From reading around the post-ac blogosphere, it seems like a lot of other bloggers left after finishing their PhDs, when it became evident that academia had no viable job options for them, or after getting through a decent portion of the dissertation and then deciding they’d had enough. Since I’ve left at a somewhat earlier stage (post-exam, pre-proposal and dissertation), I thought I’d share how I decided to quit when I did, and maybe offer some advice for others who may be early on in their program and starting to question whether academia is right for them.
As I wrote in my last post, after months and months of exam hell, I figured out that I wasn’t just burned out from the exam stress, but that I was growing to hate the work I was doing. This realization forced me, for the first time, to take a long, hard look at the job market numbers. During my time in grad school, whenever I thought about the job market, it conjured feelings of indescribable terror, so I would naturally put it out of my mind right away – “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it! The job market will get better! That’s what everyone says! No point worrying about something that’s x number of years down the road!” And I would continue on my merry way.
But, thanks to my sad sack state during exams, I finally pulled my head out of the sand and looked at what was looming in my academic future. And the specter of adjuncting/VAPing/postdoc-ing in various parts of the country (or world!) for years, coupled with my newfound distaste for the work, was enough to send me running in the other direction.
I reached this point when I had about a month left till the exams. I knew that I was probably not in the best state to make the decision to leave once and for all at that point, so I told myself I would finish the exams and then figure out what to do – I was already signed up to teach a summer class that started right after the exams, so I had a good way to pad my bank account a bit more before voluntarily becoming unemployed.
While I was teaching, I really struggled with deciding when would be the best time to quit. I kind of knew deep down that I was ready to leave right away, but part of me kept freaking out about never being able to find a job and about how totally insane it would be to walk away from a paycheck (however small) and health insurance. I thought it would be more sensible to keep going for another year, and to use that time to do some networking and figure out what I wanted to do next. And maybe it would have been more sensible to have gone that route, but, as I wrote in my last post, grad school had been horrible for my mental health, and the prospect of pretending to my future dissertation committee and everyone else that I was as gung-ho about proceeding in my academic career as the rest of them finally seemed too awful for words. I didn’t think I would have the energy to make my dissertation idea marketable while knowing the whole time that I wouldn’t be finishing it. I was also scheduled to teach a new lit course in the fall, and having to do the prep for that on top of faking a dissertation sounded so time-consuming that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do much networking or job searching anyway. So a week or so before my summer class wrapped up, I went to the DGS and asked for a leave of absence.
Now I will go ahead and say that I have no intention of going back. When I was panicking about making what felt like a life-altering decision (and I guess it is), it seemed easier to go on leave than to leave outright. I knew the whole time that I was really leaving, but it felt less scary to have that back-up option just in case the real world was as horrible as everyone in academia seems to think it is. Since I’ve left, I no longer feel remotely conflicted about my decision. I have to inform the department of what I am doing one way or the other at a certain point, but if I find a full time job before then I will go ahead and let them know I am gone for good. Going on leave was useful in another way, because everyone I talked to was very understanding about why I might want to explore other options at this particular point. Since the possibility for coming back would still exist, no one tried to talk me out of leaving. The closest anyone came was suggesting that maybe I was just having exam burnout (no shit, sherlock!) – but that it was still reasonable to take time off to see if I would like other jobs better.
So, here is my advice from the experience, for whatever it is worth. If you’re toiling along in your grad program, feeling miserable but not sure what to do about it, and you haven’t even started your dissertation yet? At the very least, take the time to make some kind of exit plan. Think about other jobs you might like to have, and what you would need to do to get them. Since none of the non-academic jobs I could imagine myself doing require a Ph.D., I decided it didn’t make any sense to spend more years doing something that was making me unhappy when I could be getting experience in a different career that would actually have a chance of going somewhere. I know that some people want to finish the Ph.D. as a personal accomplishment. At one point I must have felt that way, but once I started looking at other job options and getting excited about all the fun things I could do with some free time, I realized that being Dr. AnotherPostAcademic no longer mattered to me.
The decision of whether or not to finish is obviously a very personal one, and will depend on a lot of different factors for each person. Again, if you are still pre-dissertation, miserable, and unsure of what to do, there are some things you can do to at least make academia feel less inescapable – and that in turn may help you to feel less stressed. I had a modest amount of “emergency money” put away in savings, and desperately needing to change careers for the sake of my sanity qualified as an emergency to me. If I hadn’t had some money put away, I might’ve stuck around another year, because having bills to pay and no money to pay them seems worse than even another year of grad school. So building up some savings (as much as you can, given the crappy TA/adjunct paychecks) can definitely make leaving seem less scary, especially if you don’t have parents/family who can help you out (I don’t).
If you’re planning to leave, temping is a good way to keep some kind of money coming in as you look for jobs, especially if you are in/near a big city. Even though the work is often very basic stuff, it keeps me from panicking about not having a real job because I am still bringing in money.
Finally, I wish that I had done things to develop other skills while I was in grad school – taken a class on web design, done some freelance writing or editing on the side, etc. Instead, I focused single-mindedly on my academic pursuits. Trying out other things would’ve given me experience and maybe some ideas of jobs I liked better than being a professor. Any professors who tell you to give up all your other hobbies/interests to pursue academia do not have your best interests in mind – so feel free to tell them to stuff it (in an awesome imaginary scenario, that is) and diversify your skills anyway.
And because I got sucked into an internet vortex of ostrich pictures when I googled the first two, I’ll leave you with this one, because, hey, grad school is tough and we all need some pictures of animals looking silly to get us through. I don’t even want to talk about how many cat videos I watched during exam prep.