Rebranding or repairing a broken PhD student
April 8, 2014 7:23 PM   Subscribe

This seems to be a week for academia-related questions. I am an ABD student in the humanities at a prestigious university. The job prospects in my field are grim, and they are grimmer still for me because I have not performed well in my program. My history is one of late papers, lingering incompletes, delayed time to qualifying exams, and poor rapport with faculty. I am in the beginning stages of writing a dissertation that I know will serve me no real purpose. So what do I do now?

I think that if I could bring myself to work diligently, I could finish my dissertation in 1 year, but I don't know where to go from here. Do I struggle through a dissertation that, while somewhat interesting to me, is not motivational in itself? The only carrot at the end of this stick is a relatively useless PhD. My prospects for an academic position are truly nil. On the other hand, I feel like if I could just make myself finish it, I'd at least have the degree, and not the less-than-nothing of an upcoming 30th birthday with no real-world work experience.

I wish I had taken the crippling anxiety that has been at the root of my poor graduate school performance for what it was: a neon sign telling me to change course immediately. But I didn't, and now I've sunk 6+ years into a masochistic exercise fueled by pride and stubbornness.

I thought about trying something else entirely, even going so far as to research other interesting graduate programs in practical fields, but I highly doubt I could get a single positive recommendation letter at this point. I don't know what my strengths are anymore, since I'm not even capable of delivering good work to my adviser. I used to be really good at school; now I am not. This isn't even a case of Imposter Syndrome. Maybe at one time I deserved my spot here, but my work to date has been pretty abysmal, as evidenced by my low grades in my courses and refusal by faculty members to work with me. I am even persona non grata to the other students in my program.

To summarize: Is there a non-academic scenario that would make it worthwhile to finish my humanities PhD? If not, what kind of career can I pivot to that would not require further education (since there's no way I'd be admitted anywhere else)?
posted by redfishbluefish to Education (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Well, what do you want to do with your life? What do you like doing? What are you legitimately good at? What can you do even when ennui and lack of focus threaten to derail you? What DOES motivate you?

And what can you salvage out of this experience? Do you have your master's, or can you leave the program with a master's? Forget about what it might look like to others; you'll have a master's, period.

There are plenty of opportunities for you in and out of academia that have nothing to do with the traditional PhD trajectory. You can be a research administrator, a writer or editor, an academic advisor, a teacher, a registrar, a tutor or test prep specialist, whatever. But you won't be able to get anywhere unless you step back from this failure path and take a hard look at where you really want to be.

You have time. Trust me.
posted by Madamina at 7:49 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having a PhD is more than just a piece of paper. It's proof that you were able to immerse yourself deeply in a project, do original thought, and organize that work into a cohesive product. That's a selling point for a lot of jobs, not just academic ones.

I'm normally the guy telling people to quit grad school if they're miserable, but at this point, when you're ABD? I can't think of any reason why you shouldn't put your head down, crank this thing out as quickly as possible, and have something to show for your 6 years of invested time. Unless you fear that it'll take more than 6 months to a year, I'd finish up.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:51 PM on April 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

If you're funded, then you might as well finish. But treat this as a chance to figure out what you want to do next while still having your basic expenses covered.

I'd start by going to the campus mental health clinic and working on getting your anxiety treated. Deciding next steps will be much easier when you're not viewing everything through the fog of anxiety.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 7:55 PM on April 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Hello. You may remember me from the previous threads on this topic.

So, part of poor self-esteem and self-image is that those of us who feel we are frauds tend to avoid situations in which we might be found out, which means avoiding doing the work and putting it out there (via procrastination, anxiety, other methods), thereby quite effectively sabotaging our careers. Until imposter syndrome becomes true and our actual record is in line with our internal self-perception, i.e. terrible. Our actions are strongly driven by our internal self-image; we find tension between our self-perception and others external perceptions of ourselves to be difficult to bear; thus we try to harmonize the external and internal, hopefully by coming to believe that others are right, but sometimes unfortunately acting in ways to prove them wrong.

