Should I stay or should I go? (and why I never have an answer)

This week, Slate’s advice columnist Prudie (Daniel Mallory Ortberg) got asked about leaving grad school. The advice-seeker noted that they’d been in grad school for five years, but had decided they didn’t want to be a career academic. What held them back from leaving was not only the personal, economic, and social upheaval such an event would bring, but the feelings of shame about being unable to hack it.

Prudie’s response focused mostly on the shame aspect, and gave the answer that many academics have given and received:

This isn’t a matter of being able to “hack it,” this is a matter of figuring what you want out of life. You can feel anxious and ashamed and still move ahead with your decision to leave your grad program. You’re doing your future self a great favor by not continuing to spend more time in a job you know you don’t want just because you’ve already spent five years there.

While I might not have said “go to your chair/supervisor for help” without some qualification, it’s pretty good advice overall. There’s not much advice to be given on the issue of how disruptive leaving grad school after five years will be to your life; it is disruptive, in exactly the ways the advice-seeker fears, and there isn’t much one can do to get around it.

There are two responses from readers that say different things. The problem is…their advice might be worth thinking about too, even though it’s contradictory.  The first asks the advice-seeker to consider whether dropping out now will hinder them on the job market if they go into a related field and whether employers will see their decision to quit as just that – the mark of a quitter. The second says unequivocally that the advice-seeker should leave right away, because getting the PhD will only over-qualify the advice-seeker on the job market: “A Ph.D. is a professional degree. You wouldn’t stay in law school if you didn’t want to be a lawyer, would you? ”

Neither of these responses are wrong, but neither of them are completely right either. The first presumes most employers have any idea what it means to be in grad school or leave grad school (I don’t think they do) and the second assumes that neither a PhD nor a JD is transferable or worth anything outside of a narrow professional framework (I think the answer here is that it depends a lot on your field and what you want to do). Prudie’s advice is the most neutral and broadly-applicable of the bunch, but to do that, it has to speak in real generalities, offering the promise that, in two years, they’ll be able to look back on this choice and be glad, and avoiding the fact that in many fields and situations, the financial, social, and psychological disruption of leaving might not have settled down in two years, or ten years.

I was unsettled by the exchange of advice here, and I think that feeling stemmed from two things that crop up every time this question is asked in real life as well.

First, the advice-seeker isn’t really looking for more reasons why this decision is or isn’t a good idea, even though some of the responses feel compelled to offer them. They’re not struggling because they don’t know whether to leave grad school, they’re struggling with very real feelings of anxiety and shame. Giving them – or anyone in this position – more reasons why they should or shouldn’t do a thing doesn’t really help. It can actually make them feel worse by emphasizing how very rational the decision is and how very screwed up they must be not to be able to make it, or not to have made it years ago, or to have even gone to grad school in the first place. When I said I was leaving, I had a whole Internet full of people telling me that any rational person wouldn’t have ever gotten themselves into this mess in the first place, which simply reinforced the idea that I had no right to feel grief or anxiety or anger.

Second, even though there are openings in the advice-seeker’s letter that hint at needing some direction on the timing and manner of their departure, we simply can’t and shouldn’t be giving blanket advice about how to do that.  And sure, you can say that this wasn’t intended to be blanket advice, it was specific to a situation, but also…it’s a public advice column, not a coffee klatch or a therapy session.

I get asked all the time now about what advice I’d give to people considering grad school or currently in grad school but thinking about leaving. In some ways, asking “is it good to go to/finish grad school?” is like asking “Is it a good idea to be a farmer?” I don’t think anyone would presume to answer that question in a paragraph or book or conversation, because it’s not even a single question. Are you asking  “Should I get backyard chickens?” or “Should I buy an apple orchard?” or “Should I invest in soybean production?” or “Should I take over the family farm?” or “Should I spend my tech wealth to become a gentleman farmer and grow precious hydroponic lettuces?”

I had much the same reaction reading the advice-seeker’s letter. Rather than having an answer, I had more questions. What field are they in? What does “five years” mean in that field? Is the “school stress” they mention because of their research or something else? How close is the dissertation to done? Would the support of a close-knit social circle help them get through that final push? What would be the financial costs of finishing? If they left, would they be returning to a profession they’d had before or trying to break into something new? How much do they have in savings to live on at the moment?

But the advice-seeker frames this dilemma as being torn between the rational – “Rationally, I know it’s time to quit” – and the emotional – “I can’t find it in me to leave” – and wants to know how to deal with the emotions that seem to be preventing them from behaving rationally. I take them at their word, because they know their own life and field better than anyone.  In a sense, we don’t need to know the answers to any of our questions about the specifics of their field or career options because the advice-seeker has told us they’ve already done that thinking for us.

And yet two responses highlighted present “rational” arguments, as though the advice-seeker just needed one more pebble of evidence to tip the scales, but both clearly do so with particular background experiences and fields in mind. I put rational in quotation marks because both responses use fear to make precisely the opposite points: “Get out now or you’ll be unemployable!” vs. “Finish it out or you’ll be unemployable!” Both of those arguments might be true in particular fields and situations, but how is an advice-seeker to know?

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with all three responses, taken together, because each of them – one gentle and general, and the other two strident and specific – might be what this advice-seeker needed. Maybe it’s good to have this sort of a mix. But as someone who’s been asked constantly to offer advice to current and prospective graduate students and has never come up with anything good to offer, I still found myself unable to think of any advice I’d give.

Yes, I think we should be able to talk about grad school, higher ed, and the problems of both in some broad strokes, because there are commonalities, even across fields that might seem too different to compare. But we should be careful of one-size-fits-all advice, the same way we are when approaching those books about how to write your dissertation in nine months. And we should be particularly wary of listening to or dispensing advice that comes down to “just be more rational” or soft-pedals the pain and disruption that may be unavoidable , even if one does make the “rational” choice to leave – or stay – or even go in the first place.


One response to “Should I stay or should I go? (and why I never have an answer)”

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