I am no longer a PhD student!
I have cleared out my office space, returned all my library books, gotten my $10 deposit back on the bathroom key (really). But no, I haven’t gotten my doctorate. I’ve dropped out. I’ve decided to cut my losses and move on to something that’s better for me.
It wasn’t easy to drop out. After all, I’ve never done it before in my life. But I’m not alone – roughly half of American PhD students in the social sciences will do just that. The reason it’s so hard for us to realize we need to stop is because it runs counter to everything we’ve ever done, and also to the identities we have constructed for ourselves. We’re smart people. Smart people become professors and get “Dr.” in front of their names. By definition, we are the kind of people who thrive in academic settings. We breezed through high school, loved doing our BAs, and remain insatiably curious about our topics of interest. Going on to get a doctorate seems like the logical thing to do when you’re that kind of person, right? And there’s really no reason we can’t succeed if we just work hard enough, right?
Well, no. I was dead wrong.
Of course, I did my research ahead of applying to a PhD program, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but because I had never had any trouble getting things done throughout my post-secondary education, I assumed I could surmount any problems with the same ease I had previously experienced. And of course, everybody likes to think she will be an exception. Everybody wants to believe, I have enough passion to get this done, I am conscientious enough to finish quickly, I am dedicated enough to deflect any adversity that may get thrown my way. Yes, I may not be earning much, but I’ll get some fellowships or bursaries. Yes, I won’t be getting much supervision, but I’m independent and I can motivate myself. After all, that’s what the story has been in our lives up until that point, so why should we expect the PhD should be any different? We have always been dedicated, we have always been academically exceptional. We’re doing what seems to fit us perfectly.
The problem is, it IS different. A PhD is another animal altogether. The old rules don’t apply. Sometimes really, really smart people have the most difficulty. It’s not a matter of intelligence or enthusiasm or how much you want to succeed. It’s how well you do this new and tricky dance. It’s academic office politics, it’s a matter of how other people feel about your passions and how your interests align with theirs, it’s a matter of how many stumbling blocks arbitrarily get thrown in your path. And unlike other countries, where you go in knowing your dissertation topic and finish in three or four years, at Berkeley the average time to degree for sociology PhDs is nine years. Nine. Years. I convinced myself I could be done in five – six at most – but I quickly found so many obstacles in my path that it became clear it wouldn’t happen. Having just completed my third year, I can walk away with an MA in sociology, but I do wish I had come to this realization a bit quicker. I guess I was just too optimistic, expecting things would get better. They didn’t.
Shortly after starting, I found that one rug after another began to get pulled out from beneath my feet. I had been told I would get some credit, and consequently some exemptions from coursework, for already having a master’s degree. Nope nope nope, didn’t happen. I thought I would have the opportunity to earn as much as the other students in my cohort because I wanted to work really hard. Nope nope nope, my salary was half of everybody else’s my first semester because a fourth-year student needed a job and was inexplicably given half of mine. I couldn’t come close to making the rent on my university-owned shared apartment! I was led to believe I would have a stipend every year. Nope nope nope, it was gone after the first. I expected this university would have the computer software I would need for doing my statistical analysis. I honestly thought I wouldn’t have to bang my head against the wall with so many administrative nightmares, and even if I did, I figured somebody would be able to point me in the right direction to get them fixed. I assumed I would be treated as capable, and I would have opportunities to interact with lots of people who shared my interests. Nope, nope, and nope.
I went from being a happy, financially independent young woman living in London to a demoralized barely-adult. I felt as if I was a teenager again, stripped of autonomy and independence, having to ask my parents for money, being trapped by Berkeley’s poor public transportation, and squeezed into a new city much smaller than I expected. My boyfriend in London and I tried to keep up our relationship, and he came to visit me, but 5000 miles was just too massive a gap. By the time I went back to England for New Year my first year I realized that what we had was gone. Whereas I had previously shared a sunny, spacious maisonette in a decent part of North London with a good friend, I was now stuck holed up in cramped university housing surrounded by fraternities with three other girls, two of whom hated each other’s guts. After my first year, I moved to San Francisco proper and rented my own studio apartment, but the only affordable neighborhood walking distance to the train to Berkeley was the very worst in the city, full of drug addicts who think nothing of using the sidewalk as a toilet and smoke crack in broad daylight. I left the pet bird I had raised from when he was a chick, who I had tamed and trained and taught to speak, with my friend in London, and he died much sooner than I expected. I gave up a lot to do this PhD, mentally telling myself it would pay off, and so long as I stayed patient and worked hard, I would find it was worth it. The problem is, that never happened. All I saw were the things I had given up, and no payoff. And not only was I not getting anything positive in return, I WAS getting a hell of a lot of alienation and frustration.