The only way I got through this was intensive therapy. It changed my life. It was expensive but it was something I couldn't afford not to do. I recognize many things in your question that tell me you are totally and utterly lost and defeated inside, and regardless of whether or not you can finish the dissertation, you will need to regain a vision of yourself as a capable person who is alive and has a future, as a prerequisite for being able to see that future and take steps towards it.

My specific advice to you is to leverage your existing academic position and try to get work as an intern or collaborator of some sort, maybe over the summer, maybe part-time. Paid work, preferably, but anything would help, even a month-long "collaboration" with a non-academic partner in which you do... whatever, anything to get you some experience and get a foot in the door. Spend some time imagining what kind of skills you possess and what kind of career paths you could do, and make this your project. Put the dissertation on hold for a little while -- it will still be there in a few months. Also: no more school. I was very tempted to launch into another grad program because I felt incapable of being employed, like I need more time, had to learn more skills, etc.... But that was the fear talking. Whether or not you can get into another grad program, take that off the table; get out there and do something first.

You'll find, I'm sure, that the dissertation itself is a tortured, painful project. What I worry for you is that you might slog through it in two or three years, not one ("I think that if I could bring myself to work diligently"), and face an even bigger crisis when that finishes and you have no goal and no path. Speaking from personal experience, once I sorted myself out and knew where I wanted to go with my life, and decided that finishing my thesis was part of that goal rather than dropping out, my productivity increased by a factor of 10. I'm not kidding. So even if your goal is to get done as soon as possible, I think delaying writing for a while would still be advantageous in the long run. Good luck. Feel free to message me.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:55 PM on April 8, 2014 [20 favorites]

Look, you can't be that huge a waste of potential or your program at Prestigious U would have given you the heave-ho sometime in the previous 6+ years. You passed your quals and you can imagine a scenario where, if you pushed yourself, you could put together a dissertation in under a year. That's not trivial. Your grades suck - well, nobody cares about grad school grades as long as you don't flunk out of your program. Faculty don't want to work with you - except then how did you get a topic approved? You don't need the whole faculty to love you. You just need one to chair your committee and another few to sit on it. To me, you sound like you're really going to lengths to beat yourself up - cognitive distortions like that are a major feature of anxiety. Lay off yourself! You're not alone in this dilemma.

I can't personally answer the questions you ask, but most US universities do understand the job gap and dedicate some resources to it. For example, the career office at Prestigious U may have a subscription to The Versatile PhD, a website dedicated to helping grad students "identify, prepare for, and excel in possible non-academic careers."
There are also resources to answer the implicit question "dear God, how do I motivate myself to write a dissertation?"
PhinisheD is an online forum for people trying to finish a dissertation. You might perform better if you didn't feel like the world's greatest pariah and impostor, and some peer support might help that.
Here's some organizational and planning tools from an Australian research and training group called Thinkwell - I'm sure there's something equivalent to them in the US somewhere, but if not, you can still order their (good, nonthreatening) books Defeating Self-Sabotage and Turbocharge Your Writing.
posted by gingerest at 7:57 PM on April 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think you need a break. Pack your backpack and go woofing. Work a few weeks on a farm, far away from libraries and computer screens. Then come back and seek help (others provided great ideas/resources). You sound burned out, a bit of distance should help to make a balanced decision. Good luck.
posted by travelwithcats at 8:02 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm faculty at an R1 university, primary advisor to a bunch of PhD students and I sit on a number of PhD committees. I hold a PhD from a prestigious university.

I think you should figure out what whatever it is you want to do next. Others in this thread are suggesting what that might be. Once you have a job lined up, take it. You should finish the dissertation and PhD, but as far in as you are, you can finish any writing on nights and weekends once you start your next gig. If you aren't doing something that depends on the phd, typically a "less impressive" dissertation becomes quite passable. This "typical" though depends highly on the culture of your department and disposition of your advisor.

