My PhD Story

My PhD Story: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

My blog stats tell me that a lot of people end up on Life Philosophized when they search for information about an important decision–whether or not to quit their PhD. In fact, my post Things I learned After Quitting my PhD, continues to get many hits. Given the continued interest in the topic, I thought I would share more of my experience of leaving academia in case my particular story might be relevant to others.

I know how difficult it is to try and list the pros and cons of leaving a PhD program while in the midst of it, especially if the experience is trying. But, I do think that this exercise is extremely useful when making any difficult decision in your life.

In this post, I share some of my reasons for deciding to quit a PhD program. These were my own, personal cons of continuing. Perhaps, some of them will ring true to you. Some of my cons might even work as pros of continuing for you. In either case, I hope that you will find this post helpful.

Here are some of the reasons why I quit my PhD.

Low Funding

I am a Canadian who got accepted into a program in an American school. I had a full stipend–the standard $15,000 a year–and a tuition waiver. I had to use a chunk of my stipend towards international health coverage (about $1,000 each year). Additional costs in the first year were associated with moving to a new country/city and settling into a new apartment. I did not get a SSHRC (a competitive fellowship offered by the Canadian Government), but my aim was to continue to apply for one until I either get the funding or finish my studies.

I found out that outside of SSHRC there wasn’t much funding available for Canadian students who were pursuing a degree outside of Canada. As an international student, I was also not eligible for funding available to American students. I was also not eligible to legally work in the US.

Although I had a full stipend and a little bit of savings, I was going through my funds fast. I realized that by my second year in the program, I would have no more savings. The stipend was not enough for me to live on, so I was going to have to go into debt.

Long-Distance Relationship

To make things worse, my partner was still pursuing his degree in Canada. We were stuck between two countries, contemplating the ways in which we could make the future work for us.

He drove or took a bus across the border every other weekend. The drive was only 5 hours long. But, since neither one of us owned a car, each trip meant a costly car rental with extra mileage and insurance. The bus alternative involved a 12-hour ride with two bus transfers. The transfers were problematic due to the ambiguity of border crossing and poor road conditions in winter. As a Greyhound drivers told my partner once: “We promise to get you there, but we don’t guarantee when you’re going to get there…”

If my partner joined me during my studies in the US as my spouse, he would not have any legal rights to paid work. He could try finding an American employer who would sponsor a working Visa for him, but, given my partner’s education in humanities and limited work experience at the time, we knew that his was not a viable option.

While pursuing my graduate studies, I met many people who had to endure all kinds of ambiguous long-distance relationships because of their commitment to doing a PhD and pursuing an academic career. I’ve heard of couples who lived in different cities or even countries and saw each other every 7 weeks or once a term, each pursuing their own professional careers in between the face-to-face meetings. I knew that trying to work on a long-distance relationship was always an option, but it was not something I wanted to pursue. I was ready to live with my partner and to work on building a life together where both of us could strive to be our best.

Structure of the program

I did not do my undergraduate degree in philosophy, so I was looking for a PhD program that would allow my to take more courses before starting my dissertation. The program I entered stressed the importance of studying history of philosophy through several years of coursework, two comprehensive exams, and a heavy teaching load.

Although initially interested in completing more course work and studying other areas of philosophy, after starting the program I realized that I am not interested in many areas of the discipline outside of my own research focus. I struggled to find ways of engaging with most of the courses I was in. Because of the structure of the program, I was not in the position to choose the things I was interested in most. I realized that it would be several years before I could start to work on my dissertation and pursue the topic I was actually passionate about.

Poor Social Life

The PhD program that I’ve entered had about 70 or so students in it all at the different stages of their degree. Including me, there were two other students accepted into the first year. This meant that my cohort was very small and there very few people to commiserate with about the first year experience. The students who were further along in their degrees were caught in their own work and troubles and brushed off any concerns about the first year experience as not serious. The general response was along the lines of: “oh, you’ll be fine. First year is nothing, just wait till you have to do the comps, teach a course, etc”

Knowing that I would be fine didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have liked to have someone to talk to about my experience. Two terms into the program, I realized that I did not make any real, supportive friendships that I could turn to for moral support.

