another PhD drop out thread
May 12, 2013 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Considering dropping out of 1st year humanities PhD program. Terrified of starving on the streets. Help?

I looked through other threads on this topic, which have been helpful and reassuring, but I'm really freaking out over my specific situation and I could use hearing some feedback about it. I'd really appreciate any words of advice or encouragement or personal anecdotes or whatever else you can offer.

I'm a first year humanities graduate student in a top program, fully funded. I've been having an incredibly difficult time with all the usual stuff: anxiety, isolation, self doubt, indifferent faculty, bad departmental vibes and ironically, given the heavy work load, a sense of extremely under-stimulation (sitting in front of a computer for 12+ hours makes me feel dead). And of course the tenure-track job market is horrible and as I now realize, not something I want to spend 8 years working toward at all. Due to these factors, I quickly started losing interest in the academic life and even the field itself. I've lost all motivation and this has really impacted my work. I'm finding myself missing lots of deadlines as the end of the semester approaches. Right now I can't even imagine myself making through the next few weeks and I already have some extensions from classes I couldn't finish last semester. I keep wishing I could get into a minor accident and break my arm or something just so I could get out of doing this work, which feels unbearable.

It sounds like I should quit ASAP right? Well, I want to and I don't think I'll have major regrets, but I'm terrified for my future prospects. I'm 26 and have never had a 'real job'. I've faced long periods of unemployment for circumstantial reasons and when I did get work, I only did periodic childcare/research assistance gigs. I have a humanities BA that took longer than 4 years to complete--I don't have any stats or maths or science background, although in the past I've taught myself to to use a number of design/editing programs at a level slightly above amateur, haha. Right now my self esteem is crap so I just feel like the dumbest, laziest person in the world and I can't imagine why anyone would ever hire me to do anything.

Despite constantly feeling horrible about myself, I know I'm not entirely useless. I can be smart and I do have a number of strengths (if no actual skills), even if academia is draining those qualities out of me right now. But how do I convince other people of this when my history looks so suspicious? I've invested so much time and energy building toward becoming an academic and now, barely a year into grad school, I'm failing hard at it and itching to quit. How do I explain this? These concerns make the decision about dropping out really difficult. I mean, if I could somehow survive next year, getting a terminal MA could help make up for some of my existing weaknesses right? Even if a humanities MA isn't that valuable, at least I could avoid adding one more gap to my resume and having the name of a fairly prestigious school on there probably helps in some way.

I also have some undergrad debt so I'm just completely stressed out about being unemployed and broke, and it also makes me apprehensive about taking on more debt for more school. What do you think? Should I try my best to get the MA, even if it feels almost impossible? Would it even help that much? Am I screwed for life?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would not quit ASAP. You are in a fragile place, now is not the time to make any big life decisions. I would visit mental health services at your school and talk to someone about what you're going through- they should be able to help you through the depression/burnout you're feeling and get you to a stable place where you'll be ready to decide whether you want to continue in the program. Good luck, dear!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:07 AM on May 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

1. Go get therapy right now, with someone who works with grad students. You need to work out what's causing the anxiety/poor performance issues, and you need to be able to talk to someone at greater length than is possible here.

2. Quitting is perfectly okay. You are not a bad person, you are making a positive choice about the direction of your life. (The academic world can make us forget that quitting is ok)

3. You can wait til summer to decide. Try to finish up your current semester in any case.

4. The issue of not having job history/skills will not get better as you stay in the program -- you'll just exit the program older and in the same skill position. UNLESS you make plans to use your time in the program to deliberately build the skills for a job you want. So -- try to think about a job you want to be qualified for. You are the captain of your ship, so now that you have decided you don't want an academic career, figure out where you DO want to go and let that determine your next step (whether it's staying in the program for one more year, or quitting this summer).
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:34 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I want to reiterate something that LobsterMitten just said:

Quitting is perfectly okay. You are not a bad person, you are making a positive choice about the direction of your life.

