At Crossroads, Need Perspective (phd folks & /or therapists!)
June 22, 2020 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Hello, all. Help me think more clearly about that ol' question: Should I finish the PhD or not? Now with pandemic-related complications! This is a total brain dump, and probably sort of hilarious. Contingencies abound. Sooo many more snowflaky details inside...

Some context: In 2011, I entered a pretty good (by which I mean "very highly rated") PhD program in a field in the humanities -- quite possibly the most useless and competitive field available (I've earned the right to joke about this). I was that program's first pick from their applicants that year, which felt pretty good. I'd already done an MFA in an equally well-respected program, and had done a couple years of AmeriCorps work before that, so I'd been out and about a bit before I went in.

I'd seriously overprepared during the MFA and fast-tracked through the program, busting total a**. I finished both my MA exam and my qualifying exams a year ahead of schedule. Sure, there was plenty of ignorant newb phd kid stuff, but overall I did quite well. I was working on my diss when I took an awarded year of fellowship and moved -- temporarily, I thought -- to a rural town about 3 hours away from campus, where living was much more affordable and there is a gorgeous national park (I'm into outside stuff).

So I stayed there that year, and wrote, but realized I totally DGAF about those hyper-masculine and just generally dumb current theoretical trends that were supposed to be so sexy. I also realized I was surrounded by creepy jerky academic dudes, one of whom was my advisor, and that my eagerness to succeed had blinded me to the fact that these people sucked. The next year, I commuted to teach as a GSI, which was fine 1 day/week. I researched and started over with a new project and advisor, and she was awesome, but by then I had a fairly consistent adjunct job in that rural town and I was enjoying being there. And then someone new took over graduate teaching stuff and there were no more 1 day/week classes to teach. So I took a leave of absence.

That was three years ago.

So you'd think that would be it, right? Yeah. No.

Over the last two years, I've started my own business here in this rural town (yep, I'm still here) doing some stuff that is totally, utterly unrelated to my previous academic life, though it follows pretty logically from other interests/experiences of mine. I love it, and also knew from the start that I'd have to grow and develop (me and it) in a certain way. One of these ways involves becoming a licensed therapist. (I'm now 38, btw -- thought I should add that in somewhere.)

I thought that stage would come later, like much later. But then Covid happened. And my business -- which was still tiny but growing nicely -- is now pretty much kaput, and probably will be for at least a couple years, thanks to the pandemic. (The business involves teaching therapeutic yoga and mediation, both in private and retreat settings, and doing that plus outdoor guiding in the national park. I mean... it's rad.)

Before I go on even further, I should mention that I'm also at a stage in life when I just want a solid career. I've done all kinds of cool stuff and taken all kinds of risks, but I'm done with fancy pantsy stuff. I just want reliable work that's satisfying and service-oriented -- and I am clearly cut out to be my own boss.

So I've put some thought and feeling into that therapist (LMFT) thing. It feels pretty right. I've found some accredited academic programs and possible loan repayment programs (still, eek... I mean, hopefully I'll be able to get those; I know I'd qualify but...!) that would let me stay here for studying and working. Definitely not fancy, but it would get the job done. This is exciting to me, because somewhere deep down I've always known I'd end up doing it. And (post-Covid), this will connect with the other work I do. AND... I know it's no cake walk, but... MORE JOB STABILITY (than in academia -- which is saying very little, but still). DOING SOMETHING I LIKE TO DO. I mean, I can see myself doing therapy for decades. And liking it.

BUT. The unfinishedness of this doctoral degree is hanging over my head. It's like I can't move on without just doing it. Assuming pandemic schedule persists (meaning I have almost nothing else to do other than part-time work), it would take me about a year to a year and a half to finish, if I get back in the mode.

Which is a year and a half I'm delaying getting into an actual job, which that process is gonna take a while too.

But. It's also only a year and a half.

I've also realized that what I should have done from the start of the PhD was focus on an entirely different subfield, one totally separate from the main track I was on before. This would actually be an interesting project (in rural health and public policy), and maybe useful in some way. It would also relate somewhat to the work I'd be doing in mental health later, so not a total outlier.

ANYWAY. You can see here that I'm in the thick of the considerings. PLEASE, feel free to offer up any experience, advice, etc. that may be relevant, even if the specifics look totally different -- more interested in the process /reasoning / intuition you use to guide these decisions.

Many thanks!
posted by Orlando_Vita to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have a doctorate in a certain humanities-related field, which I am not working in now and haven't for maybe 15 years. I mention this, because it is a common outcome. Probably by far the most common outcome.

Personally I would not enter or re-enter a doctoral program at this point unless:

#1. It were totally, 100% paid for including some kind of living stipend, maybe an assistantship or the like

#2. It led directly onto a career path, with actual jobs along it, that I definitely, very much wanted to be on and where I would very, very definitely be employable at the end of that PhD path.

Also I would mention that completing that PhD is a positive career negative for every other career option except for those (very, very, very few in number, I'm sure) that actually require that one particular PhD.

