Close to completing and close to quitting

If you click on the “Why Stay?” tab, you’ll see my enthused reasons for loving my job, which I do. But the opposite can also be true. A now-grad student who took classes with me as an undergrad said the following email helped when motivation to complete the dissertation ebbed. As it’s August, it’s that time of year when the summer is high but those of us on academic calendars already feel like the leaves and our previously green ambitions are turning brown and breaking up. If your ABD heart sinks, perhaps this helps. (F-bombs below, so possibly NSFW if you’re on a shared or workplace screen.)

Hello, my former student! Yes, I remember telling you there will be days when graduate education is completely easy to imagine abandoning. There are stretches when the upper-most thought in one’s head is, “Why not quit?” And every smart person who thinks this is right to think it, because of course one could quit. Of course one could. You’d have to be completely insensible to logical thought and creative imagination in order not to notice that for stretches, it is work, and sometimes work just sucks and is not very interesting.

You are totally correct that breaks are GREAT for this! God bless breaks. No one can do one thing all the time. Breaks help a lot.

While you wait for that helpful break, you’ll need other supports. Seek out understanding people (incl me). The only thought that helped me when I was in valleys of indifference was the thought that I was so close to holding a PhD that I might as well finish simply in order to get my own money’s and time’s worth out of the enterprise. You know what I mean? I felt annoyed enough with the idea that I’d just spent a few years NOT to get the PhD, that I knew I’d feel less annoyed with myself if I stuck around another year and wrote the damn dissertation already. I would rather spend all that time on getting a PhD, than spend all that time on not-getting a PhD. So it was ultimately just stubbornness and a grumpy certainty that I was determined to see some sort of payoff for my efforts that got me through. It wasn’t enough to be a poverty-wage-earning, paper-grading grad student. I no longer loved theory or my students or even the topics that I told everyone I wanted to work on. I was out of love, and fell back on a “Fuck it, I want the thing I said I’d get” attitude.

OH, and I should add that I also gave myself 100% permission not to continue on in academia. There was a good half a year there where, every day, I told myself that quitting academia by the end of that day would simply show good sense and happy, practical wisdom. I really liked that. I broke up with academia and told it that I could take it or leave it, and then everything felt a lot better. Much more optional. Ever since I decided that I didn’t love academia and we’re just good friends, my life has been better. Even now, when occasionally my colleagues nervously wonder, if the university closed tomorrow what would they DO???, my thought is, let’s do something else. We’re not married to academia, and on the contrary, higher education today is so clearly neurotic and fucked up that probably no one should be in a long-term relationship with it. It needs therapy and we deserve better. :-)

So the question is, are you feeling like if you really buckled in for a year, you could have this PhD? Because you deserve it. You’ve done philosophy long enough and you deserve the PhD now. Take it if you want it. You should have it. But you don’t have to do it.

I hope this helped.


One thought on “Close to completing and close to quitting

  1. Thank you for this Kate! In my last couple of years of grad school, I kept the (then paper) catalogues for my favorite law schools and seminaries on my bookshelf right above the desk where I wrote. It is so easy to feel trapped. Those catalogues reminded me that writing my dissertation was a choice and that there were other things that I would really like to do.

    It is also important to realize that quitting and failing are two different things. Call quitting changing careers. My graduate school (and also assistant professor) friends who changed careers all have great lives.

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