another night in with the ol' ball-and-chain (my PhD)
December 2, 2020 9:14 PM   Subscribe

Fell out of love with dream job. Can't quit. How do I finish this PhD ASAP?

For various reasons (including respect for my collaborators and my desire to have a PhD), I can't quit, but I've got 1.5-2 years to go. Unfortunately I have completely lost any intellectual interest in doing the actual day-to-day work for the PhD. But the more I drag my feet, the more I impede my collaborators, and the further away graduation day moves. Also I cannot really phone it in because I am leading a team of people. How do I graduate?

We have very regular meetings, deadlines, momentum, great advisors, etc., and I have a clear path to graduation. The problem is just me, a leader who has lost passion for this project. I feel intellectually bored and trapped, and that combined with physical trappedness (due to pandemic) has made me quite depressed and obviously not so good at working. Also I am in the weird situation of having wanted to drop out of the PhD for quite some time, but the project being so successful that I am still on my way to graduate.

The thing that literally gets me out of bed is the thought of graduating and exiting this particular career path, but then when it comes to doing the day-to-day work, I just face this massive void of "There is endless work, I don't care, and I want to leave." I'm lucky enough to have a therapist and a solid group of friends, though no significant other (as you can tell, the PhD is my ball-and-chain). I also moonlight in other roles that I am passionate about and would gladly try to turn them into full-time work, though for the time being I have to finish the PhD.

Can people tell me "light at the end of the tunnel" stories? Did you (or someone else in art or life) grit your teeth through a job and emerge stronger for it? Do you have PhD-specific coping mechanisms, like support groups? Or, I dunno, on the commiseration front, do you have readings about how Work Sucks and all laborers are inherently alienated from the products of their labor under capitalism and thus must rise up in solidarity?
posted by icosahedron to Human Relations (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
We built an amazing forever home in Portland that is painted rainbow and has the city's first legally-permitted site-built compost toilet. We told ourselves that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. That light turned out to be to uproot as soon as it was done and move back to a part of the world that actually gets some sunshine. If I had to go back in time and do it again, I wouldn't.

Consider the sunk cost fallacy. Live your own dream. It is ok that it changed. Walk away now. ABD.
posted by aniola at 9:50 PM on December 2, 2020 [13 favorites]

I advise lots of Ph.D. students in a STEM field. A few thoughts.

1. Even people who end up staying in academia and really enjoying their time there feel the way you feel a lot of the time towards the end of the Ph.D. For most Ph.D. students, it is a [i]narrow[/i] time when most of your daily working energy is devoted to a single project. For many people, that is not an agreeable mode of work.

2. Almost everything you want to do will be made easier by having that Ph.D. instead of having done so much work and not having it. This is not a sunk-cost fallacy. There is real value to you in having the doctorate. There are things in life you make yourself do because you feel like you should, and those things you may need to train yourself to release yourself from. I doubt this is one of those things! Those things you're passionate about that are now moonlighting for you? You will be better able to build a life doing them if you get the Ph.D. So maybe a good way to reframe this is to turn it away from "do I care if this scientific project gets finished" and towards "do I want to keep the promises I've made to a bunch of collaborators who do care if it gets finished and who I like and respect, and do I want to have a Ph.D. so I can realize a life in the things I'm passionate about?"

3. Finally -- you know this, but if you're depressed it's hard to assess. I've had students who really convinced me they didn't want to do math anymore, and we had a talk about how having come this far, gritting the teeth and finishing the Ph.D. was going to help them with their real goals. And sometimes, a year later, they find they really want to be doing math after all! Other times, they totally don't! Either way it's fine, and I don't believe any of those people wishes they'd left the program without finishing.
posted by escabeche at 9:53 PM on December 2, 2020 [29 favorites]

I can also say that questioning your phd is extremely common around this point in the program. Talk to your fellow phd students about it, too. You aren't alone.
posted by aniola at 9:54 PM on December 2, 2020 [15 favorites]

Imagine the past version of yourself that signed up for this program. Sit down and have a conversation with the person you were.
posted by aniola at 10:18 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yeah, getting a PhD is a grind. When I was about where you are, I realized (with some help from a well-written argument) that PhDs continued to graduate at an exponentially growing rate (each PhD goes into academics and trains several PhD students of their own) while funding in my field had stopped growing exponentially a few years before. What this meant for me is that getting a job in my field would be a long shot, and that turned out to be the case, and I am no longer paid to be a science person. That being said, I'm not sorry I went to grad school, and not sorry I finished, even though it came at some cost to my mental health. Grad school in the right circumstances can be a great way to not only become an expert in a narrow subject, but pick up a broad variety of other skills you will find useful later. Just the experience of standing up and defending your thesis is a great experience. If you feel you are working with a good team, and you can do it without serious injury, I would recommend finishing. Make sure to go outside in nature every day. Talk to people outside your field. Write letters. Support people on the rungs below you. Enjoy being an expert. Take care.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 10:30 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I spent 5 years completing a plumbing apprenticeship and another 2 years working as a journeywoman plumber. I don't necessarily regret it, because I learned shit and it's a really nice backup career. But that's what plumbing is for me -- a financial safety net. Was the safety net and the money saved and the prestige of "finishing a thing" worth seven years of my life? Not sure.

