The life of a scholar for me?
December 13, 2006 10:29 PM   Subscribe

What made you quit grad school? What was the deciding factor? How did you know it was time to go? Subtle signs? Did your advisor say 'go away'? If you stayed, when did you feel like quitting?

I'm a year and a half into a social science Ph.D. program with about four and a half left to go. I've had the feeling that I might not be cut out from it early on, but minor successes kept me going, and I have a feeling I'd be able to scrape through. But I'm still not quite sure whether I want this kind of life. At the same time, I'm wondering whether these are just the normal thoughts that occur to future scholars in the middle of their education. If I'm to leave, then the best time to decide is now, so that I can get something together for a Master's project..

So, did you quit grad school? Did you ever feel like quitting? What was the deciding factor? How did you know it was time to go?
posted by mariokrat to Education (26 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Did you read my question a few weeks ago?
posted by k8t at 10:31 PM on December 13, 2006

A few disconnected thoughts:

On the reassuring side: Nearly everyone goes through periods of wanting to quit, all the way through grad school and often beyond. Have you had other periods where you were really engrossed by the work? What made you want to start grad school in the first place?

Think hard about what purpose the degree will serve in your life plan. If you ended up in grad school because you couldn't think of anything better to do out of university, consider taking a year off and trying the real world. (I say that with utterly no snark at all. It happens often; the only bad thing is when you have a hard time finishing the PhD because you hate your program, but you feel you can't quit because you're not confident that you will be able to find work outside of school. To prevent that, it's a good idea to spend at least a year outside of school, and have a very clear idea of what you're getting the degree FOR.)

In your field, are there jobs outside academia for which the PhD is a qualification? If yes, it's more worth it to keep going. If you hate academia, and your field's PhD is really only good for academic jobs, then consider the master's. In your program, can you walk away with an MA after 2 or 2.5 years? (Sometimes this is possible by following the PhD track up to the ABD stage: doing qualifying exams and submitting a substantial thesis proposal and chapter, without doing a master's thesis.) That might be the thing to do if you are pretty convinced that academia isn't for you.

The people I have known who have stayed in academia -- the larger fraction -- are divided among those who are whole-heartedly glad and those who still have really serious doubts. With one exception, the people I have known who have quit are all doing well and are pleased they quit.

Talk to older students in your program if you can. Maybe your program's first couple of years are just extra hard? Maybe once you start doing your own project you will get more into it?

Good luck figuring it out. Whatever you decide, try to throw yourself into that path fully. Don't spend years in a state of suspended decision, unable to drop out but unable to fully commit to the academic life; that's the only really bad outcome here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:00 PM on December 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I can completely sympathize with what you're struggling with right now. But I agree with you, it's the minor successes that keep me from slitting my wrists or moving to a hut in South America, where no one cares that I failed grad school. I consider it every day and am still not sure that I'll stay. It's humbling to think that you might not be able to accomplish something and it's hard to think that you may have to pull the plug on something in which you have invested so much of yourself.

I'd say there are several considerations that you should make. Are you in the humanities? If so, don't even bother with grad school. You'll get paid beans and it's so hard to get a job as a professor. OK, I realize that was harsh, but there's a lot of truth in it.

Do you read The Chronicle of Higher Ed? It's worth the subscription price just for the "First Person" columns in the careers section. Everyone has problems in grad school, according to C.H.E. Lots of people out there feel like they're drowning and don't belong. And you know what? A lot of them are right. But a lot of them aren't. Grad school definitely isn't for everyone (I still haven't decided) and it is really hard. From what I've seen, it's not really something that you can study hard for and expect to pass if you do. There is a certain level of intelligence that few people have (probably not me!) and if you don't have, then you don't have it. Make a decision as soon as you figure out whether you're smart enough to finish.

It's hard to transition to grad school because you were probably the brightest bulb in school your whole life. Now you're competing with the best and the brightest. It's intimidating--for me, anyhow. If you're planning on teaching, keep in mind that you will almost always need to provide your transcripts to potential employers. So if you're barely getting by with B's, it's going to be that much harder to get a job when you graduate.

You're probably a committed student and don't want to see yourself not accomplish something that you have dreamed about since you were a kid. It's tempting to keep thinking that you should hang in there for one more term and see how you do next time. Just remember that you're paying to hang in there.

