Should I continue with my PhD program?
January 3, 2017 1:03 PM   Subscribe

I think I know the answer, considering I'm even asking this question. It's a humanities PhD, although not exactly in the discipline (or with the type of approach) I most wanted; I have a full-time job; etc. Many more snowflakes inside!

I started a four-ish-year (coursework for three years, dissertation for one or so years) humanities PhD in August. From the start, I had reservations about how good of a fit this program would be for me, but I went ahead with it anyway. Basically: It's sort of my field, but not the exact field I wanted my PhD program to be in. In addition, the approach that this particular program takes to research and scholarship is very different from any I have encountered before, and in addition to not quite meshing with this approach, I worry that it could limit me if I chose to pursue a career in academia (trust me: I know how impossible that is, especially in the U.S., where I am).

But the program has good things going for it, too: My final papers (on topics I enjoyed writing about) were well received by faculty, who suggested I revise and submit them to conferences. I get along well with most in the program (fellow students and faculty alike), and the program itself doesn't have a competitive, eating-their-young vibe. Everyone is nice and helpful. Because I'm also teaching a class, my out-of-pocket cost is minimal—a couple of hundred dollars a semester. (And I loved the class I taught, as well as my students.) The university itself is about 15 minutes away from where I live, and I didn't have to move for this program.

I also work a full-time job in my field that I enjoy, and my boss (as well as others in my department) are very supportive of my pursuing a PhD and have been flexible in adjusting my schedule when necessary for this.

However, I just can't shake the feeling that the program isn't the right fit. I was interested and engaged in some classroom discussions (and those outside of the classroom as well), but I feel like another program, one more tailored to my specific interests, would suit me better. I can't decide if I want to do even another semester—and I haven't even allowed myself to think of doing three more years.

But I feel like I may be squandering this opportunity. Is it something I'll regret? I don't know if such a chance will come up again (especially where I'm investing minimally financially), and I don't want to disappoint anyone. Still, I know that I would not be happy teaching this type of material even if I were to finish this PhD and get a job in the field. Further complicating this is the fact that although my schedule was relatively simple last semester, this semester's would require spending almost every weekday late afternoon and evening on campus (rather than doing this just a couple of days per week; I didn't find that to be too awful, but I wonder if I would've been more invested had it been a different program). I'm worried this will start to affect my relationships, as well as my work in the program and at my full-time job. ALSO: I'm in the running for another job that would make doing a PhD, at least in these circumstances, impossible. If I had to choose, I would, hands down, pick the job over the PhD. And even if I don't get that job, I'm interested in pursuing some other things (like freelance work and volunteering) that I just can't do while also PhD-ing. (But I also find myself wondering, If I leave the program, how will I fill my time? I'm worried that it will also affect confidence in myself, since I tried something that ultimately didn't work out.)

I'm sorry this is messy and disjointed. I've just been trying to figure out what to do, without much resolution, and my time to decide is running out. Help!
posted by gypsyhymns to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you want a PhD? You are clear-eyed about the job prospects in academia, you seem to not want the jobs you think you might be able to get after this program, and there are other jobs you want that are incompatible with staying in the program. The pros you list are basically "the people are nice and like my work."

Leave. You are in danger of succumbing to what a grad school friend called the "velvet ditch" - it's not exactly where you want to be, but it's kind of comfortable and you could just hang out there for a while... Do the other things you want to pursue, it sounds like grad school was fun for a while but is unlikely to get you where you want to go.
posted by momus_window at 1:29 PM on January 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Speaking as someone with a Ph.D., my general advice to students is that they should not pursue (or perhaps even continue) a doctoral program unless they absolutely want and/or need to do so. You don't appear to be especially interested in what the program offers you; it doesn't seem particularly relevant to your career prospects; and the new job is far more appealing to you. Take the job!
posted by thomas j wise at 2:21 PM on January 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

Getting through a dissertation that you're not passionate about is torture (and advising students in that situation is also not fun). Unless there is some concrete benefit you'd get from the degree I'd say bail and maybe at some point try another program that you're excited about.
posted by nixxon at 2:43 PM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds like if you factor out the (minimal) chance you'll have an academic career — and the academia-internal things, like publications and conference presentations, that will be useless to you outside of an academic career — the things you're getting out of this are
  1. Some interesting discussions
  2. Cheap supervised teaching experience that could be good resume filler if you wanted to do something like teach community college in the future
  3. The letters "PhD" after your name, which can be useful if you end up in a career where having an advanced degree automatically moves you to a higher pay grade
So the question is how much you value those things, and whether you could get them more easily elsewhere. If none of those things are worth three years of very, very hard work to you, then leave.

The fact that your professors are impressed with you is a red herring. It doesn't obligate you to keep going, and a good academic reputation in a nontechnical field almost never transfers to a nonacademic career in any useful way. Be really, really honest with yourself about that, because your professors won't be.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:54 PM on January 3, 2017

If it will limit what you can do, I would put it off until it makes absolute sense to do it - you might find it never does - but, don't do it "just because" if it will close other doors.

Q: If I leave the program, how will I fill my time?

A: I'm interested in pursuing some other things (like freelance work and volunteering)
posted by heyjude at 2:55 PM on January 3, 2017

If you aren't willing to stay late during the week (or come into work on weekends or pull all-nighters), a PhD is not for you.

It doesn't sound like you want this degree, nor does it seem like you're at a loss as to what to do with your time.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:49 PM on January 3, 2017

I am going to disagree with the no votes, with the caveat that I do not have a PhD and am surely not qualified to answer! To me, it's a symbol just like any other degree that you have the brains and discipline to complete a body of work of this magnitude. If you can maintain a healthy emotional distance and keep a professional attitude about it, I think you should keep going.
posted by raisingsand at 6:51 AM on January 4, 2017

Go for it. If you don't have another passion/project in the works right now and it's not going to rack up huge loans, what's the downside? It's more than the three letters. You can leave those off and do something else or take advantage of the prestige if it helps in the future. Psst, and you can cancel any time if something huge comes up in a year or two.
posted by sammyo at 9:46 AM on January 4, 2017

You can leave those off and do something else or take advantage of the prestige if it helps in the future.

In my field at least, that's a fireable offense -- and getting a PhD disqualifies you from lower tier positions which might otherwise be totally enjoyable fits.

PhDs change your resume in ways that bachelors -- and even masters degrees -- don't. They're irreversible, and that can easily be a negative as well as a positive.

If you don't want to spend every hour of the day thinking about your subject, don't go for it. If you have an outside life you want to maintain, don't try to get your PhD. Think of it like parenthood: irreversible and totally consuming.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 2:31 PM on January 4, 2017

« Older Good critiques of Buddhism?   |   What is this sort-of sentence diagramming? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.