The art of quitting — lessons from my Ph.D. journey
Advice Column for Graduate Students and Applicants
In 2022, I started mentoring applicants to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the Humanities — particularly in the fields of literature, history and museum studies. For me, working with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed applicants (like I once was) necessitates a healthy dose of vulnerability and radical honesty.
In this article series, “Advice Column for Graduate Students and Applicants,” I share survival strategies for life in the ivory tower.
During my last semester in the Ph.D. Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked as a Teaching Fellow in the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin’s humanities museum, archive and library. My department of the HRC had just reopened its undergraduate internship after the tapering off of the 2020 pandemic and received a new class of brilliant young scholars.
Toward the end of that semester, a group of undergraduate and graduate student workers met at Home Slice — Austin’s best pizza shop, in my humble opinion — to celebrate graduation season and say goodbye to a few friends that were moving on to new adventures.
I was possibly the oldest member of the party, and certainly the most senior in academia, as the only one graduating from a Ph.D. program — although there were quite a few newly minted Masters at the table. A significant contingent of the party, however, lacked the “thousand-yard-stare” of the worn-down graduate students. Those were the undergraduate juniors getting ready to start graduate school applications.
It was inevitable, then, that they engaged in a discussion about their hopes and dreams for their future journeys in academia. I promise, I tried my best not to share my “war” stories — everyone who had worked with me knew of my general cynicism and disillusionment toward academia. I focused, instead, on participating in a conversation with the other side of the table, when I overheard the following words from one of the “brilliant young scholars”:
“I know the job market is bad, but even if I don’t become a professor, I will spend 5–6 years writing what I love and reading books I enjoy,” said one of them — let’s call her Bright Eyes.
I forget what I was discussing with the other side of the table, but I remember interrupting my train of thought (and everybody else’s), turning to Bright Eyes and saying something like, “if you go into graduate school thinking like that, you are in for a rough awakening. A Ph.D. program is not really about reading and writing what you love. I hope you are lucky with your department and your dissertation committee, but it’s impossible to know what cards you will draw ahead of time, and you will have to learn how to play with them or leave the table if the game is unwinnable.”
I am not sure I should have said anything. Bright-eyed or not, my colleague is an adult, capable of making her own choices. And I must confess I suffer from a bad case of trauma dumping when it comes to academia, particularly in the presence of young scholars on the other side of the ivory abyss.
Bright Eye’s idea of academia was not necessarily wrong, nor particularly uncommon. I have heard similar lines from friends, senior colleagues, and even seasoned professors. In fact, Dr. Saidiya Hartman herself — Professor at Columbia University and MacArthur Fellow — shared a similar sentiment at a conference event I attended in 2019, describing her Ph.D. experience with a whimsical brand of nostalgia. I certainly did not share her idyllic journey.
I am a little embarrassed to have turned that informal pizza dinner into a lecture about survival techniques in academia, but although my speech was ill-timed, it contained useful information gathered from experience, and from what I witnessed from the experiences of many friends and colleagues.
Here is what I wish I had shared with my brilliant young colleagues, and what I wish I knew before I started my crucible:
Quitting is always an option.
This is the knowledge you have to carry with you every day during your Ph.D. journey.
If you stay in the program for a few years, and even if you successfully defend your dissertation and become a Doctor of Philosophy, you will witness the disappearance of some of your fellows. Here are some likely scenarios:
- Some will “master out” — in academic lingo, that means a Ph.D. candidate received their Master’s degree and decided to leave their program soon after. Many candidates will talk about those who master out with tones of derision, and even the most empathetic souls seem to feel a little superior for staying true to the Ph.D. path. I have, in the past, been guilty of that sentiment. Now I think those who “master out” must be the wisest ones — they saw the writing on the wall years before I did. Only in the toxic miasma of the Ivory Tower would anyone consider the act of getting a Master’s degree akin to failure.
*Mastering out can happen in the U.S. because most Ph.D. programs do not require candidates to enter their programs with a Master’s degree. Those who do not have a Master’s upon entry will receive one as part of the Ph.D. program. Some of those candidates choose to leave their programs after receiving their Master’s.
