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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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November Funk

Maybe it’s the weather: cool, drizzly, and with snow somewhere in the forecast. But there’s definitely something angsty in the air. I’m not even teaching this semester and I still had to take some “me” days last week, and it seems as though the web is abuzz with similar feelings of  grad student uncertainty, regret, disappointment, and indecision. (Although I guess when you frequent blogs about ambivalent academics and ex-grad students, you shouldn’t be too surprised at the particular feelings such experiences might  give rise to.)  Some of my own recent reading:

“PhD in English Useless Destroyed my Life”: A Selloutyoursoul Reader Writes In

A Tale of Graduate School Burnout

When Your Loved Ones Don’t Get It at On the Fence

Got a Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do at WorstProfEver

And I know it’s a little 1998 of me, but thank God for the Internet! I love reading these tales of disappointment, burnout, and leaving. Of indecision. Of starting over. Of advice, both tender and harsh. And it’s not just schadenfreude, it’s exactly what a grad student in a November funk needs to read (especially, as one commenter recently suggested, if friends and family are the last people to consult about a major career change).

After years of feeling unsure about myself, my place in the world, my place in academia, the place of academic in the world, etc., etc.,  it just feels great to see a whole list of smart, savvy people negotiating the same kinds of fears, questions, and decisions. And even though my life hasn’t actually changed — I’m still working on my dissertation, still having awkward encounters with faculty members who avoid eye contact in the hallway — I feel like I have this fantastic secret: I’ve found an amazing place where just thinking about leaving academia is okay, and actually leaving can even be cool.

So, if you’re a fellow grad or post-academic in that November funk, find your community, and say hello.

What to do in the Meantime

So, you’ve decided to keep an open mind about your post-PhD future (meaning, something other than the tenure track). Maybe you’ve got a supportive advisor, maybe not. Maybe your program hosts alternative career panels, maybe not. Regardless of the level of program support, however, there are some things you can do now, on your own, to explore options or gain the skills/experiences you might need in your academic afterlife. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.

[I can’t recall all the sources, but I know that Versatile PhD has been a major resource; in addition to Escape the Ivory Tower, and Leaving Academia. And fantastic new-t0-me blogs Worst Professor Ever and On the Fence.]

  • Google. Probably obvious, but good to remember for basic Idea Gathering, finding communities, resources, tips, statistics, median salaries, etc. Good way to learn the “facts” of the academic market, in addition to various alternatives.
  • Career Center. Maybe obvious, maybe not. Not quite “student” nor faculty, grad students seem to sometimes slip through the cracks (at least at my University). Many services, such as the Career Center, don’t market themselves to grad students, but they’re there for us, too. Probably a good place to help translate the academic CV to a resume. (I say “probably” because my one experience at a career center was *terrible*, but I’ll probably go back at some point, with a different counselor.)
  • Informational Interviews. Once you have a few ideas about potential career alternatives, seek out people in those careers and talk to them. I’ve done one — an English PhD in academic advising — and it was extremely useful. Of course, there are lists of do’s and don’ts in relation to informational interviews (such as never solicit for a job), but maybe that’s for a different post.
  • Network. Once of the advantages of informational interviews is that you’re building a network of people working in careers and in places you think are interesting. Beyond that, though, the usual strategies for networking include LinkedIn, conferences, alumni networks, and staff listings/directories for the kinds of places you’re interested in. Keep in mind that networking is reciprocal; you can’t just collect contacts you think will be useful for your own aspirations, you have to reciprocate: how can you be useful for other people?
  • Volunteer/Intern. Of course grad students are busy teaching, taking classes, taking exams, and writing dissertations (among many other Life things, like having babies), but if you can find a few hours a week or month to volunteer, it’s a great way to gain skills and experience and explore potential careers. For writing/editing careers in particular, I’ve heard that volunteering, such as writing for non-profits, is a good way to build a portfolio, since you might not get hired right away without a body of work or experience. (And again, a good opportunity for networking.) I’ve been volunteering at a local museum; I’ve made some great friends, I’m learning new technical skills, and honestly, it’s great to be in an environment where my knowledge and training are actually valued.
  • Read job listings. If you’re not on the job market, this might not be obvious, but it’s a great way to see what kinds of skills, education, and experiences make up your Dream Job. Also keep in mind, though, that job ads often paint the picture of an ideal candidate; applicants strong in every qualification/preference are rare. The links I’ve posted in the sidebar under “Jobs and Fellowship Opportunities” reflect my particular interests in technology, history, and the humanities, but the same basic logic applies: find the key job listing sites in your fields of interest, professional organizations, non-profits, corporations, whatever, and stalk them. I will add that subscribing to RSS feeds with GoogleReader makes stalking job ads really easy and convenient; some job sites allow you to save searches and will email you new postings that meet your parameters.
  • Know thyself. This last one’s probably the most difficult, at least for me. I know there are good books out there to help you find your bliss, figure out your personality type, and land your dream job, but I haven’t delved too deeply into those just yet. My basic strategy (for now) is based on the fact that I really enjoy the odd jumble of jobs I do now: I work in a writing program (but don’t really teach writing classes), I tutor writing, and I work on a digital humanities project. I’ve tried to isolate what I really enjoy about each activity and figure out how it might translate into a real job (as in, I love tutoring, maybe academic advising would fit?). I’m trying to keep my options open, but I’m also trying not to be overzealous about every possibility merely because I’m uncertain about what I’d like to do and where I’ll fit.