I feel similarly about my B.A. in Statistics. I did not care about statistics -- I cared about graduating on time. If I had less of a habit of focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel, I might have explored/prototyped a bit more rather than doing a sort of hardcore serial monogamy with careers and education, and maybe found paths that were a better fit. YMMV.

I'm now back in school working toward a career path I'll actually enjoy. I'm also working through the Designing Your Life book, prototyping along the way, getting to know what exactly I enjoy in a career, and basically staying open while I find my new path.
posted by cnidaria at 11:01 PM on December 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

Have you taken a break? Like, taken a real no-contact step away from anything related to your studies or your project for at least two weeks? I wouldn't actually try and judge anything unless you have.

If you have already taken that time and still feel this way... well. I might advise PhD students on ways to grind things out for 6 months, but I can't say I'd give that advice for 1.5-2 years. That's a very long time to be miserable if you're going to switch careers anyway. And as much as you are valuable to your collaborators, that is a long time for them to work with someone who doesn't want to be there.

Do your alternate career preferences need a PhD or would a masters degree and a good recommendation get you just as far? What's most striking to me is that your post has little affection for the topic or field or project you're working on - your motivation seems to be driven mostly by bestowal of the degree. Honestly though, nothing magical happens when you get that piece of paper. You don't become a more virtuous person or a better intellectual. And in several fields (e.g. STEM, social sciences) the research only professionally "counts" when it's published in journal articles (or possibly a book) anyway, regardless of whether it was approved in someone's thesis.

Of course there are more complex reasons that finishing might be important to you. If you are committed to 2 years of slog and then leaving, the best thing you can do for everyone is start delegating. Like, yesterday. Train someone to be your replacement and start assigning your leadership responsibilities to others in the team. This will relieve the pressure on you, pro-actively move towards lessening your workload, and is a kindness to the collaborators who may still care about the project and be staying in the field.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 11:30 PM on December 2, 2020 [7 favorites]

Wow, that is a tough place to be in!

As someone with a PhD, I think the best thing you can do is to start applying for jobs that you might be interested in doing. That will get you into a better mindset and start to give you options.

Maybe you will find and get a job right away that gives you an excuse to quit your program after Xmas. Nobody is irreplaceable, and while your coauthors might not like it, this way you can close things out and hand them over to someone else. It also gives you a chance to figure out if you really do need to gut it out with the PhD.

I say this as someone who finished her PhD working full time in university admin after my fellowship ran out. I managed that mornings, nights and weekends slog because I truly loved my topic and wanted to at least get it done and try for the academic job market. I’m not hearing that from you, so I suggest looking around now. My friends who gutted it out despite being over it and then went corporate mostly have hard feelings, so it’s probably better to try and jump out sooner.

I also think you want to look now because the overall economy is not great, so if you aren’t getting any bites, at least you can keep doing the PhD (like a job) and keep looking for other options. Easier to get a job when you have a job, right?

I also really like the suggestion to delegate. Maybe focus on things to build your corporate resume bullet points, like staff development, budgeting, etc. Prepare yourself, basically.

It’s OK to quit, it’s OK to take a break, it’s OK to decide you’ll quit but then wait until you find a good job. Much like normal job switching, maybe don’t tell your supervisor until you’ve got the next thing locked down though....
posted by ec2y at 12:37 AM on December 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was disillusioned for about the last year or two of my PhD also. I still don’t regret finishing, because there are jobs I’ve had, including my current one, that required the degree. Which is, I’ll be honest, an objectively stupid fact, because none of those jobs had a damn thing to do with my thesis. Nevertheless.