This is so, so true. You are not a failure or a horrible person. You're doing what is right for you. You thought that you wanted to be in this program, so you gave it a try. You found out you hated it. So, get out ASAP. Quitting this program isn't going to ruin your job prospects forever, I promise.

Also, get therapy.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 9:52 AM on May 12, 2013

I promise you that you don't need a PhD or even an MA to get a job and have a happy life.
posted by kimberussell at 9:55 AM on May 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Do not go to grad school because you can't figure out what to do otherwise.

Do not stay in grad school because you don't know what else you'll do.
posted by barnone at 10:05 AM on May 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

The first year sucks.
Therapy is də rigor for grad students.

That being said, quit if you want. Fully funded or not, you're losing 6 years of earning.

Moreover, what's the placement rate for your advisor and program? That's more important than the dismal job market. If the majority of his or her students aren't placed in the kind of jobs you think you want (which should be tt positions in r1s), that's enough reason to bail.
posted by k8t at 10:33 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Use the resources at your university for mental health services and career development while they are still available to you. If you can keep your funding and hang on one year and bail with the MA and maybe a class or two in something like programming, HTML, etc. you would probably be in a better position than if you bail now and immediately have to repay student debt while competing with fresh grads for jobs.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:46 AM on May 12, 2013

I did graduate school, albeit in the biological sciences, but I had a few friends who were humanities track.

Here's my advice for you:

1. I have never known anybody who has dropped out of 1st year of graduate school to regret their decision.

2. Get some therapy to help you through this process. Coming to the decision of dropping out is not made lightly, but if you are having doubts now, this is the best time to go.

3. The only people that I have ever met who have made it through a Ph.D. program well-adjusted are people who know for sure, without a doubt, that either a Ph.D. would get them a better job (say, biologists going on to biotech consulting firms), or in your case with the humanities, that the stressful academic life was the only path that they ever have and ever will want.

You shouldn't do a Ph.D. program in anything if you are ever in doubt that it is what you want and what fulfills you. Ph.D. programs are exercises in life and work punching you in the face, kicking you in the nuts, spitting on you, dousing you with a firehose until you fall down, and you have to pick yourself back up. Grad school is hard, and you should only do it if you are absolutely sure that that's the lifestyle you want.

If it's not, you should bail. It'll save your sanity, and save time. You're better off getting a job and working in the real world for the 6-10 years it'll take you to do a humanities Ph.D. There are a very small subset of people in the world that a Ph.D. program is good for. There is nothing to be ashamed of to realize that that is not your calling after all.
posted by the_wintry_mizzenmast at 10:46 AM on May 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

By fully funded do you mean that you have a grant or do you mean you have scholarships which are putting your further into debt?

If you're not incurring additional debt, school isn't a horrible place to be. You can probably get insurance and mental health counseling through your school. Contact student health and schedule some time with a pro to help you sort through what's going on in your head. Next, go talk to the placement office - even if it's the undergrad placement office - to start looking at jobs that interest you.

Also, as someone toward the end of a doctoral program, sometimes it's just a horrible slag. Sometimes I'm miserable with it, but when I get past the high stress assignments I'm still happy to be in my program. I'm working full time and carrying a full time course load which can be a real blessing. I don't have to support myself through stipend and I have a life outside of school. It's worth considering if being in a part-time program might be a better fit for you than what you're doing now. Talk a faculty member about how you could shift to a part-time program.

I'm not telling you to drop out or to stay. I'm encouraging you get guidance from people who are there to help.
posted by 26.2 at 10:54 AM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

You don't have to decide right away whether to quit or keep going.

If you were to continue in the graduate program next year, what would do this summer? Can you get a summer job, within or outside of the university, that might give you some skills training, or just exposure to a different type of work from what you've done before? It may be best to plan on that track and give yourself some breathing room over the summer while you decide whether to stay for another year or quit grad school.