Furthermore, it’s no secret that California and I do not really get along. I came in with an open mind, but after living in London for so many years, and New York City before that, the Bay Area just can’t compare. I had reverse culture shock. It was the little things I missed, like being able to sit down and watch a Tottenham match, or wander through Finsbury Park, or sit outside the pub on a sunny afternoon, or get Polish food whenever I wanted it, along with the big things like my job and lifestyle and friends. But in addition to missing London, California in particular was also rubbing me the wrong way. San Francisco feels far dirtier than New York and London. Attitudes tend to be very knee-jerk good versus evil rather than realizing that the world is far more complicated than that. I’m liberal, but I quickly got tired of the constant conspicuous competition to see whose heart bleeds most. I got tired of people honestly thinking it is sexist to say “you guys.” I got very, very tired of everybody calling their crazy untrained mutt a “service dog” so that it can run around the supermarket or restaurant or clothing shop and nobody can say a word about it because OPPRESSION! Do you know that some people compost their own human waste out here in their gardens? Yeah. I got tired of the gourmet artisan kale chips in the food bank donation barrel when, for the same price, you can feed your family pasta for a week. In fact, I’m tired of kale altogether. Please stop talking about how wonderful your kale is. I honestly don’t care. Nobody outside the West Coast bubble cares about your kale.
I think most people apply to Berkeley because, in addition to its academic appeal, there’s something about the Bay Area lifestyle that really appeals to them. It wasn’t like that for me. I came to Berkeley because it is ranked one of the best sociology doctoral programs in the world, and that’s all. My interests didn’t overlap much with those of other students – hiking and skiing aren’t my thing, I didn’t want to Occupy Oakland or go on strike, Burning Man sounds like hell on Earth, and when I cook, I honestly don’t care about locally-grown and organic heirloom tomatoes that cost four times more than the regular ones. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, that’s fine, and you will love living in the Bay Area, but it’s really not for me. Not at all. It’s not my kind of place, and the way I see it, if I haven’t grown to like it by now, I never will. And that’s fine. The East Coast has room for millions of people like me, and there are plenty of people who love California and will be far happier here than I ever was.
Eventually, all the close friends I made were people from outside the university. We met through shared interests like music and dance. I didn’t know anybody here when I arrived. My nearest family member is in Ohio. My parents are on the East Coast, and even though we have a very close relationship, I don’t get to see them very often because it takes an entire day to get there and another day to return. In London, I had four bus lines stopping right across the street from my front door in addition to Underground and Overground lines only a short walk away. In Berkeley, I quickly realized that you are largely trapped without a car. Bus service is mediocre, and the BART trains even worse. I felt less safe walking around there at night than I ever had in proper big cities. In short, upon starting the PhD, my world suddenly became very, very small.
There are lots of things wrong with the social science PhD experience in America. You can poke around the internet and find plenty of articles about them, but for a quick run-down, I recommend the blog 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School. I didn’t find this blog until a few months ago, but upon reading it, I realized it was spot-on. I was relieved to find out I wasn’t alone in my feelings, and even more relieved to learn that it is possible to quit the PhD and have a bright future.
