Monday, October 24, 2011

You're Not Alone - Part 7 ( some extra commentary)

This week's search terms that have brought (presumably) new visitors to this blog:

-disillusioned with academia
-i am not enjoying grad school at all
-hate grad school
-i can't handle grad school anymore
-i don't think i can survive grad school
-so depressed in grad school

Anyone who's ever run (or thought about running) a search like this ... you aren't alone. There are many more of you out here, trust me. You're not the first person to feel this way. Hell, you're not even the first person to feel this way this morning.


I thought that some of my readers might be interested in a comment left by reader "noelynoely" on an old post. I wanted to bring it up to the front page today because it's buried pretty far in the archives, but I think more people than me could benefit from reading it. Noelynoely provides further evidence that you're not alone - that there are other people out there who didn't like the academic life. And more importantly, s/he provides evidence that there is life and fulfilling work outside of grad school, even if you can't see a clear path forward at this very moment.

noelynoely sounds like me - a grad student who enrolled because s/he wanted to teach college, but never fell in love with academic work. Like me, s/he thinks that leaving was the best decision s/he ever made, and felt the relief and uptick in happiness immediately ... and ultimately found a way to keep teaching without dealing with the academic nonsense:
I was a graduate student in a biochemistry/Microbiology program. I hated it from the start, the research was confusing the advisers were all very unhelpful. I changed research labs and advisers 2 times because I thought maybe I just got stuck with a douche and that I could maybe find a better lab...however, every adviser I worked with was just out there for themselves. Everyone was just wanting to get published and to hell with everyone else. I would go home crying and depressed multiple times a week. The only thing that kept me just a little happy was being able to TA a undergraduate class.

I never had any idea what I was doing; I hated reading research papers that I really did not care about and I was not interested at all in my research project. I looked forward to weekends and nights when I could be at home and away from the school. My advisers and other professors I would talk to seemed so interested in their topics and everyone seemed to think they were so much better than everyone else because they had their PhD; everyone else (even undergrads) were beneath them. I kept telling myself that in a few years this will all be over and I would have a PhD.
The only reason I went into graduate school was because I wanted to teach college students; however, had I realized how horrible it was I never would have applied. 
The only reason I stayed in as long as I did was because I feared what others would think: they would make fun of me for being a quitter, my family would think I was stupid for not being able to make it, the other graduate students would think that I just couldn't make it and I would again be classed as being lower than them.
As soon as I dropped out I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I am so much happier now and am a high school teacher. Everyone that I know that is still in graduate school always talks about how depressed they are and how they cry a lot. It really doesn't matter what others think, all I know is that leaving my PhD program was the best decision I ever made. I am no longer depressed and actually look forward to everyday.
First, I agree completely that leaving was definitely one of the best decisions I've ever made. The work made me miserable, and that misery and depression and stress has disappeared since I left. As I've said before, I firmly believe that while the academic life might be right for some people, it is most definitely not right for everyone ... and it was most definitely not the right life for me.

But I'd like to speak to the last two paragraphs of this comment in particular. First, regarding academic colleagues saying that they are always "crying and depressed" at work, and acting like this is normal. Do not misunderstand: regardless of what fellow academics might tell you, it is not normal to be depressed and cry all the time while you just try to get through your day's work. Trust me. I don't love my job right now, but I sure as hell don't cry and have panic attacks on my way in to do my work. I don't know a single person who has ever felt that way about their job - and the one friend I can think of whose job stressed her out so much that she'd cry the night before she had to go in swiftly quit that job and got a new one.

Crying and being depressed all day at work is not the norm, and it should not be acceptable. Instead, it's a sign that something is wrong and needs to change. People outside of academia generally recognize this, but inside academia? Being depressed and stressed to the point of physical exhaustion is viewed as a badge of honor instead of a warning sign. That is so, so, so messed up.

As to noelynoely's worries about what other academics would think if s/he left? It's sadly true - the academic folks you leaving behind probably will talk about you behind your back and call you a quitter or claim that every nonacademic job in the world is awful, mind-numbing, and pointless. It's something that most of us who have left have gone through, and it's something that academic leavers will be going through for a long time. It's even beginning to show up in the comments at the 100 Reasons blog.