Use the resources at your university. Start with the counseling or psychological services that are probably offered through your student health center. Next, see if there's an internal jobs board where university departments post positions open to students. You may also be able to find a summer position by just approaching the admin assistants of academic departments, the circulation or reference staff at the university library, the research coordinators at digital centers, etc., and asking if they're hiring students for the summer.

Perhaps most importantly, please take advantage of your university's career counseling services. I know that looking for a long-term job (or trying to start a career, whichever way you think about it) is a daunting task, especially when you don't have a strong sense of direction. Helping people in your situation is exactly what the career counselors are there for. There might even be a counselor dedicated to helping grad students find non-academic work. They can help you think about how best to sell your skills; your job history doesn't necessarily look as "suspicious" as you think. They know where to look for job ads and career fairs, and how to network. They probably also have resources to help you figure out what kind of work would be a good fit for you.

Am I screwed for life?

No. Emphatically, NO. You are not screwed for life. Not everyone launches smoothly into a professional career in their early 20s. A lot of us have to start out with part-time work, temping, and non-professional positions even if we're smart and well educated. The thing is, if you're smart and disciplined enough to get into grad school, you will probably be able to build a strong career once you get an entry-level toehold and figure out what you want to do. This is what has happened to me and many of my friends and classmates. One of the other grad students in my program went from a part-time tutoring gig to owning the tutoring company. Another went from a part-time student job in a specialized department of the university library to getting hired there as a full-time professional librarian (somewhere along the way she did an MLS by distance learning). One of my college classmates started out as an educational tour guide in DC, quit that job to become a paralegal, and is now a government attorney. Another temped for a while, then got a full-time job as an admin assistant, and steadily climbed the ladder in her industry to a mid-level professional position. Before I found my current job, I got a lot of reassurance from seeing other people take these somewhat indirect paths into satisfying careers.

I recommend reading "So What Are You Going to Do with That?" for more career stories and advice aimed at people who have decided to bail out of academia.
posted by Orinda at 11:00 AM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Quitting may be a very reasonable choice. Especially given the humanities job market. If your odds of getting that TT position are slim, then you'll have to face the job market eventually anyway, only older, in debt, and not much more employable than you are now (possibly even less employable). Give yourself credit for sniffing this out.

Therapy was incredibly helpful for me when I faced a similar junction. Take a bit of a break and try to get some counselling. You may decide that staying for another year is a good move, or maybe not, but it's a good idea to take your time. You're fully funded now, right? So, I don't see any reason to quit immediately. Even if you decide to just ditch your workload completely, you can still linger for a few months, and use that time to probe the job market a bit and figure out your next move. Do some searches on job boards and see what's out there. And maybe try to pick up a project or a skill that might build your resume a bit.

I promise you, your life is not over. There is space for you in the real world. You are as capable as anyone else who is out there doing real jobs and earning money and generally having a life. I would like to encourage you to set yourself free from the academic blinders you have been wearing and try to imagine what you might be able to do, or might even like to do, if academia was out. There are any number of great careers potentially available to you. Maybe left-field options like learning a trade. And sure there may be some work to do to get yourself in a position for that, but you were about to embark upon an 8 year training program, so those years are now a gift for you to sort this out.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:02 AM on May 12, 2013

I'm not telling you to drop out or to stay. I'm encouraging you get guidance from people who are there to help.
Yeah, this. Either of these are acceptable paths to take but what I so wish that folks in this situation would do is use the resources available to you to help you figure it out, rather than spinning off on your own. I don't know how your program is structured, particularly with funding and progress for example, but you need to know what your exact situation is before you can make a truly informed decision about it.

