Rethinking being a PhD candidate: whether, when, how, why, & what next?
January 10, 2014 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I am a doctoral candidate and have become increasingly convinced that I no longer want an academic job, and possibly not a PhD either. When/how do I tell my supervisor? (Particulars inside, and apologies in advance about the length.)

I entered a PhD program with the full intention of aiming for a tenure-track job, which had been my dream forever. Unfortunately, I have now come to the realization that this is definitely not what I want. I have had a miserable experience in the PhD program - constant stress about the quality of my work, anxiety so strong that wakes me up at night, lots of insecurity about whether I would eventually get a postdoc, very little direction/help from or contact with my supervisor, poverty, gut-wrenching loneliness due to lots of fieldwork abroad, etc. Even with all of things, I maintained my desire for a post-doc and a tenure-track job for a long time, thinking that the worst part of it all is right now and post-PhD it would be better.

However some conversations over Christmas made me reflect on my current and future situation in academia, and the more I have been thinking about it, the more convinced I have become that this is definitely no longer what I want. Given the situation with adjuncting positions versus tenure-track positions, it is almost certainly going to get worse for me the further along this path I go, not better. I'm not interested in spending my career in this type of labor environment: I think that academia is turning into an exploitative sweatshop business that gives its workers less pay, far more hours, and much less job security than any other workers (including the janitors who work in the same building), and it asks them to be grateful for the privilege, because it's such a "noble calling" that its practitioners apparently should forego base motives like a living wage, job security, and basic workplace protections for the privilege of being slave labor for such an altruistic cause. And I also realized that while I like aspects of the process of research in the abstract, I find the whole thing so stressful in the job climate of academia that I don't actually enjoy researching at all most of the time. And somehow, with all of this reflecting, academia itself has totally lost its shine for me too - even if I were to be offered a tenure-track job now at a good university, I just wouldn't want it. I'm not sure why any of this ever appealed to me. It almost feels like falling out of love with someone, or losing one's religious faith.

I don't think that this is just a passing dissatisfaction. I have had a horrible experience with my PhD - both with my topic, with the lack of support from my advisor, and with the broader experience - ever since I started. But it all seemed worth it in the hope of a tenure-track job at the end, which - I had convinced myself - would be better in all of the ways that I was currently dissatisfied. Now that I no longer believe this, I'm finding my PhD itself pointless. I don't know how much longer I have before I would finish. It will probably take anything from 1.5 to 2.5 years from here to complete. I fantasize about dropping out now and doing something else that would be more meaningful or at least less miserable.

I have a sense of what I do want to do instead (something I had been considering for a long time but which the seductive magic of academia kept in the periphery). I have started exploring that vocation within the last week. If I end up doing that, I will need a good reference from my PhD supervisor before I can even start out on that path. My question is on what to do from here.

I am not sure whether to attempt to finish the PhD or not. I think it's important to complete what I start, especially given that others besides myself have invested a lot in this. However I am 30 and want to have children, and the idea of spending 2 or more years more on this, and then having to set out on a new (and potentially long) career path is both exhausting to me and also seems to be a pointless waste of the next few years. And at least for me with academia, I find it difficult not to let my it be so all-consuming that I can have a life, and I am afraid the next couple of years would be the same if I stay in the PhD. I don't know where the line is between tenacity/making good on commitments, and the sunk cost fallacy. If I enjoyed the PhD, even if I no longer wanted academia it might seem right to finish it, but I'm miserable every day with my project, my lack of certainty about where I'm going with it, the lack of support and help I can get with it, and how lonely I am abroad doing research. Signing up for 1.5 - 2.5 years of more of the same is viscerally horrible to me, and I don't know if I can stand it.

