Tuesday, September 14, 2010

11. There is a psychological cost for quitting.

Just as there is a psychological cost to be paid for being a graduate student (see Reason 10), there is a cost to be paid for quitting a graduate program without a degree, or without the degree that you started out in the hope of completing. The causes of the discomfort are partly social: the pressure of explaining to others why you did not finish, the concern that others will perceive your not finishing as a failure, the expectations (real or preceived) of disappointed family members and loved ones, and the problem of explaining your foray through academe to potential employers. Other causes are internal, including disappointment with yourself for not completing something that you knew you were capable of completing.

The tragedy in this is that quitting may be the smart thing to do, but fear of the potential consequences can prevent you from doing so and prolong your time in graduate school, raising the psychological costs ever more. The longer that you devote to a program, the higher the cost of leaving can be, even if leaving is the best choice. Professor Timothy Burke of Swarthmore College has colorfully described this phenomenon. And for some of those who do successfully make their escape from graduate school, feelings of regret and incompletion can linger, irrationally burdening even people who go on to successful careers far from the Ivory Tower.



72 comments:

  1. You hit the nail on the head with this one.

    When I quit in a moment of "Aha! The Emperor wears no clothes!" from a quantitative political science program, I felt like I didn't know which way was up anymore.

    I was beaten down, depressed, suffering panic attacks, having long crying jags - something was just WRONG.

    And the way my fellow students treated me when I decided to leave - I think they deep down knew something was wrong there too. Because how could I possibly leave? Oh, clearly I couldn't hack it. There couldn't be anything wrong with the program or the department and especially not the field. No, it's TOTALLY normal for everyone to be on anti-depressants, anxiety meds, have eating disorders, marriages falling apart, and/or all be sleeping with each other. Totally normal...right?

    And yes I had to deal with my parents for years wondering why I didn't finish, telling me to go back to finish, etc. I'd rather have no degree than to ever spend another minute there or associate with those people again. Miserable bunch of narcissists.

    And yes, I did end up in therapy over it all, trying to sort it all out. It's a cult!

    This blog makes me feel a lot better.

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    1. 8 months ago, I quit a top program in psychology halfway through my second year due to theoretical disagreements with the professors. Some of the difficulties I faced afterwards included awkwardly saying goodbye to classmates, resolving the identity crisis that comes with losing the status of a doctoral student, dealing with family reactions, feelings of failure and regret, confusion about my future, and most of all, getting a job.

      My advice to finding a good job afterwards:
      1) go to a community (not your college) career center for help with your resume. No matter how many resume examples you read online, it’s very hard to turn a long academic CV into a concise industry-friendly resume that’s 1-2 pages MAX, and shows clear work experience/skills.

      2) make sure you withdraw completely from the program and are removed from the school’s website before applying to your new dream job. I was still on my school’s website as a doctoral student and I was formally on a leave of absence, which was discordant with the “withdrew in good standing” statement on my resume. This created suspicion that I was just on a break from my program and probably contributed to being turned down.

      3) if you’re switching research areas (which is common if you did research on a social issue that is only studied in academia), make sure you research this new area extensively and come up with clear (even if not entirely factual) reasons why you want to switch research interests and you’re passionate about this new field.

      4) I found that most research coordinator openings for outside candidates are entry level, and although they were interested in me, I was overqualified. You can’t really avoid this problem, but it can still be useful to interview for entry-level positions since you can get a better sense of what jobs are out there, and they might pass your resume onto to someone else or decide to make a new position to fit you in.

      5) the hardest problem was what to tell the interviewers about why I left. The first 5 jobs I interviewed with asked me why I left my PhD program as one of the first interview questions. I wasn’t emotionally ready to reasons, so I made up a variety of excuses, from financial strain, to change of interests. These reasons were not convincing, and led to jobs turning me down.

      I think this problem was especially bad in my situation because I was in a very prestigious program, I left halfway through the year without finishing a masters, and I was applying to full-time research jobs in psychology that were often stepping stones for others to get into psychology PhD programs (so it was strange that I was going backwards). Indeed, one interviewer asked “people would kill to get into your school, why did you leave?” and then stared at me skeptically as I tried to explain. I would recommend, if you can, get a master’s degree before you leave. A master’s in psychology is not as useful as other degrees, but it looks way better on a resume, shows some accomplishment, and is much easier to explain. Otherwise, have a brief (2-3 sentence) explanation that’s convincing and doesn’t lead to tears.

      Where I’m at now:
      After 3 difficult months of interviews, I was offered a really great position. It was also the only position in which the interviewer (my new boss) didn’t ask me why I left my PhD. I have no idea why he didn’t ask, but I just assume it’s because he’s the BEST PERSON EVER. Anyway, I love my job. I make in the upper 30’s, which isn’t my dream salary, but it’s much more than I would make in grad school. I enjoy the work and find it very interesting, and I use a lot of the skills I learned in grad school. I also love the work/life balance that actually leaves room for healthy relationships and free time to have fun. I have no idea what my future career will look like, but I’m much happier with my life now than I was when I attempted a PhD.

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  2. As a graduate student, I believe there is something wrong in the academic system, not you.

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    1. Yes very good response. The problem is with academia not with you. The world is a large place. Mark Twain was not an academic, Warren Buffet was not a professor. Knowledge is wonderful and powerful but the academic environment often makes no sense.

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    2. Very true. But once you are in the academic/grad school environment for a few years, it becomes very hard to see this. This probably sounds unlikely to an outsider; you almost have to experience it to understand it.

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    3. I have been to therapy. Had panic attacks in the middle of research meetings and after quitting. Though very early in the program, I decided it is not for me, I stuck around for a little while and kept telling myself that things will get better and kept hurting myself. At some point I got an exit route and quit and till today, have anxiety issues which reflect on various other aspects of life. Though PhD is not the sole reason for these attacks and anxiety, its definitely a trigger.

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  3. Anonymous #1,

    You're not alone. I am about to finish a PhD in sociology, and I have had a similar epiphany that much of the "theory" and "research" in my field is logically flawed beyond any hope. Some grad student friends in the physical sciences tell me that the problem in many fields there is outright academic fraud (especially in biology).