One of the things that I regret most is that I put the "panicked blinders" on and while I left with the M.A. (which wasn't that helpful in my job search) I spent a lot of time feeling like a failure and not taking advantage of the career counseling the school offered, which might have made my job search and decision-making less fraught.
posted by sm1tten at 12:22 PM on May 12, 2013

Don't drop out because of the following reasons: anxiety, self-doubt, stress over upcoming deadlines, an overwhelming sense of panic. All of those things are normal and expected. Learning to face them in a calm and controlled fashion is the entire goal of the first two years of the program, as far as I can tell. If you can get yourself together enough to finish your papers and meet your deadlines, you will have achieved something very impressive. Once you do this, you will be in a much better place in terms of figuring out your future, which may or may not have 8 years of graduate study in it.

In other words, you may leave grad school, but please don't flee grad school. You are better than that. Grad school is like a haunted house full of fake ghosts and mannequins and recorded spooky noises. It doesn't deserve your fear.

Here is a game plan for the next few months:

1. As someone else suggested, sign up for therapy. There may be a waiting list, because everyone else in your school is freaking out right now, too. That's because grad school is designed to make you freak out. You're not going to wait for therapy to come through, though, because you're going to start fixing this right now.

2. Make a schedule and implement it immediately. 12 hours in front of a computer? No. No. No. Unnecessary and tortuous and counterproductive. I suggest waking up between 8 am and 9 am, and scheduling some kind of physical activity, preferably one that takes place outdoors, at around 5 or 6. Any work that takes place after dinner & exercise cannot involve a computer. Does that seem like not enough time? Well, maybe it's not, but how much work are you getting done now? More importantly, how much work are you going to get done if you drop out? By far the greatest joy of academia is that you are totally free to set your own schedule. Make it work for you. Luxuriate in it. In these last few months before you drop out, make all your friends with real jobs jealous. Take up tennis. Go to yoga.

3. Write your papers. One reason writing papers is hard that you are afraid that if you turn in a bad paper, you will be revealed for the idiot you are. Alternatively, sometimes writing papers is hard because you think you are a genius and you are unwilling to turn in anything that isn't worthy of your talents. Both of these are bad ways of approaching the task, because it means your ego is too wrapped up in what you're doing. This is your job: to turn in a paper that meets the requirements of your class, on time. That's it! Be pragmatic above all else. Find topics that interest you. Never take on topics that you aren't sure you understand. Aim for the mundane, but well-organized, over the inchoate brilliance of an idea you yourself haven't quite grasped. Do the papers you have due now, first, and then go back and retroactively fill in your incompletes.

4. Stop thinking about the future, until it's time to think about the future. Break everything down into manageable tasks, and do those tasks. While your goal is to finish your papers, don't ask: how will I ever write my dissertation? am I smart enough to be a professor? Will I ever get a job? Is the humanities in crisis? Will the tenure system even exist by the time I'm thirty? Why would you torture yourself like this? Do your best to stop making yourself miserable. Just put one foot in front of the other, trying to accomplish at least one thing a day. At some point - maybe when all your papers are in, maybe once you've accomplished what you need for a terminal master's - you can sit down and think about this all at once, but before then, stop letting your global anxieties permeate your day to day life. All you have to do in the next couple of weeks is write some papers that don't even have to be that good. Stick it out for another year, and you'll have a free master's degree. This is not a bad position to be in. Your whole life is ahead of you. You can do it.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:23 PM on May 12, 2013 [18 favorites]

And of course the tenure-track job market is horrible and as I now realize, not something I want to spend 8 years working toward at all.

That sounds like a GREAT reason to drop out. If staying in the program is the only way you can get income or health care right now, I guess it would be OK to stay for a little while longer. But there is nothing wrong with you if you look at the possibility of a tenure track position, weight it against the work of grad school, and say "Nope. I don't want it that much."
posted by mskyle at 1:23 PM on May 12, 2013

I dropped out of my PhD programme four years in, didn't get a masters, don't regret it at all. In fact I'm surprised how many other people I've met since then who've done the same thing---started doctorate programs we were unsuited for or frustrated by. We're a slightly perversely élite club.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:48 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

That being said, quit if you want. Fully funded or not, you're losing 6 years of earning.

I don't understand this reasoning at all. One could as easily say that anonymous is losing 6 years of being unemployed. It doean't sound like this person is in a good place to count potential earnings in the "against" column.

