Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Sunk Costs

Back in town and ready for some actual, concrete posts once again...

So for awhile now, I've been promising a post about how I contend with some of the annoying little thoughts that pop up in my head every now and then that lead me to occasionally second-guess whether leaving is truly a good decision.

Please don't misunderstand me - on the whole, I genuinely do feel very positive about the decision to leave, and have not once seriously considered going back. Not only am I aware of the massive structural problems in higher education that mean I'd be tremendously unlikely to actually get a job I'd enjoy ... but I also don't miss the work at all. Not one tiny bit.

Now, sometimes I feel self-conscious when I run into former colleagues or when I struggle to describe to family members or friends that I’m no longer pursuing the professor life that I’ve wanted for so long. But overall, the simple fact that I haven’t felt at all wistful or nostalgic for the academic life has convinced me that I’m doing the right thing ... even when my brain tries to pop in with "wellllll...are you sure you want to just quit after all of these years? And especially when you've taken out student loans for this degree you aren't going to get???"

So it's true ... the occasional moment of worry or second-guessing does pop up from time to time, and it's generally centered around one thing … the sunk costs I've already put into grad school. I have student loans, and I was in school for eight years (well, technically I'm in my ninth year right now, but since I'm not actually doing anything related to school I'm not counting it).

That’s eight years that – in my mind – I was racking up student loan debt as a student rather than working on building a career. What a waste! In my worst moments, it's hard for me to convince myself that leaving now is a good decision after all of these years and the loan dollars I've taken out. After all, I don't love my current job ... and as everyone tells me, academia is the best! job! in! the! world! So, you know, perhaps I'm deluding myself about what I should do. Perhaps academia knows best!

Except I know that I am making the right choice. Remember, I'm a Type 1 leaver ... so I've been a million times happier by just getting the burden of academic work off my shoulders. No matter how much time and money I've spent going down this path, I need to leave to keep myself sane and happy by getting the hell away from academia.

So I need to keep moving forward. And I need to figure out some way to contend with my nagging thoughts about my sunk costs. Because the thing is ... the sunk costs are gone, regardless of what I do next. Nothing I do from this point on will erase my student loan debt or turn the clock back five years so that I can leave after my masters'. There's no point in dwelling on it. I have to accept it and move on to the next step.

And that's not just true for me. That's true for anyone reading here who wants to leave, but keeps getting caught up in thoughts of what you've already done or what your past dictates that you should do next.

Once you are at this stage, you have two choices: (1) accept that what's done is done, and look for a job you will enjoy and that will pay you a fair salary, or (2) accept that what's done is done, and continue searching for an academic job that will either make you miserable or not pay you enough to live on (if you wind up among the rapidly expanding adjunct/lecturer pool).

Neither option is going to erase any student loan debt or turn back the clock on the years you've spent in grad school. So there's no point in dwelling on that stuff. Anyone who is considering leaving only has one option. Accept that what’s done is done … and go make yourself happy. You'll be in debt and older than you'd like to be regardless of whether you're working inside or outside of academia. Why waste your time in a career you don't want, when it won't turn back the clock?

If any of you are struggling with similar thoughts about sunk costs, it might help you to hear about how I counteract those thoughts in my own mind. Whenever I start beating myself up with regret over one thing or another related to this process, I try to reorient my mind and to think about the things I’ve done in a different way. And it's generally pretty effective. Perhaps some of these things will resonate with some of you.

I have so much student loan debt from this stupid degree I’m never going to use.
Okay, I have student loan debt from grad school. This is reality. Nothing will change it.

However, I can look at it another way. For my first few years in grad school, I wasn’t making enough money to make ends meet. My parents couldn’t help me like many other grad students’ parents can, so I had to do something. So I took on some debt. But student loan debt is better in some ways than other kinds of debt. It has a lower interest rate than most credit cards (I know that from personal experience as well). And while not ideal, the ability to put student loans into deferment is not something that’s available for other kinds of loans. If the debt had to be there (and for me it did, since my parents were never able to help me out), it’s not the worst possible type of debt to have.

I spent eight long years in graduate school, when I could have been working.
True, I’ve been in school a long time. However, I have been working. I’ve been earning a salary and working in the education industry. It's true that now I’m looking to change careers and start over. But I need to keep in mind … I haven’t been "just in school." I haven't been sitting in undergrad for eight additional years, taking a bunch of classes and writing course papers and being taught by others. 

Like we've been through before, we are career changers who have been working in education and are now looking for something new. For me, I’ve been teaching my own classes, working on independent research projects, sitting on committees with university employees and administrators, and giving presentations to professionals in my field. I’ve been working. I’m no different than anyone else who spends eight years in one career, only to change to another field. And neither are you. Just because the pay was crappy and they call us "students" doesn't mean that it wasn't an actual job with actual work.

As I've said before ... in what other industry do you get paid for something and do the same job as all of the other people working in that industry ... but you can't count it as work?

Screw it. I haven't been "just in school" for nearly a decade, and neither have you. We've been working in education for nearly a decade, but were making too little money (or decided we didn't like the job anymore), so we decided to change careers. It's totally normal and not worth dwelling on as some kind of huge life mistake. People change careers all the time.

Even though I’m working now, I would be SO much further ahead in my career (making so much more money) if I’d just gone to work after undergrad.
Sometimes, this one bugs me as well. If I’d been working instead of coming to grad school, I’d probably be making a higher salary now, and would possibly be in a position with a better job title than I am now. 

But I've got three alternating responses to this one.

(1) It's true. If I'd skipped grad school altogether, I could have a better job. It's true. I could be making more money.