What paths do you think might make you happy? Which of those require the degree, or could benefit from it, and which don’t?
posted by eirias at 2:46 AM on December 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh: and, yes, assuming you mean to finish, get yourself a dissertation writing group if you can. Hard to do in covid times, I know, but it was very helpful to me to have a regular commitment to other people which included 1) showing up and 2) having something to report, and the reward was 3) hearing other people bitch and moan about their advisors (some of whom were astonishingly negligent) so I could realize my situation was really not that bad, and feel less alone.
posted by eirias at 4:12 AM on December 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Have you previously experienced burnout in some area of your life, but managed to get through it and find meaning in the thing again? And if so, does this current aversion feel like that? Or, to borrow your metaphor, does it feel more like the certainty that arrives when you know you are at the end of a relationship and just dread the work of ending it? If a), tough it out. If b), ABD and Free!!!
posted by Morpeth at 4:57 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Absolutely finish if you can. I have a STEM PhD and having it made it easier to get a job in marketing at a biotech company. I eventually went back to science later on and have no regrets about my career path. Quitting without a more urgent reason seems like a lost opportunity you won’t get back. Just do it now.
posted by waving at 5:11 AM on December 3, 2020

I am currently finishing up my PhD (submitting in under two months). COVID made this year horrible, and my productivity plummeted during lockdown. Some things you may wish to try, which have helped me:

1. Do not work for more than 4 hours a day (and have a goal e.g. write 1-2 paragraphs, read 1-2 articles). See Alex Pang's book Rest for why it's not effective to do so. Spend the rest of the time doing things that make you happy.

2. Have one day completely off a week. Harder to make this day interesting because of COVID, but plan to do some non-university related and preferably outdoor activities.

3. Keep your eye on a larger end-game than graduating. What is the point of doing this PhD for you? For me, it is to publish a book. That outcome is more motivating to me than graduating with a piece of very expensive paper.

Basically, do not let the PhD take over your life! Your PhD is only a part of your life. I note that you also have other work that you do - I also worked part time and during summer break - so let this be a counter-balance that forces you to compartmentalise your academic work.

It may also be helpful you to conceptualise the PhD using a different metaphor :)
posted by radiantsquirrel at 5:23 AM on December 3, 2020 [11 favorites]

This is the worst part! I think you should visualise where you are now as like the part of the tidying up project where you've taken everything out, vaguely sorted into piles, and now you need to start putting it back neatly. You're tired of it. It's all a pickle. Wouldn't it be better to just stop? But you need to use the bed later... Time for a snack, hydration and a review of where you want to end up.

100% agree to take a break. I took 2 weeks without really telling anyone when I just could not face it any more. YMMV with your meetings schedule. I would also just leave it if I'd done a bit and could tell I wasn't really up for doing more that day. Your brain is your friend, not something you can hammer into thinking those good thoughts.

Change it up. If you're an early worker, do something else in the morning. If you work later, get up early and "surprise" your topic. Can you tell which one I am? I did some good surprising of it.

Finalise your thesis question. You should know by now, even if you want to tweak the wording later. This should help you focus all the things you've been working on.

Do a little every designated working day. If that's just opening up a file and making a note what you need to do next, great.

Join up with people if that works for you - it doesn't for me because I don't need any more stress thanks!

Be kind to yourself - most things will seem like child's play once you've got yourself through this.
posted by london explorer girl at 5:58 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Demote the PhD work to "this is my job" rather than "this is my life." Lots of people don't like their jobs; they do them to pay their rent. Academic culture makes it harder for people to think about their work in the same way, but my observation of grad school was that most would be happier AND more productive if they did. Set aside specific hours each day that are devoted to this project, focus during those hours, and do your best to avoid thinking about it at other times. (This may mean expanding your social circle, if all your friends are colleagues.) You can have an entire awesome live outside of work; focus on that instead of letting this rule your whole life.
posted by metasarah at 6:07 AM on December 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

I'm just coming in to say that, in life in general, big projects often lose their charm in the latter stages. The nature of the work changes. There is less and less room for new ideas, and more time spent coping with the decisions made years ago. And coping with all sorts of details.

Think of poor Charles Darwin. He only published Origin of the Species 29 years after the voyage of the Beagle, and then only because a friend pushed him to it.

I don't know quite how to take your mention of depression, but the feeling of being lost that you describes suggests to me that it might be time to seek a little help.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:17 AM on December 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

PhDs continued to graduate at an exponentially growing rate (each PhD goes into academics and trains several PhD students of their own)

Even that isn't necessarily the case these days - overall, most people graduating with a PhD don't end up working in academia. The actual proportion varies dramatically by subject area, but in the UK at the moment about 70% of PhDs go into non-academic careers, split about half-half between research and non-research roles.
posted by offog at 6:40 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've peeped in your question history and you're in year 5ish of your PhD, right? And you think you still have 2 years to go?