    So between fraud in sciences and logical invalidity of much social science / humanities, grad students hoping for intellectual honesty are in a tough spot. It seems that the ones who finish have to be the true-believing cool-aid drinkers OR people who disregard logic and fraud and just like being in the academic industry. Would you want to spend your career around such people? Would I? Probably not, so its better if we leave academia. Thankfuly I could finish without having to pay homage to logically fallacious theory, but I doubt you could in "quantitative political science". So you made the right choice. I would have done the same.

    So take heart. I hope you feel better as time goes on.

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  4. Thank god I screwed up my MA thesis so I couldn't get into a PhD program! Sometimes it hurts to think that I wasn't good enough, but I feel better when I look at my monthly salary notice.

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  5. Over a decade ago, I dropped out of one of the very "top" Sociology PHD programs after my first year, as the reality of the life I had signed up for really hit me.

    While I was funded, I was shocked to learn that no one in the cohort lived on their funding: they all had Mommie & Daddy Fellowships, too, which I did not. Cars, vacations, nice dinners out together, which I could not afford to partake in. I became socially isolated because I did not have a $30k+/year allowance to fund participation in the only natural "community" that I had ready access to.

    Less than half my cohort wound up finishing, though of those who finished, all but one have tenure-track jobs at major research universities...and they get paid about the same as the entry-level staff that I supervise. Not that they care: again, all those that finished had varying amounts of family money backing them, and will likely inherit nice estates when their parents pass on.

    While I have gone on to have, according to most of my friends, an amazing career in industry, making a lot of money, and enjoying my job more than most people seem to, the psychological cost of quitting my graduate degree was indeed high.

    I don't regret quitting when I did, it was the right decision for me given the circumstances. But I resent the circumstances which made it logical for me to quit. I resent the economic policies of the last several decades which have allowed for the creation of an aristocratic class that doesn't need to earn a living. This should probably be another reason not to attend graduate school: it has become a preserve for the children of the independently wealthy.

    If I had the money then that I do now, I would have indubitably finished my PhD, and likely be a professor somewhere.

    But again, the grass is always greener - my flatmate from my year of graduate school is now an Associate Professor at one of the very top universities....and is utterly miserable.

    The fact that I have taken the time to post this, and still even think about this, all these years after quitting, is evidence enough that the psychological cost of quitting was high.

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    1. economic policies of the last several decades which have allowed for the creation of an aristocratic class that doesn't need to earn a living.

      You're joking, right? Right?

      Or did "millennium" at some time morph into "decade"?

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    2. The left likes to claim the economic policies of the last several decades are at fault. It's part of their tiresome "Reagan is the root of all evil" diatribe.

      Instead let's focus on the following questions:
      1) Who made "identity" more important than "merit" in academia?
      2) Who made higher education unaffordable for most in the name of making it more broadly available?
      3) What party champions public education, but educates its children privately?
      3) Whose policies are pricing basic necessities out of reach (food, water, gas, electricity)?
      4) Finally, where does this aristocrat class mostly live, and what entities do they work in and serve? (Here's a hint: a good portion of the aristocrat class lives in and around Washington D.C., an area with six of the ten highest household income counties in America).

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    3. "While I was funded, I was shocked to learn that no one in the cohort lived on their funding: they all had Mommie & Daddy Fellowships, too, which I did not."

      I had the same shock going into grad school, and soon figured out I had a crippling disadvantage. I was the only one in my cohort foolish enough to attempt the program on the meagre funding provided to a TA. The money barely covered rent in slum level housing and food. So while my colleagues were enjoying a few hours of R&R on the weekends and restaurant meals, I was spending every spare moment on basic life maintenance problems, such as fixing up a dying car, and shopping for cheap food. Within a few months I was totally exhausted. There was no way I could compete.

      I looked ahead toward possibly ten more years of this grief and I bailed out. No way was this worth it.

      Every success story I know from graduate school had at least one or more advantages. There were "mommy and daddy scholarships", supportive spouses, outside funding, trust funds Prospective students without such support systems really should think long and hard about what they are getting into. Reading this blog and the responses, I suspect many of the responders who object to the "100 reasons" are in the advantaged group.

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  6. I can assure you that there is a cost to "quitting" even AFTER you get a PhD. I graduated around 1980 from a program where only 'losers' didn't take tenure-track jobs, and I had decided halfway through the program that I was not going to be an academic. Despite the fact that I had had abuse heaped on me by lots of the faculty for a couple of years before graduating, even with the degree and a good job I still felt like a failure. I recovered once I got into the real world, but my first thesis advisor (who dropped me when I decided not to be a professor) apparently never got over his anger at my choice (15 years later he ranted to a friend of mine at a faculty tea about me).

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  7. I just left a PhD program last summer, after finishing two years, passing my general exams and taking the MA (not a terminal master's, but one on the way to the PhD). I (along with everyone in my program) had a fellowship that allowed a savvy spender to live relatively comfortably. All in all, I had a lot of reasons to stay, but I was absolutely miserable and the palpable insecurity around me drove me into therapy and onto anti-depressants. While it took the better part of the fall to get rid of the nagging "Why did I do this? Maybe I should go back?", I am ultimately happier working three jobs and two internships, trying to figure out where to go next.

    The friends I made in my cohort have been incredibly supportive - even jealous, I think. My professors have also not questioned my decision, and my parents have been completely understanding (although, my dad did take some convincing that finishing the PhD would not have been the "smarter" thing to do). I am not in therapy, I'm no longer on anti-depressants, and I'm happier than I've been in about two years. The decision to leave grad school is a tough one, and anyone who has the guts to make it should feel proud and screw anyone who says otherwise. You have to live your life for yourself, and those who are upset are probably just bitter and angry that they didn't have the courage to leave.

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    1. thank you for this. You are me.