Academic Job Prospects

Going into my PhD, I was well aware of poor job outlooks: the chances of securing a tenure-track position are extremely low to none. I wanted to be realistic about what pursuing an academic career after PhD might look like for me.

I knew that if I wanted a shot at an academic position, I had to be very open-minded about where in the world I would live. I realized that I wouldn’t be someone securing a job at a major institution in a large city in North America or Europe (aka my version of the dream job at the time) anytime soon. If that’s your goal while considering a PhD, please do your research and think about the reality of this picture. As a graduate student at a major university in Toronto, I got to participate in the hiring cycles and saw how many and what kinds of jobs were posted by my faculty. I also saw the excellent candidates who interviewed and got these jobs in the end. I knew that after completing my PhD I would be nowhere near this competition.

I could probably hope to compete for a job in a small liberal arts college located in a rural area in the United States. After learning more about what that life would be like–by visiting these places and talking to many people–I realized it was not the life I wanted. I wasn’t open to the idea of teaching at a small college in the US and I wasn’t willing to make sacrifices that pursuing such an academic position would entail for me (being away from my family and partner, inability to start a family, etc.).

One other option for academic work with a PhD would be securing sessional teaching contracts. After seeing the upper-year PhD students in my program go through the sessional teaching cycles because their funding ran out (which looked a lot like this), I knew that this lifestyle was not for me.

PhD for its own sake

If the pursuit of an academic position was not for me, it did not mean I wouldn’t enjoy doing a PhD. In fact, when I was applying I really believed that completing a PhD simply because I loved philosophy was worthwhile.

The study of philosophy was (and still is) a way of life for me and a very personal experience. Philosophy enriched my life and I used to be able to find a lot of joy the pursuit of this discipline. At least, that was the case until I started my PhD.

The professionalization of philosophy, the structure of the program that was a poor fit for me, and the personal sacrifices I had to make in order to pursue the degree sucked the joy out of the experience entirely. If I was going to do philosophy for me–not as a mean to an end but as an experience meant for its own sake–it had to be something that enriched my life. At least that was the condition I set for myself, my way of justifying the pursuit of a PhD and the sacrifices that went along with it.  But, if instead of enriching my life, philosophy interfered with it, if in order to pursue philosophy I had to put the rest of my life on hold, I could no longer see value in doing a PhD.

If you are someone who has ever considered dropping out of a PhD program, what were your pros and cons of continuing? In the end, did you stay or did you go? Please comment below of write me a note at lifephilosophized [at] gmail [dot] com

Things I Learned after Quitting my PhD

Things I Learned After Quitting my PhD

A little over a year ago I decided to take an academic leave from my PhD, which eventually lead to quitting it. The experience has been nothing like I expected it to be and I have learned a lot along the way. One year was enough time to let me see some of the misconceptions I had about life and work while in grad school. Here are the top things I learned over the past year.

1.Even if you decide to quit your PhD on your own terms, it will be one of the most difficult decisions of your life.

I grieved my PhD, especially during the first couple of months after leaving. I felt cheated by the world of philosophy: I felt as if I was once given a great promise of what my life could be like and then was forced out of it by the same system that promised it to me. I had friends and mentors I was leaving behind as well as a whole lifestyle of being an academic in training. 

I was worried that I would lose the friendships I have developed in grad school because I could no longer speak “philosophy” to my colleagues who continued their studies. Once an insider to a particular academic circle, I felt that I no longer belonged there and I missed being a part of it.

2. Pursuing anything very seriously, like a PhD, shapes your entire worldview. When you change course, it will take a long time to undo some of the habits and views you developed over the years but that no longer fit your lifestyle.