Here's a dirty secret about many PhD programs - the goal of the PI is to maximize cheap labor on their grant while also graduating students at a rate to satisfy the tenure review board. Obviously most professors don't see it in these clearly mercenary terms but that is the calculus that they are facing. The TL;DR is that a surprising number of students I know, when facing burnout, have found that their advisor/dissertation committee is willing to accept a reduced scope of their dissertation if that means graduating a candidate who would otherwise drop out. Or more charitably, your program does not want you to burn out or drop out!

Here's my advice: the holidays are coming up. Take a week where you don't think about your PhD. If you use your personal email account for PhD collaboration, filter all that to a folder you don't touch, or even forward to a different mailbox. Then, at the end of that week, ask yourself what is the path to finishing this PhD in the next 6-12 months? Because I bet there is one. You do not need a Nobel prize worthy dissertation. You do not need to finish the next Google search engine. You need a piece of original research. You will have to bring this question to your advisor eventually but you need a plan first.

Grinding for 6 months is reasonable. Trying to grind for two years is not going to happen. You will grind yourself to dust.
posted by muddgirl at 6:45 AM on December 3, 2020 [15 favorites]

Yes, you've hit the hard part, and in harder-than-normal circumstances.

Take a real vacation. A couple weeks off just deliberately not thinking about your project is very restorative and can help give you better perspective. If travel is feasible given the covid situation in your area, a change of scenery for a little while is also very helpful.

If you aren't seeing a therapist or psychiatrist about your depression, please consider doing so. I went through my entire Ph.D. without getting any professional help, partly because I was worried that trying to start a medication regime would be disruptive to my ability to work. When I finally sought help during my first postdoc, I discovered that whatever disruption caused by adjusting to an SSRI was far less than the disruption caused by my depression. Most universities have free counseling services available to students.

Remember that this is a job, not who you are. This advice is easier to give than to follow, but it's still true. Take pride in doing it well, but remember that producing a dissertation is just a work document. There is no real difference between a dissertation that is brilliantly written and one that is merely competent. Both will be read by roughly the same number of people (your committee and almost no one else) and both will result in you obtaining a Ph.D.
posted by biogeo at 6:53 AM on December 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

Coming at this from a biological sciences perspective, and I see from your history that you're not. But that means you're not like, waiting for generations of mice to grow up so that you can do experiments & finish, so....
what would it take for you to graduate a year from now? Have you had that conversation with your advisor? With your committee members? I can't speak to your situation specifically, but just because you've taken on a lot of theoretical obligations to collaborators does not necessarily mean you need to stay and complete them before you defend. Cutting losses on longer projects so that someone can graduate and leave happens all the time. If you want to leave, start talking to your mentors about how to make that happen and the level of urgency you're feeling about it so they can help you plan how to get there on a tighter timeline. And you've read The PhD Grind, right (link goes to PDF)? Your field. Highly recommend.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:05 AM on December 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

I don't know if this helps, but something that clarified my decision to leave at approximately your point in my program was that I looked at my mentors and the faculty around me and realized that many of them were miserable, and if they weren't miserable, the day-to-day work I saw them doing was the type of work that would make me even more miserable than I already was. (I reacted poorly to the amount of selling-unsubstantiated-dreams-to-funders that my particular program did. Yours may be different). Do you want the lifestyle and job duties that this Ph.D will grant you access to?

If yes, then it's probably worth pursuing some options above to push through, because you're so close. If you're already at the "recoiling in existential horror" phase, might be time to cut your losses.
posted by Alterscape at 7:25 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

A lot of good advice here.

I finished my PhD recently while working full-time, so had to have a structure around it to keep it from taking over my life. A few things I did that helped:
- my advisor was very aware that I wanted to finish within a certain timeframe and was on-board with helping me meet that
- despite that, he did the normal tenured prof. thing of talking about an idea and implying I should pick it up and do something with it; I got very good at asking him how this would help in my research and saying "no"
- I had a few periods where I focused more on my research and others where I focused more on the rest of my life, and I think doing that helped keep the research interesting
- I did struggle with a "what's the point?" at times, especially as I recognized more and more in my process through the program, plus some experiences collaborating / dealing with others in the department, that fulltime academia is *not* the path for me (and is fundamentally broken in its current form), but I did like my project, so I focused on that and meeting the targets for getting everything done.

I hope some of this helps! I feel you and have seen my friends go through similar experiences with some powering through and others saying "enough!" and being done with the process completely. Each of them have found ways through life that is meaningful to them.

Whatever you do, do it as a deliberate decision. That is the best gift you can give your future self.
posted by chiefthe at 7:42 AM on December 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice above but I have to admit that at about this stage of my PhD, having started therapy (like many of my friends at this stage! Highly recommended!), I realized I was just going to do it for the letters after my name. That might not motivate you but it gave me a goal enough to continue and finish. My motto was ‘I may not get anything else out of a PhD but I can make people call me Doctor’. I did end up doing several more years of academia and got a job which benefits from my PhD so I got way more out of my PhD than just the Dr. And I barely use that.

