Reluctance to stay in academia: is this burnout or a sign?
June 12, 2015 12:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the last stretch of my PhD in the UK, with a month left before I submit my thesis. I also have a full-time job as a lecturer. I enjoy and am energised by teaching but am increasingly reluctant to focus on research. Part of this is probably exhaustion from the PhD, and I know I shouldn't make any decisions now, but part of it feels like genuine dislike of the work and skepticism of its value. What do I need to consider, post-submission, in evaluating my future?

I wrote in my journal recently that I think my work is both no fun and no use to anyone, so why do it. I'm finding it hard to answer this question. I don't need to answer it right now, there is no good reason to quit the PhD, having come so close, and I plan to push through and submit in a month whatever I decide. So in a way, asking the question is just a sophisticated form of procrastination. But I feel like getting some advice here would help to settle my mind and stop me going round and round this circle.

I just feel like I'm writing for a tiny circle of people, with the sole aim of impressing them and persuading them to let me join their club, and that this is a really dumb goal to have in life. In theory, my work could have practical impact -- it has a public policy orientation -- but I feel like I would have much more practical impact if I actually went out and got a policy job. And I think my motives would be clarified and I'd be freed from my psychological dependence on the approval of professors, which has been a big theme in my life since I was 18 and probably not a positive one.

Should I tell myself that, once I get the degree, I should immediately start applying for jobs elsewhere or should I plan to give myself another year or so (+ therapy) to see if this is just reaction? I'm 30, so I feel like I've already wasted a lot of time, the whole of my twenties. On the other hand, from a financial point of view, I stand a decent chance of promotion in the next 3 years if I get my degree and churn out some publications. Any change in career would probably involve less job security and, in the short-to-medium term, less money. So perhaps staying in academia is the safe thing to do, as well as perhaps something I will go back to enjoying and valuing someday?
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like I would have much more practical impact if I actually went out and got a policy job. And I think my motives would be clarified and I'd be freed from my psychological dependence on the approval of professors, which has been a big theme in my life since I was 18 and probably not a positive one.

Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.

There will always be someone to seek approval from: a boss, a lover, children, friends. Switching jobs will definitely not fix that. If it's an issue in your life in an unhealthy way you should take it up with therapy and/or spiritual practice.

I'm 30, so I feel like I've already wasted a lot of time, the whole of my twenties.

That part is burnout. As far as using it in your decision making, it also may be sunk cost fallacy creeping into your thinking.

Also consider seeking out an academic (or secondary level instruction) job that's more focused on teaching instead of research if that's what energizes you.
posted by Jahaza at 1:12 PM on June 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I felt pretty similar to this when I concluded my PhD. I got a job that emphasized teaching over research, and embarked on a completely different research area (though, frankly, I just kind of messed around and made no real progress at it). After a couple of years, I was able to see the impact of my thesis work—both because I personally gained some perspective, and also be cause it had enough time to have some impact, and I found that people wanted to talk to me about it and found it valuable. I got some new data and got back into it.
posted by BrashTech at 2:16 PM on June 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

Please power through and finish your thesis. You're at a point where you're 95% done and it would be awful not to finish. I suspect later on you'd really regret stopping.

Also, unless you've already lined up your next job, you get to pick what you work on next. You can totally pick a more applied/direct impact thing to do for your next stretch of time. I felt a bit like you (but in a different field) and purposely set out to do much more directly applied research when I got a TT position. And now, 15 years on, the PhD work I did which seemed so esoteric has become something with a more immediate impact, and I've picked it back up.
posted by overhauser at 5:14 PM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

- writing for a tiny circle of people

That shouldn't be true. Successful academics in all fields ought to be able to extrapolate how their new findings an affect humanity in many ways.

- aim of impressing them and persuading them to let me join their club

Nope. You should be impressing them with coming up with new ideas to bolster/destroy different camps.

In the sciences, when a sub-specialty starts rejecting outsiders, its a good bet that there's an outsider who's imminently going to change everything. As a student, hook up with the disrupters instead of the old guard.

I'm 30

Psychological barrier. 30 is not a magical date where stuff suddenly changes. I was 33 or 34 when I graduated from my doctoral candidacy. (I'm... 3 or so years out.) What does graduation mean anyway; passing the thesis defense or going through the boring convocation?

Anecdotally, people who "burn out" don't typically succeed pursuing a tenure track position. Not that there aren't exceptions. In science, it's usually those who are indefatigable regardless of how their research is currently going who are most successful in academia.

It's ok not to be enough of a freak to stand a statistical chance of succeeding in academia.

However, there are other fulfilling and viable careers. Aiming for tenure track teaching/research without demonstrable future chops at it is counterproductive and may lead to unnecessary bitterness.

Feel free to contact me through memail for specifics or ongoing anything
posted by porpoise at 8:59 PM on June 12, 2015

Note that OP is in the UK, so there is no "tenure track." Is your lectureship fixed-term or permanent? If it's the latter, you're in a vastly better position than 95% of PhD students and your future self will hate you for throwing away an excellent start to an academic career. In terms of impact outside the university, note that "impact" (defined in precisely those terms) is an increasingly substantial part of the REF. If you can think about fundable projects that engage with non-academic communities and will make a demonstrable impact there, that may actually be a more viable and rewarding (though no less stressful) pathway than pure research (and the journal articles will come anyway). Your "so what" questions are good ones to have, but you can put them to use in furthering your career rather than second-guessing it.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:34 AM on June 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I felt very similar at the end of my PhD. Now, 4 years out, I still love teaching and am excited about research again and glad I stuck with academia. Time was the answer for me, and it could be for you, too. And if it's not, you could still pursue policy work after a few years in your lectureship.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:40 AM on June 13, 2015

I wrote in my journal recently that I think my work is both no fun and no use to anyone, so why do it.