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    2. This situation is so similar to mine; I'm phD track in the humanities and I'm positively terrified to leave. But I'm also scared to stay. I love my friends in the program, and the life I have built, but I simply cannot see myself doing the publish/perish thing, and if I don't do that....why am I continuing? I'm not certain what I want to do, and even the ideas I do have are difficult jobs to come by. I feel that, if I stay, I'm doomed to have a nagging "I should have left feeling" and, if I leave, a nagging "I could have done something great if I stayed!" feeling. In the end I am so caught in the middle, but terrified of both options for different reasons, and am left with very little time to decide what I'm doing. I could stay one more year and see how it goes before deciding, but I hate the feeling of wasting time - mine or others' - and I don't want to be this stressed anymore for nothing .... Not sure how to decide, but simply putting this "out there" feels good.

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  8. College is a business that is necessary for some employers to employ, but beyond a point it is just a business for the college.

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  9. I quit grad school 12 years ago, to help a terminally ill friend deal with her realities.

    But, I also knew full well when I left (as an "ABT" but had not completed the necessary--and boring--research project for the thesis) that I would never return, primarily because I had NO interest in working in academia once I saw how things really worked, and I also had a job that I had no interest in leaving, a job that would allow me to retire at a decent age.

    There was really no reason to stay--I'd already taken all of the courses that interested me, and I didn't much like the research I was in, and I was tired of being a TA--and I have never regretted leaving. Really.

    But even after 12 years, people still chide me for this choice. I don't even bother explaining anymore, other than to say "you weren't there." And boy oh boy, was my major professor angry!

    If I had completed the degree, I'd probably be a perpetual adjunct faculty, driving from school to school, twice a year cobbling together enough teaching gigs to survive, as I have observed many talented science PhD's still doing, year after year.

    The Bachelor degree was the best thing I ever did for myself, but grad school was a different beast altogether. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, and I also would not recommend the teaching profession to anyone, unless you want to be repeatedly let go due to ever-worsening budget problems. Some who I know have even taken to erasing their higher degree(s) when applying for work, after being accused of being "too educated" for various positions--but while still needing to eat.

    Oh, and I did notice that most of the grad students I ran into were there mostly to postpone their entry into real life, since they could still get parental support while they were students. I didn't have this option, and a fellowship I won would still have required me to add even more to what already seemed a staggering student loan debt (that took 12 years to pay off as it was, at a high rate per month), as the fellowship was not enough to live on but would not allow me to work part-time to supplement it.

    Short version: It's your life and you should do what you want, without explaining your reasons to anyone. I do explain, though, to those who might benefit from hearing my tale.

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    1. Hi,

      So did you manage to get a decent job then? I am in 4rth year and thinking on just getting off with an mphil (and yes my mom is pressing already with the idea of buying a plane ticket for my graduation)... And yes almost everyone (except two close friends andmy partner) telling me that if I don't finish I will regret it immensely...

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    2. Anon Apr 19 2011 9:46: of all the comments on all of the reasons on this blog, yours is my favorite. Thank you very much for sharing your story.

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  10. Thanks to everyone above for sharing your stories. I am thinking about quitting--have been for years--and haring your perspectives makes me feel less alienated, less stupid. the worst thing is that i selected my current program because i thought it was the "smart" choice that would render me most employable, even though the campus is 100 miles from the home i own with my partner. it's been a nightmare dragging myself back and forth, as much as i hate it, and the kicker is that i'm not even working in the subfield i applied for (a strength of my department and the reason i chose it in the first place) because all of the profs in that subfield are horrors. every last one of 'em. crap.

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  11. Then don't quit dumbass. And the reason for this dumb 100 blog rears its ugly head, you are finding every excuse in the world to somehow excuse you from the fact of quitting. And I may point out that you repeat many points and say both side of the coin many times, "there is not enough publishing" then the next post "there is too much publishing" it cant be both, which proves to be solid evidence of your lack of intelligence.

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    1. I can tell, from your lack of grammar skills, you never went to grad school. And if you did go to college, it probably had the word junior in the title. A competent grad student would have cited sources for his or her points with footnotes, not with this "I totally read this some place in your blog" citation. Better go back to the Intro course and brush up.

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    2. Hey... I went to Leland Stanford Junior University. No need to make me feel badly about my crappy junior college.

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    3. I have been in grad school for the past 9 years, and still not close to finishing my PhD. Why I am still here? For fear of quitting, and because after you 5th year, the time invested starts to weigh in a lot. Lack of intelligence? I was top of my class, and still half of my cohort has not finished. Maybe its finally time to confront my fears and let it go.

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  12. Doctoral programs...very hard. Hardest thing I've ever done. Three credits from graduating, I still have a lot of hard work to do. That being said, I am so proud of myself for seeing this through. It has been a goal of mine for nearly 40 years, and it is close at hand. My doctorate will be in the field of education, so pay has always been very low. The point of my doctorate has not been money. For me, it was something I've always wanted. Everyone has to do what they feel is right for them, be it completing a doctorate or not. For me, it has been a marvelously difficult process of learning. I have grown so much as a person as well as an researcher. Stay strong, no matter what you decide to do. :)

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  13. I quit a top-ten history PhD program after one year. I realized there would be no good jobs. I realized it would take me ten years to finish. I realized what I was studying had absolutely nothing to do with reality or anything important. I haven't regretted my choice for a single minute. It would have been much harder to leave after another year, and I feel for those of you who have been psychologically traumatized by the experience.

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  14. I have been in the Phd program for 6 years. ABD for the last 3 years. I have 4 chapters written and data collected. I just realized my advisor is a "bad advisor" this past year since she keeps revising irrelevant comments in my drafts and worries more about the grammar than content. Long story short, I am trying to find an advisor to replace her but there is no one in my department that can become my dissertation advisor due to the topic (I tried). I have finally realized I do not want to work in academia and so tired to fighting the faculty in my department. I've been writing for the past 13 months and so mentally tired. I just realized it is okay to quit this PhD route and hopefully the psychological guilt won't be too painful in the coming future. I really don't care what other people think when I officially quit. It has been a very long and painful road for me. I just want to be happy with my life.