10 months after leaving grad school, I found that I could not read my favourite philosophers without getting very upset. I seemed to inhabit a perspective that to read philosophy meant to read it in an academic context only and now that I was no longer a graduate student, I somehow no longer had a say in what philosophers mattered nor could I read them on my own. I felt like a fraud trying to read philosophy for pleasure. 

I could not work up the courage to read philosophy on my own, so I would reach out for “easier” reads that I found to be relevant at the time. I actually felt guilty reading books for pleasure that I always wanted to read and used to have no time for with my workload during a PhD. I felt guilty because they weren’t the academic texts I was used to reading.

3. You work fewer hours during a full-time job than you do while in your PhD, but you feel less freedom on the daily basis.

It took me some time to get used to working ‘9 to 5.’ I only work about 7.5 hours a day in my job, but two months after getting it, I could not deal with the monotony of the schedule.

While in grad school, I used to feel like I was working all the time. I had no weekends that were entirely school work free. Some days felt 10-12 hours long. However, I could break my day up as I pleased during my PhD: schedule a coffee date in the morning, take a break after lunch and go for a run and then work until very late at night. 

I can’t break my day up at work and work outside of our office hours and I definitely cannot take off for a run after lunch. As the result, I feel like I have less time for myself.

4. You will feel more freedom outside of work.

On the bright side, my job is dynamic and busy when I am at the office, but I am not required to take any of it home. This means guilt-free evenings and weekends with no feeling of anxiety about the projects I should be working on at every waking hour. I remember how much I hated Sundays in grad school: when the anxiety about the week ahead settled in and I felt like I was fighting against time scrambling to get things together. I no longer experience this anxiety and it is probably a very healthy thing.

5. Getting a full-time job is not the end of your life as you know it.

For a long time after leaving academia, I felt that I was at my best during my PhD because of the ways I have been challenged academically, creatively, socially. When my PhD ended, my greatness as a human being ended because there could be no career in the world that could challenge me in the same way.

I was so WRONG.

The misconception I held was that being an academic is the only way I could be at my best. I loved reading stimulating books, the challenge of writing and teaching, and being surrounded by people who valued similar things. I thought that the only way I could have those things in my life was through academia. That is not the case.

Although I am still growing into my career field, I certainly get to do a number of things that I love and that challenge me creatively both at my work and outside of it. What I do contains many of the elements of grad school that I enjoyed: I am in a position to advise and mentor others, I write and edit daily, and I continue to stimulate my learning and growth. I believe that we all can find a way to do what we love.

A job as an academic might be an ideal scenario for you, but it is not the only one. I find it that because grad school is so specific and training intensive, most graduate students have no idea what other options are available to them. You don’t know what you don’t know. Trust me, there ARE other options and there are many GREAT options for you.

6. You are not your PhD

Who you are as a person is more than your research interest and the hard work you have taken so far to get the credential. This is not meant to reduce the significance of what you have accomplished while getting a PhD. It is meant to help you realize that there are many other great things ahead of you. You might feel lost at first, but this is usually a sign that you’re embarking on a new adventure, entering an unfamiliar situation. This means more learning, growth, and self-discovery.

Letting go of my PhD made me realize how important other things were in my life. I used to be completely preoccupied with school work and other academic commitments like writing grant proposals and submitting my work to conferences. I had no idea what other things I could be doing professionally if I could not be an academic. If I had any time to spend with my family and friends, it had to be planned around my schedule and availability. PhD took precedence over everything else.

Letting go of the PhD created new space for seeing other things in my life in a new light: I cared about spending time with my family and what city and country I was living in; I learned what kinds of thing I was good at and could do for living; I had the freedom to keep up with my friends and their projects and pursuits.

These are some of the things that are on my mind a little over a year after quitting my PhD. I am sure that as the time goes by I may learn more and rethink some of these points. For now, I am curious to hear if any of you had similar experiences?