I do have a magnet with a copy of my degree on my fridge which I highly recommend too.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:51 AM on December 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks everyone for the advice so far, it's already been very helpful!

One quick clarification: I genuinely want an academic TT job in my field, but in a different subdiscipline from the one my PhD focuses on. (I have already done some work in this other subdiscipline as well; this is the "moonlighting" I mention.) Hence finishing the PhD and trying to swing a pivot.
posted by icosahedron at 9:43 AM on December 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Who decides when you are done and get to graduate?

Could you take whatever work is done on the project now, plus some other unrelated papers, staple them together, and call it a thesis? A lot of people do this anyway...

If your advisors and committee won't let you do this, try to figure out why. Maybe they just like having cheap labor. You might be able to negotiate with them to get out earlier.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:13 AM on December 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

Lots of good advice, especially telling your advisor and collaborators that you need a solid vacation.

Since you're interested in a different subfield, would starting to look for post-docs in that discipline help with your motivation?
posted by porpoise at 1:07 PM on December 3, 2020

Re timeline: my advisors have been pretty firm that 1.5 years is the soonest I could graduate, and I agree with them (there is another piece of work to do that takes time).

Yes, I am already starting to look for postdocs in the other subdiscipline, and have been communicating with my advisors and collaborators about my plans to move on in the mid-term future, and taking actions like training a successor, etc. I guess the "kindly offboarding oneself from a team" process is a whole 'nother question!
posted by icosahedron at 2:06 PM on December 3, 2020

You mentioned support groups, so I'll throw this out there: Phinished, a message board. Great and supportive community and a place to connect with others in the same boat. Also, if you belong to any professional development-type organization that offers mentoring, find a mentor outside your program who can connect with you regularly to listen to your problems and offer advice. You're not alone, and you can get through this! Feel free to memail me if you want, I've been where you're at.
posted by acridrabbit at 3:55 PM on December 3, 2020

Just want to recommend the book Get It Done When You're Depressed. Best wishes to you. Dropping out of a Ph.D. program worked well for me, but part of the decision was realizing how much I didn't want to stay in academia.

I had an advisor who said that throughout the whole last two years of his dissertation, he had a file folder where he kept notes on all the projects he wanted to do instead of his dissertation, and that he still went back to it years later when he needed to generate new ideas for work to do.
posted by slidell at 1:01 AM on December 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed the first 3 years of my PhD. Year 4 was kind of meh. Years 5 and 6 were a depressing slog that took a toll on my mental health and well-being. My relationship with my advisor deteriorated to the point where two committee members reached out and told me that he was undermining me and not to use him as a reference. It was awful. I finished, moved to a different country and got a job in a new research area and LOVED it. I thrived.
I now have an enjoyable and rewarding career that I would not have had been able to obtain without a PhD. You sound depressed and burnt out. This is not unusual in the later stages of a PhD. My advice is to a. Stick it out and finish b. Get that thesis written up c. See if you can acquire some new skills or undertake some career development activities (teaching, networking, leadership/management training) that might benefit you in your next career step, to break up the slog and make the most of the training you are supoosedly receiving as a PhD student. D. Lean on and commiserate with your fellow students.
Good luck!
posted by emd3737 at 8:25 PM on December 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

A wise advisor once told me to *not* choose something you're passionate about for your dissertation, since you will lose all passion and hate it by the end anyway. Instead choose something that can just GET DONE.

It sounds like you've decided you want to complete this. Makes sense. Given that, I would say just stop measuring your progress but what you accomplish (task oriented) and start measuring it by how many hours you put in each day (time oriented).

Decide on a sustainable amount of time (eg 7 hours, 5 days a week) and treat it like a job that you don't have a choice about.

Remember that it will feel like hell, and it will pass. My doctorate to me is now such a blur. I only remember the hell when I see posts like this.
posted by EarnestDeer at 3:31 AM on December 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

told me to *not* choose something you're passionate about for your dissertation

Hm, that’s the opposite of my advice to students. Which is that you want to choose a project you like a lot to sustain you though the long slog to finish. Even with projects we love there are still times when you might hate your research. If you feel meh about a project to start with, what’s going to sustain you through the tough times?

Though I agree that sometimes passion for a project can come from not realizing that there will be rough patches. Plus it is hard to get those first few peer reviews on your research... Sometimes easier to publish as your first publication something where you have some distance.
posted by ec2y at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2020

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