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    1. I left a Physiology PhD program after 4 years after similar experiences. I couldn't make any progress on the research, in part because my adviser always had some other thing to try. I was exhausted and getting sick. It was so hard to make the decision to cut my losses, and even with family support (both of my parents are glad I got out) I still struggled with being disappointed and ashamed that I didn't finish. I am currently working and getting ready to move to the next step of my life, but I wish I had been willing to make the decision when I first knew that it wasn't for me.

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  15. I also left a humanities PhD program after finishing two years and passing exams and taking the MA (not a terminal master's, but one on the way to the PhD). It was the best choice I could have made, and one I made after months of therapy to assure me it was ok to "give up."

    I eventually went on to get another MA, this time in library science. It was such a better fit for me, and 10 years later I have a wonderful career in libraries. If you choose to enter a graduate program, just make sure it's for the right reasons with a clear goal.

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  16. I just quit a PhD program in Neuroscience last fall, only made it through the first 2 months. Everything about the program and the location were bad and wrong for me, and I am really grateful for my PI in my rotation for shelling out a LOT of dirt about the program. One psychological cost is the financial burden it can cost you to quit. Relocating out to the grad school, then relocating back home, paying reletting fees, and having to get rid of most of my belongings in order to afford the moves, is costing me over $6000 as well as a couple of maxed out credit cards because of the way I had budgeted things out with my stipend. Maxed out credit cards are admittedly my own fault, and not due solely on relocation, but don't take it lightly when people say you need to make sure you have enough $$ to even go where you were accepted.

    This was my process of quitting: I spent an entire day going from department to department getting over 15 signatures to approve the withdrawal. This included having to tell over 6 professors why I was leaving and enduring pleas and efforts to convince me to stay. And then I had to go back to some, which was rather embarrassing, because I didn't get a signature for some other thing. And remember if you don't tell your acquaintances when you drop out, they will find out after you leave when they ask you via emails/facebook messages/texts to come hang out months later.

    So I came back last October. Unemployed for 2.5 months, having a hell of a time trying to get a research associate job in science, but my annual salary is now $10G more now working an office job as a temp than as a researcher. Things are starting to look better, but I'm still deeply in the mental battle of it all ("I should have stayed, no you would have been worse off when if you finished there, but I'm in so much debt, so what you're pretty much making bank now and you made the right choice. Even your PI told you so")

    If you're deciding on going to grad school, make sure it's not in a state of desperation, as in "If I don't go now my career is over." I had that mentality and I paid the cost but I'm glad I got out of it sooner rather than later.

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    1. I completely relate to the "mental battle" you refer to. I spent months debating, regretting, and feeling guilty before I could feel somewhat sure about my decision. I also had a few panic attacks along the way. I felt like I was screwing myself over by leaving but staying was worse.

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  17. I was in my first semester of grad school when I quit. I completed all of 3 courses, working part-time, and made an "A" in every one, but I decided it was pointless and I dropped out. Reason being it was too expensive and not challenging enough. I was pursuing an MLIS degree and I was overwhelmed with the reality that there would most likely be nothing waiting for me when I graduated. Plus, I just didn't feel passionately about the subject; just wanted to advance at my previous job.

    I didn't have to really explain it to anyone because people I know understood that it is too expensive right now. It is uncomfortable having to get a job starting over without knowing what my next path will be, but it's becoming the norm. I can also now sleep safe knowing that even though I can now afford it as part of working for a university (tuition assistance), I wouldn't go back anyways. It is a waste of time and energy to pursue something that has little value to me. My only regret is putting so much effort into applying but I was about to graduate undergrad and I thought this was the next best step.

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  18. I had that dream again last night about grad school, the one where I admit that I'm not going to finish my Ph.D. and I wonder whether I should commit suicide because there is nothing else left for me.

    I lived that 26 years ago. I'm now happier than my professors apparently were, and I certainly make more money than any of them, but I still have that damn dream.

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    1. that is where i am now in all of this. finishing up my second year. tired of the toll it has taken on me psychologically to be here, afraid of the psychological toll of quitting. i think the best thing to do is to leave but i don't know what i might do instead at this point. i am also concerned for the loans i took out while here. currently looking at the alternatives - like taking the MA I have almost completed and leaving to go find work or an internship back home. i hope to stay strong and grow from this experience no matter what decision i make, and i hope the same for you all.

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    2. This is where I am right now as well. My decision to leave came with an enormous ineffable psychological toll. It's a fucking tough call; there's no nice way to put it. It literally feels like all is lost and you've failed, even when you know it's best to move on. To anyone out there who needs support (and if you're anything like me, you need a lot of support on this one) or just someone to vent to, feel free to message me: www.facebook.com/ted.briggs

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  19. I am struggling with the decision to leave my MA program in Classics. I just finished my first year. I passed my ancient languages proficiency exam, got all As except one B, passed my comps with a high pass on most sections, had my thesis prospectus approved and committee formed, won an award from the graduate school, have an assistantship that pays my tuition and a small stipend, fulfilled the modern language requirement, was chosen to teach my own course in the fall, etc. All I need next year are two classes (but of course we are still required to take a full load) and my thesis written and I will be done. On the surface, I've done all the right things and I've done them well. It seems like a no-brainer to finish, right?

    But I'm miserable. I barely survived my last semester because I'm so burnt out to the point where, honestly, I just don't care anymore. I figured out pretty quickly that I can't stand academia and I don't want to teach high school. I'm married, one of only two students in my department with a spouse, and I just want to have a normal married life making a decent living with a real job. After seven years of college, I still have no idea what "I want to be when I grow up", but at least I can say this isn't it.

    There definitely is a psychological cost to quitting. I struggle with the decision every single day. But remember, "there is no victory in winning the wrong race."

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    1. C.B., consider yourself lucky to have figured this out after just one year. If I were you, I'd look for a good paying job in the real world this summer. If you find one, then it will be easier to quit. If you can't find one, then you can try to finish up your M.A. next year. Whatever you do, start writing your thesis right now, because you'll quickly figure out if you can bear working on it for the next several months.

