Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Sociologist's View on Whether to Leave - Part 3

Part 3 of my review of the post from orgtheory, by a sociology faculty member.

Now, covering (in his opinion) bad reasons to leave a graduate program.
"I hate my department/advisor/university/cohort/dissertation. In a few years, you won't have an advisor, and you'll be at another place with different people, and you'll finish the diss and move onto other topics."
I agree wholeheartedly with this advice. Don't leave graduate school because you hate your advisor, or your department.

But I would argue that if you're finding yourself being immensely unhappy with your advisor or your department or something like that, it might be worth taking a few minutes to think about why you're so unhappy with that particular part of your grad school experience. If you are unhappy with your department because it focuses on academic research and you want to focus on pedagogical research and teaching, you should stick it out and look for teaching jobs after graduation. If you are unhappy with your advisor because they are slow on reading your dissertation chapters, just push through it and finish. You won't be under their thumb forever.

But if you - like me - find yourself being annoyed with the entirety of academia or your discipline? If your annoyance with your advisor isn't their behavior but the fact that your project itself makes you miserable, so you resent the time your advisor makes you devote to it? Or your annoyance with your department has to do with the fact that you find departmental seminars and colloquia to be nothing more than "mental masturbation" (a term coined by a fantastic colleague of mine), then it might be a problem bigger than a situational dislike for your department. For me, I realized that it wasn't just my department ... I was aggravated by conferences, and journals in my field, and the "hot" research topics and theories and the conversations I overheard by people in my field. In short, I didn't/don't hate my department. I hate my discipline.

So, to sum up, I completely agree that leaving because you don't like your advisor or department is a bad idea. The solution there is to finish up and leave for a new job. However, if your dislike of your "department" is really a dislike of the discipline, like it was for me? Then I think leaving might not be a bad idea.

"I screwed up this test/grad exam/course/other hoop you have to jump through. Not a big deal..."
Again, I agree 100%. If you mess up one paper or exam or even class, it's not the end of the world. You should not drop out for that reason. Coursework is one tiny little part of a grad program, and in the long run, the other things you will work on are more important.

Now, if you're struggling to get through every aspect of your program or you can't grasp basic concepts like the major theories in your field or the ability to run a basic statistical test or interpret a monograph without plagiarism, then perhaps you should consider an alternate career.

But over one paper/exam/class? Just stick it out.
"It sucks to be a poor graduate student. Yes it does, but once again, there is a solution - graduation."
I agree with this advice too. If you're miserable being poor, but you still love your program/discipline/work, do not quit. Hurry up and finish, and you'll (hopefully, assuming the job market is friendly) be out of the poorhouse more quickly.

But alternately (and this is something academics will rarely, if ever, say) - if you're miserable being poor but want to keep on, and you genuinely think you cannot continue without making more money? Go find an alternate source of income.

Look, I get it. You're supposed to work 24/7, and your department may look down on a part-time job. But one thing that I really think academia gets wrong most of the time is in assuming that all grad students come from places of privilege, and can afford to live solely on tiny graduate student stipends because they have help from their parents or a partner. It's a really naive and blinkered view of where graduate students come from.

But that's a topic for another post. In the meantime, though ... if you're eating cat food and your electricity is getting turned off and you're considering leaving the department and program you love as a result? Think about other options. There are alternate sources of income you can seek out while you're in school. And if your department doesn't like it? Well, would they like it more if you dropped out entirely?

There are plenty of jobs you can do that will either be relevant to your future career, or that won't take away much from your work. Sling beers on weekend nights. Tutor at your university or the local high school. Adjunct at a nearby college. Babysit. Mow lawns on the weekend. These are all things that will add to your income without taking away from your work. Don't be afraid to be creative if money is a real problem.
"The stress of teaching and research."
He goes on to say that all jobs are stressful, and that academia is less stressful than most.

I agree with this. If you want to leave academia because it's too stressful, you'll have a hard time finding another decent-paying job that isn't stressful.

But as I've repeated multiple times on this blog ... if you're truly miserable ... if your unhappiness goes beyond typical stress and into misery and depression and physical manifestations of stress ... you might want to think about doing something different.

I agree with the author that stress itself shouldn't make you leave. But if the stress level is unbearably high, there's nothing that says you can't consider other options.


  1. Your comments are a ray of hope for me. Thank you for opening my eyes NOW, my first year. I'll be escaping with my MA. Thank you.

  2. Aw, thanks for reading. I'm glad you're realizing what you want now, rather than far down the line like I did. You will probably run into people along the way who will question your choices, but just keep a clear head about how you feel, and you'll be fine.

    For the record, I do not at all regret getting my MA. There are a lot of jobs out there for which having my masters' will be beneficial, and I learned quite a bit and gained some really useful skills on my way to the MA and through my coursework. So get what you can from these next few years, and if you're still feeling like you want out, take the degree and your new knowledge and run with it.

    Good luck!!

