Guest Post: Too Far Along to Quit (Too Apathetic to Finish)

[This is a guest post by Michael, a PhD candidate in Political Science. He can be reached at hulley22@gmail.com.]

Hi. My name is Michael, and I’m an academic.  Not only am I an academic, but I’m a jaded academic.  An academic who is thinking of quitting, but can’t.  Why can’t I quit?  Why is it so difficult to say I’m done?  It’s not that I’m addicted to academia.  Far from it.  I’m pretty repulsed by what my chosen discipline has turned into, yet for several reasons I just can’t throw in the towel.

First are the sunk costs.  I’ve been in grad school for almost seven years and in my Ph.D. program for almost five.  My dissertation has not been written, but the data has been gathered and organized, the literature read, and the arguments prepared.  All I need to do now is to write it!  But I can’t.  I just can’t muster up the effort to sit down and write.  Unfortunately, I also can’t muster up the courage to quit.  People keep reminding me of how close I am to finishing.  Compared to where I was when I started, they are correct.  I could probably pound this dissertation out in a few months.  I’m a quick writer, and since I have no ambitions of being an academic, quality is of little concern to me.  One would think I would be able to just sit down and work.  I can’t.  One would think I would be able to quit.  I can’t.  I’ve put in too much work, effort, and money to quit at this point.  I suffered through years of course work that is pretty irrelevant to my dissertation or the rest of my life.  I survived comprehensive exams and my prospectus defense.  I’ve spent 80 hour weeks reading, writing, and running statistical models.  I’ve lost sleep, weight, money, relationships, and years for this, but I can’t seem to finish or quit and move on with my life.  I’m truly in no man’s land.  I’m too far along to quit, but too apathetic to finish.

Second, quitting sucks.  I hate quitting.  I’ve never quit anything.  Part of me wants to finish this Ph.D. simply because I want to quit.  It would be a way to defeat my inner-defeatism.  In high school I wasn’t the braniac, but in college I found my way.  Most people in my hometown are probably shocked I am working on a Ph.D.  Finishing is kind of my way of saying, “See.  I am smart!” If I quit, my fear is that everyone will say, “See.  You are who we thought you were.” I have no doubts that I can finish, I just don’t know if I want to finish.  While quitting is something that occurs at every job, quitting in academia is a sign of weakness or intellectual emptiness.  No one thinks you quit academia because you don’t like it or the job prospects are sparse.  People think you quit because you can’t do it.  I don’t know if I can handle that because I can do it.

Third, I don’t know how to tell others about quitting.  My wife knows I hate school, but I don’t think she fully understands how much I want to quit.  She doesn’t know I spend more time during the day thinking about quitting than I do thinking about my dissertation.  She doesn’t know I am writing this post.  Heck, she doesn’t even know that I haven’t written a word of my dissertation.  Why?  Because no one knows how horrible this process is except those who have experienced it, and I HATE talking about it to those outside the Ivory Tower.  Explaining the dissertation process and my discipline to someone who has never been through it is like explaining how to put together a car engine to someone who has never owned a socket set.  My fellow grad students understand the process and my discipline.  They are like my war buddies.  They’ve been to Hell and back with me.  Everything I’ve suffered through, they have too, and they’re just as miserable.  My wife, my family, and my friends just don’t understand academia.  It’s not because they aren’t smart enough.  It’s because they haven’t been there.  How do I tell others—many of whom have sacrificed so that I can go to school full time—that I want to quit?  They think all I have to do is write a long paper and I’ll be done.  If only that were true.  If only the dissertation were nothing but a long paper where I ramble on about ideas.  They understand neither my discipline, nor academia as a whole.  They have no clue what I do on a day-to-day basis, which makes explaining to them why I want to quit that much more difficult.  Aside from that, when my daughter is old enough to inquire about my education, what do I tell her?  Can quitting something simply because you don’t like it ever be a good example to set?  Will she think less of me?

Should I stay or should I go?  If I stay, how do I find the motivation to finish?  If I quit, how do I explain this to others—most of whom will never understand?  This is the battle I fight every day as a jaded academic who is too far along to quit, but too apathetic to finish.

