How to cope with crippling career regrets?
May 20, 2008 1:58 PM   Subscribe

Followed my dreams, now totally wish I hadn’t-- how do I stop regretting it, make the tough choices and move forward with my poor mangled career?

Fresh out of college, I made a radical career switch, leaving my undergraduate field of study ("A"- a science) to enter a PhD program in a completely unrelated field ("B"- a humanity). I’d always wanted to be an academic, but my abilities and interests were varied enough that this seemed like a viable prospect in either area, and a bad senior thesis experience, combined with a lot of youthful idealism and immaturity, convinced me that B was my Destiny.

Over the years following, it's become clear that I was very wrong. Job prospects for PhDs in Field B are terrible. I'm on a different philosophical/political page from 99% of colleagues in my discipline, so I find it hard to "gel" with the group sensibility. I really, really miss analytical/quantitative thinking, and I worry about losing those skills if I don't use them. Most importantly, though, I don't really respect the work we do (heck, even senior scholars call it "aimless and irrelevant"), and I feel that I can't respect myself intellectually, professionally or personally as a scholar of B.

Unfortunately, while I was figuring all this out and coping with the ensuing depression, five years flew by, changing a youthful misstep into a substantial career detour. I'm now entering the final phase of my Ph.D program, faced with a put-up-or-shut-up situation: either (1) finish my dissertation and commit to a life, however crappy, in Field B, or (2) write off the past five years as a loss and try somehow-- but how?-- to jump ship yet again and re-establish myself in Field A.

The thing is, neither option seems even remotely bearable. At this point in life (late 20s, with kids on the horizon), it's late to be starting a whole new grad program, so switching back to the sciences would probably mean giving up on ever teaching college. Indeed, browsing the industry job ads, it's not easy to see what I'm fit for at this point beyond some dead-end lab-tech gig-- if that. On the other hand, staying in B would mean I’d have to find a way to motivate myself through two years of intensive, unsatisfying dissertation work, on the very slim chance of landing an academic job at the end-- plus deal permanently with all the additional downsides I listed above.

I know I need to suck it up and pick one or the other; but what I’ve been doing instead is vacillating between the two, letting myself get so bogged down in anxiety and regret-- “if only I’d done X, I could be a professor by now!”-- that I get nothing accomplished in either direction. I’ve tried a bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication, self-help books, making lists, etc., but nothing has helped shed any light on the situation. Any concrete suggestions or perspectives on how I might approach this choice? Once I’ve made it, how can I put aside the regret and resign myself to moving forward, even if it’s along a less-than-optimal life path?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (30 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What you wrote reminded me of me just before I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in English Literature.

It sounds like you may be trapping yourself into an unnecessarily binary choice. Can you afford to take some time out (a summer? A semester of leave?) and experience alternative career paths as an intern or temp? There is absolutely no substitute for direct, personal experience. You saw this first hand when your expectations of graduate study encountered the reality.

For what it's worth, this is my story: when I dropped out, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. It was terrifying. Some of my friends were pushing me to go to law school, and I was totally convinced that that was wrong for me (just like I had been convinced that graduate school was where I wanted to be). I took a job as a paralegal, 90% to pay the bills, 10% to shut them up. Now I am months away from starting law school, and I am incredibly excited about it. I also know a lot more about what a legal career entails than I knew about the academy before entering graduate school.

In short, my advice is this: consider options beyond A and B. Consider your other interests and abilities. Talk to as many different friends in different fields as you can and ask them what they think you might enjoy and excel at. See if you can get a closer look at some of these careers, even ones you may not think will work out.

Meanwhile, you have my sympathy. You articulated many concerns that I share.
posted by prefpara at 2:16 PM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't want you to take this as an insult - but you're not just looking for an excuse to not finish your dissertation, are you? How far along are you? My advice would be to stave off on making your decision to either commit yourself to field B, or switch tracks to field A, until you finish your dissertation.

You can still change career paths after you have your PhD; turning 30 and having kids on the horizon does not foreclose your ability to start a new career. Otherwise, I would be very depressed.

I also think it takes courage to be on a "different philosophical/political page from 99% of [your] colleagues". Soldier on!
posted by jabberjaw at 2:17 PM on May 20, 2008

I agree with jabberjaw that finishing your PhD dissertation should be the first thing that you do. I think you will feel a sense of accomplishment after finishing the whole thing that will give you the momentum to do whatever it is that you decide to do after it. I also would like to reiterate that late 20s or even early 30s is by no means too old to begin a graduate program in the sciences. My boyfriend just turned 30 and is in the second year of a PhD program. It is definitely possible to change the direction of your career. One of my advisors studied clarinet all the way through college and grad school and is now a professor of neurobiology. Good luck!
posted by peacheater at 2:26 PM on May 20, 2008

This is going to sound glib, but I'm seconding that you're working with a false dichotomy. Why not get your Ph.D., then you can choose (or let find you) some kind of hybrid path. You could probably get decent respect as a tech manager type, or, if your thesis could lend itself that way, you could be someone who brings your analytical-type thinking to literary criticism (or whatever field it is you're in that needs shaking up).