But, okay. First, you are not "quitting" anything. You're changing careers. If someone leaves their job at a bank, do other people belittle them for "giving up on" banking? No. They're (rightly) viewed as changing jobs, not quitting. And changing jobs is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Screw that "quitter" nonsense.

Second, why are you listening to a bunch of people who have probably never held a job outside the Ivory Tower when they tell you what the outside world is like? They don't know. There are millions of jobs outside of academia. Certainly, you'd find some of them dull as doorknobs ... but not all of them. It is just simply not true that "every job" other than academia is boring and mind-numbing. You have to realize that.

But more importantly, you cannot let people at your old job (remember, that's all academia is) get you down. If you were working a corporate job and decided to leave, and your coworkers at Big Corporation, Inc. started talking about you behind your back when you tendered your resignation ... would you decide that you should probably decline your new job and stay at the job you hate, just so that they would stop talking about you? Of course not. You'd leave and never look back at those catty jerks. There's no reason you should treat academia any differently.

Yet with academia, we wind up thinking that we're doing something wrong when others question our decisions - even strangers or colleagues we barely know. Rather than acknowledging that academia is a toxic environment for us, we start feeling like there's something wrong inside of us. And other people are way too happy to tell us how wrong we are for not loving the job as much as they do.

I call bullshit on that. As Pi writes here, it's YOUR talent and YOUR life that is being discussed, and only you know what you want. You can't let what a bunch of insecure, immature people who haven't set foot outside of academia for years or decades tell you what you should do with your life ... especially if they don't know you very well (if at all). If you decide to leave and your colleagues don't support you, then the blame is on them for being catty, bad "friends." And if you ask me, it also says more about their insecurities than anything about you.

And as noelynoely and I (and many others in the postacademic world) can attest, there are good jobs and meaningful work and kind people outside of academia. Don't let a bunch of people who haven't been in the "real world" in years (if ever) tell you otherwise. Don't let their insecurities make you second-guess what you know is right for you.


Finally, I'd like to highlight a comment left on the page I linked to in the post noelynoely commented on. I believe the commenter over there has also commented over here ... and I'd like to highlight something she wrote at PhDTips on September 13th.

She wrote about a conversation she had with her husband during one of her academic low points:
HUS: You believe that this is all there is, right?
ME: Well, yeah.
HUS: So why are you making what little time you have on this earth miserable?
What an insight.

Seriously ... it's a valid question to ask yourself. If you're miserable and depressed and are spending hours every day working on tasks that make you miserable with people you can't stand for money that doesn't pay your bills ...why continue? Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, why would you waste the time you have left on earth this way?

I'm not where I want to be yet, career-wise. But I can tell you that I am no longer miserable. I'm a million, billion, gajillion times happier than I was at this time last year. I have free time, I am paid a fair wage, and while I'm not doing the most groundbreaking job on earth ... I actually help people at work every day with what I do.

Maybe my academic friends would say that this kind of happiness is less important than churning out some manuscript for an obscure journal that no one will ever read. I disagree.

Happiness matters. And dammit, I'm happy now ... and refuse to apologize for it.


  1. Hi JC,

    You guessed right--I am a) the person you've been corresponding with via the comments on your previous post "On Sunk Costs" and b) the atheist with the pragmatic husband and the difficulty quitting academia whom you cite above. Still haven't quit, still not sure why, though I don't imagine myself as a prof any more, and loathe everything about this whole stupid system.

    Loved this post. Who knows, maybe this time next year I too will be free!

  2. Oh good, I'm glad it was you and glad you saw this. I remember reading your comment over there before you posted over here and thinking "wow, I need to quote that in a post at my place!" And once you showed up here, I decided to chance that it was you and pull it up from the comments over there. :)

    I'm glad you seem to be feeling less sad in recent comments. Hopefully just knowing you can leave makes you feel better. It takes courage (hell, I didn't do it until I was all but forced out via a lack of job opportunities), but it does feel incredibly good.

    Good luck! In the meantime, come vent over here anytime. :)

  3. Thanks, JC. It's up and down--varies day to day. Just curious--what made you think I was the same person??

  4. Oh, I figured it out. You knew it was me because I told you it was in the comments! I don't think I revisited that page since posting. I was thinking that you'd put the husband transcript together with our recent comment correspondence and that you were clairvoyant!

  5. I am so happy my friend's wife (all fellow grad students) told me about this blog! I've been feeling like I'm the only one who has ever thought about leaving. Thank you so much.