My vote is for "finish the semester," followed by "get your head sorted out" and "make a reasoned decision about your career plans and the steps you will need to take."
posted by Nomyte at 4:34 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I dropped out of my PhD program after the second year when I realized two things - one, I didn't care about microeconomic theory and two, the program I was in was a poor fit and not likely to improve anytime soon. Sounds like you're in a similar situation. There's nothing wrong with cutting bait and moving on. Life is way too short to be miserable.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 4:56 PM on May 12, 2013

I didn't drop out, and now I am old and unemployable. You are much better equipped to be "homeless and on the streets" at 26 than you will be at 34.
posted by at 5:38 PM on May 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nthing therapy. You are in crisis mode right now and you need support, just as if you were sick. University mental health professionals are used to dealing with people in your position, and they can help you figure out a plan to get through the semester and then help you decide what to do after that.

I am a humanities grad student who has just finished the fourth year of a PhD program. I would not have survived without therapy. I have thought about quitting since my first year, and am currently on the side of staying--mostly because I'm expecting a baby any day now and we have sweet, sweet health insurance. We're going to reevaluate next year. For me it was important to not leave before getting my masters, which may or may not be important to you. A masters you don't have to pay for is a rare thing, and it might be worth it to spend the next academic year finishing that degree and positioning yourself for other work. You have to decide if that's a good option for you. There is no shame in deciding it's not!

Basically I second everything Orinda says. The important thing is to remember you are not alone, you are not unusual (I mean that in the most reassuring way), and you have resources.
posted by apricot at 7:52 PM on May 12, 2013

I'm back to offer one more piece of advice. In your question, you wrote:

I've invested so much time and energy building toward becoming an academic and now, barely a year into grad school, I'm failing hard at it and itching to quit. How do I explain this?

I think it's really common for people leaving their graduate programs without completing a degree to feel like their resume is going to have "FAIL FAIL FAIL" stamped across it in big red letters, or to fear that they're going to have some kind of soul-baring moment in an interview about it. But I think that anxiety comes largely from your immersion in the academic world. To put things in perspective, it's common for attrition rates in humanities (and other) doctoral programs to run around 50% or more. That means there are a LOT of Ph.D. dropouts entering the job market every year. Does their non-completion of the degree make them unhireable? No! Look, you're in good company, so just put "Graduate coursework in [field], [University Name], 2012-2013" on your resume and go job-hunting with your head held high.

Prepare a succinct, optimistic, non-confessional answer in case any interviewer asks why you're leaving the program: "I want to pursue other opportunities" or "I want to put my skills into practice" or some such. When you're tempted to say something negative, turn it into a positive. For example, if you find yourself about to blurt out something about the isolation of academic work, instead say "I'm looking for a job where I can be part of a team." Don't say "I hate writing papers," say "I love teaching myself how to use design and editing programs."

Additional perspective: although the numbers are squishy, it's conventional wisdom that people change jobs something like 11 times in their prime working years, and change careers three to seven times. Don't think of grad school as a test that you're "failing hard"; think of academia as a career track that you've tried out and decided it's not a good fit. Thousands of your peers among your age group are bailing out of jobs or switching careers this year. Just think of yourself as being in their number.
posted by Orinda at 10:09 PM on May 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

As someone who finished a PhD (and really wished I had dropped out earlier), I can tell you there is a light at the end of the tunnel! While you finish up this term (and start getting your therapy), start thinking about an exit strategy. Put out some ads for tutoring/writing help/copyediting, etc. Make up a little name for your "business," get the word out, throw up a web page, etc. You probably won't get much business heading in to summer, but you're taking control and, more importantly, giving yourself "experience" you can list on a resume. Even if you only get a handful of clients, it's still work experience that can fill in the gap after you leave school. (And, if you're lucky, you get more clients and make some more $$$.)
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:42 AM on May 13, 2013

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