The other thing, and my biggest worry, is when/how to tell my advisor. I don't think he knows my dissatisfaction, as I haven't expressed it - I didn't think he would be more helpful if he did, and he might be upset and/or it might affect the type of reference I get from him. On paper, I think things still look pretty good for me in terms of my academic prospects (or at least as good as anyone's chances can be, which are 150 to 1). My supervisor recently said that he's really banking on my success in the academic job market. I'm not sure he will understand why I don't want to at least give it a shot, especially given I was so enthusiastic about it at the beginning. When should I tell him, and how? I will need his good reference for what I want to do in the future, before I can start out on that path. I was thinking I would think about all of this for a few more months, while continuing on with academic work and, on the side, exploring this potential vocation more.

Would it be wise to alert my supervisor now, or sometime soon, about the fact that I am now not sure I want to go into academia? Should I start slowly, saying that I've been having doubts, or should I wait until I'm sure what I want to do next, and present it as something well-thought-out and firm (or would that look too sudden)? If I give him an initial heads up about my doubts, will he stop writing me references to get grants or a year of (external) funding, for me to try to complete the PhD? Will he give me a good reference for a different field, if I want to leave academia? Is it possible to get a good reference from him if I don't finish the PhD? Is it possible to get into another career (including a graduate professional school) with a failed PhD? I'm not sure that I can finish now, wish that I had never started this, am really unhappy and miserable, and don't know how to get out.
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Nobody can tell you what he will do. If he has no idea, why wouldn't you talk to him about how you are feeling?
posted by Silvertree at 8:26 PM on January 10, 2014

Tell your advisor once you have a backup plan.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:33 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, my god. Are you me? Seriously, so many aspects of this resonate with my experience of candidacy that it's uncanny, from the fact that you've managed to keep your growing dissatisfaction (and anxieties?) about your research and the job market from your advisor, to the time you estimate you have left, to your other misgivings about academia. I'll be watching others' replies to this with interest.

All of this is to say that my thoughts have run along many of the same lines for a long time now, and while I'm not sure I have an answer to the biggest question lurking behind this, I have come to my own conclusions about some of the more specific issues you've raised. So far, they're working for me.

Would it be wise to alert my supervisor now, or sometime soon, about the fact that I am now not sure I want to go into academia? Should I start slowly, saying that I've been having doubts, or should I wait until I'm sure what I want to do next, and present it as something well-thought-out and firm (or would that look too sudden)?

No one here can say for sure, without knowing your advisor, how he would react to this and whether it would affect the kinds of recommendations you'd get from him as you pursue this other field. I have a committee full of people who I think are honestly some of the kindest, most understanding folks I've ever met - in academia or outside of it - and who have actively helped other students who've left my program find work. Even so, I have not talked to them about my own doubts. It's possible that they've figured out something's amiss, but I doubt it, as there's a great deal of geographical distance between us right now and I've been making deadlines.

Even though I think that they would be happy to help me out of academia, if that's what I decide to do, I haven't committed to that yet myself. I worry, perhaps unnecessarily, that if I change my mind, that conversation would make it a tiny bit harder for them to provide the sort of unwaveringly enthusiastic recommendation that I might need for a position in academia in this job market - even if only subconsciously. So, until I am already effectively on my way out the door - not just considering it - I'm keeping it under wraps. I talk about it with other mentors, with my partner, with my friends and (trusted) colleagues, but not my advisor or committee members - not yet.

I don't know where the line is between tenacity/making good on commitments, and the sunk cost fallacy. If I enjoyed the PhD, even if I no longer wanted academia it might seem right to finish it, but I'm miserable every day with my project, my lack of certainty about where I'm going with it, the lack of support and help I can get with it, and how lonely I am abroad doing research.

Boy, do I hear this. And yet - at the moment! - I am still planning to finish. (I am a woman just about your age, too, for what it's worth.) There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) While I've been a candidate, I've been able to work in my field in ways that are explicitly predicated upon my candidacy - ones for which an M.A. would not be sufficient. (I've taught a bit - in a liberal arts environment - and worked on some projects in institutions that are pretty closely allied with my field, mostly run by Ph.D.s.) I've really, really liked it, and my opportunities to do more of the same would disappear if I quit. Is having a Ph.D. something that will be a significant help to you in the other vocation you're considering? If so, could you complete it with that goal in mind, setting aside (to some degree) your misgivings about academia?

