if you find yourself unable to find a non-shitty job. This is only one perspective and lots of people leave grad school only to find very pleasant careers, once they get past that first-job hump, but there is a certain amount of horrifying & painful unpleasantness in working for certain Real World types of people (especially the small-business-owning types of people). I think it's best to have a plan to find the type of job you really, truly want, because IMO it's better than dropping out to serve coffee or sell bank loans or make matches or whatever kind of "just any job at all" you might end up considering. This is hugely dependent on your personality, what you get out of grad school, and how much your mood disorder is affecting your overall vision of life.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:47 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

munyeca, have you considered using the degrees and skills you already have to become an online instructor? There are a number of "virtual" schools that accept Master's degrees, rather than doctorates, for their instructors, and that might be a way to get income while you are making up your mind. Consider something like elance, too. An online job can be really helpful from the "variable mental health" outlook.

Which, hey, I've been there, and sometimes having a job you have to go to can actually help with the emotional dysfunctional stuff. It gives you a compelling reason to force yourself to get out of bed every day, whereas with school you can sometimes let yourself slide just because it is easy to do so.

As far as staying in school or not, from a purely pragmatic standpoint a PhD may not be worth much to you on the job market. Labor projections for job growth in the U.S. suggest that although post-secondary education is a factor in the fastest growing job markets, a Master's degree is going to be slightly more beneficial statistically than a PhD.

What's more--prepare yourself for a shock here--a full 2/3 of the projected job growth industries don't require any post-secondary education at all (something more parents pushing their kids to take on student debt earning college degrees might want to consider!).

Now, you've gone to college to get that Master's, of course, and I suppose you could look at that as time wasted, BUT I'm a huge fan of education not just from a "what job will this get me" perspective but as an opportunity for personal growth.

But personal growth doesn't pay the bills, right? I hear you.

The odds are pretty good that whatever job you eventually end up with, those English degrees are only going to be a blip on the radar, not the huge determining factor you think they will. Many career paths take a meandering route rather than a straight line from point A to point B*. I'm sure you've heard the old saw about people having 6-7 job changes during their lifetimes, right? That's actually not true, or probably not-- the one longterm study I could find suggests that number is too low. Baby boomers averaged closer to 11 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 42.

I wouldn't sweat the English major. Even with a job that doesn't require a degree, if an employee is looking at two otherwise matched candidates, the degree'd person comes up smelling like roses. It's like a free pass; even if you really floundered and doubted yourself along the way, a college degree says you set your sights on a goal and mastered it (no pun intended), so it looks like you really had your shit together all along. ;)
posted by misha at 11:08 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm gonna say there's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg thing that comes around when you've spent too long in graduate school, like I did. You build up this idea that you are such a special artsy snowflake that you could nevar get credit in the straight world, i.e., work in a boring office or some such.

It's a lie. Everybody is a special snowflake. Academics and/or the academically inclined just have a really bad superiority complex in some (well, almost all) cases. Maybe you don't, but quite possibly many of your professors and fellow students do, and this further entrenches you in this mentality that you can't be a non-academic professional.

You've got writing and research skills, and you know how to type. Those are three pretty good ones to start with.

So don't bail overnight. If you've got a teaching stipend, use that for a few months to actively job search. Be prepared to move if necessary (which is a Good Thing, IMO). Get excited for actually starting your life and get the fuck outta Dodge City when you've actually landed a real job.
posted by bardic at 12:31 AM on January 29, 2013

In short, there are many days when I feel too anxious/sad to get anything done. In grad school, this is sort of acceptable behavior!

I have found that graduate school and academia in general is far less doable when suffering from a mental illness than a regular job. Regular jobs are both more structured and less demanding. It may be okay if you are still in coursework and/or exams, but when you move into 100% research and writing, even somewhat controlled mental illness could very likely hamper your progress.

It basically comes down to this: as someone who has made it into graduate school, you are already more educated and a faster learner than most people. If you move into a job outside of academia, you'll probably find that the demands are less. Certainly, that has been my experience. Even when ill, I have gotten done in 30 hours/week what the person I replaced took 35 hours a week to do, and added a couple of tasks to my job. She wasn't bad at her job; it's just that the expectations outside of academia are not as high.
posted by jb at 7:54 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

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