Whatever path you choose, is a Ph.D. going to hurt?

It sounds like you do need some reinforcement of the notion that thinking logically is a good thing. Apply your brain to that problem a little - how you can find time with similar-minded people - before you go completely honking insane; then calm down a bit, then think about the thesis.
posted by amtho at 2:26 PM on May 20, 2008

Yeah, I'd say (3), finish the dissertation, get the degree, and then move on, is the option you want. You may not be able to use that degree to get a job in the hard sciences, but having a Ph.D. on your vita will open doors beyond academia. Just buckle down and do it. Knowing you won't be staying in the field will give you the liberty to take chances (and, frankly, to do it quickly without obsessing about perfection). Unless you have some awesome opportunity staring you in the face right now, I think walking away would be cause for immense regret later.
posted by bricoleur at 2:34 PM on May 20, 2008

Write off the past five years as a loss. Get out now. I did something very similar (after three years instead of five, and people said to me "well, surely you can at least get a masters' with six months' more work" rather than a PhD with two years), and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Once I had decided I didn't want to be in my original field anymore, I didn't want to spend another day in it, let alone months or years, regardless of any potential degrees or other rewards within that field.

However, getting out of field B doesn't mean you have to go back to field A. Are you sure A is what you would prefer? What about C, D, or E?

At this point in life (late 20s, with kids on the horizon), it's late to be starting a whole new grad program

That's absurd. Lots of people start graduate school in their late 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.

Whatever path you choose, is a Ph.D. going to hurt?

Another two years in which anonymous "can't respect [himself] intellectually, professionally or personally?" Yes, I'd say that's going to hurt a great deal.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:49 PM on May 20, 2008

Oh! I just noticed you are getting your degree in Literary Criticism! That's frickin' awesome!

I was a English major / Math minor, and I absolutely loved Literary Criticism. I used to use math analogies all the time in explaining theories. Having a degree in Literary Criticism seems to have so many useful non-directly-related applications. I can't even begin to list the great skills you learn coming out with a degree like that - it is in my opinion the closest thing to scientifically studying "rhetoric."

I can see how you're getting bogged down (I despised Derrida before I loved him) the "analytical/quantitative" aspects in that field are totally out of whack. I can't direct you any more than my previous post, but I think it is totally rad to see a science-oriented person getting a PhD in Literary Criticism, and I hope you do get your degree.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:52 PM on May 20, 2008

About every few months or so, my boyfriend (finishing his second year of his PhD, but this started back when he was an MA) calls me up to tell me he's picked the wrong field, and definitely should've been an engineer/ architect/ firefighter. Now, admittedly, these are a bit further away from his experience than yours (as you seem to have been in the field in undergraduate), but it doesn't stop him from being *absolutely convinced* that he's made the wrong decision in life, and could've been much happier doing something else.

You've been doing this for five years, and you're successful enough that you're close to completion. Lit crit ain't easy, and I doubt that you could've made it this far without being pretty darn interested in it. PhDs are a pain, they're a lot of stress, and the payoff is uncertain in terms of the future job market. But dude, get the degree. See how you're feeling after it's through and behind you. Another year of work before possibly going back to school ain't that big of a deal. Plus, late 20s is the only appropriate time to start a degree, as you've shown, by entering into "B" too early.

If it's what you want, now you know, and that's a better way to go about getting it.
posted by Herman Hermanson at 3:10 PM on May 20, 2008

My sister always wanted to do art, and originally was aiming for architecture. She got talked out of it, so she went for science instead. She went all up to a PhD in Biotechnology, and worked for a few years in cancer research. She hated it, and her art bug was coming back to bite her. She tried a course in science communication, which was fun, but she still couldn't get anywhere.

After about 20+ years of non-stop schooling (since kindergarden) she shocked the whole family by taking a year off. She just did whatever she wanted. She learnt all sorts of things, and got back into art.

Now she's doing her Bachelor's in Illustration, and she's the happiest I've ever seen her. She just turned 34.

It's never too late to change your mind.
posted by divabat at 3:21 PM on May 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I walked away from a Ph.D. program years ago...I had two years remaining on a fantastic four-year-fellowship with an amazingly big stipend and no teaching load at all, and people encouraged me to stay because, you know, why not stay and get the degree since the U was paying me to do it and blah blah blah.