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  20. "including disappointment with yourself for not completing something that you knew you were capable of completing".

    "feelings of regret and incompletion can linger, irrationally burdening even people who go on to successful careers far from the Ivory Tower".

    These sentences pretty much explain how I'm feeling right now, except that finding work as been a lot harder than I thought it would be and I'm feeling wordt then when I left the program.

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    1. Don't worry. You're not the only one in this boat, believe me.

      But keep in mind that even with the economy as shitty as it is now, looking for a "real world" job is a cakewalk compared to the clusterfuck that is the academic job market. Hang in there.

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    2. You'll find a job. I left a masters program last spring after finishing every thing but my thesis. I know make 5 times what my stipend was, and have a job I like going to...that I get to leave there on the weekends.

      Just don't give up, relocate if you have to, and know that something better is out there.

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    3. I am working on my Master's Degree and I have everything but the thesis completed. My PI is not helpful, hasn't been since day 1 and makes my life hell. I am not interested in the research topic and I absolutely feel like quitting.

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  21. I left with a "terminal Master's Degree" kinda makes is sound like cander. But quitting was one of the most difficult and best decisions I made. I was lucky to have gotten into the job market before things got really bad and I am now tenured and thankful.

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  22. I haven't quit yet, but I feel I am very close to. Am on the last year of PhD, have taken a leave because couldn't write at all (guess what, I got depressed). I came back because I thought I could make it, but found myself again and not writing and not delivering on time. I haven't done much for the thesis (1 chapter out of how many 7,8?),so thinking just getting an Mphil and stop the quivering. I found it equally hard to find stories about success after completed PhD as well stories with success after quitting the PhD. Any thoughts?

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  23. I'm a non-traditional undergraduate student at a very well known state college. I had a lot of salaried work experience before going in (computer network administrator at a big hospital), and am shocked by how unprofessional and neurotic many of my professors are. I'm doing a double major, and am getting a good dose of both the sciences and the humanities. Academia is at least 50% nuthouse. The young students simply don't have enough life experience to notice. Also, virtually all of these folks have PhD's from Ivy League schools... if a run-of-the-mill state school hires only Ivy League PhD's, where the heck are the state school PhD's getting jobs? Unless you come from money, you [literally] enjoy studying 24/7, you are a pretty girl with a good chance for a well-paid husband (meaning, an adjunct job isn't a big problem), or you're unquestionably gifted and in an Ivy League program yourself... it seems like a really bad idea.

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  24. I left an experimental psychology PhD program about 5 years ago. I had transferred into the program with a terminal MA degree. I completed the PhD coursework in about 3 years at which time my husband and I began our family. Two dissertation topics, two children, and seven years later I was still hanging on to the hope of finishing. When my health fell apart, I questioned why I was continuing to torture myself. I decided to abandon the notion that I had to finish and began to focus on my spirituality, my family and my career. As a result, I was no longer stuck in limbo and free to move forward. I pursued a career in human factors engineering and became quite successful as a manager and business development professional in this discipline. Recently, I have decided to write a book about spiritual rebirth. Picking up a new project stirred feelings in me related to letting go of my old academic pursuits; there is a nagging feeling that I shouldn't begin something else until I have finished my old goals. I found this site researching these lingering feelings. Of course I wish I had finished my degree, but the circumstances of my life's choices at the time did not permit me to do so. Ultimately, my old goals are just that...old. I now have new ones to pursue. I am sure from time to time this feeling will arise again during times of refocusing, but I can honestly say that redirecting my life path was the best decision I ever made. You only get one chance at this life, putting yourself through misery when there is no subsequent benefit to it is just harmful to your spirit and physical well-being.

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    1. I wish I could know your name, so to thank you for the thoughts you put in this message that resonated so much with me . It was as you gave voice to my thoughts.
      I, also, spent 7 years holding on the hope of finishing my PhD and then, after quitting, for many years I felt shame and guilt and that feeling that I couldn't start anything serious again, because of the fear that I might drop out.
      It took me so much time to accept it and get over it. I like your "healthy" attitude: "old goals are just that ...old". thank you, dear anonymous

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    2. Thank you so much for your clarity and positive attitude. I am about to quit a prestigious PhD program in economics in my final year, and am just doing this to prove to myself that I can go back to being a productive and driven individual. I have been mentally paralysed, totally unable to work for around an year now. I want to feel a sense of purpose again.

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  25. I just confirmed that i am quitting a hard sciences PhD program after my first year. my stipend is getting ready to stop and i am relieved yet scared. This is the first time that I have truly free fell into nothing. I have a plan but Lord is it scary

    I have yet to tell my parents of what I am doing, but honestly this is what i want to do

    When I came into the department, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I have a masters, that was hard but managable with life.. However coming into a true academic setting was NIGHTMARE. The things we are learning have nothing to do with real life, research has no application, and the science academic stratta is a scam... Post Doc positions are bountiful, with actual professor positions a joke. I realized at this rate, it would be 10 years before i would own a home, make a decent salary.. With a 10 year old child that wil not do at all..


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  26. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/the-phd-bust-americas-awful-market-for-young-scientists-in-7-charts/273339/#

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  27. I'm a second year PhD student at a respectable state school working with a top historian in my field. I came here full of sunny idealism, ready to rewrite history... Now I'm watching a few of my senior grad student friends that are on the job market. There is nothing out there. They're hoping to find adjunct work or, maybe, some post-doc that hasn't been filled yet. As I'm prepping for my comps, I'm reading the books of top, young historians in my field. I've exchanged emails with them to discuss my own findings. They're supportive, but they're also desperately trying to find a permanent spot. Several are onto their second post-doc. Some I just can't find... (one was a visiting assistant when he published his study. It was mediocre, but 20 years ago would have earned him tenure at a respectable institution. Now, at least on the interwebs, he is a ghost. Probably had to leave academia) There were five job openings in my field this last year in the US. FIVE.