2) I have a very real, very final countdown timer in place, in that my advisor will retire in 2 years. Would it help to set a deadline for yourself - perhaps one year out - by which you will have committed to finishing or leaving, wholeheartedly? The agony of trying to cultivate both options (finishing and pursuing this other thing) without a clear endpoint in mind seems like the worst of both worlds.

I wish you nothing but the best as you think through this. Be good to yourself.
posted by Austenite at 8:39 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most of this depends on your advisor's personality, and we have no idea about that. But your hardest years if you choose to continue on the PhD path are definitely ahead of you and there ought to be absolutely no shame in deciding at this point that it's just not worth the stress for abysmal job prospects. I would say also, stop thinking of that option as a "failed PhD". You'll most likely get out with a master's if you don't have one already, and people's perception of ABD status outside of academia is very different from how it is perceived inside, if that applies to you.
posted by karbonokapi at 8:41 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

First of all, you sound like you're incredibly depressed and unhappy and have been turning this over in your head for months now. I'm also doing a PhD, so I can relate to the feeling, but let me strongly urge you to see a therapist to help you sort out what you want. After working for this for so long, it can be hard to accept that you would be better off not in academia. Counseling will help here.

It can also help you clear your head enough to form a plan for what you want to do next. No one here can tell you if finishing the phd will be worth it. I'd try and talk to people outside of academia who are doing the job you want. Use your network and try and get in touch with other alums from your program who aren't in academia.

I'd also talk to your adviser. I wouldn't yet tell him that you're thinking of leaving, but I would mention that you're not sure where you're project is going and that you feel like you're floundering. If you ask for more support/feedback, you may get it. Of course there's no guarantee, but you don't have much to lose at this point.

Finally, if your adviser thinks highly enough of your work to bank on your chances on the job market, then he's not going to sabotage you just because you decide not to go into academia. The overwhelming majority of professors understand that not everyone is built for academia and won't hold a grudge against you for leaving. I would try and set that particular anxiety aside.

Good luck and hang in there.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:50 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a professor, but not your professor, so take this with a grain of salt.

But speaking for myself, I think you have some very compelling reasons to quit and not a whole lot of reason to stay. I would also prefer to have a student in your position quit now rather than drag it out for two more years. If you're that unhappy and unmotivated, I would bet that it won't be two years -- it will be longer, and they will be painful for both you and your advisor. I find it very difficult to supervise unhappy and unmotivated students, and I also find that I put twice as much effort into them for half as much reward (in terms of intellectual satisfaction and fun doing the work with them as well as papers produced). In many ways, quitting now would be the kindest thing you could do for your supervisor. That will free up some of their time to advise someone who wants to be there, and who will benefit from what they have to give, which is advice and tutelage preparing them for an academic career.

Also, there's really no shame at all in arriving at the point you are. Academia and a PhD are not for everyone -- and I don't mean that in a "not everyone can hack it" sort of way, but rather, it's a very specific lifestyle and career type that only really fits a certain narrow kind of person. Anxiety and insecurity are not uncommon in graduate school, but the pressure only gets more intense later on, and if you're feeling this way now you're probably right to want to quit. Especially if you have some ideas about what you want to do instead, you're set up well to pivot from here. Do it. I know lots of people, including one of my closest friends, who quit academia either during or after their PhD and they are wonderful, smart, hardworking people who almost uniformly are happy they made that choice. (I also know people who stayed and are happy with that choice -- the point isn't that academia is always awful, it's that you can be a great person and still find that academia is not for you).