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18 Responses to “Guest Post: Too Far Along to Quit (Too Apathetic to Finish)”


  1. 1 JoVE December 1, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Yes, quitting can be a good example. In fact, I think it is a better example than sticking with something that makes you truly miserable.

    You are a smart person. (You wouldn’t be where you are now if that were not true.) You have a contribution to make. Maybe you don’t know what it is but rest assured that you have one.

    If writing your dissertation is keeping you from making that contribution, it’s okay to quit.

    Is sticking with this (and keeping all this misery mostly to yourself) worth potentially losing your relationship and your health for? Probably not.

    Are the people who will think you are weak and intellectually empty the kind of people whose opinions really matter to you?

    Will your wife think this of you? Or will she want you to be happy?

    How important are those people you went to high school with? Do you really care what they think? Will they really think you are a failure? Or is that some gremlin talking?

    Sunk costs are sunk costs. You can’t do anything about them.

    You can do something about how much more you sink.

    (Also, check out the counselling services your university health centre or whoever provides. They will be confidential. And they will help you deal with some aspects of this. There is a line between apathy and depression. You don’t have to cross it before you seek help.)

    • 2 Michael December 2, 2010 at 8:15 am

      JoVE,

      Thanks for the comments and the questions. I will have to think really hard about how I would respond them.

      My feelings for finishing range from pure hatred for my discipline to the realization that I can finish pretty quickly and easily to the idea that I wouldn’t mind extending the writing process (assuming I had a “real” job) in an effort to take it more casually. I usually go through all of these feelings every day, which makes it difficult to make a decision. Plus, I can rationalize every single option I have.

      Again, thanks for taking the time to reply. I really appreciate it.

  2. 3 ailsa December 1, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    awww stay, seriously, just make your writing personable, if you write like this in your thesis, I’d want to read it 🙂

    But if your still ambivalent this is a great book on merits of quitting from Seth Godin http://www.squidoo.com/theDipBook
    and here’s a great blog on how to write a dear John letter to the thesis-
    http://www.rin.ac.uk/blogs/team/branwen-hide/it-hard-say-goodbye

    Meantime if u want company, here’s my blog http://amusingspace.blogspot.com coz misery loves company
    and i also rec http://thethesiswhisperer.wordpress.com/ who spread word of your plight.
    ailsa.

    • 4 Michael December 2, 2010 at 8:20 am

      Alisa,

      Thanks for the compliment and the links.

      I wish I could make my writing personable. I can’t even get my committee to realize that I’m not going to be an academic. Despite numerous conversations and very blunt emails on my part, they still seem to couch everything in terms of getting an academic job. It’s as if I’m talking to a wall (or 3).

      Perhaps I should jet tell them that the only way I am going to finish is if I do X, Y, and Z and don’t get stuck having to do A, B, or C. That may or may not work, but it might be my only option. I’m not looking for the easy way out. I’m just looking to get through and employed (outside of academia).

  3. 6 Eliza Woolf December 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    “Sunk costs are sunk costs. You can’t do anything about them.

    You can do something about how much more you sink.”

    I agree completely and try to remind myself of this fact on a weekly basis. Finishing can be rewarding in and of itself but only if you really want it. If you hate your dissertation and your field it is going to be a pretty painful process. But, then again, life is painful and yet still worth living, so you have to decide if the pain is worthwhile in the long run.

    For me the misery of finishing after 6+ years was worth it, even if I do end up leaving academe altogether. But I’ve got close friends who threw in the towel and decided not to finish (after 7, 8 sometimes 9 years) and I’ve never seen them happier. They’ve finally stopped beating themselves up.

  4. 7 Anthea December 2, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    I’d agree with everything about what Eliza has said about finishing. Writing up was a hard process since I was just tired and bored of the topic but I knew that I was finishing for myself and not for anyone else..I didn’t think about whether or not it was important for anyone else, whether it was crucial for getting a job (naturally my colleagues saw it as a means of getting a job) is something for you alone. As Eliza says the key thing is to stop beating yourself up.

