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

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