Finally, I think there's a good way to quit now that doesn't involve just leaving tomorrow and spilling a huge mess into your supervisor's lap, but will rather be fairly elegant and have the most probability of leaving on good terms. And it is this: soon, ask to meet with your supervisor. Explain that you are very strongly considering not completing the PhD, and give as your reasons whatever of the above you are comfortable sharing. (As I said, they are all really good reasons). If you're not open to be persuaded otherwise, don't say that you are, but do say that you want to do what you can to make sure that your last N years of work haven't been wasted, and you would love to plan with them how best to do that. Have a rough timeline of when you absolutely want to be out, and put it no more than 6 months into the future (less is fine). The hope is that you can use those last few months (or weeks, if you're a fast worker or at a good point for quitting) to leave behind you a good legacy -- finish experiments that you started, make sure your advisor / colleagues have all of the information about what you did so they can finish the project themselves, get good drafts of any papers you want to be an author on, and so forth. [I'm assuming a science PhD but I'm sure there are similar things in the humanities].

If a student approached me this way, I'd be sad it didn't work out but completely understanding and very happy that they had the maturity and willingness to try to work with me to lessen the negative impact. Bottom line is, you don't owe anyone 2-3 years of misery, and I don't see much personal benefit to you from dragging this out. As long as you're sure that this is what you want to do, then I think you should do it. But try to do it in the most elegant and graceful way that you can.

Good luck.
posted by forza at 9:21 PM on January 10, 2014 [14 favorites]

Oh, I'll also add that I'd probably suggest you sit on it for at least a few more weeks before you talk to your advisor, just to make absolutely sure that you do want out. You don't need to wait until you have a sure plan of what you do want to do -- that will drag it out too long -- but you don't want to have that discussion and then a few weeks later start thinking that actually you do want tenure-track jobs after all.

And as for whether he'll still give you good letters of recommendation, grants, etc, after you've had that talk... well, nobody here can say for sure. He might be a complete asshole. But I've met few professors who were that jerky, and many more who really do understand that academia is not for everyone. I think if you make every effort to make the transition as easy as possible for him, he'll probably see that and understand that and it won't affect his letters. He probably won't make plans around you anymore (e.g., he wouldn't write you into a grant if you're going to be gone) and the details in his letters might change (e.g., he probably won't suggest that you'd be great for a tenure-track job) but if you won't be around and don't want a tenure-track job then they won't change in ways that will hurt you. I can't imagine, unless he's a total wanker, it will change his overall assessment of your skills and abilities.
posted by forza at 9:30 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Get out now. Cut your losses. Life is much too short and precious to do something everyday that makes you miserable. Furthermore, the sooner you get into your new career path, the more time and better chance you'll have to be successful at it.
posted by Dansaman at 10:14 PM on January 10, 2014


Take a week off, do no work, physically recharge with sleep and healthy activities. If you still feel an overwhelming urge to quit, write a letter to your supervisor. Your reasons for wanting to leave are all cogent and sensible. Your tone suggests (to state the obvious) a very negative emotional state. Try to minimize the possibility that, because of it, you are temporarily blinded to the positive aspects of doctoral study. But if a period of self-care doesn't change your views, then send the letter.
posted by cromagnon at 5:16 AM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another option to consider is whether your field is one where the PhD could be a useful credential in your non-academic job hunt. Having a PhD in, e.g., Biochemistry is totally useful in industry, whereas there are very few jobs where a PhD in, e.g., English Literature is a useful credential (not to say that having a PhD in lit isn't useful in other jobs, just that having/not having the letters after your name is less important).

In the case where your PhD might be applicable to other sorts of jobs, you might be able to pitch it to your professor as such: "Look, I've decided I am not interested in academia. Could we discuss the possibility of how we might modify my research plan and timeline so that I can finish more quickly with the goal of an industry (non-profit/government/publishing/etc.) job?" If you are no longer interested in academia, it no longer necessarily matters how many publications you have out or how many courses you have taught or even how many preposterous hoops you have jumped through. I had friends who took this approach in various environmental and earth sciences, including one who approached his advisor after he had a job offer conditional on receipt of his PhD, and they were able to come to an agreement, get a satisfactory dissertation written and defended, and get out.