I'm lucky that my school, UCLA, has a lot of resources for grad students. I take advantage of everything I can. We have workshops on how to preserve our social lives, how to not procrastinate, how to manage our time, how to get sleep, etc. Sounds corny but some of the really help. It also helps to be in a room full of people who are feeling the same way as you and who can corroborate to your family that you aren't just making up excuses for not showing up to your cousin's bar mitzvah or uncle's hernia operation.

Grad school has killed the marriages/partnerships/engagements/relationships of so many of my friends. But others find that being in a relationship has helped them get through grad school. (This is interesting, by the way)

So the deciding factors are:

-Will getting an advanced degree really make that much of a difference when I'm trying to get a job?

-Is this somewhere that I want to spend a significant portion of my life?

-Am I losing more than I'm gaining by being here (financially, spiritually, relationships, psychologically, and physically)

-What does your advisor think your prospects are? He or she is always a great barometer and can tell you, objectively, how they think you're doing. Is your advisor excited about your research and prospects for successful scholarship?

-When you're being completely honest with yourself, do you think you have what it takes?

-Do you hate waking up every morning? Is your life what you wanted it to be?

It's normal, according to my anecdotal studies, to feel lost and incompetent during your first year or so. Just be honest with yourself and seek lots of counsel.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:21 PM on December 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is interesting, too.
posted by eritain at 11:56 PM on December 13, 2006

I quit a PhD program long ago in the 1980s. I think I was intellectually capable of finishing but I'm not entirely sure. I jumped every hurdle they put before me on the first attempt. But I was truly tired of drafting papers again and again, specializing (to make that original contribution to the field of knowledge!) to the point of numbness, and not believing in the true usefulness of the papers I was writing. I couldn't believe some of my papers were accepted at conferences or published. I came to see that anyone could get through it with perseverance and that just about anyone could find some conference/journal somewhere to take their work. But I just couldn't make myself continue after those gradual realizations. If you are starting to see this side of it, it may be time to walk away.
posted by loosemouth at 3:54 AM on December 14, 2006

I quit because of my disgust with being used, realizing that I would never get a job in my field, and getting fed up with the preferential treatment given to the female students who were sleeping with their committee members.
posted by daveleck at 5:26 AM on December 14, 2006

I quit my MFA program at the end of the first semester. I did not feel connected to anyone there and knew that even if I did get a job in my field I would be paying for this degree until the end of time. It was a good move for me and helped me land in my current career which i love and defines me. Looking back I think I panicked because of big city sticker shock ( thinking I would never make enough money to have the life I wanted since I don't have a trust fund) and just not finding friends and my place in Chicago yet. I think if I stayed and somehow rationalized the money part I would have been happy-- and maybe even continued in that other career. For any new experience or city you move to it takes at least a year to feel part of it for me.
posted by mcbietila at 5:41 AM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I 'quit' my own social science PhD program because a bad combination of budget screw-ups and department politics led to me losing my funding. (Well, we lost $500,000 - it wasn't just me - it was most people with my advisor.) At the same time, they'd also hired a new guy in a different segment of my department who is such a poisonous, manipulative scheming bastard that it would have been hard to stay past my MA. At 25, I still don't have a thick enough skin to deal with department politics, and frankly, I'm not attractive enough to catch the few breaks.

To me, it's enough right now that I'm going to finish my MA thesis and then get the hell out of there. There's also the 'PhD doesn't mean a job' factor, especially in the social sciences.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:06 AM on December 14, 2006

I've done two PhDs (don't ask) and there's lots of sound advice above. Everyone has doubts and bottoms out at least once during their PhD. It can seem like everyone else is more motivated, informed or together than you are. (Mostly, they're just acting like they are.) Staff can be callous or indifferent. You're isolated for a long time.

The bottom line is: why are you in grad school? Fascinated by the subject? Want to be an academic? Like studying? Those can be good reasons. Feel you have to use your education / intelligence? Not sure of what else to do? These are bad reasons.