- A significant number will become like ghosts, haunting the halls of the university, seeking guidance and encouragement, and never finding it. They will fade away, possibly during the dissertation process, lacking mentorship, lacking joy, and often dealing with intransigent dissertation committee members. For a significant part of my dissertation period (from 2020 to 2022), I felt like one of those ghosts. Back then, I visualized my situation as a silent drowning — professors and other University administrators passed by me in boats but did not rescue me or even throw a life preserver my way.
- Many will get “industry jobs” (meaning any position outside Universities) and suddenly reappear on LinkedIn, announcing their new corporate or tech identity. I say more power to them. They saw a boat willing to take them and saved themselves.
What do all these colleagues have in common? They are perceived by many as quitters. But that moniker is not fair. Worse than that, it was not even accurate.
I am in no way suggesting you should quit your Ph.D. program or stop applying lightly. Instead, I strongly advise you to take stock of your graduate journey every step along the way and reconsider your path.
Here are a few questions you can use to check in with yourself at the end of every semester or year:
- Am I mostly happy while pursuing my Ph.D. program? Do I find joy in the process, or am I just getting through it in order to get the degree? Five to Six years (an optimistic timeline for a humanities Ph.D.) is a long time to be unhappy.
- Does your decision to join your Ph.D. program still make sense for your career plans? Do some research — is a Ph.D. really necessary for the career you want to have after the program? Consider that it may be more advantageous to invest your next years advancing your career on the job, instead of continuing with the Ph.D. program.
- Do you believe you have found an encouraging dissertation supervisor and a supportive committee? Having a dissertation supervisor and committee members whom you trust to mentor you, write stellar recommendation letters and help you network if you decide to apply for university positions is essential for a successful job placement in academia. However, you may struggle to find the support you need for reasons that are beyond your control, making it unlikely that you will be able to attain an academic job, if that is your endgame.
Always remember that you are dealing with variables beyond your control, and they will affect your ability to succeed, no matter how hard you work.
I encourage you to add other parameters that are important to you and check with yourself if staying on the Ph.D. path is still the best option for you.
Quitting takes courage
… and I often wish I had had the courage to quit my Ph.D. program before it was too late.
For my last two years in the program, I stayed because I believed in the sunk cost fallacy that, since I had already invested four years of my professional life and sacrificed much of my mental health in that path, I should at least get the degree and the three letters behind my name.
But that degree is not worth two years of suffering. No career should require that.
If I had checked with myself every year, using the parameters above, to gauge (1) my well-being while in the program, (2) check with my career ambitions and (3) make sure I had a functioning academic support system, I would have probably left sometime during my third year. And I really wish I had.
Believe me. It is possible to regret not leaving, as much as you might regret leaving.
If I feel like that, why did I not quit, then?
“I am not a quitter.” This simple motto was carved into my mind as a guiding principle. The people who carved it did not do it on purpose, at least not for the most part, but the damage was done. In academia, the way we talked about those who quit, regardless of their reasons and suffering, made me associate quitting with shame.
In Steven Hayes & Spencer Smith’s book about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, the authors describe the ultimate goal of ACT as “a fundamental change in perspective: a shift in the way you deal with your personal experience.” Although Hayes and Smith do not center the power of quitting in their book, they use the act of quitting as a possible avenue to effect a fundamental change in perspective.
The passage below can help us start reflecting on the relationship between the art of quitting and the search for happiness and professional fulfillment:
Metaphorically, the distinction between the function of a psychological disorder and the form it takes in one’s life can be likened to someone standing in a battlefield fighting a war. The war is not going well. The person fights harder and harder. Losing is a devastating option; but unless the war is won, the person fighting it thinks that living a worthwhile life will be impossible. So the war goes on.
Unknown to that person, however, is the fact that, at any time, he or she can quit the battlefield and begin to live life now. The war may still go on, and the battlefield may still be visible. The terrain may look very much as it did while the fighting was happening. But the outcome of the war is no longer very important and the seemingly logical sequence of having to win the war before beginning to really live has been abandoned.