  3. I am having similar issues. I just started my MA in history and I hate it already. I'm not communicating well with my adviser, my department is not geared toward my research interests, and I have no motivation to do all this reading on my own. I feel like if I had a great professor to take classes with or to help discuss readings with it would be great, but that isn't here. Also, it might be my discipline because I think I'd be better fit in American Studies. I thought history would be okay because I could teach high school with M.A for back up, but I'm just so miserable here that I can't shake it. It's only been 2 weeks, you think I should give it more time or back out now

  4. My honest advice? I would give it a semester to decide. You've only been there two weeks, and transition is always hard. However - huge however - it's definitely possible that the program is not for you and that you should leave. Definitely. But I do think that giving yourself a full semester to see if things improve would be a good plan, if you can stand it.

    Of course, if you're feeling tremendously depressed or having suicidal thoughts or anything, you should immediately seek out professional help and quit worrying about school.

    But if it's just general unhappiness and unease? I would wait it out for one semester to see if it gets better. In the meantime, keep reading around in the postacademic blogosphere to remind yourself that you have options and support if you do choose to leave, so that you don't get sucked too deeply into the grad school mindset.

    Good luck to you! Keep commenting here or email if you need more support. I've been there - miserable and not being sure what to do. But you do have options and time to decide.

  5. Thanks, I really appreciate your advise. I decided I am going to give it a semester. It is just unhappiness and unease, but hopefully I will get into the groove of things, if not I can always switch programs or consider doing something else. Thanks again.

  6. Great post with some much needed perspective. I do disagree with the part about academia being less stressful than a job. Academia is a different type of stress, and if you are truly doing what you need to do in order to get a tenure track job these days, you are going to be stressed. I actually worked for six years in a career before entering graduate school and I think that working is both less stress and more money given the paltry assistant professor pay scale, the long hours, the fierce competition for a small number of jobs, and the grueling slog of the tenure track process. Graduate school is just not a good investment unless you cannot live without studying your topic, or you have a clear need for the PhD to get the job you want, and you have spoken with people in your field and printed job listings to prove it. This is especially so given the indentured debt servitude most grad students graduate into. If you hate a history ma two weeks in run for the hills. To suggest otherwise seems negligent given the costs in money, lost opportunity, and mental health.

    I learned a tremendous amount and improved my writing and thinking considerably doing my MA, but not to the cost of tends of thousands of dollars. I am in a funded PhD program, with actual benefit in terms of jobs when I graduate and even I question the calculus of staying.

  7. I find this all very helpful! I'll be starting my second year of an MA psych program this September and so far I've hated every minute of it. In my lab, our advisors make the students come in 8 hours a day (8-4pm), everyday of the week (unpaid)... I'm not even sure if this is legal. The other students and I have tried to talk to the advisors involved about how unhappy we are being locked in an office all day with no windows (you cannot possibly be academically productive for this long every day) - but they haven't responded well (we are afraid to piss them off too much as we may need their reference letters next year for phd programs etc). I am horribly depressed but I can't quit because I've already accumulated substantial debt from my first year/summer of the program and I can't justify it without getting the degree.

    Do advisors usually have this kind of authority over their students? If we aren't being paid ... can they force us to be there for 8 hours a day/ 5 days a week? Do you really need to work 8 hours a day, everyday to complete your masters degree on time? I just can't see how this is necessary...

    1. No, that isn't legal. Your advisor can't "make" you do anything, that's not legal. Document everything that's happening and if it becomes too intolerable, go to someone.

      Listen, I was in a similar situation where I was being mind-fucked and threatened by my advisor - my advisor even broke the law at one point. I just documented everything and my advisor finally ditched me after my first year in the master's program. Hang in there and don't let people push you around. Yes, academia is a very insular and backwards culture in many ways: people seem more worried about what others think of them than about their own sanity sometimes. But don't let the craziness of academia prevent you from staying sane. You'll be much happier and more productive if you set clear boundaries with your advisor and others who are in roles that in some way affect your career. REmember that if your advisor is acting that way, it's probably because your advisor was socialized to think that is "normal" and probably had an advisor or mentor who worked them to the bone and went really far over the line. It's cyclical like anything else in human behavior.

      My advisor dropped me and I found a new advisor, and I am much happier now. What's best about that situation is that I never compromised my own sense of what's right and wrong - and I'm still in my graduate program, doing much better now. People who aren't ethical are dangerous - it doesn't matter how "important" it is to "please" them. Don't compromise your own integrity in order to please someone whose judgment sounds poor.

      I had an internship after my first year of graduate school where I had a phenomenal supervisor who was a researcher and professor. That supervisor gave me an amazing piece of advice that I have been holding in my mind ever since: the supervisor told me to never compromise my ethics for someone, because the people who are eventually going to matter the most are going to be the ones who recognize my ethical behavior and strong work ethic. They're the ones who are going to most positively influence my career development.

      Don't let them push you around - I can really empathize with how painful it is when you are in this situation. Just remember that everyone has a boss, people can't do things that are illegal if they want to keep their jobs, and people do what they're conditioned to do. Keep your integrity and keep your chin up.