Or, you know, I could be one of the millions of people currently unemployed in this country. I could be underwater in a mortgage in a terrible housing market (rather than owning a home that will probably make a small profit thanks to the relative stability of a college town).

There are a lot of people out there who are a lot worse off than I am (and probably you as well). Dwelling on how my own life might – just might – have been better if I’d gone down another path accomplishes nothing. There are a lot of people out there struggling right now, and compared to at least some of them, I am doing quite well. I assume most of you could say the same thing.

(2) Also … it’s worth thinking about the benefits of having spent the last few years in school rather than in the workforce. I made a list of reasons I was glad I went to grad school months ago, and they all still stand. I may not have been making a ton of money, but how many people can say they’ve taught college courses? How many people spent their twenties with a job in which they never had to worry about vacation time or with having to get approval from their boss before taking the afternoon or even a whole week off? 

Well, I did. And while, sure, it would have been nice to make a little more money? It was also nice to have some flexibility in my twenties. I took some cool vacations and got to go visit my family for extended visits. I got to rest and relax on days when I was sick rather than deciding between dragging myself to the office or taking a valuable sick day. 

Lots of people spend their twenties in jobs that don't pay very well. At least with grad school, the flexible hours gave me some time to enjoy my life (even though the mental stress was always there...)

(3) Finally, it’s worth noting that while I might have been the kind of person who’d now be working in a higher-level position in whatever industry I’d have started out in after undergrad … it’s also very possible that I’d have wound up as one of the many people in today’s economy who change careers after a few years in one industry. I have four very close friends who are currently in the middle of a career change … one of whom is on their second career change in less than eight years, and is currently back in school making no salary whatsoever.

The days of people staying in the same industry for decades is, for better or worse, mostly over. Sure, most faculty members stay in the industry for their entire career. But more and more, they’re the exception rather than the rule. If I had started out in a job after undergrad, it’s quite possible that I’d be changing gears right now, just like many of my friends.

And if I’m accepting of my friends changing careers, it makes no sense for me to beat myself up for doing the same thing. It's just part of life.


So that's how I contend with my thoughts about sunk costs. It's true that there are better decisions I could have made over the past eight years. Absolutely. But show me someone who has no regrets and nothing they would change about their lives over the course of nearly a decade, and I'll show you someone who's delusional.

We all make poor decisions and have regrets. All you can do, though, is accept that those things happened, try to spin them in a positive light, and move on ... and to try to do what's best for you from here on out.


  1. Wow, JC. That post is the best thing that's happened to me all week.

    You write beautifully. Thanks for sharing your gift with us.

    And I think the sunk cost/opportunity cost (the latter maybe for your next post?) thing is the most valuable concept I've learned this year. I'm sure I got it as an undergrad, but I read about it elsewhere this summer and it's made a big difference for me in how I think about all this mess.

    That said, I was just working on a stupid paper yesterday, and vainly checked the academic search engine for myself--there are my three peer-reviewed pubs, all in a row. And the pretentious asshole in me kept thinking--"How much nicer would this look if you had a dozen more? Or two dozen? You've come this far..."

    Yeah, I've come this far. Towards an early grave.

    I had a string of bad relationships before settling down with Mr. Right. And it was the same thinking--"But we've been together for 3 1/2 YEARS!" No amount of therapy or personal change was gonna turn Mr. Selfish into Mr. Nice Boyfriend. Splitting was one of the bravest things I've done. If I'd married that dick, I would have blown my opportunity to meet my life partner. I would have let the sunk cost drag me down.

    Now I gotta get brave again.

  2. Oh, and by the way, JC. Do consider dropping by 100 Reasons. There's been a lot of real jackass comments lately. I think Recent PhD has things back on track a bit, but yikes!

  3. I actually stopped over there this morning, but I try not to comment/blog while angry, so I stepped away. :)

    I'll swing back by this afternoon to keep the constructive comments flowing...

  4. Oh, and thanks for the kind comments! I'm glad this stuff is resonating with readers ... that's a huge chunk of the reason why I'm still here, posting. It absolutely breaks my heart to see the sad, desperate search terms bringing people to this blog. I want people to know that there are other options, and you don't have to be miserable. If I can help even a little bit with that, it's a win for me.

  5. "JC said...
    I actually stopped over there this morning, but I try not to comment/blog while angry, so I stepped away. :)"

    I was gonna say that "If I abided by that, I'd never comment." But that's less and less true. I'm NOT angry all the time any longer. Thanks again for your part in that.

  6. Aw, thanks! Are you a longtime reader, then? (There's no way to distinguish between "anonymous" commenters on blogspot that I know of...)

  7. I think I found you this summer, then lost you again, and only recently have become a true devotee. I think one of the things I like most is that you have a compassionate authorial voice. The lack of compassion in academia is perhaps the most damaging thing for me. All these great "feminists" in my department (grad students mostly, though the feminist profs are horrible for other reasons) who gladly fail a student for showing up 10 minutes late with their final exam? Gimme a break. One feminist grad student for whom I TAed instructed me to refuse to accept any late finals--stay a minute or two later than the deadline if I like, but after that they get a score of zero for the final (and fail the class, presumably). Well, if I'd done that, 1/4-1/3 of the class would have failed. Things much, much worse than this as well.

    Whether I stay or drop out, I really want to spend time with people (virtually and IRL) who embrace compassion. No more suffering with toxic assholes. I'm through.

    Love 100 Reasons, but the comments have gotten really unkind. I'm probably responsible for some of that, as I do comment when pissed, but I really don't see the point in folks coming to that site to gloat and tell current grad students what dummies and dupes they are. It's neither kind nor helpful.