Investigate what other non-academic-track graduates have done after finishing your program. Their experiences can be informative in setting your expectations. Often the "graduate secretary" for your program may know contact information for those folks.
posted by u2604ab at 8:04 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

For what it is worth I am a grad school drop out and I regret not finishing. I wouldn't have made a good academic and the choice to abort was probably right but I am still bothered that I didn't finish it (though I quit just after completing my MA). In hindsight I made mountains out of molehills, waited for inspiration when I should have just been grinding, and had a ridiculous romanticized notion of what a dissertation was.

But then I am married to a professor so it is probably a bit harder for me to get distance from my quitting.

Talk to your advisor and be honest. They want you to succeed. You can probably finish a phd dissertation in a lot less than a year if you are truly motivated.
posted by srboisvert at 8:37 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm going to take what appears to be a contrary view here. I feel that what some people are suggesting you do is equivalent to holding onto a bad stock instead of cutting your losses. If you feel you don't want to work in academia, and you don't like what you are doing, the time you spend finishing your program is frankly probably a waste of precious time. At your age, the opportunity cost of not getting into your ultimate career sooner could be very high. Doors start closing and opportunities become more limited. It's not my intention to be alarmist but rather realistic and practical. Furthermore, if you are not happy doing what you are doing, isn't life too short to keep making yourself miserable? If you do something that you like and enjoy, you will bring more energy to it, you will be good at it, and you will thrive. You are in a bubble right now...there's a big world outside that bubble and it sounds like you might be better off going out to explore it now rather than later.
posted by Dansaman at 9:32 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you have funding right now, then leaving school is basically the equivalent of quitting one job before you've lined up another. It's tempting, when you hate your job. It's really, really tempting. But--don't. If you still feel like quitting without finishing your dissertation when you have an actual offer on the table for a job that pays a living wage, then by all means consider it, but right now start with trying to get your life in order while you're still in a situation where you can pay your bills and your student loans aren't due.
posted by Sequence at 9:38 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for your input, everyone. I definitely need to be more open and communicative with my adviser. I also agree it's time for yet another round of mental healthcare.

I will take some time to really consider what I can do next. Thank you for the resources listed above.
posted by redfishbluefish at 3:00 AM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know people in similar situations in my former department. The six months or one year to finish goal is almost never acheived. Their departments/advisers have more or less given up on them and are no longer offering any support. Not maliciously but because they have other students willing to put in the work who are a better use of their valuable time and advice. Some people finally finish after a year becomes three, or four, or five, but most are still languishing and spending too much time considering the sunk costs to do any actual writing. Of the ones who are the 6+ year range, very few will finish. I know a few people who took 6+ years to finish and were successful, but the delays were due to finding full-time work after their funding had run out, starting a family, etc. Those people were working on their dissertations the whole time, publishing, attending conferences, and still being very visible presences in the department and in our field.

As for the rest (the majority) who aren't getting it done, most are convinced that something is going to give and that all of the sudden, they are going to shift into super duper productivity mode and get that sucker written. That just doesn't happen.

Cut your losses and get on with your life. Life is too short to suffer in misery and uncertainty.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:57 AM on April 9, 2014

Husbunny is ABD with a Ph.D. in Mathematics. He left school, then went back and got his RN. He spent 10 years nursing.

When he wanted to leave the profession we discussed it and determined that with a few classes, he could become an Actuary. So he returned to school, took a few classes, and now he is a happy actuary.

My question is, could you leave your program with a Masters? If so, why not spare yourself the grief and do that?

Then, go onto put your discipline into the search box and see what pops up. You'd be surprised.

The big question is this, if you don't want to teach your discipline, what do you think you'd like to do?

You're not locked into ANYTHING!

You could stay and finish your dissertation, but you'll still have that issue of discovering what you want to do once you get your Ph.D.

For sure, speak with your advisor and be 100% honest about where you are right now. Ask for feedback and ideas. Brainstorm with this person.

ABD is not the end of the world, not by a long shot.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:23 AM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

No real-world work experience at all? Have you taught courses as a grad student? Have you worked as a research assistant or some kind of assistantship? Did you work in college?