Graduate students are basically fuel for the furnace of their supervisor's ambitions. Don't stay there if you're not getting anything out of it.
posted by outlier at 6:31 AM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

A few years into my PhD program I decided to quit. I met with my committee, set up a plan to finish a Masters thesis, and set to work writing and defending it. Guess what? That part - throwing myself into finishing it up - made me realize I didn't want to quit.

My committee gave me a choice: They could accept my thesis as it was, or they could recommend that I stay and complete my doctorate. I chose the latter. I'm glad I did.

I know people who didn't finish. The vast majority of them stopped because of major personality conflicts between themselves and their respective advisors. (Granted, one particular advisor was responsible for crushing the hopes of most of the failed grads I know - but that is beside the point). Are these people happy? The few I have heard from seem to be; but what I don't know is if they regret not sticking with it. I know I would have.

One friend in particular who was facing the same decision as you contacted the director of graduate studies and asked her for advice. The reply was very simple: "Do you like what you are doing? And why would you continue to do something that you don't like?"

My advice is to see what happens. You really aren't very far into things right now. The time you invest can probably earn you a Masters, which is much better than a BA/BS in terms of pay and job prospects, but at this point you may just be hitting the slump that comes to all of us when we realize that not everything in life will come to us easily. Not quitting now won't kill you - nothing stops you from dropping out of the program later - but you really might regret stopping when you have honestly not really begun yet. A year and a half? You're probably still taking classes now. The real fun, intellectually speaking, starts when you are doing your own thing.

One note: I was in a zoology/neuroscience program, not social sciences - so take the advice for what it is, but listen to those in the same field as you; my perceptions may be different than the reality you are facing.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:40 AM on December 14, 2006

My story may or may not help you, but I did quit grad school, so here goes.

I was in an analytical chemisty program and I quit at the end of the first year. My BS is in chemical engineering and I don't think I was prepared for the was definitely more theoretical than what I was used to. I was frustrated that my options for research weren't practical in the real world.

As far as quitting went, I basically flunked out. My advisor sat me down and told me that because I had done so poorly in my courses, that I couldn't continue on in the PhD program, but I could stay another year and get my MS. I am glad I quit then because I have no idea what I would have done with the PhD. I'm now in a field that's only tangentially related to chemistry or engineering, but I'm happier because I feel like what I do makes a difference in the real world. However, it has been hard personally to deal with the fact that I had failed.
posted by cabingirl at 7:12 AM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm in my fifth year of a philosophy PhD (one more to go!). I have never considered quiting, even though, as many have already pointed out, the life of a graduate student is a lot of hard work and misery.

I have never considered quiting because I love what I do (when I get to do it). I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life; nothing else is nearly so challenging or rewarding.

Perhaps, you should consider what your alternatives are. Staying in grad school is a lot more palatable (not necessarily easier) when you've come to the realization that there really is no other option for you.
posted by oddman at 7:21 AM on December 14, 2006

I quit (a couple of years later than I should have) because I realized: 1) I didn't like teaching, which is what you wind up doing with a PhD; 2) I increasingly hated the process of writing the dissertation (this is to some extent the fault of my dissertation director, who was insanely picky and did not understand the concept of "positive reinforcement"); 3) there were vanishingly few jobs in my specialty, which meant if I got a job it would be in some vaguely related area I didn't enjoy; and 4) I was having to borrow more and more money to stay in grad school. I finally stopped listening to the people saying "you've already invested so much in it, you should stick with it" (that would be friends and family) and started listening to the inner voice that said "if this goes on, you're going to become a depressed and possibly suicidal drunk." As soon as I chucked it all, I felt immensely happy and have never regretted the decision.

You might want to investigate the archives of the sadly defunct Invisible Adjunct, where such things were hashed out at length with wit and passion.
posted by languagehat at 7:23 AM on December 14, 2006

Short answer: No. Long answer: Maybe.