The PhD Experience Conference

I saw this CFP I saw on H-Net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online) for a “PhD Experience Conference” (in the UK) organized by PhD students from multiple disciplines for other new and prospective PhDs:

The University of Hull’s Graduate School is holding a three day conference for current, prospective and post-doctoral researchers, academics and professionals to explore all aspects of the PhD process. The conference will provide a stimulating environment for delegates to develop their understanding of the PhD process by sharing in the experiences of others.

The conference will contain themed sessions including: Being a balanced researcher; Networking: Reflection; The transition from student to supervisor; The research process; The writing process and publishing as you go; Research perspectives; The Viva Voce and using your doctorate beyond academia.

Audience

  • PhD students
  • Prospective PhD students
  • Professional doctoral students e.g. EdD, Masters of Research students

 

Aims

 

  • To provide insight into the PhD process.
  • To provide a relaxed and friendly forum for attendees to share experiences and gain confidence within the research process.
  • To bring together interdisciplinary and experiential knowledge to promote collective learning.
  • To provide an opportunity to network with colleagues and peers and to widen and strengthen professional relationships.

Admittedly, I have no knowledge about graduate study or academic jobs in the UK, but the mention of post-academic career options definitely caught my eye. It also seems like an interesting model of professionalization, an each-one-teach-one opportunity for support, networking, and commiseration.

20 to 200 Pages

I find dissertating (I actually kind of hate that word) to be a strange activity.

On the one hand, I know academic writing. I’ve participated in peer review and have been published. I’ve taught in a writing program for several years. I’ve helped train new writing instructors (other grad students). I’ve taken and taught pedagogy classes for teaching writing. I tutor undergraduate writers. Although I love-hate teaching, I really enjoy talking about writing: audience expectation, supporting claims, organizing information according to principles like give-new and end-weight emphasis. I love introducing student writers to the strange new world of revision strategies, such as reverse outlines, cluster diagrams, highlighting, and reading aloud.

And it’s this intimacy with the writing process that often makes my own writing experiences so frustrating. I guess it’s partly the age-old dichotomy invention and execution, but that’s not very satisfactory. To the extent that writing conference and seminar  papers (8-10 and 20-30 pages respectively) doesn’t feel like adequate preparation for planning a book-length study, this could be another example of graduate programs failing to train its students, but that seems reductive as well.

I’ve read books and gleaned tips about managing the research and writing process, and have often found them helpful. (I often recommend The Clockwork Muse as a really practical guide to prioritizing and scheduling research and writing activities.)

But the fact is, I’m just not used to thinking about argumentative claims on such a large scale. And it’s in the moment of writing, siting at my desk, surrounded by open books, notes, outlines, drafts, scissors, tape, stapler, and those little post-it bookmarks, that I struggle most. What do I need to say? And what’s the best way to say it? How do I go from writing 20 pages to 200 (or more)?

What the hell am I doing?

I recently saw Scott McLemee’s post at Inside Higher Ed about Critical Intellectuals on Writing, a collection of interviews with leadings scholars, thinkers, and writers in the humanities. The central focus of each interview is on the process of composition, and the answers vary pretty dramatically: philosopher David Donaldson begins by imagining the first sentence, wonders what comes next, and then begins crafting the paper in his head. When he actually begins writing, he often discards those first few pages.

Slavoj Žižek, on the other hand, writes in “abstract units;” each unit develops a line of thought for 3-4 pages, and often corresponds roughly to subsections within a chapter. These units get recombined into larger units — once upon a time with scissors and tape, and now with copy, cut, and paste.

Feminist philosopher Sandra Harding begins by outlining her argument, which is often a critique of a particular claim, and then begins by writing the most difficult section, the “most problematic aspect,” first. She then goes back and forth between sections, “growing them up and keeping them in balance with each other.” She puts the draft aside, comes back, and often starts over — building new drafts from the remains of old ones.

What’s particularly striking about these scenes of writing is how completely nonlinear they are. Of course, the nonlinearity of the writing process is something I know and emphasize repeatedly while teaching and tutoring. I know that writing is not just a product, but a process of discovery. But teaching the messy, scary, unpredictable process of discovery, is obviously not the same as living it.

And that’s what I need to learn.

On Responsibility

“It’s not our responsibility,” said the Director of Graduate Studies, “to train you for anything other than an academic job. If we started doing that, we might as well shut down and close the door.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this assertion lately, trying to push through the false dichotomy between the tenure track or closing down graduate programs to see what’s at stake and why. But more immediately, this question looms: Well then whose responsibility is it?