As someone who has spent some time working towards a particular PhD, you haven't really hurt your career prospects for any other kind of work. But complete that PhD, get that degree, and you definitely have. It becomes an albatross, something you have to explain away, and a definite reason for people to not even consider employing you from the start, or choosing another well-qualified applicant when you make it down to the final few.

As you can tell, personally I would recommend letting the PhD dream go and spending that 1.5 years on something that will actually help move your life and career forward. Because the other huge downsides of the PhD path are #1. The large amount of $$$ it's going to cost you, including probable future debt and even more important #2. The time you lose working towards that goal which you will never get back and which you could, instead, use to move you towards the life goals you actually want to pursue at this point.

My $.02.
posted by flug at 9:54 PM on June 22, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am also ABD right now (I'm 43) and having a Real Hard Time getting it done, but my normal advice at this point is that if 'all' you have left is the diss, just go ahead and get it done (especially right now, when as you pointed out, you have time you may not have again). I need to suck it up and start writing again this summer (but I'm headed towards admin, so it Has To Get Done). You're really close, even if it doesn't feel like it - so go ahead and knock it out.

But - it is also okay to let it go. You're not losing those experiences and that knowledge, and you will apply them (in ways you don't even see now) to whatever you do in the future - this new venture (which sounds super cool!) or some other adventure. And the academic job market sucks SO HARD right now and is going to be trash for awhile. Maybe it's time to put down the phd and put that knowledge to use getting your therapy degree done and growing that path some more (as you said, better job market, something you like to do, something that lets you stay in the place you love - which the academic market is not going to do).

Read those two paragraphs. Which one sits better with you?

(Also, practical question - you started in 2011, do you need to file a clock extension like yesterday to finish up?)
posted by joycehealy at 9:56 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would only do it if you can connect it to a career goal or deep personal passion of the sort you would do for free.
posted by slidell at 10:18 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @flug: Thanks so much for this. I've been wondering about what you described. And, yes, it would be totally paid for, with a stipend, but pretty inconvenient and sloggish.
The debt would actually be incurred in the career-change choice. But, you know. Maybe it's worth it if I actually enter an extant field and work for a few decades.
posted by Orlando_Vita at 10:35 PM on June 22, 2020

I think you've got the 'interesting questions warrant my time' and 'be my own boss' that are the successful outcomes of getting a PhD. If we frame it as the PhD is for adding something novel to a field and having peers accredit you as such, it sounds like you don't need peers to validate you. If your vanity needs the title, there's a chance to earn a doctorate while training and working in your therapeutic field.
posted by k3ninho at 11:47 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Justifiably, there's lots of cynicism towards PhDs on AskMe. Most of this is grounded in the exploitative, abusive and unjust institution of academia.

To me, questions about PhDs hinge around the reality of these abuses versus the potentialities of knowledge.

How will you learn, develop and grow through committing to writing your thesis? It's a very difficult question to answer, because it's not a process that you can wholly predict even this close to the end. There are possibilities within your text, lots of ideas that could be; some things that may change you. These are the potentialities that are calling to you, despite the wonderful alternatives that you have developed.

Can you meditate on the career aspects, answer those questions, perhaps silence them. You will get a title and a certificate you won't get elsewhere. Anything else?

Once they have gone then you are left with writing the thesis. This will always begin in performance. Does it go anywhere else? Probably. Will that be time better spent?
posted by einekleine at 12:39 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

I want to pop in that in most states (it varies a little bit) an lmft takes a 2two years masters program and then about two years of supervised work experience before you can actually be licensed. So you are looking at aleast four years until you can actually do the job you want to do with the licence you want to do it. Personally I went the LCSW route which is av little more flexible in terms of jobs incase you want to jump ship and do something that's not therapy.
In terms of loan repayment, remember that PLSF programs require10 years non profit or goverment work experience, and the pay difference can be fairly drastic so you will need to look into how that will impact your wages for full time work. Your own private practice does not qualify for loan forgiveness.

I've never gotten a PhD and am fairly ignorant about humanities academia, so I can't comment on that. If you want to do therapy go for it. I am not someone who would do therapy a a full time job, and I don't. I thought at one point I wanted to, but I cannot sit still that long. I currently have a different role in the social umbrella that fits me that I'm very happy with.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:22 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

From a member who would like to remain anonymous:
PhD programs are mindfucks for sure, but even knowing that, I still feel that not finishing destroyed my life. I dropped out of my program in the mid 90s, and despite literally decades of therapy, I have never recovered.

You are not me, and you may do fine without finishing. But I think it's important for you to hear from someone with my experience. I am ABD in a humanities PhD. I got about a third of the way through my dissertation. I was struggling a lot with severe depression but every time I restarted the dissertation, I got so depressed, I ended up being hospitalized. That seems like a perfectly fine reason to quit, but I have never gotten over my feelings of failure.

I also never was able to get into a decent career - and this may be another area where we differ. I have been working for years in a field I don't like in a job I hate. My hatred for my job is a huge stress in my life, but I see no way out of it. I am qualified for nothing else, and at this point, ageism would be a factor in looking for another job. I know a lot of people who did PhDs are not happy, but it's hard for me not to feel that my life would be better if I had finished. Severe regret is real and can destroy you.