But once I left, I felt so relieved and free, and I've never had a regret about it. The work and time you've already invested are sunk costs and you can walk away from them. Staying to finish when your heart isn't in it, you long to be doing something else, and you don't feel good about the work just sounds like throwing good time and money after bad.

Also, as others have said, you're a lot younger than you think you are. Re-starting grad school in a different field is not out of reach at this point, and you'll have plenty of career ahead of you when you finish that degree.
posted by not that girl at 3:24 PM on May 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

People are saying having a PhD can't hurt, but other than the obvious opportunity cost of another two years of doing something you obviously don't want to be doing, isn't it also possible that having a PhD could make one overqualified? (Or at least cause some seriously raised eyebrows that a doctor of humanities wants to come back to be a scientist...)
posted by SuperNova at 3:44 PM on May 20, 2008

Have you considered getting into textual criticism, bibliography, or humanities computing? Historical research or biography are also refreshingly sane.

It strikes me that while literary criticism (I'm a PhD in American Lit) is often batshitinsane, and I often despair of the field in the wider sense, there are islands of sanity to be found everywhere. In fact, a smart logical thinker can impose a fair amount of sanity and generally help things out.

On the other hand, cutting and running is sometimes for the best.
posted by LucretiusJones at 3:47 PM on May 20, 2008

I could be naive here about the complexity of the respective dsciplines, but could you fuse them? Could you use the completion of your current dissertation as an excuse to pursue your interest in dscipline "A"? That way you can bring back the passion in your "B" work, completing your diss so it's not a complete bust, while giving yourself some sideways access back into "A".

Even the article you linked to hints at the necessity for something like this in discipline "B".

I'm actually doing this now with my PhD work, but admittedly, the disciplines I'm cramming together are in an ideological family, so it's a natural fit, but you may be able to achieve something complex, relevant to both fields and cutting edge at the same time. Cross disciplinary thinking is rare, and you may find a new "C" path as the leading spokesperson for "A" filtered through "B", or the other way around.

Either way, I'm a finish-what-you-started kidn of person, so I would advocate pulling out all stops to complete your diss so that you don't have two loose ends in your hands.
posted by lottie at 3:50 PM on May 20, 2008

Oh... I just want to add... the idea of fusing the two disciplines together may not seem simple, or even possible, but from my experience, an endeavor where you are forced to be truly creative and to access new, difficult areas, present the true opportunities in life to innovate.
posted by lottie at 3:53 PM on May 20, 2008

You can't achieve greatness without taking risks. You can't take risks without sometimes failing. That's life, but it isn't crippling unless you make it that way. You have to look in the mirror and say, I'll do better next time.

There's an aphorism that goes something like this: Show me a man who has never failed, and I'll show you a man who's never done anything important.
posted by Class Goat at 4:08 PM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Finish your PhD. Become a science librarian.
posted by unknowncommand at 4:12 PM on May 20, 2008

Which is to echo everyone else in that you've set up a false dichotomy. Pick neither.
posted by unknowncommand at 4:14 PM on May 20, 2008

Part of the purpose of the Ph.D. (even in a "batshitinsane" field like lit crit) is to show that you have the persistence to do the legwork of research, analysis, independent thought, composition, revision, and proofing, plus the theater of the defense. In whatever field you go into next, people who aren't absolute assholes (many American right-wingers especially hate lit crit -- even if you are more conservative, they are biased against it) will respect you more for finishing your Ph.D. You'll at least have a sheepskin on the wall and a few letters after your name. It won't hurt with the job search or school applications thereafter.

(from another Ph.D. in a field with too many Ph.Ds)
posted by bad grammar at 4:38 PM on May 20, 2008

Depends where you are in your dissertation. If the end is in sight, finish it and then leave the field. If you think you have 3 years or so to go, then really you have about 6 years to go and you should quit now.

You are young and it is easy enough to change direction. Swallow your pride and get back to the quantitative stuff. Become a consultant if you have the quant skills to do that directly, maybe take some classes and reapply to a MA program or whatever in your quant field.