(I say all this as someone who went into a high-powered fancy lab with a fancy fellowship who always stated from the beginning that my only real interest was being a professor at a teaching college. And that is what I now do. Although I think my advisor remains disappointed with that choice and still wishes that I had aggressively pursued the research-focused tenure track, she wrote me very nice recommendation letters that helped me get the job I have now. I think my being honest about my intentions helped.)
posted by hydropsyche at 7:31 AM on January 11, 2014

Advice to answer your specific question for some cases that haven't been covered above:

I. The worst-case scenario - a supervisor who is prejudiced against non-academic careers

I have known of professors who viewed any career option other than an academic position at a Research I university as failure. If your supervisor is such a professor, he is unlikely to give you a good recommendation for a non-academic career change in any circumstance, for a number of reasons: (i) prejudice against you if/once they find out that you are no longer interested in their ideal career track, (ii) prejudice against the type of job/career that you want to switch to, (iii) complete lack of knowledge about the type of job/career that you want to switch to, and what sort of detail is needed in a recommendation letter for those sorts of situations. If your supervisor is of this mold, my advice would be a careful information and image management strategy:

1. Plan your exit from academia, get everything lined up aside from the parts that you need your supervisor for. If possible, get additional letters of recommendation from other professors who know you well and are familiar with your work - more recommendation letters generally don't hurt an application. Ideally, find someone, perhaps in your new, intended career area who can mentor you in this transition.

2. This is the hard part: ideally, try to be as productive a grad student as possible during this time. This might be easier if you have an exit deadline, so that it's not an open-ended, unattainable goal. As suggested in other comments above, some therapy might help you manage stress in getting through this period.

3a. At the end of one of your meetings with your supervisor, ideally after having discussed some results you've gotten/data you've collected, bring up the current state of the academic job market, and express the part of your worries that relate to how abysmal this is. Your supervisor would have to be quite dense to be unaware of the negative trends in academic employment, but in the worst case scenario, this is possible (for example, you say supervisor instead of advisor, but also tenure, so I'm guessing you are in Canada, where the issues with academic careers that you mention exist but are not as advanced as they are in the US), so if you think this may describe your supervisor, also bring articles/data to justify your worries as reasonable worries, even for a top-notch student such as any student of theirs obviously must be. Introduce the idea of your desired career change as a back-up plan, and ask for a letter of recommendation in that context. That is: give the impression that you really are a serious student, and would continue with the PhD, except there are these unfortunate external factors, and perhaps you have some family or similar responsibilities, so you have to take these economic factors into consideration, unfortunately.

3b. Make it easy for your supervisor to write you a good letter of recommendation: give him information about what sort of details the people reviewing the letters of recommendation are looking for, even provide a template, which you can introduce and give to your supervisor with a statement such as "it seems that this area has different norms around letters of recommendation than academia does. I've found the following advice and template for the structure of a letter of recommendation in this area. Would this be helpful? [Leave print-out and editable electronic copy of template with supervisor.]" You might not find such a template, but part of your preparing to leave step should be researching this information, and if it's not available through an online search, reach out and ask someone who has hiring power in the field that you want to move to if you can do an informational interview with them. Then, when talking with them, the script for this would be something like, "I'm currently a PhD student in X. I'm quite interested in pursuing a career in Y. I know that the cultures of academia and Y can be fairly different however. Can you give me some advice on requirements for entry into Y area? As well, what can I tell my supervisor or other professors to help them better advise students like me who are interested in more applied careers outside of academia? Are there any differences in things like what CVs or resumes and letters of recommendation look like that I and my professors should be aware of? Thank you!"