This metaphor is intended to illustrate the difference between the appearance of psychological problems and their true substance. In this metaphor, the war looks and sounds much the same whether you are fighting it or simply watching it. Its appearance stays the same. But its impact — its actual substance — is profoundly different. Fighting for your life is not the same as living your life. (p. 2–3)
Although I found a lot of value in Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, I struggled with the war metaphors as an appropriate analogy for mental suffering. As someone who has never been near a warzone, I could not identify with that environment. I also thought it was somewhat absurdist to suggest that people fighting wars “can quit the battlefield and begin to live life now.” Stopping to fight on an actual battlefield may simply lead to death.
Now, if I replace “war” with “academia” or “Ph.D. program” (or bad job, unhappy relationship, etc., choose your own adventure), the passage above starts to make a lot of sense, and it may allow us to start to unravel the power of quitting:
Let me rewrite the bold sentences in the passage above, modifying it to my personal “battlefield”: the academic world:
The [Ph.D. program] is not going well. I [study, research and write] harder and harder. [Quitting or failing] are devastating option[s]; but unless [I successfully finish and defend my dissertation,] [I think] that living a worthwhile life will be impossible. So the [Ph.D. program] goes on.
Unknown to [me], however, is the fact that, at any time, [I] can quit [academia] and begin to live life now.
Now, that passage in Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life starts making sense to me. For five out of the six years of my Ph.D. program, I believed wholeheartedly that quitting was not an option. This belief was rooted so deeply in my mind that I felt that my life would end if I failed to write and defend my dissertation. I was drowning in suffering.
My distress was aggravated by the structural issues in academia that were completely out of my control. I had been plagued by a parade of bad supervisors — two of whom stopped answering my emails without explanation, for example — which caused me to have to modify my dissertation project almost every year to suit each new evaluating committee.
In addition to that, the overwhelming majority of professors I worked with during my Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin refused to accept any project proposals that did not center on Brazilian literature. As an international student from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, I was denied the option to study the conventional British Romantics like Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, even though that had been my declared objective since the first semester of graduate school at UT Austin. However, that same option was available to my American counterparts.
Quitting the doctoral program in Comparative Literature at UT Austin — or at least accepting that quitting was a viable option — would have gone a long way to alleviate my suffering then.
But I did not quit — and now I can add those three letters to my name and wear a funny burnt orange and burgundy robe at very specific university events. It may seem hypocritical of me to talk about the importance of quitting, in the context of academia, when I sign my name as Dr. Diana Leite in professional communications.
Yet, I did not quit because I was a coward. I was too afraid of the shame I would have felt for having become a quitter.
But, if I had been able to change my perspective, if I had had the clarity that there is no shame in quitting — that, in fact, quitting a toxic quest for an academic title is not akin to giving up or losing the battle, but choosing to prioritize my joy and even my ambitions — I would have quit joyfully and in power.
As a recovering academic, I can use my Ph.D. journey as a case study to contextualize my argument in favor of quitting — but this argument can be easily extrapolated to many aspects of life: quitting friendships or romantic relationships that no longer sustain us emotionally, quitting habits that have become burdensome, quitting jobs that no longer reward or otherwise make sense to our lives.
In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of rebuilding my shattered ego in order to write my dissertation’s first chapter. In this article, I explored the importance of learning how and when to quit, to cultivate and preserve our professional and mental health.
If the option of quitting is always available to you, then you can never become trapped in suffering because of your Ph.D. program.
Writing this article about the art of quitting, I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art.” You can read the entire (unedited) poem here. Although this poem is about loss and grief, with a few simple modifications, we can read it as ancient wisdom about quitting:
The art of [quitting] isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be [left] that [quitting them] is no disaster.
[Quit] something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost [degrees], the hour badly spent.
The art of [quitting] isn’t hard to master.
Then practice [quitting] farther, [quitting] faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.