grad skool rulz #21.2: when to quit, follow up

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Few weeks ago, I dedicated an edition of the grad skool rulz to the subject of when to quit. The comments were good and a number of questions were raised. Fellow blogger and awesome culture researcher Jenn Lena wrote:

I’m wondering if you would be willing to talk more about this argument, insofar as you think it is insufficient grounds for leaving a doctoral program: “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 ask because my first instinct is that there may be multiple reasons behind one’s hatred, and some of them will persist into the career (and be dysfunctional there).

Fair point. I think that this speaks to the importance of honest self-assessment. You have to ask yourself: why am I in this job? Do the strong points outweigh the stuff that angers me? Are my complaints really complaints about the entire profession?

For example, “my adviser is delaying me because he can’t get around to reading anything I write.” Yes, that may be lame, but it’s not a reason to quit.  Sooner or later, if you write a dissertation, it’ll be filed. However, if you think, “my adviser insists that I master these stupid ideas in the ASR.” Well, yes, we may critique the ASR (or whatever journal), but every competent scholar must have a strong mastery of what is considered acceptable mainstream research. In this second case, maybe the student thinks that scholarship is not important to their life. If that true (and it’s ok to not be into scholarship), then maybe another career is better.

Dan Hirschman wrote the following question:

Following Jenn’s comment, Fabio, might there be a separate sort of decision about whether or not to switch universities (or even fields)? The “hate my department/adviser/cohort/university/dissertation” situation seems ripe for considering a switch.

This is a subtle answer, with many parts. My take on switching to new fields or universities:

  • Bad advising is usually not cause for switching fields or universities. The costs are too high – you might have to redo all your course work at another program or learn entirely new skills by switching fields. And that sucks up a lot of time. It’s kind of like having a mean boss – usually better to just tough it out until the end of the gig.
  • A bad department may actually be a good reason to move to another program in certain cases. There’s no use for a student to stay in an imploding program with no productive faculty, or one that sucks your emotional and financial resources. You can usually survive a year or two of horrible advising, or switch to another adviser in an extreme case, but staying in the toxic program may end your career. But most of the time, you can usually tough it out.
  • Switching specialties: If you switch specialties within a discipline (e.g., strat to culture), it’s often not too bad if you haven’t started a dissertation. If you have already done a lot of work on the dissertation, it’s probably smart just to buckle down and finish. Remember, a good dissertation is a done dissertation
  • Switching fields: Once again, it’s usually better to stick to your field unless the following conditions hold. First, staying in your current field will not allow you get the skills needed to succeed in your desired labor market. For example, staying in an English PhD program probably means you will never get the skills to be a nuclear engineer. Gotta switch! Second, if you wish to teach in an arts & science program but you are a professional student. For example, a lot of law students have interests in political science. But a law degree simply won’t let you teach on a politics program. You’ll need a PhD in a new field. Overall, long as you a PhD in a regular area, you can self-teach (or just attend courses) and pick up skills in related areas. A strong foundation in research often carries over.

Gabriel asked about “impostor syndrome.” Isn’t it the case that people may get dismayed about their good skills?

“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.”

I think this is very true but there’s also the risk of false positives with “impostor syndrome.” The fact is that a lot of the things we do are so complicated that we don’t really understand what we’re doing on an intuitive “I get it” kind of level and so we think we’re frauds even if it actually works out such that we’re doing it right. In my own experience, being able to plausibly fake it comes first and only years later do you backfill the deep intuition. This deep intuition helps you perform the operation a little better, but not that much better. I think this applies equally to methods and theory.

Absolutely correct. The research process is often arcane and murky. We confuse the difficulty of the task with our own inadequacy. At the same time, during grad school, if you simply can’t hack certain basic skills. Like doing a regression, for example. Then you have to ask in a non hysterical way – do I have the skills for this? Perhaps the right way to say it is this: research is murky, so give yourself a break; but you really need certain skills, and if year after year you don’t get it, it may be a sign.

Once again, thanks for the great comments. More rulz coming up after June 1.


Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2009 at 3:00 am

4 Responses

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  1. […] Related to graduate student attrition (but not computer algorithms), Fabio at Orgtheory has a post today (part of the grad skool rulz series) following up on a previous post about when to quit graduate […]


  2. Thanks Gabriel for the great comment on the impostor syndrome. I missed it the first time around, and was glad to read it now.



    May 22, 2009 at 7:34 pm

  3. Why did you decide to go into scholarship, Fabio?



    May 24, 2009 at 3:58 am

  4. Hi, Christian.

    Ever since I was a kid I new I liked doing scientific things. I was the nerdy kid reading extra science and history books. My folks were teachers, so I also knew that I might like teaching as well. Also, I had many friends in college who were intensely interested in writing and ideas. By the end of my undergraduate years, I thought I’ve give scholarship a shot as a career.



    May 24, 2009 at 4:11 am

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