II. The case of a non-prejudiced but neutrally or benignly neglectful supervisor

Perhaps your supervisor is not prejudiced against non-academic careers, or students who leave academia, but is often preoccupied with his own stuff and/or never learned how to be a good career advisor/mentor to students. Maybe you have difficulty getting time with your supervisor, but he is helpful and supportive and you two get along well in those meetings. If this describes your supervisor, then you can safely discuss your change of career goals sooner and get some assistance from your supervisor, or at least not run the risk of this resulting in even less support and meeting time with him, and bad recommendation letters. You shouldn't have to worry about information and image management strategies, like in the worst-case scenario.

But, sadly, you likely won't be able to rely on such a supervisor for proactive and useful non-academic career advice or similar assistance in your career transition - he might not take the time or even know how to help you look for information that would be helpful to you in making the career transition. Seeking out a mentor in the area you're looking to enter would likely be quite helpful in this case as well. In this situation, you will also get better results by being proactive about tidy wrap-ups for the projects you are currently working on, and providing useful information about your new career area for your supervisor. In particular, if your supervisor falls into this category, he should be open to receiving a letter of recommendation template without careful ego management on your part, and will in fact be grateful for the additional information and time-saving nature of having a template to follow.

General advice based on what you've written:

* Research has shown some similarities between common aspects of PhD programs in US universities and hazing, both functionally and in terms of the emotional effects on trainees. I don't have references easily available, but it may be useful to you to look into this. Some universities/departments are more aware of issues around how the structure of a PhD program effects students' mental health and are more supportive than others. It may be that you are in a less healthy situation, and a change of departments would reinstate your excitement about research and academia in general. At the least, many of us find it helpful to know that we're not alone in our struggles.

* What you describe is also the idea behind alienated labor, and can an issue to a greater or lesser degree in most employment. If this perspective is helpful to you - either in finding reasons and strategies to finish your PhD program or in giving you greater peace of mind that leaving is a reasonable choice and in no way makes you any sort of failure or quitter - there's a nice Marxist analysis of the role of professional training programs such as PhD programs in the book "Disciplined Minds" by Jeff Schmidt (there is or was a web site for the book, at , but my browser/google isn't loading it for me today for whatever reason). (I think Schmidt sometimes assumes malicious intent for systemic problems that can be prolonged merely by lack of awareness and laziness - the principle of never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. But overall I think it's a very useful book and perspective.)

* Given the problems with the current academic job market, I generally advise students considering graduate work that they should pursue a PhD if they will enjoy the actual process of obtaining a PhD (and should carefully research and seek out programs that will be supportive and where they can be happy), and would find that time well spent even if they end up completely changing careers afterwards. In my area (math), as well as in most areas of science, being a PhD student is a paid job, albeit not well paid, so I advise students to only enter a PhD program if they have financial support from the program. This can differ in the humanities. As a PhD student in any area though, you are doing productive intellectual labor, and thus, I feel, should be remunerated and valued for your work. So anyway, not enjoying the process of obtaining a PhD is an excellent reason to choose to do something else with your life. If you had any other job, and it was making you crazy stressed out and as unhappy as you describe, as well as being low-paying and having likely limited prospects for further career development, would you stay with it, or would you start looking for a better job? That is not a decision that you should feel any guilt over, whatsoever!

It may be useful however, as in my first bullet point, to note that it is as likely that your unhappiness is due to aspects of the structure of your program as to the work just being different from what you expected and not as enjoyable to you, personally, as you thought it would be: the conditions of your labor, rather than the inherent nature of the labor itself. Conditions of labor can be changed, either through a change of employer, or through collective action with your fellow laborers (other grad students in your program, in your case). If you have a grad student-faculty liaison committee in your department, that would be a useful place to start. In my graduate program, we got some improvements to grad student offices made through such a committee. If there isn't such a committee in your department, and the work that would go into pressing for changes is worth it for you over changing careers or changing universities, then you can get some like-minded students together and start such a committee. In my graduate program, we got some improvements made to academic policies relating to the grad program through a group of us advocating as a class cohort outside of the grad student-faculty liaison committee as well. If you are unionized, whatever has been contributing to your growing unhappiness might be something that your grad student union could address. If grad students at your university are not unionized, there are options for working together outside of a formal union context both within your department as mentioned above or university-wide, or there might be enough support for a union drive and the formal process. I could give more information and advice and suggestions by MeMail.
posted by eviemath at 8:10 AM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was you. I left and did not look back, and I've never been happier. Not to be cliche, but life is way too short to spend years finishing something because "you should finish what you start." What does that get you? Unless self-satisfaction makes you *really* happy (and you would be the exception, in my experience), you're just condemning yourself.