    I think I'll be leaving my program. Luckily I haven't stacked up too much debt. I love writing and teaching, but I love being able to see my family and friends more. I anticipate I'll also always have regrets, dreams, etc. I'll always look at my substantial library and sigh. But, man. I'm 27. I'm not going to young much longer. My friends are starting to make real $, I have a basement office that I share with like eight people. I can't even afford to fly back to my alma mater once a year for a basketball game. They've stopped even asking. I've been written off. That sucks. When my students, who I really do love and will miss the most, ask my advice on whether or not to go to grad school, I feel someone standing in quicksand warning off fellow travelers. Time for me to pack my belongs and hitch a ride back to the coast... Ever see the movie 'Igby Goes Down'? I feel like Igby at the end... I've got nothing to show for it, but by quitting, at least you're unburdening yourself from a life of poverty and (often) poor company.

    My experience doesn't describe everyone's. My MA program was more functional... But, if you're an undergrad considering grad school, beware...

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  28. Thank you so much to everyone who has shared their stories. They've been a huge help to me.

    About a year ago, in the third year of pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at my dream school, I quit. I had been very unhappy for most of my time in the program -- unhappy with the organization and the professors I had planned on working with, but also severely depressed and anxious about not fitting into the culture. I blamed myself and tried to make every sort of change I could to fit in. I was convinced that there was something I could do to make everything better. I had frequent conversations with friends and family about it, and I would say it was about 50-50 on people telling me to follow my heart and leave vs. telling me to keep my head down and keep pushing on. After three years, I had had enough.

    And I am happier. My lowest moments now are never anywhere near as low as they were while I was in grad school.

    But it has proven surprisingly difficult to move on. Starting from square one at a new type of job in a new city is exciting and frustrating. As much as I like my new entry-level publishing job, it's difficult learning an entirely new set of skills. All I've ever done is go to school or teach. It's tough only now making the transition to "the real world" -- the same transition that all my high school and college friends already made years ago. I'm sure this will be less hard to deal with as I gain experience and advance in my new career path, but I have to keep telling myself that it will be less hard.

    As unhappy as I was in grad school, the blow I've taken to my ego has been so intense that I have to remind myself repeatedly how much better off I am now. These sort of affirmation rituals felt embarrassing at first, but they're worth it. And I'm lucky to have a committed partner who supports me. It's tough to let go of something I've wanted for so long. I didn't anticipate how long it would take. Leaving academia is a choice you have to make again and again. I'm looking forward to the day when I'm really out of it and it's really out of me.

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  29. I am finishing up my first year of my MA and I am completely dissatisfied with the general course of the year. My classmates appear (to me) generally apathetic and uninterested in course material. They spend most of the class texting or waiting for the break to chat. The material is not challenging and I find myself reciting facts / figures along with the professors. Not to mention the exorbitant cost of private university education, of which is no concern to my cohort as most of them appear to come from traditionally wealthy families. I come from no such background, and $20,000 in loans doesn't begin to cover the expenses of graduate school full-time. The assignments seem to be busy work, generally underwhelming and I find the best part of the courses are the reading materials - which could be found on the internet with a few diligent searches on my part.

    I believe it is time for me to say farewell to this adventure called graduate school and give reality a try. I shouldn't be in tears multiple times a week because of an academic program, right?

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    1. I think no one should be in tears of any work. And an academic program is supposed to make fun!

      So long, good luck and good mates!

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  30. A few days ago I checked my mail folder and realized I had a letter advising me about my academic situation and about the Counseling Center assistance. I really need to talk to someone about things I've been thinking about graduate school, career and other stuffs. I just can't go any further.

    At first I was very confused whether to stay or quit grad school for a lot of different reasons. But right now I'm sure I don't want to be there anymore. I just don't know how to tell my advisor or my scholarship sponsors, or what to expect from now on, or how am I going to find a job with this "hole" in my "professional career", I have too much in my head right now... I like to be responsible with the decisions I take but sincerely, stress is killing me and I'm not motivated at all.

    I just need to talk to someone who can give me some guidance....

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  31. I am currently on leave from a PhD program and in the process of leaving the program for good.
    I fully understand the confusing feelings some have describe. The fear and uncertainty.

    However, I made the wrong choice in program and the reality is that my project has suffered for it. I was never interested in academia as a career, rather somehow got stuck on the conveyor belt of "you should do a PhD" during my Masters studies and somehow wound up here. I gave up my dream school (Cambridge) because I was not successful in my application for funding. The PhD program I am currently leaving is wrong - even though the Professors are very supportive. No matter what I did, it just didn't feel right and trying to force myself to continue has taken its toll.

    Bottom line: I am leaving, for no other reason than this is not what I thought it would be and the thought of having to return to campus come September is utterly depressing and a trigger for anxiety. I was becoming depressed and suffering from increasing anxiety. Despite spending only 1 year in the program, it cost me a 6 year relationship and my mental stability. My intellect and project are not tied to the institution and I fully intend to continue writing and possibly finishing my project (if only for myself). It is disappointing to feel this let down by the otherwise seemingly wonderful dream and ideal vision of what life with Dr. would have been like. However, those two letters have cost me enough as is. The negatives have outweighed the positives and I am not willing to waste any more of my time or the departments time.

    Side note: those who love you will understand. One must be patient in explaining the reasons for leaving a program, as people will naturally wonder and ask questions. Just know that it does not reflect poorly on you. The hardest decisions in life consist of those moments when we must come to terms with the fact that there is little we can do to change circumstances and the best decision is to walk away. Whoever said "quitting was the easy way out" was an idiot (in all aspects of life).

    I am currently employed as a researcher and despite it being outside of my field, I am enjoying it. I have a life again.

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    1. Thank you for this post. I am leaving my Ph.D. program this summer after 2-years of study. It is a very hard decision and somedays it can feel unbearable -- like what I am feeling today as the decision becomes more real to me. But after spending some of the worst years of my life here, which only ranks below suffering through my father's death a a result of mesothelioma cancer, I just have had enough.