On Leaving Grad School

The decision that I felt I have made many times over has now been finalized.

Last year, I decided to take a year off from my PhD studies. Although I felt that I was most likely not coming back, I did not have to confirm my decision to my program until a few weeks ago. My department chair has reached out to me in mid-January asking for immediate response regarding my intentions in order to know how to allocate my funding: to me, in case I return, or to a new graduate student to be admitted into the program, in case I do not come back.

I have been imagining that my final answer to the department would come in a form of a letter explaining my decision in detail, but it ended up being a single line response via e-mail. And the deed was done.

I wanted a year off because I wanted time away from the program and the academic life in order to gain a new perspective. I knew it would not be a full year since I would have to start choosing my courses for Fall 2016 by March, which would only leave me with 10 months to decide. The fact that the department asked for an answer in January, has truly left me with only 8 months away from school. Considering that I spent some of those months moving across the country, setting up a new life, and looking for work, it only really left me with 3-4 months of the taste of life outside of PhD. I refer to the months when I had a steady income and was able to do some travel and enjoy the new city that began to become more familiar. Of course, the decision to move across the country and the resulting many turbulent months of planning, selling furniture, boxing our belongings, and figuring out the cheapest way to ship stuff was entirely of my own making. I wanted something really different: if I weren’t doing my PhD, I wanted to have something grand and exciting I was doing instead. Perhaps, this could be used as a cautionary story for others thinking about taking time off their studies: be realistic about how much time off you are going to get and whether that time will be enough to really get a feel for life outside of PhD.

I left of my own accord. I wasn’t kicked out of the program nor was I doing poorly in my classes. I chose to leave and I wanted to leave. But, I was surprised to find just how extremely difficult it was to leave. I grieved my parting with philosophy as one might grieve a loss of a dear friend. I felt cheated out of a promise for a life I once believed in and aspired to. The thing that defined my being and all of my efforts for the past three years was taken away. In order to go on living without it, I had to imagine a new, completely different life.

I remember seeing this quote by Thomas H. Benton in one of his pieces cautioning students about graduate school: “Some professors tell students to go to graduate school “only if you can’t imagine doing anything else.” But they usually are saying that to students who have been inside an educational institution for their entire lives. They simply do not know what else is out there. They know how to navigate school, and they think they know what it is like to be a professor.” 

The passage really struck a cord. I couldn’t tell whether leaving academia was so hard because philosophy was truly a thing for me or because I simply haven’t had the chance to look for meaning elsewhere. I couldn’t tell whether I was holding on to it because I truly loved philosophy or because I was too afraid of life and pursuits outside of acadmia that at first felt so unfamiliar. I wanted to take a year off to give myself a chance to find out “what else is out there.”

The eight months away weren’t enough to give me a grand new perspective or to entirely transform my life, but it was enough time to give me hints of what’s possible outside of graduate school. I learned that life outside of academia is not static. It is as turbulent, as creative, and as uncertain as it felt when I was a grad student. Just because you gain the certainty of no longer continuing with your PhD, does not mean you gain certainty in other aspects of your life.

But, once the decision to not come back has been made, I felt a new space open up. Finally closing one door means I can allow myself to look for other, different doors to open. I can devote my time, energy, and focus to new pursuits. And I know that with time I will come upon a door behind which will be the new beginning that will shape my life significantly the way philosophy once did, while also allowing the freedoms I could not have as a graduate student.

How to get a job with your humanities degree

How to Get a Job with Your Humanities Degree: Pt.III

This is the third post of the series How to Get a Job with your Humanities Degree. Here are Part I and Part II.