    • 8 Michael December 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

      You guys make some good points about the need to stop beating myself up. Unfortunately, that is more difficult than it seems because academia teaches us how to beat each other (and ourselves) up. I wish I could finish the degree without being so critical of myself–approach it as a hobby almost for the sake of completion–but I’m not sure that is possible.

  5. 9 Rachelle December 3, 2010 at 2:39 am

    The fact that you’re not talking to your wife and other people close to you tells me you might be wanting to finish the Ph.D. because you think they care.

    Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe they’d be relieved.

    I wouldn’t try to explain academia to them. It’s just going to sound like whining. Lots of people don’t like their jobs and they have to do them anyway.

    Maybe you could explain what you want to do instead. You’ve realized you don’t want to be a prof. The jobs you want will care about the skills you’ve developed so far, but not about the “Dr.” attached to your name. You want to cut your losses.

    One more thing:

    When I got to the “just writing” stage, I thought I wouldn’t care that much about the quality either, because I don’t want an academic job. But I’ve been a good student too long and I can’t change. (I defend in a few weeks, and it’s been grueling.)

    If you’re made from different stuff and you truly can crank this puppy out in a few months, then maybe you should. (Unless you have something better to do.) But do you have any evidence based on your past that this is something you’ll actually do? If not, you’re just wasting time.

    • 10 alternativephd December 3, 2010 at 10:42 am

      “Maybe you could explain what you want to do instead.”

      I think this is really great advice, since it gives a new way of looking at this kind of situation. Thinking about the decision to “quit” or “leave” in terms of what you want to do *next* is a much more positive (and useful!) outlook. Maybe it’s not possible to have this conversation with loved ones until you have some concrete alternatives in mind.

      This is also the kind of thinking that will be invaluable during interviews for whatever does come next. As many people have pointed out (in places like Versatile PhD), when you’re asked the question “Why are you leaving academia?” it’s much more productive to explain why Job X is the best way to make your contribution for reasons 1 and 2 — rather than going on about why and how academia is not a good fit/terrible for your soul, etc.

      “When I got to the “just writing” stage, I thought I wouldn’t care that much about the quality either, because I don’t want an academic job. But I’ve been a good student too long and I can’t change. (I defend in a few weeks, and it’s been grueling.)”

      This is another great point, and definitely one I’m struggling with. I keep telling myself that I just need to finish, that the dissertation just needs to be good *enough* — but you’re right, I’ve been a perfectionist for way too long to suddenly switch gears. Argh!

  6. 11 Michael December 3, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks everyone for their comments.

    I think this problem boils down to battles of pride vs. self-doubt, and goals and the means to achieve those goals. Even today I have gone through the gambit of emotions I spoke about in my response to JoVE. I’m just all over the place, and I’m not sure anyone in my department really cares, which burns a bit.

  7. 12 Caitlin December 6, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Does it have to be either/or? Finish OR quit?

    How about finishing AND quitting? In other words, find a non-academic job (those quant skills could certainly help), then write a crappy diss in the evenings and on weekends. That way you get your cake and eat it too.

    This was my path. I wrote the diss relatively quickly, but found myself in your psychological spot as a postdoc with a book contract that required me to write one more chapter so the damn thing could sell 12 more copies. Then I fell out of love with the idea of being a professor, the realities of the job market sank in, and the only TT job I was offered was in suburban TN.

    So I struggled through a career transition, but now I have a job I like, and have never worked on my book more efficiently. This way I get to spite my old advisors, see my name on the spine of a book, and get some closure. I highly recommend it!

    • 13 alternativephd December 6, 2010 at 8:14 pm

      @Caitlin: This is what I’m trying to do at the moment. I’m still employed at my university as a grad student, but I’m sort of trying to move on while still working on the diss. I hope to finish and quit. Or is that quit and finish? =)

    • 14 Michael December 7, 2010 at 8:47 am

      Caitlin,

      This is actually what I have been thinking about doing lately. I think I might actually be a more efficient dissertation writer if I only worked on it an hour a day or one day a week than all day every day. Plus, since I’m not going to be an academic, it would allow me to get a real job with a real wage and real benefits that–Lord willing–I might actually like.