Hi, you are me. This is how I felt about my PhD towards the end. I finished - which I'm VERY VERY GLAD I DID - and did maybe a month or two of job search before I realised that my feelings towards the university hadn't changed. I switched careers, and now, 4 years later, I'm still super happy with my decision.

My 2c? Don't make any big decisions now. Maybe this is a phase that will pass, maybe it won't, but an unfinished PhD can truly be an albatross around your neck. Finish your PhD then reassess. Drastically changing your career can be big and scary, but my PhD opened more doors for me than I would have imagined.
posted by nerdfish at 4:13 AM on June 14, 2015


Yes, it looks like you've some burn-out, and I think that's to be expected. In fact, I think it's a key indicator that your PhD dissertation is reaching completion; these kinds of feelings surface precisely because you're getting to a stage where you know your work so intimately, so very thoroughly, that you no longer like it and you think that it can't possibly be worth anyone else taking seriously. But remember: no-one else knows your work that thoroughly, no-one else has agonised over it the way that you have. There are plenty of academics out there who are going to be interested in what you've done (I can give you REASONS for thinking this, but broadly it's because you've already put work in to the subject); no matter how mundane or trivial your conclusions might sound to you, they'll be novel to other people, not least because they'll be framed by the totally unique way that each of us approach our research questions. It's hard to recognise this from the position that you're currently in, but you're pretty much the world-expert on YOUR studies right now; no-one else has read the precise selection of things that you've read (in the order that you read them) and put them together in the way that you're doing. From your point of you, it might look like you've just joined some pretty-obvious dots, but to anyone else (your examiners, for example), you'll be making connections between things that they already know about and things that they want to know about but haven't had a chance to look at just yet because my gosh that inbox just never stops filling up...

So you're sick of the stuff you're writing. Sure, you've been doing it for years, and you're perhaps reaching a point where this project can be wrapped up, and that's not always an ecstatic moment, but it CAN be liberating, since what comes next is the opportunity to follow up on some of the other bits that you've had to put on a back-burner while you've focused pretty narrowly on what can be achieved in a piece the size or length of a PhD thesis. Burnout on project A can be backed with a phoenix-like opportunity to reassess and reinvent on project B.

What I'm saying: yes, it feels a bit bleak, but that comes with the territory of being at the end of a PhD, and it's actually a pretty good indicator that you're ready to put this PhD to bed and get on with the next project. Part of your question is: but do I really want to go through this stuff over and over? Well, not all academic research is like writing a PhD (which is a rather contrived and stressful way of making people who've never written a book before agree to write one from scratch, with no prior knowledge of what'll go into it, in no more than 4 years and preferably within 3; not a recipe for wellbeing). It strikes me that what the PhD really does (at least in a UK context) is prepare researchers to be good judges of their own work, and that's about it – it instils or inculcates a certain type of judgemental ability about whether a piece needs more focus, more work, more tweaking, more editing, more data, more discussion, more argument. Undergraduate students often lack this ability, and it's rarely encouraged or developed in them - rather, they're being introduced to the very idea of academic inquiry in general. Masters students are exposed to their first opportunity to write a really extended piece of 'original research', but it's really during the PhD that students are left to get on with fine-tuning their ability to assess their work for academic virtues. PhD students are (or should be) treated as peers by other academics for this reason, and the role of supervisor is just there to be a sounding board, and to trim sails slightly when it's possible that the dissertation might go awry in some awkward fashion. The dissertation needn't make a massive contribution to human knowledge, it's primarily (to my mind) a tool by which a student undergoes the kind of transformation to emerge as an individual who can make some decent judgements about the merits of different academic inquiries, and as an authority on their own (usually quite narrow, because it's a PhD) set of questions. It's about getting to a stage where the student can stand independently from the views/opinions/practices of the people around them.

It sounds to me like your anxiety is more about what-happens-next than about finishing the PhD. You perhaps can't see it right now, but your dissertation is way more interesting than you think it is, and I'm sure there are things that (after you've got some distance from it, perhaps) you'll positively enjoy coming back to. The artificial nature of the PhD-process makes the thesis become pretty loathsome, but you got into doing the PhD because you enjoyed the subject and are good at it, and you've made some big strides within it (even if it doesn't look that way right now), and I'm guessing you can do more in the future. The options for the next steps *are* a little bit complicated (stay in academia vs. do something else), but I think they're a bit of a separate issue to this one about whether you finish the PhD. Fortunately, you have a job as a lecturer (congratulations! It's tough to get one!), and being a lecturer requires you do a whole other set of things, some of which are so continuously obnoxious that I think that after a while the idea of doing your own research again will start to look positively enticing to you. [Whether that's a good thing or not is a slightly separate issue].

I'm happy to memail with you about any of this some more, any time.
posted by Joeruckus at 10:45 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

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