Granted, graduate students do need to take responsibility for their decisions, past and present. And even when they’re told not to go to graduate school, they do. We do. I did. In defense of my younger self, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I probably came to grad school for not the best of reasons: I wasn’t sure what else to do, I loved reading, I loved writing, and I was good at school. I had no conception that graduate training was actually professionalization or what was at stake in pursuing an academic career. But I’m also not sure that my choice would have been any different had I been told these things.

That said, however, graduate programs should be responsible for informing their students about graduate life, the process of professionalization, the academic job market, and tenure track alternatives. In “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities” (April 2010), Peter Conn argues that graduate programs need to be more transparent about graduate life and academic careers; they need to share attrition rates and job placement records with students. Introductory seminars (or orientations or websites) could “review local and national information on attrition, time-to-degree, placement, prospects for tenure-accruing jobs, salaries, and the workings of professional organizations.” Program websites shouldrecord the name of each student who has completed the doctorate, the year of completion, the date, type, and year of first placement and each subsequent placement, and the percentage of each cohort that has completed the degree within 10 years.” As he points out, many program websites, if they do include job placement information, “do not distinguish clearly between tenure-track and non-tenure-track placements. And most do not include nonacademic employment.”

In this age of information, such program-specific data should not be so difficult (or even impossible) to access. (National data also seems unreliable and hard to come by; the recent release of the National Research Council Rankings of Graduate Programs has sparked lots of discussion: critics are pointing out that the data is now outdated and filled with errors, the methodology questionable, and the rankings themselves are difficult to understand.)

At the very least, the culture of graduate study needs to change — to become more open and inclusive, though no less intellectually rigorous. As Conn points out in his final recommendation to graduate programs:

At a minimum, even if graduate faculty members themselves refuse to engage in training or advising students toward alternatives, they should destigmatize such decisions on the part of students and should support those who choose to explore careers outside the academy. Information about nonacademic careers should be included on placement Web sites. Among other outcomes, broadening postdoctoral career opportunities would serve the interest of departments eager to maintain higher rather than lower levels of graduate-student enrollments.

Perhaps when programs take this kind of responsibility, providing facts and fostering transparency and support, then graduate students can take back responsibility and make informed decisions about their graduate lives and careers.

Until then, however, a final question still lingers: what’s our responsibility for making these departmental changes happen?

Timing the Transition

Being an ABD graduate student with #alt-ac aspirations often feels refreshingly rebellious, but also (very) scary. For many of us, being an academic is more than a profession — it’s an identity, and when we think about giving that up, there’s a lot at stake. We feel judged. We grieve.

However, aside from this kind of existential crisis (and graduate students have plenty of those; impostor syndrome, anyone?), there are also more practical problems to consider — such as how to time a transition out of academe. One basic problem is that conventional academic job searches typically take the full academic year from ad to offer; people routinely apply a year in advance. Jobs in other sectors of academe or outside it, however, have much earlier start dates. In many cases, those jobs are available “now.”

In my case, I still have a dissertation to finish and my job/fellowship prospects for next year are as yet unknown. I’m not on the academic job market this year —  and indeed, whether ABDs should be on the market is a controversial topic: some academic jobs seem to be structured in such a way that people can’t finish their dissertations, other ABDs manage to work and finish writing, and others choose to defend and graduate before beginning the job hunt in earnest.

Most days, I feel like I should finish before looking. This way, I can strategically use the time I have left to prepare for a postacademic life: I can volunteer/intern to explore career possibilities and gain experience, conduct informational interviews, or even take some classes to develop skills I might currently lack. I can avoid, at least for a little while, the self-doubt and indecisiveness which is the job seeker’s plight.

Other days, however, I feel like my life is on hold, that maybe it’s fear that’s preventing me from really moving on from my life as a graduate student. These are the days I just want to apply for the alternative or non-academic jobs I stalk online and covet, and my dissertation will either be finished or it won’t, but at least I’ll have *done* something proactive about my life. (I’ve also seen the advice that academics should start applying to these kinds of jobs sooner rather than later, partly because it takes us a while to figure out the non-academic market, including preparing job materials for an entirely different audience than we’re used to.)

I started reading job ads in the first place as a way to figure out my options, but now they’ve created this anxiety about timing. When I was preparing for my qualifying exams and trying to figure out my areas of expertise, I was told to read the MLA job ads so that I had a better idea of how to make myself marketable. Seeing how historical and conceptual areas were defined by hiring committees gave me important insight into how to construct my own professional identity, with an eye towards marketability. Even though my gaze now wanders beyond the ivory walls, I still read ads for the types of jobs I think I want — not for typical faculty posts, but jobs in archives, libraries, historical societies, museums. Jobs for project managers, coordinators, researchers, advisors.

And while I do believe that doing so has given me a much better sense of my options and how to market myself for different audiences, I can’t avoid the feeling that I’m watching opportunities slip by.

And I keep asking myself: when’s the right time to make my move? (It seems the answer is always “just one more year.”)


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