I have little patience for whiners. Especially when I am the one doing the whining. Now, one might classify parts of my post of July 10 as containing elements that are vaguely whine-like. And if, 7 years ago, I were to read a post like that, I’d probably just say: “why can’t you just work harder to finish your PhD, or drop it all together? What’s the point of doing this if it makes you this miserable?”
The thought of dropping the PhD has visited me many many times. Some times it would stay for months at end, like this past March-April-May. I’ve read several books on how to survive graduate school. I don’t miss a single issue of the “ABD Survival Guide” (not because I’m that terrible anxious or anything, but because I always enjoyed reading instructions, manuals, recipes and user’s guides. One of those things.)
Moreover, everyone who asks me how my work goes inevitably gets horrified when I mention thoughts of quitting, and proceeds to give me the speech that I just have to hang in there. I have heard enough variations on this theme to have a cynical response ready at hand to all those that one make into the AmFG list (for “Advice most Frequently Given). (People seem always surprised when I say I have a cynical vein. That’s because I’m very good at hiding it. It’s just too strong to leave exposed).
Here’s a subset of the AmFG list, followed by my ready-made response:
But you can do this! You’re definitely good enough for this!
I know, I know. I hate to sound immodest, but that’s not the point. The point is: is it good enough for me? My thoughts on this vary.
But think of what made you want to start a doctorate in the first place!
Well, I spent high school daydreaming about visiting other countries and learning new languages. But I never liked being a tourist. You never get an “authentic experience” as a tourist. You never have a good excuse to talk to people (other than other tourists and/or service providers). I wanted to expand my vocabulary to beyond being able to ask for directions and exchanging itineraries.
Besides, it’s expensive to travel as a tourist for an extended period of time. I would have had to work for years to afford something like that. And even if I could find a job that would pay me enough to spend a couple of years away, it’d probably would not allow me to be away for so long.
So there. That was what made me start a doctorate in the first place. The thought of getting paid to stay for more than a few months in a place where I could have a good excuse to talk to people and practice my English — that did it for me.
But now I want to go home. My English has managed to get pretty good. I have learned interesting things. I’ve met interesting people. I’ve had an authentic experience. The PhD program gave me all that I’d expected it to. Getting a diploma per se was never much of an issue. So why finish?
But think of all the money and time you have invested in it already!
Errr… Technically, I didn’t invest any money in it: I was fortunate to always have funding. Now, conceivably, if I had gone back home and got a proper job, maybe by now I would have accummulated a bit of capital, whereas my whole adult life I’ve lived from paycheque to paycheque, struggling to make ends meet.
I’m also fully aware that there are many people who are paying or would be willing to pay a lot of money to have this opportunity, if they could only have the money or the opportunity. (I do my taxes myself. I used to have to pay taxes on all of my scholarship. It was a lot of tax money — especially for an international student. I’m glad it’s not taxable any more. But it was an effective way to keep me aware how much it cost to do what I was doing.)
I do not take any of this for granted at all. It is just that I feel the time and money invested was for the learning more than for the degree — and I did do quite a bit of learning. So nothing was wasted (and even it had been wasted, it is not as if one could get it back — I’d rather think that the best one could do would be to count one’s losses and stop wasting it some more).
And at this point in time, I’m more than eager to stop being a cost to society and start giving something back (not to mention accummulate some capital of my own). And I know there is a lot I can do right now that does not require having a PhD. So why finish?
But think of all the people that would like to be in the position you are in and cannot, for whatever reason!
I do. All the time. This is actually the argument that has more weight for me. I’ve always felt a bit scornful of academics (but please don’t tell anyone). I’ve never felt like I was one of them. I was just role-playing. I’ve never felt as driven or as concerned. I just liked the idea of getting paid to read stuff I like and telling people what I thought about it.
But I know how much a luxury this is — and it makes me awfully uncomfortable. I know fully well that there are people who would give anything to have a chance to do what I do. I don’t feel I deserve to be here any more than they do. On the contrary, I don’t feel I’ve earned this at all. And my thought is: why should I continue to occupy the spot of someone who could doing so much more with this experience than I am?
Unless, of course, I could use this experience in their favour. Someone else being here in my spot would not make all the other deserving people be here too. Besides, I’m here already, nothing to be done about that. Quitting at this point wouldn’t do anyone any harm. But it also wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Furthermore, while the credentials I get from finishing mean little to me as compared to how much I’ve already learned, it does open some doors. Doors to let other people in. So that’s maybe a reason to keep going.
I just have to move now from the “Why do it?” to “Just do it!”
Now, just as the thought of quitting has visited me many a time, the thought of working harder has also visited regularly. So work harder I do. And yet, there’s always room for harder. I just hope I can manage to bring this to an end before it brings me to an end. But there’s no way to know who’ll win the fight until we fight the fight. And so we fight on…
Just do it, Ester. Just do it.