grad school rulz #21: when to quit
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I strongly believe that most people who enter graduate school can successfully complete the program. However, it is also important to know that academia is not the right choice for everyone – even among those who possess the talent to complete the PhD degree. Think of this post as a guide for answering the question: “how do I know this is really the best choice for me?”
Let’s start this discussion with two obvious points. First, graduate education is the training school for a specific profession – being a professor. That means the program is set up to help you master an academic discipline, produce research in it, and teach it. This is job training and if you don’t want that job, then there is no point in continuing. Second, there is no moral obligation to get a doctoral degree and it’s ok to switch to another career. Just as it’s ok for an accountant to switch to lawyering, or an actor may quit the theater to start their own business, it’s totally ok for a graduate student to switch to another career. Finding the right job is a totally normal aspect of life.
Ok, so how can you decide if you should continue in your program? I’m not going to give you a simple rule because career switching is a very personal choice, but you have to know what the academic profession offers. Here are the main advantages of the academic career:
- You get to be part of a larger scholarly & intellectual community and work on cool ideas.
- You get to decide the topic of your work.
- You get to work with smart people and young people.
- Professoring is a well regarded profession.
- Compared to most industries, the faculty have extremely stable jobs that will support a middle class lifestyle.
Here are the disadvantages that are specific to the academic career:
- Usually less pay than peers in similar “real world” jobs and huge opportunity costs.
- Small labor markets – you don’t have much of a choice where you teach and mobility can be limited.
- Poorly defined personal boundaries – it’s possible that you can get into the habit working all the time, even at home.
- It can take a while – grad school, post-docs, assistant prof – to get well established.
- It can be hard, especially for women, to juggle family issues with academic life because academia demands much early in the life course.
At the very least, you should consider these issues when thinking about spending the next five years of your life training for the academic profession. Given these advantages and disadvantages, let me now turn to bad reasons for quitting. These are situations that are stressful, but, in the big scheme of things, really short term problems. To repeat: these are not good reasons to interrupt your studies.
- I hate my department/adviser/cohort/university/dissertation. In a few years, you won’t have an adviser, and you’ll be at another place with different people, and you’ll finish the diss and move on to other topics.
- I screwed up this test/grad exam/course/other hoop you have to jump through. Not a big deal – with a little guidance from faculty and extra effort, most people will get through the program.
- It sucks to be a poor graduate student. Yes it does, but once again, there is a solution – graduation. Though academia does not offer high salaries, outside a few areas, the paycheck is enough for a modest and comfortable life.
- The stress of teaching and research. All jobs worth doing are stressful. People expect high quality output from you, just as we expect lawyers and doctors to do their job as best they can. In the big picture, academic life is probably much less stressful than, say, being a surgeon, or a litigator, or starting your own business.
Finally, let me get to some genuine reasons to quit:
- You truly find the academic mission irrelevant for your personal goals. Academia is all about things like decoding the true meaning of “Being and Time,” or looking for natural experiments in surveys, or reframing Chaucer. If this sort of intellectual work truly bores you, then maybe you should look for a new career.
- The rewards of academia are incompatible with what makes you truly happy. In other words, if you need at least X to be happy and your discipline pays 1/2 X, then don’t do it. Or maybe you are interested in real world impact – it’s hard to do in many academic areas. Also, if moving to a new area is truly incompatible with your happiness, you’d better think twice about the job.
- Ability – once in a while, you get into a situation where you’re not up to it, or not at the level that’ll get the outcome you want. No shame in that. Nobody is good at everything. You may not be cut out for academia, but you are probably cut out for success in some other area. And remember – academics are people who would probably screw up other jobs. Life isn’t about being good at everything – it’s about finding what you can be good at.
- Inability to work independently. Once again, no shame in that. Some people just really need a more structured environment than academia. In my own case, I spend most of my time working on projects that I design and am responsible for. There is no “boss” and most deadlines are imposed or selected by me. Some people just can’t do this, just as some people would go nuts with a traditional work environment. So if the years are passing and you can’t concentrate long enough to write a dissertation chapter or two, then maybe you should think about it.
In offering these comments, my goal is not to push people. My goal is to help people find the career that works for them. The only way you can do that is by seriously asking yourself if the job that you are training for is really the job you want.