In this post I would like to talk about some common interview questions and the ways in which your experience in grad school has prepared you for them. You can master any interview if you spend some time preparing for it by researching questions that interviewers commonly ask and thinking of interesting ways in which you could answer those questions that would both reflect the experiences on your resume and provide compelling stories about you to the interviewer. After doing that, practice giving your answers by doing a mock interview with a friend or at least by saying your answers out loud the way you would prepare for a presentation or a talk you’re so used to doing in grad school.
I chose the questions below because you would get a version of them at almost every interview you attend regarding of the position you’re applying to. I also believe that I’ve mastered answering them over time relying entirely on my experience in grad school.

Why do you want this job?

I think that this question offers a neat opportunity for you to reflect on your switch from academia to a career outside of it. It is also a great opportunity for you to reveal interesting facts about yourself to your potential employer, such as where you see yourself working and what kinds of things you would appreciate about the position you’re applying to.

For instance, you could stress the number of years you spent in higher education and describe the kinds of experience you had as the result: doing your own research, presenting to audiences, teaching and tutoring, organizing conferences, etc. I know you have many things to talk about and at least one of those past experiences is in line with the job you’re interviewing for. So, highlight it as the thing you enjoyed the most and show how being hired for this position is the natural progression from your time in academia. For instance, while interviewing for a sales job I described how much I enjoyed teaching and tutoring students one-on-one. I stressed how the time spent with people where I presented information to them could naturally translate into my ability to be a good sales person. I mentioned that I saw a sales job as a position where I would get the opportunity to educate potential customers about the product I was representing and show them how and why it might be useful for them. And since I already had several years of experience educating people, the hiring manager felt that I was a good fit for the company.

What are your greatest professional strengths?

This is another excellent question that offers you the opportunity to educate your interviewers about your past. Many people have no idea what getting a Master’s degree or a PhD might entail. Explain it to them. Talk about writing a dissertation (or a major research project), teaching, traveling to professional conferences, organizing student events, living in a foreign country, mastering a new language, all while keeping up with your family responsibilities, and so on. Just explaining how many things you’ve had on your plate and highlighting how well you did managing them will allow your interviewers find out so much more about you.

Another great way of answering the question is picking one of the things you’ve accomplished in grad school that is in line with the position you’re interviewing for and really telling a great story about how you shined. For instance, interviewing for a student recruitment position where one of my roles would have been helping with the orientation event for that institution, I spoke about my experience organizing academic conferences while in grad school.

How do you deal with pressure at work or stressful situations?

This is one more question that allows you to say more about what going to graduate school entails. Talk about how many things you’ve had to deal with at any one time: research and writing your own project, teaching, grading, holding office hours, writing research grants, going to your own seminars, etc. Paint a detailed picture of what your days looked like. Mention how the deadlines worked and how you had to manage your own work as a student as well as your responsibilities as a teacher. Then give details about concrete ways in which you dealt with it all. Did you make spreadsheets with detailed to do lists and timelines? Did you put timers on to ensure you don’t spend too much time on each essay you grade? Did you check your e-mail at a certain time during the day? Give concrete examples of how you managed your time and anticipated the stressful periods in your semester. Those are significant skills and they will matter to others.

Tell us about the time when you faced a challenge or conflict at work and how you dealt with it.

Okay, let’s dig back to many times you had a student you were teaching become frustrated with his or her grade or the course material. Think back to one of those experiences and tell a compelling story. Tell the interviewers what happened and how you went about dealing with the situation and turning the student around.

Tell us about a time you had to create training materials and supervise or participate in training of other staff.

To be honest, this is not a very common question, nor is it a question I performed well on in interviews. I include it here because I have completely blanked out when I was asked this. After the interview, however, my partner reminded me about how teaching experience could be described as preparing “training” material and having your class follow along with you until they get it. Bingo! You’ve trained people in the past. Think of all the lecture notes you’ve created and the exercises you had to make up to help your students grasp the material you were delivering. This is an extremely valuable skill to describe if asked about.

I am going to end this post here. For more helpful interview prep resources, check out this article and also this one. Also feel free to reach out to me if you would like me to send you my own interview prep list I’ve been putting together based on the questions I have been asked in interviews.