There are ways to spin all that stuff. I left a PhD program three years in. I had done 3 years of teaching and a summer of research-assistant type work. I applied for administrative jobs and said "well, I've never had an "office job," but I taught 72 students a semester which required a ton of planning, multi tasking, organization, etc.... I got hired.

In my experience so far in administrative work, there are people with years of good-looking "office jobs" on paper, but when you hire them, they are completely incompetent or need their hand held for every task. There are supervisors out there who are totally willing to say "OK, you don't have 3-5 years of office experience like the job says, but you seem like you're able to function independently and you've done things that point to the ability to do stuff, so OK".

You may not want to be in admin work... I'm just telling you it's out there and plentiful and yes you 100% can get hired without having "office experience".

(For what it's worth, there are days that I miss some of the atmosphere of grad school, but I left in 2011 and have literally never said "I wish I wrote that dissertation".)
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:41 AM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

For now (speaking from some experience) you should stay in the program. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do that. The wrong way would be to keep wallowing in anxiety and self-doubt and avoidance, keep stringing out the dissertation, and find yourself in exactly the same place another few years down the road.

The right way is to come to terms with the fact that you want to get out of academia (zero shame in that), and buckle down, not just to working on your diss, but to exploiting all the resources around you for finding a new path in life. An elite university is a great place to find a job/career/vocation from, so before you cast yourself out into the cold world, you want to make sure you've wrung every last drop of opportunity out of your current situation. This means:

--Go to your career services office (although these can kinda suck even at the best universities). Talk to a counsellor and explain you're thinking of reorienting to a career outside academia. Ask what resources are available.

--Get linked into the alumni database. Research local alums from related departments who are now in nonacademic careers. Set up some informational interviews, make connections. Remember to sound confident and excited, not defeated. Do not say that you can't make it in academia; say you're loving your program and your research, but you've been increasingly fascinated by what you've been hearing about $FIELD.

--Check if there's a departmental job-seeker's listserv you can sign up for, even if you're not officially "on the market." Plenty of nonacademic positions get posted on these.

--Meet with your department's career placement officer. This person will almost certainly have some experience placing grads in jobs outside the academy. Ask if (s)he knows any successful recent grads you might speak to.

--Look into clubs/grad student activities with a careerist orientation. Does your university have a grad consulting club? Do they have a community teaching internship program? Do they have a writing center where you might tutor? Sign up and start putting out feelers for alternative career paths.

--Check with the departmental administrator to see if there are existing connections between your department and any local firms-- some testing services/consulting places, for instance, have established pathways for culling off grad students from particular schools.

--Start going to any and all university career fairs of interest

--If your university has an alumni weekend coming up in May/June, go to the grad networking events. Dress nicely, hear some stories, make some connections.

--Also, definitely see if your uni has a subscription to The Versatile PhD.

Frankly, regardless of whether you ultimately leave ABD, it's worth staying right now so you can continue to have access to the university "brand," which will signal prestige and open a lot of doors. But to leverage that properly, you need to lose the defeated attitude and take control of your narrative a bit. Remember, nobody outside the department knows or cares whether you were late turning in a couple papers. Professors are only really qualified to comment on whether you're suited to do academic research in their subfield (and sometimes, not even on that), so their opinion says nothing about how smart or together or qualified you are. Start thinking of yourself as a person of excellence (which based on the fact that you're in a competitive program at a top university is 100% true), who's not in flight from the academy but allured by the greater opportunities outside it. Then, go out joyfully to put that excellence to work in the world.
posted by Bardolph at 6:54 AM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

It is not responsive to the question, but I'm totally surprised that the profs who have commented think there is still a chance for you to finish despite your bad relation with the dept faculty. From the cases I've known, including my own, I'd of said you were already toast.

My son was ABD for over a year getting married, moving across country, and learning to teach before he finished his Computer Science PhD. He reported that getting the dissertation done while working was the hardest thing he ever did (and he was totally competent to do excellent work).

I would think if you are going to continue you need an ally on the faculty. You also need to start doing good work.

Enough commentary, on to my real answer: therapy, at least enough for an evaluation. It is possible you have a depression/anxiety disorder that can be treated.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:07 AM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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