    I am currently in my 3rd year and for the past year I have been contemplating leaving a top-25 social sciences PhD program with an MA. My friends in the program are supportive, but those outside of the program tell me that the "real working world" is worse and I don't know how good I have it. My parents spend hours every week telling me not to quit and how much regret I'll have if I don't see this through. My husband just wants me to be happy again.

    Thank you for providing a space with resources and information, where those of us questioning our next steps feel safe.

  6. Oops, I'm new to Blogger and I didn't link properly. That's not my link above. This is. Sorry!

  7. Hi Sarah ... thanks for reading! And wow, multiple people in a program talking about my blog? I'm blushing...

    I guess I'll just say this: your parents and friends aren't you, and don't know what makes YOU happy. For them, maybe grad school sounds ideal. But they're not in your program and don't know how it *really* is to be a social sciences grad student. People outside of academia do not understand what it's really like.

    And like I said in this post - of course there are some outside jobs that are awful - especially very entry level jobs. But others are pretty decent. The company I'm at now is a small company with pretty fun coworkers and a boss who treats us very, very fairly. Obviously I lucked out a bit ... but there *are* decent jobs out here. To assume every job is awful is just not true. And if you leave with your MA, you'll be automatically qualified for quite a few good-paying, interesting jobs. You should look around at some nonacademic job postings, just to give yourself an idea about what's out there for a social science MA if you did decide to leave. I think you'll be encouraged.

    Anyway, thanks to you and your friends for reading. If there's anything in particular you'd like to see me write about over here that would help you with your decision, let me know. And thanks for the link to your blog!

  8. Just found your blog while looking for blogs on academia. At the moment, not at all unhappy with my life in academia.

    But that is only because throughout my first year I realized what was happening to me was not right and I had to do something about it, whatever that was. I had a prick of a supervisor who was a complete misogynistic fraud who didn't do his job.

    And that's the first thing any PhD student (at least in the UK and Europe) should remember: their supervisors are paid (on top of whatever grant or lectures they do) to supervise your work. That isn't to say they will do your work for you but they should make themselves available and support you as part of their work load.

    Stupidly enough, I was academically "brought up" to believe that, as a PhD is should expect to be treated as inferior, as worthless of these "special" people's time. But I noticed many of my British colleagues had very respectful supervisors who treated them as colleagues, though with less experience, and actually were catalysts for these PhD's work.

    So I did my research and found out what the University's guidelines were. Second thing to remember: you shouldn't need to confirm in the University's guidelines that you're not supposed to be treated as a worthless human being!! But it does help if you want to complain about it officially...Which was what I did! I was fed up with my situation and how this person was acting and took all the official steps to make it known. In my case,I didn't want to quit but I did want and needed a supervisor to get through it. As the University could not find me a better supervisor (the prick left in the middle of the year to take a Professor (!!!) position in Berlin, in his home country, and "forgot" to mention...that's how bad he was), I basically "fired" them and found myself a better environment to develop my project.

    Was it hard to change? Yes! Very! But the thing I regretted the most was taking so much time to do it!

    I agree we should make our best to have a good time on this planet, not worse! Always look for better! If you, like me, really like the idea of doing research and teaching at that level but can't feel things are going anywhere, then look for another place (and believe me, some times, looking in the same country doesn't help because cultures are the same. Try your chances in another country :) ).

    If you feel it all sucks then it's not worth it. The "real world" has so much to offer! A job that makes you feel like being dead every morning you wake up is not a good thing! Being depressed every time you see an email from your advisor and don't feel like opening it, is not good.

    All jobs will have ups and downs but don't think that one where you feel like you're not a worthy human being, is one that should take your time!

    I think the fact we play along with such behaviours only reinforces them! The best thing I ever did was to stand up against it and make the University recognise what I went through and apologise for their carelessness in keeping track on who they hire and what they actually do. No disrespect is ever acceptable!

    Thanks for talking about your experiences in this blog. I do hope it helps others to really consider their options.

    Also, for those of us still in academia, it seems the system can be better and we also have the responsibility to improve it! There's a fear in academia and that fear environment makes me sick these days! But I've been there too. Glad I found a healthier environment!

  9. I keep saying the same thing every day..."Quitting is always on the table."