My answer: If trying to find the answer to a question you have is more important to you than getting married, buying a house, and having kids, and being the poorest person in your circle of friends doesn't bother you, then yeah. In other words, the academic life is something you go into because you can't bear to do anything else.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:47 AM on December 14, 2006

Throughout my grad school experience, everyone kept telling me it was an endurance test. I just had to make it through, since that was really the hardest part. Damn, were they right. I can't even tell you how many times I wanted to curl into a ball and give up. However, I knew I needed/wanted to make it through and used small successes and milestones (even went so far as to say "1/6 of the way through, yeah!") to keep me going. If you have a mentor or there is a counseling office, I would suggest going there. They can help you work through some of the stuff you're feeling and give you some tools to help you and your mentor probably experienced what you're feeling. You may even want to take some of those career test-type things to determine if this is the right path for you. Whatever happens, good luck.
posted by ml98tu at 8:15 AM on December 14, 2006

Can I just point out that the poster is not asking for inspirational peptalks about grad school, reasons to stay in school, or suggestions about counseling? He is specifically asking:

What made you quit grad school? What was the deciding factor? How did you know it was time to go? Subtle signs? Did your advisor say 'go away'? If you stayed, when did you feel like quitting?

I know some of you feel you're being helpful in a Higher Sense by answering questions he didn't ask, but consider that an evangelical Christian would feel the same way about suggesting he find Jesus. Thank you.

posted by languagehat at 8:31 AM on December 14, 2006

I wanted to quit several times during the second and third year, when I was spending all my time in the lab, and not feeling like I got anything done. During that time I also realized I was never going to be a PI and run my own lab, which is what biochem PhD programs are pretty much trying to mold you into.
I stayed for a few reasons: Quitting meant my study permit was invalid, and I'd have to leave the country and that was just way too much of a hassle.
Quitting meant that I'd have to do something else, and since I do want to be involved in science, there wasn't really anything better suited for me to do.
Finally, I also had a long talk with a friend who works in an entirely opposite field, and who doesn't really care about higher education. He asked me: "If you quit, would that really be so bad? What would happen? Who would care?" and I thought about it and realized that *I* was the only one who would think less of myself if I quit, and that I could easily find a job I liked and be happy. So in effect, even though I felt like I was being used as a slave for research, I was ultimately doing this all for myself, and that's mostly what has been keeping me going. Like a chain smoker I keep telling myself "I can quit whenever I want to!" but I never do. I'm over halfway done now, going through a very slow patch (which is kind of relaxing) but it's going to be stressful again soon enough, and ironically it's knowing that I can quit that keeps me going.
posted by easternblot at 8:42 AM on December 14, 2006

I quit.

I did it because school was making me miserable, and I didn't see myself being happy in the field after I graduated.

I also wasn't loving the idea of years of poverty.

So I quit. At first, I worried about the stigma and possible repercussions of dropping out, but then I realized that the seemingly endless hours in the evening that weren't spent worrying/preparing/studying, etc., combined with my first ever discretionary income seemed to make all that so much better.

It has been a few years, and I honestly feel that quitting grad school was one of my best decisions ever. YMMV.

Good luck with your decision.
posted by Sheppagus at 9:20 AM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Finals getting you down? I'm having this exact conflict at this exact moment in time (except I'm not a Ph.D.) I just finished my last final of my first semester in an MA program in political science and I fucking hate it. I want to quit because I was totally wrong about my program - I thought that this field was where I wanted to be, career-wise, and I was straight up wrong. Also, one of my professors and the director of my program are tyrants and I'm not sure I want to be bullied around for the next 1.5 years.

My reason for not dropping out (and my reason for going in the first place) - I was an English major, I have no skills, and I have no professional interests.

I realize my situation is different than yours because I am in no way a "scholar" - my program is applied with a little inconsequential bit of research thrown in to make the program seem valid.

If you have professional interests beyond teaching, maybe you can take some time off and see if you like working in the world beyond academia.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 9:36 AM on December 14, 2006

I am completely serious: Do you feel full? You know deep down if you are full or not.

When people ask me why I quit I I tell them: "I was full so I got up from the table and quit eating," and that is what it felt like to me.

The prospect of cigars in the parlor with those who finished dinner was not a strong enough lure to keep me sitting there stuffing my gob --even though the food was fine. I said, "Thank you, Good Night and Goodbye."