If you dislike lit crit, just get out. There is no reason to stay - the job market sucks, you will only become more depressed if you dislike the field, and you are still VERY YOUNG and should have no compunction about switching direction.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:02 PM on May 20, 2008

if you are so close to finishing the dissertation, then finish it. I know several people who have been admitted to a second doctoral program in a different discipline because they showed promise and application in their first program (i.e. they completed). Ditching out will demonstrate nothing other than being unable to complete anything.
Once you have the PhD think about what else you'd like to do. You don't have to be an academic and you don't have to work in the discipline you qualified in. But having a PhD can open doors - not least because it demonstrates analytic thinking and an ability to synthesize -- whether qualitative or quantitative is irrelevant. I know someone with a very successful computing career, who was hired on his response to the question "Why do you want to work as a programmer, with a PhD in History?" He responded "Computer programming seems like a breeze compared to analyzing Napoleon's strategy en route to Moscow." They laughed, remembered him, and he got the job.
Finally, with one PhD, you can get some credits waived if you decide to go the academic route and qualify in a more quantitative field. That has to be worth something - as well as the self-respect of having completed what you set out to do. I work with a lot of doctoral students and I see this pre-dissertation regret a lot (possibly as traumatic and common as pre-wedding cold feet). As jabberjaw said: you're not looking for an excuse not to finish the dissertation, are you?
posted by Susurration at 5:40 PM on May 20, 2008

I can see why people suggest finishing the thesis but having experienced depression from trying to work with the wrong topic, I'm not sure I'd recommend that. I started out with a thesis topic which I thought would fit well with the field, and then realised that I couldn't care less about my topic, wasn't interested in it, couldn't motivate myself and was going to fail. I got ill and very depressed. I finally gave in - went for counselling - and embraced the fact that I was going to give up. I was happy. I started to look for books to read simply because they interested me - I picked up a book on something quite different in my field and suddenly had a completely unexpected revelation about what I wanted to research. I was energised, fascinated and driven by this new topic. I made a total recovery and wrote up my thesis within the three years that we take in the UK, despite wasting most of my first year.

I didn't get an academic job, because I and my thesis were too eccentric to succeed in the current job market, instead I ended up with two careers related to my field which I never expected. I'm now on career number two - and still mostly enjoying it very much and making a living. And my oddball thesis that didn't get me a teaching job? It's still enriching my life and producing ideas in my new line of work. I've never regretted it.

My advice is to take time out if you can, follow your nose, let yourself read what you want to read, and not what your course dictates. The next thing for you to do may be something you haven't even thought of yet, and you wont know what it is until you open yourself beyond this either/or choice, and give other possibilities a chance to germinate. Do what's needed to lift the depression first and foremost, and then you'll have a chance to know what you want to do.
posted by Flitcraft at 7:17 PM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are several issues here:

1. Where you want to go.
2. Which fields of study can get you there.
3. Whether you can enjoy field B.

Though these are interrelated, they also have some independence from each other.

You need to think widely about (i) what kinds of vocations you might enjoy if you could do anything you wanted to, (ii) what areas might use Ph.Ds in field B, (iii) what areas might use Ph.D.s in field A, (iv) what kinds of options you might enjoy if you went back to school to get a law degree or MBA, (v) what the prospects are for other creative options, like starting your own business, if those appeal to you. You need to research and think about the costs and benefits of each option.

The answers are not necessarily intuitive. For example, if you miss "analytical/quantitative thinking" and want to do that, you can find a job that involves those elements even from your current field of study: management consultancies like McKinsey often hire non-traditionals like Ph.Ds, and their work is full of quantitative analysis.

In addition, perhaps you're taking too narrow a view of B. You may be on a different page than 99% of your profession: but that leaves 1% which is on the same page as you, right? Can you find that 1% and group together and do something interesting.

Certainly something about B must have attracted you to it in the first place. What was that? Could you focus your thesis on it -- or, like the article you link to suggests, add in quantitative elements and make lit crit more of a "science" -- whether or not these ideas are popular?

Another possibility: suppose you wanted to join a hedge fund or other investment firm. These firms want an edge. If you could develop a lit crit system of analyzing the news and finding patterns or other interesting information that would help investors -- this would be immensely valuable. Just a thought.

But of course, at the end of it, if none of these ideas appeal, the years you have investecd in B so far are indeed a sunk cost. You should not factor them in when making your decision about what to do next (though of course you should factor in the results of that work -- like the fact that you could get Ph.D. in B in two years).
posted by shivohum at 8:29 PM on May 20, 2008

I also made a qual to quant switch. Why not finish up your dissertation and edge into a program that is more quantitatively-oriented but has some overlaps? With literacy criticism could you go to a quantitative social science program where there may be some overlaps?

Late 20s isn't too late to start another program. Social science PhD can be 5 years and in my department many people get done in 4.
posted by k8t at 9:00 PM on May 20, 2008

Get out of the field you hate. Now. It will be hard, but think about it, you've learned from five years that you don't like what you're doing. That's not a loss! Don't let that take over the rest of your life.

