Deciding when to leave

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.

Not a way to plan your career.

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.

Get me outta hereee!

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.


12 thoughts on “Deciding when to leave

  1. This post pretty much describes my experience exactly. I just finished my written Prelim exam, and I have pretty much had it. I’m currently scrounging for jobs on the internet, and am putting in one more semester of teaching before I leave for good. It was helpful to hear from someone else who is in my position, because it helps to know that you’re not alone.

    • It is good to hear from another person leaving after exams! Good luck with the job search and transition – and I’m glad to see comments are now enabled on your site, which I’ve been reading for a couple of days and enjoying (well, as much as one can enjoy reading about the crap people have to put up with in grad school)!

      • Yeah, the comment thing was stupid and weird. Hurray for third party comment hosting sites! I’m also enjoying your blog, especially the discussion of the lack of work/life balance. I’m like a post-ac blog addict. I have to endlessly search online for more and more so I can get my daily fix.

  2. Purposefully leaving academia at any time, but especially before you’ve embarked on the dissertation, is a courageous act of conviction and respect for yourself. So is finishing the dissertation to spite everyone who ever lied to you about the way things would turn out. So, either way, you can’t go wrong.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Thanks for the comment! And thanks so much for your blog – it was the first post-ac blog I found, and it was/is really helpful to me as I am making this transition. I like the idea of finishing just to spite people. Good luck with your own job search!

  3. I think it is better that you are leaving when you are. You’ve passed the exams and have at least that much to show for the years you spent in your program. I’m quitting during my dissertation because I just do not want to do this anymore. I’m tired of writing academic papers and suffering so much. Plus, the chances of me getting a job with a PhD that is far better than the ones I’ve been getting with a Masters are slim. So, I totally understand where you are.

    Be careful with web design. It seems that lots of people gravitate to it after dropping their PhD, but it isn’t something to base a new career upon, unfortunately. Think about it: there are also lots of Graphic Design and Computer Science students who are unemployed, too.

    • Oh, I’m not really going to do web design – it’s just a set of skills I wish I had. And quitting during the dissertation because you’re sick of it seems totally reasonable to me! Since I went public with my decision to leave, other people I know in my program and in other programs who want to leave have been coming out of the woodwork and wanting to talk – but everyone who is in the dissertation stage seems to feel compelled to finish even though they are miserable and, as you mention, don’t need the PhD to find a non-academic job. I think it’s that whole “sunk costs” thing, but yeah, if you hate grad school I think it is never too late to quit! Anyhow, this is getting long-winded, but thanks for the comment, and good luck with your own transition!

  4. I literally, kind of unintentionally, just left my program yesterday, very very early on into it (and by early…I mean three weeks into it). They were definitely amongst the worst three weeks in my life. I was super miserable but felt guilty about it and was trying to stick it out. However, there were other extenuating circumstances that also helped to move my decision along and when I finally found someone willing to help with those, I couldn’t not take the assistance. I just want to thank you for your blog. It, amongst other post-academic ones, has helped me keep my sanity these past few weeks, knowing I wasn’t alone in what I was feeling 🙂

    • Congrats on getting out so early :). No point in sticking around if it’s miserable, especially with the job market right now! I’m glad my blog was helpful to you – other post-ac blogs were so incredible helpful to me when I was trying to decide if I was ready to leave. Good luck with figuring out what to do next!

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