It is quite well-known that academia has spawned its own quit-lit cottage industry. These articles, produced after the authors’ years of frustration with either their PhDs, prospects post-PhD, or after entering the ivory-tower, now have a life of their own – a kind of testamental f**k you to the academic establishment. Having read a few of these pieces, I can safely say that people quit for a variety of reasons – doing a PhD, or finding an academic job, or even keeping one, is not what the person thought it would be. So then why are so many words devoted to such a topic? People also quit their jobs for a variety of reasons! Or is it because there is some mythical quality to academia, and other people find some satisfaction in hearing the woes of those who quit its ranks (even smart people sometimes can’t get their sh*t together). Yes, doing a PhD is hard, and many times one feels, in frustration, that they should throw in the towel and do something else with their life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always a good idea to preemptively quit. That’s why I’ve helpfully classified the quitters into their sub-categories – maybe you can decide if you would be part of those ranks.
- The PhD is Harder Than I Thought Quitter
These people usually have a generally rosy view of academia and the process of doing a PhD. They harbour illusions that in academia people will always be interested in living a ‘life of the mind’. They come totally unprepared for what a PhD entails – long hours of hard slog on an obscure topic that very few people are actually interested in. The need to be obsessed in the details leaves them feeling despondent when they can’t muster enough enthusiasm for their topic. This type of quitter would likely never have embarked on a PhD if they had bothered to find out (ask senior students!) what it would be like to work towards one. To avoid becoming this type of quitter consider your reasons for doing a PhD – if it involves some idealised version of academic life than doing one is definitively not going to be for you.
- The ‘I want to be a professor’ Quitter
This quitter is like quitter #1, except the motivation to become a ProfessorTM may push them to complete a PhD. The realities of the academic job market (especially true for humanities PhDs) will scar them – the process of repeatedly applying (and getting rejected) from jobs builds a deep loathing of the academic establishment, especially if they have been told that becoming a ProfessorTM is the only worthwhile job post-PhD. Again, to avoid becoming this type of quitter consider if you would be doing a PhD if you didn’t want to be a ProfessorTM – if the answer is ‘no’ then perhaps you should re-think becoming a ‘Dr’. The academic job-market is brutal, and if you fail to get the coveted spot, may leave you feeling bitter; a PhD is a process, not a destination.
- The ‘If I don’t become a Dr my life will be over’ Quitter
Unlike quitters #1 and #2, quitter #3 may not necessarily have an idealised image of academia. They may recognise its flaws and failures. However, the single motivating factor driving their decisions is that they believe that life will be worse if they don’t get that PhD. This type of destructive thinking is perhaps driven by the need to derive status – ‘if I don’t get a PhD no one will take me seriously’; or ‘if I don’t get a PhD I can’t call myself a scientist/historian/anthropologist/insert [X]’. This type of quitter is driven primarily by a failure of imagination. These quitters are most likely to have been excellent undergrad students, and believe that doing a PhD is a natural progression from their previous achievements. They may be unprepared for setbacks, be hesitant to take advice, and have a significant proportion of their self-worth tied towards PhD completion. Of course, once they get their PhD, they may be surprised to find that any negative feelings they had before completion have not simply evaporated. To avoid becoming this type of quitter examine your main motivation for signing on to a PhD – if a large reason is that you can’t think of anything else to do, or believe that your life won’t be as great if you don’t get one, then reconsider. Everyone has to graduate at some point and delaying a soul-search of your career aspirations is not a great idea.
- The ‘Academic Life is Not All Singing & Hand-Holding’ Quitter
This type of quitter has usually got a PhD at this point. Like quitter #2, they harbour great esteem for the academic establishment. Unlike quitter #2, they have managed to survive the academic job-hunt and secured a permanent job. At this point, they may realise that, like any job, academia is not short on politics. Or ungrateful undergrads who shell out thousands of dollars to catch up on their favourite shows in class. Like quitter #3, they can be very status-obsessed and become disgruntled and angry when they find that the PhD is no armour from belittlement, whether it comes from peers or those ‘lower down’ the academic rung. Other quitters of this calibre find that the pulls from the outside entice them away from this “dream job”. As is the case for quitter #1, they may have an over-idealised version of what academia is about and are shocked to find that they can fulfil many of their desires outside the academic setting. If one of your main motivations for doing a PhD involves some kind of romanticism (of the ‘I want to save the world’ kind), then this wish will also likely be fulfilled just as easily on the outside.
- The ‘Publish or Perish’ Quitter
Quitter #5 is a different beast altogether; they come totally unprepared for the shock that government funded research actually requires a metric of output. They may share many traits with the first three quitter types, and may even have secured an academic job like quitter #4. However, if they have secured an academic job, they may be very surprised that a majority of their time is now filled with writing grants and papers. If they are still doing a PhD, they may lament the continued cycle of publishing research – and all the pressures that entails. Yes, there may be many problems to the over-production of papers, but that doesn’t mean that it is never going to be important to publish your work (and for the taxpayers to see that their $$$ are being put to good use). Those with an image of academia as living a ‘life of the mind’ (archetypical quitter #1) will be particularly disgruntled to find that their ideas (& results) must be scrutinised closely by others – and that those others may find many of those ideas to be very lacking (‘how dare someone criticise my brilliance!’). Quitter #5 will also fail to appreciate that science changes over time and that, by default, the majority of our ideas on how the world works will be wrong. Ideas that stick around for centuries (just read up on those of Aristotle or Galen) signal a civilisation stuck in stasis; progress entails a continual churning out, and eventual rejection, of cherished ideas. Quitter #5 may long for their ideas to gain immortality, and do not appreciate that science is a collective effort. If you find that by doing a PhD you cannot handle fair criticism by others, or resent having to show that you have put your research skills to good use, then think of doing something else which doesn’t put your ego in the firing line.
- The ‘I hate my supervisor’ Quitter
Unlike the other typical quitters we have examined so far, this type of quitter has many valid reasons for chucking it in. They have found that their supervisor and/or doctoral programme is not providing them with adequate support for their training. Being in this type of situation is understandable (and very lamentable). The supervisor may be indifferent, unavailable, or down-right abusive towards their supposed mentee. If your life is being made completely miserable by a supervisor who couldn’t care less about you, then you shouldn’t have to put up with it. If you find that you genuinely enjoy research (and don’t have any of the same hang-ups as quitters #1 to #5), then if you want to get your PhD either consider: 1) changing programmes (can add extra time but will be worth it to find someone who wholly supports you), or 2) find someone at your university who can adequately mentor you. Don’t be scared to change programmes or ask for more support: it’s your PhD! And despite what many ProfessorsTM would like you to think, it is your thesis and you should have adequate control over the direction of your research. Your supervisor is a guide not a dictator. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that others (even seemingly out-of-touch academics at your university) will be supportive of your plight. If you’re scared of changing programmes, don’t be; many people start PhDs, don’t like the environment or can’t find a lab or whatever, and successfully start (and finish) somewhere else. People won’t penalise you for being honest about what you want (and if they do then they are not worth your time anyway).
There you have it folks! A categorisation of some of the reasons people leave their PhD (or academia). Remember, that there are other personal reasons people leave (family members or they themselves get sick, want to move to be closer to family, they don’t like the town/city they are in, supervisor moves university, etc). That doesn’t mean that deciding to leave is a bad choice, but it helps to know why people leave for you to decide if you want to do a PhD for the right reasons.