      I think if I did this, it would take a lot of the pressure off of me. I would have a life beyond my office at school and my research. I also think it would help get my committee off of my back. Perhaps this option would help them realize that I’m not going to be an academic. If they truly want me to finish, they are going to have to realize that this is MY dissertation and I’m going to do it on MY terms.

  8. 15 Jin March 31, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    I’m moving on. I’m at almost the exact spot as you are, Michael, except that I have to collect my data again for my diss, and that I’m an international student and a single woman. I’ve been in grad school for almost 7 years, during which time I never worked outside of the university because of my international student status. I’m repulsed by academic writing and the sense of self-importance of academics. I’m sick of having to defend myself all the time just to be accepted into the elite club of PhDs or tenured professors. F that. I’m looking for a job in media now (used to work as a radio producer/hostess in Beijing and got an MA in Comm), where my creativity will be of use rather than being crushed time again. But I still want to finish my dissertation. Just like you, I’m being told that I’m so close to finishing, and quiting is simply not an option. Yet I don’t have any motivation. Plus my director and the committee members can’t care less about me or my project. I guess it all comes down to personal mental strength now. Oh did I mention that I’m an atheist? So no god on my side either. Anyways, I hope you’ll find a way out. Think about this, at least you have a family and can do whatever you choose to (as opposed to somebody on a student visa). And thank for your sharing.

  9. 16 DJ August 9, 2011 at 7:54 am

    If I were you, I would just take it one day at a time, one paragraph at a time. Looking at the bigger picture is torture, and you sound so tortured it is heart-breaking.

    Don’t think about it terms of quitting or not quitting. Just write a paragraph and see what happens. Just one tiny paragraph. Then, tomorrow, write another paragraph…

    After a while, see how you feel. Don’t make the decision now.

  10. 17 Alyssa September 28, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Hi,

    I know your post is pretty old at this point, but as someone who just moved on from academia after finishing an MA and doctoral coursework, I think I can offer some words of advice “from the other side.”

    I too battled for a good 1 1/2 years about whether to leave or not and shared many of your worries about disappointing family and friends, being perceived as a quitter, etc. You know what though? NOBODY interpreted my decision to leave as a sign of weakness, not even my advisor (and I was in a particularly insular field of the humanities at that). Though there is in general a real lack of dialogue within academia about the bleak job market, undue personal sacrifices that the academic life requires, etc., you’d be surprised to know that MOST professors want their students to pursue lives that are meaningful to them–whether inside or out of academia. On the other hand, most graduate students assume that their professors want them to finish at all costs, but that is because they’ve never had an honest conversation with their advisors about how they feel.

    On another note, you’d be AMAZED at how little the trials and tribulations of academia interest employers in the real world. Outside of the academic job market people are interested in what skill sets and insights you can bring to the table–not how many academic hoops you managed to jump through within a rarified system that does not concern the vast majority of the population at all. I’m currently in my first academic job in the field of international education. When I was applying for jobs, I assumed that I would at least be asked why I decided to leave academia, what skills I had developed during my graduate studies that I could bring to my current job, etc. Over the course of 5 interviews, not a single person asked about my decision to leave academia. IT’S JUST NOT RELEVANT!! Really, I can’t emphasize this enough and I hope it comes as a comfort to you. I know how academia works on a person psychologically. It’s impossible to see how irrelevant the structures and processes of academia are when you are part of it….well, more to the point, when academia is your whole life.

    I strongly recommend the book “So what are you going to do with that?: Careers outside Academia” which is amusing, reassuring, and interesting. Life is too short to be making yourself miserable trying to write a dissertation that you’re not invested in in order to receive a PROFESSIONAL degree (don’t kid yourself that it’s anything else….like some kind of statement of your intelligence or something) that you don’t intend to use.

    Best of luck to you! If you have a minute, it’d be nice to hear back from you. This is my first year in the real world and it’s always good to hear from others in a similar position.


  1. 1 Working on Writing « alternative phd Trackback on December 7, 2010 at 8:49 pm

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