Your supervisor will be fine. Honestly, him telling you that he's banking on your success is really bizarre, in my book. If he decides to behave like a crazy person and refuses to give you a good recommendation, you will survive. More likely, he won't really care and will write the same recommendation he writes everyone. The close relationship you think you have with him, if it's like most supervisor/supervisee relationships in academia that I've seen, isn't real closeness. Neither of you will remember each other much if you leave, because you'll no longer exist in each other's world.

In summation: be a quitter. You don't need to continue to martyr yourself.

Also: hell, yes it's possible to have another career after leaving a PhD program. In fact, I put my time in a PhD program on my resume, and it's only been good for me. It showed that I was smart enough and driven enough to do it, and it's super-easy to tell folks outside of academia (who can give you jobs. that pay real money.) why you didn't want to be an academic, because they didn't want to be academics either!
posted by nosila at 8:38 AM on January 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

I have been exactly where you are and I had your worries. I finally bit the bullet and told my advisor, and he was amazingly understanding—I think he had realized I was burned out even before I did. (I wasn't exactly Mr. Enthusiastic during our weekly meetings, and in fact I was canceling them with increasing frequency.) The thing is, even if he had reacted badly, it wouldn't have made any difference except for momentary angst. I was miserable as a grad student; once I quit, life was great. Being poor didn't matter; having no plans didn't matter; I was free and happy. I know when you're inside the Circle of Doom it seems like there's nothing outside, but trust me, there is, and once you're out there, you'll be amazed how quickly all the stuff you're worrying about now ceases to matter. Trust your gut.
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on January 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I quit my PhD program, 5 years in. My advisor was very supportive. I think he literally said something about the lines of, "you have so many talents," and "if I told you you HAD to be an academic, I'd be mad." He was great about it.

I didn't even end up getting a job recommendation from him, though. While in my program, I had worked a lot of part-time, semester-long and temporary positions that translated better to the professional world (TA positions that required a LOT of organizational/logistical work, temp work during the summers, etc). I asked my supervisors for those positions for recs, because they were much more "work-like."

I now have a job at a nonprofit attached to the same university. The work culture is great, the hours are flexible, I have my evenings and weekends to do whatever I want (which at the moment is usually roller derby, but is also cooking, socializing, and making art), and I am getting paid way, way more than I would as an adjunct instructor. I also have full benefits.

I run into a woman from my grad school cohort at the grocery store sometimes. She is uniformly miserable. It's hard to land an academic job, and she didn't get any interviews again this year.

Do what you gotta do, yo.
posted by duvatney at 9:57 AM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know where the line is between tenacity/making good on commitments, and the sunk cost fallacy. If I enjoyed the PhD, even if I no longer wanted academia it might seem right to finish it, but I'm miserable every day with my project, my lack of certainty about where I'm going with it, the lack of support and help I can get with it, and how lonely I am abroad doing research.
Earlier in your post you say you definitely don't want to continue with the PhD, even if you had a tenure track job lined up, but then you talked yourself back into it two paragraphs later. So which is it? Are you a) just stressed out by temporary circumstances or b) deciding to choose another path because the PhD is no longer what you want?

Whatever you choose, it will have no effect on your worth as a human being. The world will keep on spinning, no matter what you do. It may seem that you've "sunk" too many years of your life into academia at this point to back out, but that's not true. Anyone with the tenacity and focus to do a PhD is well equipped to take on another career.

Choose what will make you happy.
posted by deathpanels at 4:30 PM on January 11, 2014

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