As I said, it's very possible that you will have a completely different experience if you don't finish. Lots of perfectly lovely people don't have PhDs, and I think I would have been OK if I'd never started the thing. And I have no doubt that many people who completed PhDs feel the time would have been spent better doing something, anything, else. But I think it's important for you to hear from someone who had the best reasons for not finishing and just never got over the feeling of being a failure.
posted by taz at 6:33 AM on June 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm in a very different field. But, I've advised (in different capacities) a few dozen PhD students and I loved the 9 years I spent in grad school. As someone who doesn't know you, it seems to me like you already know the answer.

If you ask me, there are three good reasons to finish grad school: (1) you love it and enjoy the work and the people you work with or (2) it will significantly help you get a raise, e.g., 'cause you're a teacher or a corporate consultant, or someone else who will benefit from having some letters after your name, (3) you're willing to take a crazy decade-long gamble on a very unlikely academic career. (I fall into #1 and #3 and have been very happy.)

The sunk cost fallacy is something creepy jerky academic dudes tend to bring up. But, it's still a real thing and worth keeping in mind. If doing something makes you less happy than not doing it, in the long term, there's no reason to do it. Even if you've already wasted years and money on it already. Quitting things can be liberating. (But, if not finishing a thing is so personally frustrating it'll take more effort to become comfortable with than to finish it. . . it's worth completing.)

Also, for whatever it's worth, my spouse radically switched fields (in their case, *into* a PhD program and out of a promising career in something else) in their mid thirties, and it's been great for them. Spending a few years working toward a job you love is worth it if you can afford it.

Best wishes.
posted by eotvos at 7:16 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

What’s going to be different about the PhD program this time? Are you excited by a new angle on your research topic? Are you in touch with your advisor and what do they say? Could you get closure by publishing what you’ve got?

The dissertation writing portion of my PhD was pretty psychologically brutal and I feel like it’s taken me years to recover. I was also well-prepared and doing well in the program, it’s just hard, especially remotely. I have a job where my doctorate is nice but not required and I think about it rarely now and don’t derive a lot of pride from it. I recommend you find some ritual so it doesn’t feel like a loose end anymore and move on.
posted by momus_window at 8:12 AM on June 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

I teach undergrad Philosophy, a field totally dominated by the hyper masculine dumb theory stuff you’re talking about here, and I do not have a PhD nor do I have the ability to just ...pause my life and go get one. This makes me sad, because I do work in my field that subverts and (in a tiny way) pushes back against my discipline’s shitty and terrible well earned reputation. You don’t want to work within the dominant paradigms of your field? Awesome. Writing your dissertation isn’t something that you can just, like, sit down and do in a weekend of course, but can you do your fulfilling work AND finish the dissertation in a way that includes your growth and personal perspective? Can you contribute that important perspective you have to a field that you aren’t going to work in?
If you hadn’t started yet, I would say that giving up would be easier. But you started writing, and you have strong feelings about your research! My advice is to just sketch out what a critique of your no-longer-defensible positions would look like, try to write a little bit using that sub field you’re more interested in and see if you can put a coherent narrative together that still meets your original proposal if you squint, and then decide based on whether this is a project you are interested in continuing. COVID is going to be affecting all industry in the US for quite a while. If you think you need 18 months, you’ll possibly only “lose” 6-8 months of productivity in your actual career to this thing.
Just see if you want to get it done, the only way to know is to actually check in and try to write while you have the time. If you discover you have Exactly Zero Fucks to make the dissertation fit your needs and interests, you’ll be less likely to feel like you just walked away later on. You’ll be able to tell the story to yourself of how you tried and just didn’t have any interest as opposed to it just hanging there in your past, unfinished and nagging at you.
posted by zinful at 8:48 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you want the personal satisfaction of getting the diss done and receiving the degree, how hard would it be to just do the bare minimum amount of effort to write a passable diss?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:16 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @AlexiaSky Thanks for your response!
Yes, the four-year LMFT process is an argument for starting asap.
I have considered the LCSW -- you think that is the best way to go?
I live in a rural area that qualifies for the NHSC Rural Community loan repayment program, and there are qualifying facilities really close to me. The commitment is 3 years part- or full-time. It's a somewhat competitive thing, but I'd meet the criteria and can apply multiple times if needed.
posted by Orlando_Vita at 10:16 AM on June 23, 2020

Most people with LMFT or LCSW are fairly friendly people, it may be with reaching out to the NHSC facilities to find out what they prefer if that's your route. Ultimately if you want to do therapy and just therapy, either license will do in most states. The LCSW just provides the possibility of going into something else as well, like public policy or grant writing or medical social work or dcfs work or a hundred other things.
The LMFT will have more of a therapeutic focus, than the LCSW not as much because there is just so much different ground to cover. I don't feel like my LCSW education made me a good therapist, it did provide background to work with diverse people in a multitude of settings and a great foundation to hone individual therapy skills if I choose to do so. I don't feel disserviced by it either because it really serves me well in what I do right now. Some programs will have more focus on individual practice than others.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:32 PM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

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