The penny dropped this past winter when I was supposed to be studying for my qualifying exams, the oral ones I would need to pass in order to officially advance to candidacy. After waiting months for professors to give me feedback on my reading lists, and finding the number of titles I would have to study increase exponentially, I tried to just sit down and read. And I couldn’t. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t make myself read a book. I have always been a voracious reader, and you would assume that because these books are within my areas of interest, I would devour them. But I simply couldn’t. My eyes scanned over the text over and over and I couldn’t finish the page because all the sudden I just didn’t care. For me, the joy had been sucked out of sociology. I didn’t want to spend any more hours poring over these texts. I simply couldn’t make myself do it. And that’s when I knew enough was enough.
Enough. That’s what I finally realized. I’d had enough of the whole damn thing. Had enough of feeling like I didn’t matter one bit, enough of having zero support. Enough of the frustration and alienation. Enough feeling like I was stagnating and getting absolutely nowhere. Enough of feeling like my priorities and attitudes were completely different from those of my colleagues. I always knew I wanted to be a policy researcher rather than a professor, and when I did more research and found out that having a PhD can actually work AGAINST you in non-academic job market, I realized I had little to gain and a lot to lose by staying in the program. I didn’t want to be miserable any longer and I needed to do something about it. So I decided it was time to quit.
Every day since I made that decision, I have asked myself, does it still feel like the right thing to do? And every day, I have answered in the affirmative.
I don’t see this as a failure. In fact, quitting was possibly the smartest thing to do. I only get one life, after all. I came into this at age 25. I’m 28 now. I’m not going to get those three years – those three years which could have been very economically productive – back. I want to eventually be somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother and it’s not going to happen in California. I don’t want to look back on my life in the future and find out I peaked at 22. It’s time to cut my losses.
Let’s get serious: a shocking number of PhD students contemplate suicide. In fact, a Berkeley study a few years ago placed the figure at roughly one in ten. I’m not surprised, because when the first time you find yourself failing is in your late 20s or early 30s, and you’ve invested several years of your life in something that you may never finish or which may not even amount to a job that pays a living wage, sacrificing all the trappings of normal adulthood, it is understandable that people become very depressed. It never got that bad for me, probably because the cultural mismatch between California and myself reminded me that things would get better as soon as I moved back to the East Coast, but it’s horrifying to know that so many of my colleagues may be despairing like that. If anybody in a similar situation is reading this: IT’S NOT WORTH BEING THAT MISERABLE. IT’S SIMPLY NOT WORTH IT. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THAT. It will be tough to leave, but you CAN do something else. You’re still an intelligent, capable person. It took a while, but I convinced myself that I could still accomplish meaningful things without being Dr. Kite. And above everything, I want to be really, really happy again. I want to go back to being the person I was back when I was feeding the birds in Finsbury Park and walking up the Tottenham High Road with a match ticket in my pocket.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending for me. After several months of job-hunting and the associated existential crises (“What if I’m unemployable for life because I tried to do a doctorate?”), I scored a dream job. I am proud to say that next month I will be moving to Boston and starting a job as a Research Associate at Harvard. In my communications with the principal investigator and her grad student assistants, I have felt more valued in the past three weeks than I have in the past three years of study. They are warm, enthusiastic, encouraging people who believe in me, and I am going to succeed with them. I am grateful to them and I will not let them down. It’s so wonderful to feel appreciated again. Policy-relevant work at last! My enthusiasm has re-emerged and it can only get better. The nightmare is over. Boston is new to me, but my best friend from San Francisco used to live there and she is moving back this autumn. I can easily visit New York. I can’t wait to find my new apartment and start over as a career researcher. I will be fully financially independent. I will have a life that makes me happy.
I didn’t fail. I simply realized the PhD was not for me, not for my life. (Hey, the PhD works for a lot of people, and I wish them the best of luck and all success. I hope they are able to keep following their passions and hopefully get better support than I did.) I made the best decision for my circumstances, and now I’m going forward to greener pastures. If I had never tried, I would probably always be thinking, “Damn, I should have gone for a PhD. I wish I had done that when I had the chance.” Well, now I know it’s not for me, and I won’t have to wonder. And – Harvard! I still can’t believe I’m going to be doing research at Harvard. I am going to have a good salary! I am going to have savings! I am going to feel like a proper adult again! I’m not leaving Berkeley with my tail between my legs, but with my head held high.
I’m moving on up.