      It is hard trying to explain your life decision to others, especially family. It is hard to explain what grad school is like, thus it makes it even more difficult to relate why you decided quit in the middle of the program. Oh well, although I have always prided myself in not caring what other people think of me, this is the one that does affect my psychological wellbeing.

      Anyway, enough of another sob story. Thanks for your post. It brings hope that I will get over this decision. I am currently changing to a program that offers a professional master's degree in which it is #2 in the field for placement. They provide internships, projects directly related to the field, and networking opportunities. So I hope this transition will allow me an chance to ascertained the skills I thoroughly lack -- transferable skills my ass!

      Well good luck to us all and thanks for the supportive thread. It definitely is good therapy since there are no one in our programs that understand, or would like to openly communicate, these feelings. Cheers.

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  32. If quitting is too difficult just hang in there, one day at a time. Eventually you may hit pay dirt with an acceptable tt-job. More likely, at 38, after fours years of adjuncting (with no health care or other benefits) the Market will make your decision for you when your contract isn't picked up. Saves a lot of agonizing.

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  33. Thank you for sharing yr stories...

    I am a first year PhD student in life science. I am going to reach my second year mark and I can clearly see how the whole process of pursuing PhD affects me mentally and physically. Not only that, it strains my relationship with friends and family. After realizing how the whole academia runs and how ugly it can gets in claiming credits, the thought of quitting came strong. However, I decided to persevere a while and see how things will turn out. The final push is when they reviewed my PhD, the PI told my committee members and my second PI how poorly he thinks of me. That is a wake up call.

    I came to realize that it does not matter how many long hours or efforts I have put in, it just don't make my main PI happy. He is never content with my work and always complain about the standard of the current PhD students. I asked myself if I will want to try get a PhD under the "guidance" of him and my heart tells me a big fat NO!

    in short, the lack of guidance, empty promises and never-ending hole of expectations made me realized that I am not suitable for PhD.

    the whole process made me felt that I am stupid and not worth for a PhD. It is extremely damaging to my self-esteem and I am being increasingly insecure and negative.

    So for those who are still struggling in this journey, it is alright to quit. No point persevering in a race that is not meant to be. Remember, we have a choice in choosing which obstacle to overcome.

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  34. When I quit my PhD program after two years with a masters, it was psychologically devastating. I know that sounds so dramatic, but it’s true. I had anxiety attacks. I felt insecure. I felt like a failure. I could hardly function… Three years later, I realize it was the best decision ever. You often don’t realize all of the psychological pressures that keep you tethered to your PhD program, but once I quit, I realized how much bullshit there was and how that crazy, publish or perish tournament was intellectually arrogant, unproductive and exhausting.
    When I first quit, it was very hard. I was unemployed for about 8 months. I had a lot of panic attacks. The truth is, however, if you’re smart enough to get into a PhD program, you’re smart enough to do far better in life than a PhD academic. Once I got a job in corporate America (doing new things I never thought I would do), I worked hard (much less hard than in the PhD program, to be sure). Now I work far less than the academics I know, I get paid far more, I have time for other things in life and I have benefits, responsibilities, opportunities and challenges that academia could have never offered. I’ve grown and learned so much more outside of academia. It’s hard to realize while you’re in the department, but there’s more to life than a PhD that no one outside of that department actually gives a shit about. To all of the smart people out there who want to quit their PhD but don’t have the courage, a successful life outside of academia awaits (very likely with more adventure and money); so just quit already.

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  35. I don't really know if this will help anyone but I work in the CareerLink and I see many many many people of all degrees. I have worked with Cancer Surgeons, M.D students, Masters, PhD, Counselors you name it. Honestly nothing is assured in life not even life itself. You can kill yourself all your life getting a higher education and that still does-not mean you will be set for life. Reality is you have to do what makes you happy no matter how difficult. Honestly out of all my customers those with Masters have had better jobs opportunities then those with bachelors and those with High School are the ones that are way way worse off. I am currently pursing my MA simply because I know that many management positions request a Masters but i have yet to see jobs request a PhD unless you want to teach. Honestly unless you want to be a researcher or a professor you are really just paying for the fancy title, that's it. I think you should never expect to be set for life just because you have your PhD and honestly you should always way the Pros and Con. Reality is why would you want to spend 10+ years of pure headaches and 200K+ in loans if you don't really need a PhD in the field you want to go to. You at least want a be able to get a job that will pay those loans off because trust me interest do accumulate.

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  36. It has been over 20 years since I bagged out of social science grad school, and still I find my way to this blog, which shows how the experience affected me for the long term. Here and there I wonder if I should have pushed through and at least gotten an MA for my efforts(would've taken another 1.5 years). I have read most of the posts in this list of "100 reasons" and all of them are right on the mark. I saw all of these problems in academic grad school, but it was impossible to have an discussion with anyone. The professors were just cogs in the corporate machine. The students were as confused as I was, but wouldn't admit it. I tried two different grad schools and then bailed out .

    I realize with years of experience that a lot of this is my own responsibility. I went into academic grad school with unreasonable expectations and a need to "define myself". Where I think the institutions are responsible is the lack of honesty in selling the programs. If you really want to be an "academic" then go to grad school. All the stuff about career opportunity in "applied sociology" and the like is pure fantasy.

    So even after all these years reading this blog has been a cathartic experience. Now I can see I am not alone in my graduate school experience. I just hope this blog helps a few students figure it out without spending years of their lives in the process

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  37. I am only on my first year in a PhD program for Material Science and Engineering and I am sure that I will not finish. I want to talk to my advisor this week about switching into a Master's program but I am scared that my funding is going to dry up. I know the "smarter" path is to just lie and leave once I get the master's, but I just couldn't live with myself if I told my advisor (who is a very nice guy) that I was going to work for him for the next 4-6 years and then leave after 1.

    I have begun to wonder if it really is such a bad thing, because academia just is not for me and in the end I have a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, which has some weight in the job market. This year has been one of the most stressful and frustrating years I have had. I am basically just a teacher as my courses are horrendously taught (for a top 60 program nationally) and I have been put in research purgatory where I cannot get any real work done until May.