I decided that if I want to learn more about "X", I'll do my own snacking later. I have yet to have any regrets about it.
posted by MasonDixon at 10:15 AM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I quit after getting my MA in American Studies. Within about a year, it became crystal clear to me that the things I liked about grad school -- namely, doing research and teaching -- were going to be undermined by the things that I hated -- namely, the politics, backstabbing, turf wars, and fighting for crumbs. I also realized I just didn't have the plain ol' discipline to get it done, much less to endure the shitty job market that I knew awaited in the event I did get my Ph.D. So once I finished the master's, I just felt... done. Never regretted it a bit (especially after all these years of witnessing what my friends/family in academics go through for their careers!).
posted by scody at 10:53 AM on December 14, 2006

I'm wondering whether these are just the normal thoughts that occur to future scholars in the middle of their education.

Yes, this is absolutely how most of us feel at some point or another. At low points, I daydream about how much more money I could be making, how much closer to my best friends and my family I could be living. I worry about how far behind I'll be on life when I get out in 3.5 years.

But then I get into an interesting research problem, or find something out that no one has ever looked at before, and it all kind of makes sense. The freedom to rearrange my schedule, when my friends are working 9-5. The freedom to take 2 weeks off for Xmas. The freedom to work on problems that are meaningful, instead of listening to someone bitch about how their product was defective. This is what keeps me going.

PhD Comics puts it rather well, I think. If you really would rather be somewhere else, then by all means, drop out. Life is two short to waste 5 years in a place that you aren't happy. Only you can weigh the costs and benefits, though.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:59 AM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

For most of my five years of graduate school, I felt like quitting. It didn't have anything to do with not loving what I was doing - I found (and still find) research (in a social science field) fascinating, rewarding and fits my tendency towards loving detailed and engrossing activities. I wasn't sure that I would be any good at it ultimately but I knew I liked research. My unhappiness had a lot to do with my advisor - a very nice man who had been a serial seducer of graduate students for at least 10 years prior to my arrival. While I was there, he was infatuated with (and may have been having an affair with) both the student in his lab who had arrived before me and the one that came after me. Since I left, he had one widely known affair with a graduate student and a second with a student who he ultimately left his wife of 35 years for and then ultimately married. Anyway, his preoccupation with these various students left me somewhat adrift. I finally managed to come out with a good dissertation project and a two year NIH post doc I wrote but it was a very tough road. A lot of what sustained me was the friends I had in the program - this made a world of difference. The light at the end of the tunnel in my field anyway, is a tenure track faculty position and as I have come to realize, being an academic is a dream job by any standards, well, at least by the standards I have applied (freedom to do what you want when you want to). There is surely no guarantee of a good job or tenure when you get there but it is a position, once you have a job, over which you have a tremendous amount of control over your success.

I am not sure I would have been able to see any of this as a graduate student - this is a period when one spends a lot of time trying to figure out where they fit in, in the context of a position that has no power. And it may not be the right criterian to use - but if there are some aspects about what you are doing, aside from the whole lot of crap you have to put up with as a grad student, that appeal to you in some fundamental way. then you may be in the right place, or at least on the right road.
posted by bluesky43 at 11:37 AM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I quit my master's program in Sociology because:

a. I realized I had zero interest in teaching.
b. Statistics bored me.
c. I had no idea how to write a thesis paper.
d. My primary adviser died.
e. My secondary adviser left for a better university.
f. I was offered a job making web sites (something I knew I enjoyed).

Obviously it was a fairly easy decision although I still wish that I would have found a way to make a clean finish.
posted by macinchik at 6:39 PM on December 14, 2006

I quit after my third year because after taking several years off between received M.A. and prospective Ph.D., it appeared that many people in my program had aged ten years; because the best teachers in the department began retiring and dying; because my university had decided to bring in dozens of inferior students who flooded the seminars and brought them down to a very dull level; because one professor was groping unwilling women during office hours, another had mental issues that led to him not grading any papers and a third worked out her personal abuse history by making students believe they could not take a bathroom break during a three hour seminar. Basically I quit because the whole thing became a joke; had the program not changed so radically during my time away, I might have stuck it out.
posted by Scram at 6:38 AM on December 15, 2006

I started dreading work and constantly procrastinating, and grew less and less interested in the subject matter. I realized that all of my reasons for staying were related to not wanting to feel like a failure rather than any kind of passion for what I was doing. I quit and felt liberated. I am in a completely different field now and it was a great decision. The only part that sucks is the student loan bill.
posted by jules1651 at 8:18 PM on December 17, 2006

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