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Should You Quit Grad School?

4 signs it may be time to leave your graduate program.

by James Napoli
August 21, 2020 | Work

About a decade ago, new media artist Dietrich "Squinky" Squinkifer left a career in the video game industry to pursue an MFA at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The two-year program was a little stressful, but ultimately rewarding. They decided to continue their education at Concordia University, which offered an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program where they could design their own course of study.

The program started off well. But, slowly, things went south.

Everyone in the program seemed overworked and constantly on the verge of burnout. Squinkifer experienced a series of microaggressions and felt ostracized for speaking out against abuses of power in the department. Their supervisor told them that their writing skills weren't strong.

"It's supposed to be this tough, competitive environment, and I guess this is supposed to be motivating. But it was not motivating at all for me," Squinkifer said.

When it came time to write their dissertation proposal, they lost focus and felt stuck.

"I tried everything and then, finally, I decided to stop trying," Squinkifer said. "I thought, What do I actually want to be doing with my life?"

They had an epiphany: They were miserable in the Ph.D. program and didn't want to continue.

"Suddenly, my mood just lifted. I didn't realize how awful I was feeling until I did this thought experiment," they said. 

"I started to get all sorts of ideas about freelance projects I could do and fun art projects I could tinker around with in my spare time. That's when I knew that I was done and that I had to leave."

Squinkifer's experience is not uncommon. Nearly 50 percent of doctoral students leave their programs without finishing their degree.

For some students, graduate school is a fantastic period of learning that leads to a cushy tenure-track position and a fulfilling "life of the mind." 

For others, it can be a painful experience that ends in debt and feelings of shame and failure.

Grad school is designed to be challenging, and you're sure to encounter stressful situations during your coursework, exams, teaching and research. 

But how can you tell if an especially rough patch is just normal turbulence or a real red flag? Here are four signs it might not be worth finishing your degree:

1. You feel like you're always behind and can't take a break

When graduate coursework and research starts to consume every moment of your life, leaving no room for rest, relaxation or passion projects, that may be a sign it's time to leave.

"It's always a red flag when your job expects you to not have interests or hobbies outside of work. And grad school is no different," Squinkifer said. "That's a red flag I overlooked for way too long."

For Adrienne Posner, the biggest problem she had with academia was that no one was able to stop working and actually enjoy their life.

"All they could think about was how they weren't doing enough, they should be working on that paper, they should be publishing, they need to edit this thing, they need to prepare for X, Y and Z. And that's way too much for anybody," said Posner, who left grad school to work as a program manager at Google and as a career coach.

At one point in her graduate studies, Julie Chmiel decided to take a complete break for a few weeks.

"It felt great. I remember walking on the street and smiling at random people. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders," said Chmiel, co-editor of Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia.

2. You're sinking into serious debt

If you earn a professional degree from a top-tier MBA program or law school, there's a good chance you'll land a high-paying job and will be able to pay off any student loans you may have taken out to finance your graduate education.

For other fields of study, especially in the humanities and social sciences, there's no guarantee you'll find a position that pays anywhere near enough to make your investment in the degree worth it.

The breaking point for Posner was when she and her partner found themselves collectively in six figures of debt. At the time, she was making $18,500 as a graduate student.

"Whenever I sat down to write my dissertation, that was all I could think about. Even if I got a tenure-track job, it was going to take the rest of my life to pay off the debt," Posner said.

"One day I hit a point where I said: This is not worth it. The emotional labor of finishing this dissertation is not going to reap some big reward."

Woman sitting at desk with head in hand surrounded by books. Rewire PBS Work Quit Grad School
If graduate school consumes every moment of your life, it may be a sign that it's time to leave.  |  Credit: Adobe

In addition to student loans and credit card debt, you should consider the opportunity cost of spending between two and five years (or much longer, in some cases) working on an advanced degree instead of pursuing a different career track and earning a higher income.

"If you finish with a humanities degree and six figures of debt, that doesn't make sense. It's not smart," Posner said.

If you're deciding whether to stay in grad school, you should also avoid the sunk cost fallacy. Just because you've already spent so much time, energy and money working toward your degree, doesn't mean you should keep going.

"That feeling continued for a while: I've come this far, I've been here for so long. I moved away from my family. I told everyone I'm going to be a professor. How can I back out now? It was really emotionally difficult," Chmiel said.

3. You constantly feel stressed, anxious or depressed

All graduate programs involve difficult challenges and stressful situations, like comprehensive exams or your first teaching assignment. 

However, if you find yourself burning out or experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression for extended periods of time, don't ignore these signs.

Several recent studies point to a mental health crisis in academia. Grad students are at a much higher risk of depression and anxiety than the general population, due to a combination of social isolation, feelings of inadequacy and lack of academic career prospects.

These factors can take a severe physical, mental and emotional toll.

"If you notice stress, anxiety or depression amping up and affecting you, and it's not tied to some specific thing but just overarching, that's probably one of the biggest things to watch out for," Chmiel said.

If you feel that graduate school is having a negative impact on your mental health, seek support from a professional counselor or therapist.

Kathleen Miller, a training specialist and co-editor of Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia, also encourages grad students to check in with themselves by doing a life audit and assessing their values.

"If academia is prohibiting you from having a rich, full life and coming at the expense of your sense of wholeness and balance, that's probably a sign to get out," she said.

4. You're no longer passionate about your research

When you start grad school, it may seem like an exciting privilege to be able to devote all your time and energy into a deep dive on a topic of your choosing. 

But that feeling of freedom could slowly turn into agonizing dread, as you realize you'll be stuck researching the same esoteric topic for years on end.

"I had started working on my dissertation and went on the academic job market when I realized I wasn't excited about my research," Chmiel said.

"I'm not a believer that everybody needs to love their work. But, if you hate your work and can't even motivate yourself to do it because you just resent it, that might be a sign."

For some, the idea of pursuing new issues and ideas outside grad school can be liberating.

"If I had stayed in academia, I'd still be writing about 19th century American novels and the history of photography, because you pick a topic and you're married to it forever," Posner said.

"But when you have an alternate career, you can learn new things. Suddenly there's a lot more possibilities. I think that's really refreshing."

The important thing is to listen to yourself and gauge whether you're happy with the work you're doing in graduate school and excited about your career trajectory.

"Get in touch with how you actually feel about things, rather than how you think you're supposed to feel or how others expect you to feel," Squinkifer said.

"You might as well try to pursue things that bring you joy, in whatever way that's practical for you."

Remember: It's OK to leave grad school

If you make the decision to leave your graduate program, you may feel like you've failed. You may also think you've let down family, friends and faculty advisors. But there is no shame in doing what's best for you.

"Leaving academia doesn't mean you're a failure, it just means you had a job and decided that job wasn't working for you," Chmiel said.

"It can be overwhelming in terms of how much that eats up your life, but ultimately you're just changing jobs. It doesn't say anything about you as a person."

If you're worried about having to start a new career from square one, remember that you've probably gained highly valuable and transferable skills as a graduate student.

"The trick is knowing how to frame and talk about those skills, and how to translate your experience into a resume instead of an academic CV," Posner said.

Wudan Yan, a Seattle-based independent journalist and co-host of The Writers Co-op, encourages students to use the same research skills and mindset they've developed in grad school to learn about careers outside academia. 

And, she adds, it's important to remember that many people have made the same decision to leave.

"If you're thinking about quitting, you're not alone," Yan said. "There is a world beyond academia."

Portrait of shaggy-haired local man with arms folded, wearing a cap, in front of pine trees
James Napoli, a former editor at Rewire, is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoIi or Instagram @james.napoli.
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