Should I Stay or Should I Go (yet)?

I’m sure* that I don’t want an academic career. But I’m halfway done with my dissertation, so in one sense finishing it seems manageable. In another sense, there’s an infinite chasm between the PhD and me. You see, I hate writing the dissertation, so even the six or fewer months that I’d need to finish it sound like an eternity.

I’ve written 2.5 dissertation chapters out of a projected 5. And I know, roughly, how the rest of the story goes: I’ve seen my advisor’s comments on the half-chapter draft I handed in last month, and I know how to respond. I’ve got outlines of the arguments for my final two chapters. In one sense, I’m so close to finishing, it almost seems silly not to. Because the PhD would bring closure, in a public kind of way. An accomplishment to celebrate. A seal of approval. A fuck-you. A big, juicy chunk of cultural capital that I can crouch over and feed my ego upon in the lean and dark times ahead, when my identity and sense of self-worth shall be like defenceless larvae, pale and exposed, hideous to the eye, as I attempt to build a meaningful and satisfying life (and pay the bills) in the neoliberal capitalist nightmare outside the university. Or something similarly melodramatic.

But the thing is that the neoliberal capitalist nightmare isn’t outside the university; the university is a well-functioning part of the well-oiled machine anyway, so as I work for my less-than-living wage teaching courses that should be taught by professors, I’m not exactly escaping exploitation and drudgery. And I am assured by smart people whom I trust that the non-academic world is not the soulless and denigrating place that some academics imagine it to be (in fact, that caricature is just one of the myths that keep people in grad school out of fear). And however nice it would be to have that sense of closure, however much the knowledge that I finished might protect my ego, the cost is high.

The longer I stay in the academy, the worse a person I feel I’m becoming. I don’t mean that I’ve started doing terrible deeds; instead, I mean that I’m not humanly flourishing. I’m not a good version of myself. I mean: look at that paragraph above where I imagine my post-academic ego as some kind of maggot in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s morbid at best. I’m unhappy right now, and that affects everything I do. I’m a poorer friend because I have less of myself to offer, and often avoid interaction when I know I’ll just be a bummer — the dreaded Bitter Humanities Person whose misery infects her every social interaction. I’m stagnating, because I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted most of the time, too spiritually tired to learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. Because of this, I’m losing opportunity right and left. I am not excelling at the things I do do, and I’m painfully conscious of my mediocre performance. (For a perfectionist, this is agonizing.) I’m angry at the process of writing a dissertation, I’ve grown to detest the world of professional philosophy, and I’ve lost my sense of humour. This is not good. This is not who I want to be. Because the thing is, however flawed the academic world or the professional practice of philosophy might be, I really don’t need to be this mad about it. This isn’t how I want to be responding to things. This isn’t who I am. Normally, I am a relaxed, cheerful, forgiving person who enjoys things and likes people — but to see me now, you would never know it. I think this is a shame, because the world offers so much, and it’s up to me to change my experience.

This is why I think I should quit now, before it gets any worse.

Here’s the philosophical paradigm of rationality: You want A (say, a job in philosophy). You know that the only way to get A is to do B (say, finish your dissertation). Given your desires and your beliefs about how to achieve them, if you are rational, you will do B to get A. In this situation, even if you really dislike B, it would make sense to push through, since A awaits you on the other side of your ordeal.

Here’s my situation. I was doing B to get A, but I stopped wanting A. There doesn’t seem to be any other compelling reason to do B, and B is making me miserable. Isn’t it a bit irrational to continue doing B?

….yet here I am, still.

Figuring out why, and what to do, will be the focus of this blog. I hope to connect to the many wonderful post-academic and pre-post-academic bloggers out there, who are busy making sense of messy situations. I hope that others who are working through the same decision might find my blog helpful, too, if only because it helps to know you’re not alone.

*Certainty is a complicated thing for me right now. I’ll come back to this in a later post.

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2 thoughts on “Should I Stay or Should I Go (yet)?

  1. What I’m about to say will sound very cliched, but I can’t think of a more creative way to say it: I’ve been there. I resonate with all of the emotions you describe. I can’t tell you whether to tough it out and finish the dissertation or to leave. I pushed through, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. The only advice I’d offer, for what it’s worth, is don’t become bitter. If grad school is embittering you, then it’s not worth it. If you find something else to motivate yourself, other than the prospects of an academic job, that allows you to finish authentically on your own terms, that’s a different story. I suppose it’s a matter of introspection and it’s difficult. If it helps — and I’m afraid this is another cliche — you’re not alone. There’s a lot of support for you out there and judging by the links in your sidebar, you’re looking in the right places. Chin up and good luck!

  2. It absolutely helps to know that I’m not the only one (I feel pretty lucky to be doing this at a time when there’s a public conversation about leaving academia). I feel like you picked up on two of the most crucial aspects of this for me — the notions of bitterness as a sufficient reason for quitting and authenticity as the only acceptable mode of finishing — even though I didn’t say all that clearly that those are the issues. There’s something heartening and useful just in getting feedback that shows that others can see the same contours of the situation that you yourself see. Especially when those others are philosophers. Thank you!

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