The following is an extended reflection on issues raised in the GECC “Ask a Grad Student” column.
By Sarah Pickman (GECC Mentorship Officer)
I think Prudie is correct when she says, in their opening paragraph, “It’s difficult enough to survive as a career academic when you do have passion for your research and a strong desire to work in your field. This isn’t a matter of being able to ‘hack it,’ this is a matter of figuring what you want out of life.” One of the ways in which I think their response falls short, however, is in not addressing how for Ph.D. students, the degree can easily become their life. I can’t really fault Prudie for this, because they have never been in academia themselves and it’s an aspect of academic life that can be invisible to those outside of academia. But I think that it’s important to consider the writer’s dilemma not just in terms of a sunk cost fallacy (Did I waste these last five years preparing for a career I’m not interested in anymore?), but also in terms of its emotional aspects (Who am I, if not a Ph.D. student and budding expert on XYZ topic?)
I think all of us on the previous thread can attest that there is tremendous pressure as a doctoral student to let your research, your field, and your (supposed) future path as a professor become your entire world, and let your academic successes stand in for your sense of personal worth. And not only will you become defined, to many of your fellow students and professors, as “the person who works on XYZ topic,” you will have plenty of colleagues – and very possibly an advisor and/or committee members – who will make you feel like being an academic is the only valuable thing you can possibly do with your life. Add to that a grueling work schedule (“What weekend? You should be writing!”) and the difficulty of explaining to non-academics what it is exactly that you do all day, and you have a recipe for a very insular existence, where, if you’re not careful, every waking hour is spent either working or socializing with fellow academics. This isn’t to say that having friends who are also colleagues can’t be great – personally, I’ve been lucky to be in a program with awesome, supportive colleagues, although I’ve also heard plenty of stories of people whose colleagues are toxically cut-throat and competitive. But it does mean that when the writer describes her program as being “close-knit” and that leaving would mean leaving her friends behind, that’s a very serious emotional issue, nevermind the years of lost professional training. If the writer left their graduate program, they would not only be leaving behind a career path, but potentially their entire social support system, and may even have colleagues who would no longer respect them for not being able to “hack it” in academia (and that sucks, but it is a possibility.) I know anecdotally that when you ask advanced Ph.D. students, or those who have recently finished, for advice about avoiding burnout in a doctoral program, they’ll often mention things like “treating it like a full-time job” (i.e., setting a schedule so that you have set working and non-working hours) and “finding hobbies or fun activities that aren’t related to your research.” They mention these things because maintaining a healthy balance between the academic and non-academic parts of one’s life are crucial for good mental health in grad school, but maintaining this balance isn’t always mentioned or encouraged by one’s colleagues or mentors.
Yes, it’s true that, as one of the other contributors points out further down, plenty of people leave Ph.D. programs without completing the degree and land on their feet – while it may raise the eyebrows of some employers, it will not prevent you from finding a job in the future. (My partner, who works in the private sector, has an intelligent, respected, highly-qualified colleague who has left TWO doctoral programs.) But as Dr. Erin Bartram pointed out in her essay that went viral in the academic web-o-sphere earlier this year, leaving academia means leaving behind all possibility of a life that, for years, you’ve been pressured to consider as your only life path. Bartram writes about how, after completing her Ph.D. and failing to find secure, full-time employment in academia, her (well-intentioned!) friends and colleagues repeatedly told her how much the skills she had accumulated while doing her degree – skills like critical thinking, writing, research – were in demand in other career fields. And it’s definitely true that many employers find Ph.D.-holders and ex-Ph.D. students appealing because of those skills. But as Bartram points out, most of those jobs don’t actually require someone to have a Ph.D. to be qualified for them. She writes that she trained for the better part of a decade to be a historian, not to accumulate a variety of transferable skills so that she could switch career tracks at the age of thirty-five. And when she told friends and colleagues that she was planning to leave academia, they expressed sadness that all of the historical knowledge she’d accumulated would be lost to their collective world – they encouraged her to do things like, for example, still try to write for academic journals so that that knowledge wouldn’t be lost, even though she’d no longer be financially or professionally compensated for that kind of work. The letter writer says that they have lost the passion they formerly held for their particular research topic. Yet it’s important to point out that for many doctoral students, it’s the passion for a particular subject that drew them into the academic world in the first place, and as Ph.D. students they had the chance to be part of an exciting world of research, writing, and debate with colleagues on that subject. And that if they then leave academia, they lose their place at the table; their ability to be part of that conversation.
I can’t say from personal experience if other kinds of graduate programs breed the same kind of insularity or come with the same pressure to subsume your entire identity. I certainly didn’t experience anything similar when I was in a quasi-professional terminal M.A. program, and this kind of experience may be familiar to those who have gone through, say, medical school. But either way, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a lot more going on here than just sunk costs. The letter writer seems anxious that by leaving their doctoral program behind, they’d be leaving behind their friends and community, and this is a very real possibility. They would also very likely be leaving behind their sense of identity and self-worth that they’ve built up over the past five years. There are no hard and fast answers here, but it’s worth remembering that leaving a doctoral program involves more factors than just making a career switch.