    Reading some of the above posts makes me feel a bit better. I have been having panic attacks, mood swings, and crippling depression which never occurred before graduate school. My girlfriend (who is going to be going to MIT for her PhD, academia works well for her) insists that the degree is worth getting and that even with my bachelor's employers are going to question what I accomplished this last year. I just do not know what damage this next year will do to my emotional health.

    I realize that there is no organization to what I wrote, but it was nice to vent.

    I wish everyone the best of luck who has been sucked into the system and is trying to find the best way out.

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    1. I wouldn't worry about the 1 year of lost time issue. If it comes up in an interview, you could tell them the honest truth. I tried it, figured out academics wasn't for me, and now I'm seeking a real job. Or you could tell them you were backpacking in Europe for a year. I can tell you from experience it doesn't have to be a liability. The ability to figure out things out quickly and learn from mistakes is a valuable skill. It's the people who persevere through a PHD who have a real challenge explaining why they are now seeking an entry level job outside the academy.

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  38. Haven't attended graduate school personally, but a few close friends have, and have dropped out of PhD programs (in humanities).

    It was mental anguish for them, especially given how much blood and sweat they had put into their respective programs. However, after quitting, none of them had any regrets. The anxiety was all BEFORE they pulled the plug.

    This ''reason'' is dead on accurate, but rather disturbing to think about.

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  39. At some point in my life I came to the conclusion and backed it up with a few brave souls that have researched this, that western education is psychologically damaging at profound levels. the wounds of our education system hit our cores at such a deep level, that one must truly take one hell of an honest look at oneself in order to spot it.

    this page and it's comments are perhaps some of the most damning proof of my above paragraph. people 20 freaking years later stumbling across this blog after having gone through grad school telling their horror stories.

    that really says a lot. it says all that needs to be said.

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    1. "stumbling across this blog" 20 years after having left a program is probably not accurate. I suspect their visit was probably after having typed in some search as "phd program regret" or "phd program disappointment". For them, having left still lingers. I didnt leave, but I did have many of the same emotions in finishing. I couldn't let the experiences of others in my program define my experience, so I was different. I knew that from the get-go. I also knew that many who were TA's and expressed a disinterest in teaching also coincidentally expressed negative thoughts on the program. The two were tied up together. I didnt have that opportunity. I had to teach off campus, and boy was there no going back after that. I love teaching at the college level, and all the anguish to get a Ph.D. (2013) was worth it. And while I don't write my brains out every weekend, I do love to write (and have a handful of publications), and am constantly being productive in terms of academic work. As for adjunct-ing, there are colleges, believe it or not, that do not exploit their adjuncts. Some even pay extremely high. I have no problem bailing on a low paying college for one that pays well. Sure, academic life is intense, but at the end of the day I can't imagine not teaching. Because of changes in the academic market, I do believe it will be easier for Ph.D.s to have some stability as lecturers or to thrive at the community college level. I know several great academics who have careers at community colleges, and who are highly productive . If you're here because feelings of having left linger and you have a corporate job, perhaps you should try being an after hours volunteer tutor to some first generation college student.

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  40. I have a close friend who was working on a PhD (in the humanities) a few years back.

    This article completely describes her. She dropped out of her program, but the build up was the most nerve racking thing she had faced. But looking back, she has no regrets.

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  41. Nearly every day I wish I would screw something up bad enough that I'll be forced out, fired or something. I'm supported with an RA. Just a masters. I ended up on a project I didn't want, not in my interest area, and having nothing to do with bachelors. I have no background in this topic. It's nearly the same masters my advisor did 30 years ago, but in a different location and with better data. I didn't really get to choose my advisor either... time was running out, I hadn't learned I was accepted in the program until all the advisors were "full". None of them had background in my topic either. For the first year I spent all my time working on a curriculum project for my advisor. Annoying, but my BS was in teaching, so I understood why he gave it to me, and I did it. Now I'm scrambling to learn a whole new discipline, am behind on everything, I haven't defended the proposal I haven't finished writing. I don't even want to. I've become severely depressed (doesn't help that my mother died just two months before I started my masters). I see a counselor this Wednesday, actually, to see what I can do. I know I'll regret quitting, and I can't, really. So I just work on my other classes, put in some time here and there on my project, like sawing down a tree with a nail file. When I get a streak of motivation and try to hack at it, I get stuck by something I have no background in and it's like popping a balloon... "how am I supposed to work this out?"

    I don't know if I'm really asking for advise or venting. But though I always wanted letters after my name, I have no idea how to get there now. If I screw up this MS, I feel I'll never have a shot to get into a program or topic I actually wanted. I'll be signing off grad school forever. I don't even know if I have to pay back my paychecks if I can't make it. They make it hard to ask. Terrifying to think of asking anyone "so... what happens if I fail/quit?"

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  42. I am acutely feeling this psychological cost as I am on the verge of giving up on my ambition of becoming a faculty member. A month ago, I was in the top four for a position, and I don't think that I can get through the pain that I felt as a result of not being picked. Giving up is painful because as a sociologist working on inequality, I feel that working towards reducing inequality is needed now more than ever.

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  43. I went to study Masters right after college. I don't have any full time job experience, I'm a freelance writer and I used the money from my unconsumed educational plan to support myself in grad school. Now, I'm on the verge of quitting after spending two years in a masteral I thought I wanted. I realized that I didn't really want to pursue a career on the academe. Even though I have high grades, I've become depressed and unhappy which I try to hide all the time. Now all I wanted to do is leave grad school. I felt I lost sight of what really matters. A lot of things bothers me such as the disappointment of my family and the scrutinity of other people. I'll probably regret my decision but I'll probably much more regret not following my heart to go seek my passion. I don't know what will happen to me but I'm taking another chance in life. I will start over. The shared stories and notions on this page really helped me a lot. Thank you.

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  44. Whether it is love, knowledge or happiness, these come your way to make you realize that you could be more that you imagined yourself to be. Never give up on something so precious. Fight until the end.

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