Speaking as someone who quit a PhD program after "losing" three years and will be paying off the money I (unwisely) borrowed for another decade. My life is not exactly wonderful right now but it sure is nice to not suffer from crippling anxiety every single day faced with unending tons of work that I hated and was unable to manage, and being broke on top of it.

What about just taking a break from the academy for a while. Take a semester or a year leave. Lots of people do. Get away and see how the world looks when you're not caught up in a way of thinking and environment that tell you it's absolutely unacceptable, unthinkable, to walk away, not least because you're probably around a lot of unhappy people slogging through grad programs who have to convince themselves that it's just unthinkable to walk away. Then if you want to go back to field A, go back - but maybe you won't ever want to, which is completely fine.
posted by citron at 9:18 PM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a PhD student in engineering who did an eclectic undergrad, I say complete your program and then move on to something else. We need more people in the sciences who can write. Desperately.
posted by mostly_impossible at 9:56 PM on May 20, 2008

And.. if your field is literary criticism.. Not trying to be painfully harsh but.. what are you going to do if you do finish that dissertation? Are you in a niche that's competitive or have you already specialized yourself to the point that the odds will be entirely stacked against you ever landing a tenure track job? I was advised against doing a comp lit PhD on grounds that I'd be lesser qualified for each particular department (English or French) and very, very few schools had a dedicated program for comp lit itself. I see from your post that you see the same prospects.. I also came to be fed up with a lot of theory (and saw myself as more of a historian), there being such tons of theory churned out in often impenetrable language, and the trend of inventing new fields of study that seemed to read things in similar ways but from a different identity angle. I could say a lot more, feel free to send me MeFi mail if you want to talk about it!

Also, you can only do what you can do. If finishing your dissertation is truly unbearable, then you can't suck it up and just do it, so take a break. I reached that point with nothing longer than a term paper, but I hit my limit - I just couldn't do it. I got some attempted guilt trips from family/friends that oh, if only you could suck it up and just do it.. and eventually started telling them, if you want a PhD in the humanities, why don't you go get one yourself? You couldn't? Me either.

Last thing, if you wrote the post above, you can write, and not a lot of people can do that. I am sure you must be qualified for many jobs that require writing skills and have some scientific/technical component that you can probably learn on the job, whereas knowing how to write well and clearly is not easily learned on the job. There are lots of fields that require writing and editing, I don't do sciences so I can't get specific but I'm in IT, and.. good technical writing is hard to come by.
posted by citron at 10:29 PM on May 20, 2008

(I don't know if this is helpful, but I know corpus linguists and English-department-people who do pretty good quantitative work on literature. Someone at my university, for instance, is heading up a research team doing computational analysis of the rules of metrical scansion — with real live falsifiable hypotheses and everything. Their work is interesting, not just to linguists and computer scientists, but to literary scholars as well, because it provides a concrete way of describing the differences in metrical style between authors, the changes in that style over time, and so on. This is just an example, but there's lots of similar work to be done on other subjects.

I honestly have never understood what Literary Criticism was, so I can't tell if that's something you can transition into doing, or something you'd want to do. But you may want to know it's an option. Feel free to flag this if I'm completely off the mark.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:27 PM on May 20, 2008

Read: “So What Are You Going to Do with That?” Finding Careers Outside Academia

There are so, so, so many PhDs and near-PhDs getting out of academia and into research, policy, governance, strategy.

If you are really close to finishing, do that, talk to your university's career centre and get a job somewhere else.
posted by wingless_angel at 12:49 AM on May 21, 2008

Seems to me that you have several choices:

1) Take a break to re-evaluate
2) Walk away from it all. Find something else to do with your life.
3) Find a way to finish your humanities Ph.D., just to be done with it.
4) Find a way to finish your humanities Ph.D. that somehow includes your scientific bent.

Is there a way to bail your Ph.D. program that still gives you a master's degree? If so, consider taking your M.A. and then applying to a graduate program in science. If you wind up with a science Ph.D., no one will care that you have an M.A. and an M.S. In fact, if you spin it the right way, it would be seen for what it is: a strength.
posted by wheat at 10:51 AM on May 21, 2008

Another Ph.D. dropout here to say, life is good -- I don't regret those years, but thank god I left. I was not cut out to do enormous projects alone, at least not back then.

On the other hand, nobody I know who finished has any regrets, even when they were doubting the field mid-stream. I'd suggest you finish up (it's hard, but it's just step by step), but it's easy for us to say that -- the hill looks different from the top, or from, er, some other, distant hill. (Sorry this is all scattershot, but I'm really tired right now.)
posted by salvia at 12:53 AM on May 22, 2008

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